Museums, Collecting, Agency: a symposium


Date: April 1-2, 2014
Venue: Australian Museum, 6 College St, Sydney NSW 2000 
Partner Institutions: Institute of Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney; Australian Museum; Museum and Heritage Studies Programme, Victoria University of Wellington and the Museum and Heritage Program, University of Sydney.

Symposium overview

The Museums, Collecting, Agency symposium explored questions of agency as they relate to museum and museum-like practices of collecting, particularly in connection with histories of colonialism and their legacies. In this it contributed to lively engagements within museum scholarship on the role of objects and colonialism. Advancing these discussions the symposium focused on the question of agency and its implications for understanding ethnographic museum collections and collecting practices. Recent scholarship exploring the agency of Indigenous subjects in the processes of anthropological collecting has de-individuated the work of anthropology in the formation of ethnographic collections and anthropological knowledge, establishing them not as the exclusive output of the European scientist-collector, but rather as a product of collaboration and contestation made in exchange between anthropologists and Indigenous subjects. The symposium continued this trajectory by turning attention to the range of human and non-human actors involved in ethnographic museum collections. In this it sought to investigate the ways in which the agency of such collections come to be distributed across human subjects and non-human entities, such as objects, tools, technologies, texts, theories and cosmologies. Investigating the friction as well as the flows of their agency, the symposium explored the heterogeneous agents through which ethnographic collections come to be assembled.  

  • Artist and writer Stephanie Radok attended the symposium and published an article in Artlink: 'Watching the river flow' (opens in a new window).

Keynote speakers

Phil Gordon, Head of Aboriginal Collections at the Australian Museum, Sydney.

Huhana Smith, Ngāti Raukawa ki te Tonga and Ngāti Tūkorehe. 

Paper presenters

Philip Batty, Senior Curator, Anthropology, Melbourne Museum.

Tony Bennett, Research Professor in Social and Cultural Theory in the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney.

Fiona Cameron, Senior Research Fellow in the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney.

Aaron Corn, Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Ethnomusicology, Australian National University. 

Nélia Dias, Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology (ISCTE-IUL Lisbon).

Ben Dibley, Research Associate at the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney.

Stephen Gilchrist, graduate from the Master’s of Arts Politics at New York University, Lecturer in fine arts at the Power Institute for Fine Arts, Sydney University.

Rodney Harrison, Reader in Archaeology, Heritage and Museum Studies, Institute of Archaeology, University College London.

Michelle Horwood, PhD candidate in Museum and Heritage Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

Ira Jacknis, Research Anthropologist at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley.

Garry Jones, Senior Lecturer at Woolyunga Indigenous Centre University of Wollongong, and undertaking a practice-led PhD in visual arts at the Australian National University.

Sean Mallon, Senior Curator Pacific Cultures at Te Papa and PhD candidate in Anthropology, Victoria University of Wellington.

Kylie Message, Associate Professor and Head of the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University.  

Conal McCarthy, Associate Professor and Director of the Museum & Heritage Studies programme, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

Wayne Ngata descends from the tribes of Te Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Porou. His particular area of scholarship is Māori literature, specifically the language of mōteatea (traditional chant).  

Matt Poll, Assistant Curator of the Indigenous Heritage and Repatriation Project at Macleay Museum University of Sydney and undertaking a Masters of Philosophy by research at the University of Sydney. 

Program Committee

Tony Bennett, Fiona Cameron (Chair), Ben Dibley, Conal McCarthy, Matt Poll, and Emma Waterton. 


Fiona Cameron: (opens in a new window) or
Ben Dibley (opens in a new window)

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Symposium Program

Screen grab of the Symposium program with white paper, black text and purple ICS design