Indigenous Culture Collections

In November 2020, the Grimwade Centre – in partnership with Humanities 21 – hosted an online event showcasing Indigenous Collections at the University of Melbourne. The program featured a fascinating cross-section of stories about Indigenous artefacts and the people who create, collect and conserve them, as well as those who draw on them for their creative work. In this article, Samara Greenwood reports on this rich and informative evening.

As part of a larger series of events, titled The Hunter Collector: A Cultural Meander through the University of Melbourne Collections, the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation co-hosted an evening exploring Indigenous collections at the University of Melbourne. The five presentations were delivered by curators, researchers, artists, and former students.

Woven together, the presenters’ stories described not only the history of these valuable collections but, also, their contemporary use in creative and investigative work. Rather than static archives, the Indigenous Collections emerged as dynamic entities that are living, breathing, and continually evolving.

Professor Robyn Sloggett with Mary-Clare Adam on The Leonhard Adam Collection

The evening began with Grimwade director, Professor Robyn Sloggett, detailing the fascinating story behind the Leonhard Adam Collection, which consists of over 2,500 Indigenous cultural objects from Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Asia, America and Africa.

Leonhard Adam was a German-Jewish anthropologist and lawyer, born in Berlin in 1891. In 1917, Leonhard was sent to interview prisoners of war about their cultural backgrounds and beliefs. There he befriended two Aboriginal POWs, Ngarrindjeri serviceman Roland Carter and Ngadjon serviceman Douglas Grant, and became fascinated by the stories they told of their language, law and ceremonies.

After fleeing Nazi Germany for England in 1938, Leonhard himself became considered an ‘enemy alien’ and was sent to Australia. While held in Tatura internment camp in northern Victoria, Leonhard continued to give lessons on Indigenous culture and was eventually released on parole to the University of Melbourne.

Leonhard went on to work as a research scholar, lecturer and curator at the university. Against significant resistance, he campaigned for increased study of Indigenous art and culture. From 1947 to 1960, Leonhard devoted himself to building a substantial collection of unique cultural items for the university, including significant work by Indigenous Australians.

Leonhard’s daughter, anthropologist Mary-Clare Adam, shared her personal recollection of her father’s work. Mary-Clare recalled coming to her father’s office and playing with Indonesian shadow puppets, now housed at the Potter Museum of Art. She also told how her father recommended objects for the university to purchase. However, if the university declined, Leonhard would often purchase these items himself and then donate them to the university.

Mary-Clare remembered the difficulties her father went through to build the collection during a time when Aboriginal culture was not valued by white Australians. However, Leonhard was driven by a strong sense of purpose – to share his love of Indigenous art and culture and to inspire future generations.

Dr Vicki Couzens on ‘Talking Women’s Work’

Indigenous artist and researcher Dr Vicki Couzens next described her relationship with the collection. Vicki is a prominent artist and Gunditjmara Keerray Woorroong woman from the Western Districts of Victoria, who plays an active role in promoting the culture of her people. Vicki described how working with cultural objects inspires her creative work, such as the regional arts Victoria project Fresh and Salty. In this project Vicki worked with fellow artist Carmel Wallace to create an artwork that represented Aboriginal aquaculture practices. Using dry-stone walling techniques, Vicki and Carmel worked with young Indigenous people to develop a large-scale art installation at Kuronitj near Lake Condah in Gunditjmara country, southwestern Victoria.

Vicki has more recently been inspired to consider women’s work with stone tools, such as those found in the Leonhard Adam collection and displayed in the Arts West exhibition Watatoor – Grinding Stones. While attention has traditionally focused on tools used for male-dominated activities such as hunting, Vicki is interested in their broader use by women for skinning animals, cutting roots, grinding seeds and gathering grasses for bush foods, medicines and basket making. Vicki plans to combine research on the collection with her work in the community to explore questions such as how did women make these tools and how were they used?

Glenn Shea with Andrea Barker on Mi:Wi 3027

Taking up the theme of how the collections inspire contemporary work, Indigenous playwright Glenn Shea, along with Andrea Barker, spoke of how Leonhard Adam’s work influenced Glenn’s writing. In particular, Glenn described how the close friendship between Leonhard and Indigenous serviceman Roland Carter formed the basis of his play Mi:Wi 3027.

Glenn and Andrea spoke of the great value of Leonhard’s collection to their research. Through an abundance of rich resources, including personal letters between Leonhard and Roland, Glenn uncovered not only evocative details of the two men, but also a sense of their relationship and the cadence of their conversations. Immersing themselves in Leonhard’s collection helped Glenn build a rich tapestry of both Leonhard and Roland’s worlds.

Dr Jacqueline Healy on ‘Recent Acquisitions: Indigenous Art and Bush Medicine’

In Dr Jacqueline Healy’s presentation, the focus shifted to a collection of Indigenous artwork acquired by the Medical History Museum at the University of Melbourne. Jacqueline is the director of Museums for the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, which incorporates the Medical History Museum. The museum, established in 1967, long focused on medicine in the western tradition. However, after its fiftieth anniversary, there was increased awareness that Australian Indigenous healing practices should be represented in the collection.

This awareness developed into the curation of an exhibition entitled The Art of Healing: Australian Indigenous Traditional Healing Practice. The exhibition presented healing practices and bush medicine from Indigenous communities across Australia through contemporary art and objects. Some works were specially commissioned for the project, while others were from existing projects. A significant catalogue, The Art of Healing, was produced to accompany the exhibition and included essays from knowledgeable healers and academics from around Australia. The exhibition has garnered significant international interest and has toured to London and Berlin.

Treahna Hamm, A Yorta Yorta Person’s Bush medicine First Aid Kit (2017). Language: Yorta Yorta; country: Yorta Yorta; artist location: Yarrawonga, Victoria. Paperbark, kurrajong pods, lomandra, she-oak pods, bark ink, riverbed clay, charcoal, billabong sediment, raffia, bottlebrush wood and bloom, ash, possum bone, mussel shell, black wattle bark, stringybark, river sand, Eucalyptus leaves, tree bark, sap. Medical History Museum MHM2017.1 © Treahna Hamm


Rosie Ngwarraye Ross, Bush Flowers and Bush Medicine Plants, 2015.  Skin: Ngwarraye; language: Alyawarre; country: Ampilatwatja; artist location: Ampilatwatja, Northern Territory. Medical History Museum MHM2017.3 © Rosie Ngwarraye Ross

The final presentation of the evening was from conservator Karel Kaio, who described her Masters research on one of the items in the Leonhard Adam collection, a Maori Feather Cloak. Prior to Karel’s research, the Maori cloak had minimal, partially incorrect documentation, and was unaccompanied by a description of its cultural or historical context. Karel’s work involved researching the history of the cloak to provide a greater understanding of its provenance and use, as well as to correct mistakes found in its description. Karel described this process as a ‘recontextualisation’, which brought new life, interest and information to an item that had become ‘lost in a strange land’.

A question-and-answer session followed the formal presentations and highlighted the ‘living’ nature of the collections. For example, Vicki emphasised how important conversations were to research. In her own work, Vicki folds together material research with personal discussions with members of the community to provide deep understanding. Similarly, Glenn described how reading archival letters between Leonhard Adam and Roland Carter helped him find the right tone and voice for his characters.

The title of Karel’s talk, ‘Lost in a Strange Land’, also struck a chord with many. It was noted how important it is to not let objects become adrift from their original intent, but rather to continually remember the animacy and spirit with which they were produced, ‘giving voice’ to Indigenous culture. This lively discussion was a fitting end to an evening in which the benefits of having dynamic interactions between objects, people and ideas were made abundantly clear.

A reading of Glenn Shea’s play Mi:Wi 3027 will be performed at the 2021 Adelaide Fringe.

Feature image: Installation view, Trademarks: international Indigenous culture from the Leonhard Adam Collection, 2011. Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne