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Repositioning the primitive : race, representation and Tasmanian Aboriginality at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Ratcliff, AJ 2006 , 'Repositioning the primitive : race, representation and Tasmanian Aboriginality at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery', Honours thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Museums have both a formative and reflective function and as such are instrumental in shaping the society of which they are a part. Established as institutions of the state, colonial museums such as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) were ideologically underpinned by, and deployed discursive and representational strategies that were designed to promulgate a hegemonic intelligibility. This thesis argues the dominant intelligibility promoted at the TMAG-which was not museologically challenged until 1982-constructed Tasmanian Aboriginality in varying primitivist terms, according to the fixity of race and the privileging of the past. Highly malleable primitivist discourse served to validate changing colonialist needs, constructing Aboriginality by obscuring other meanings and by representing Aboriginality in an authoritative and colonially coherent manner. For example in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century rationalisations of colonialism, and amidst concerns regarding the constitution of the postcolonial citizenry, Aboriginality was constructed according to an evolutionary schema. A discourse of Aboriginal obsolescence and inevitable, racially determined extinction was deployed, supported by TMAG's definitive representation of Tasmanian Aboriginality in the form of a bounded, contained collection. The collection, comprised of a diverse array of independently meaningful items, was contrived according to an imposed and totalising evolutionary discourse in which the alleged primitivity of Tasmanian Aborigines was proffered as the cause for their supposed demise.
The installation of the diorama in 1930 reflected a shift to a nostalgic primitivism that invoked an idyllic, authentic, pre-contact Aboriginality. This served to undermine the identarian and political claims of people of mixed Tasmanian Aboriginal descent. In doing so the ambiguous, cross-cultural postcolonial reality was de-legitimised. Moreover, the paradox of Aboriginal extinction versus claims to continuity was museologically managed through the representation of real Aboriginality that was locked in a racially and culturally intact past. Later and following global trends, postcolonial museology at the TMAG challenged the efficacy of entrenched museological devices and meaning making and responded dialogically to the counter­hegemonic needs of contemporary Tasmanian Aborigines. These needs continue to be addressed through the employment of an Indigenous Curator and in the Museum's development of a new Aboriginal Gallery. Challenges prevail, however, where the persistence of a primitivist discourse attaches Aboriginal culture to a sense of vulnerability, fixity and Otherness often through the museological objectification of culture and the salvage paradigm of heritage. Nonetheless the new Aboriginal exhibit offers opportunities to resist primitivising stereotypes and represent Tasmanian Aboriginality as a postcolonial phenomenon with a diverse and politicised past and future.

Item Type: Thesis - Honours
Authors/Creators:Ratcliff, AJ
Keywords: TMAG, Tasmanian Aboriginality, primitivism, otherness, museology
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Copyright 2006 the author

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