What is an indigenous museum?
a Tiwi Islands case study

  • Eva Mcrae-Williams

    Student thesis: Masters by Research - CDU


    This thesis is the study of the meanings attributed to the term museum, specifically by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Tiwi Islands (Melville and Bathurst Island) situated in the Northern Territory of Australia. This involved both examining the existing museum initiatives on the Islands, and those of the past and future. It also investigated how the Tiwi people related to, perceived and understood the term museum as a general concept or phenomenon.

    The aim of this research was to gain insight into the meaning of the term museum and its relevance to a particular Indigenous community. This involved documenting the history and present functions of the existing museums on the Islands and that of the past museum initiatives. Through an ethnographic research approach, involving an extended period of fieldwork, the way in which Tiwi people relate to their museums was documented. Through interviews and discussions with a diverse group of the population the meanings attached to these places and contrastingly the meaning attributed to the term museum also became known.

    In order to position this research within an academic context it was viewed as important to analyse the meanings that have been associated with the term museum throughout history. This involved a detailed review of the western museum phenomenon as well as reviewing literature concerned with their possible existence in traditional Indigenous cultural structures. The situation of Indigenous museum constructs in the Australian context was also analysed and the similarities and differences between these explored. It was found through the extensive literature review that there was a lack of research regarding the meanings Indigenous people associate with the term museum and a continuing confusion within all fields of the purpose, function, and meaning of a museum in differing contexts.

    This research concludes that the term museum is an unclear term both within academic literature as well as within the social and cultural environment of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Tiwi Islands. It was found that the term museum was intimately connected to Tiwi understandings of culture: the term museum was only discussed as a peripheral concept in discussions revolving around the strength, weakness, change, preservation and maintenance of cultural phenomenon. The physical form of a museum and associated issues of display were rarely discussed by the Tiwi community. The research found that the term museum for Tiwi people meant and was related to more than just the history and function of the existing museum initiatives on the Islands. The term museum was associated with ideas about the preservation and maintenance of culture, however people seemed unclear about how a museum would actually function.
    Date of AwardMay 2005
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorKate Senior (Supervisor) & Clayton Fredericksen (Supervisor)

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