Joanna Barrkman and Baguia men viewing collection amulets, Timor Leste

Joanna Barrkman and Baguia men viewing collection amulets, Timor Leste

Return to Baguia: an ethnographic museum collection on the edge of living memory

9th July 2018

During her PhD Joanna Barrkman travelled far and wide, and allowed her to temporarily repatriate a collection in Switzerland to Timor-Leste. Her research was instrumemtal in landing her new role in Los Angeles where she is Senior Curator, Southeast Asia and Pacific Arts, at the Fowler Museum at University of California.

She shares her story with us for graduation week July 2018.

My PhD project grew out of my engagement with the Timorese community, originally in my home-town of Darwin. Through my work as a Curator of Southeast Asian art and material culture I had the opportunity to visit and work in Timor-Leste on several occasions from 2000 onwards. In 2009, as a grant recipient from the Sydney Myer Trust I visited among other places the Museum der Kulturen, Basel, (MKB) Switzerland. There I encountered the largest extant collection, with detailed provenance, from Timor-Leste. The Collection had been acquired from Baguia, Portuguese Timor, by Dr Alfred Bühler, in 1935.

For several years after visiting MKB I reflected on the significance of this Collection, especially following the loss of not only thousands of lives, but much of Timor's heritage and material culture during the last quarter of the 20th century. Eventually I decided to explore, together with the community of Baguia, what they considered to be the Collection's significance in the early 21st century. My research interest was whether ethnographic museum collections, from an earlier period of time, continue to be relevant to living descendants of the people who had originally made and used the objects. With the support of an Australian Endeavour Award Fellowship in 2014 I was able to travel back to Switzerland to scan the 'Baguia Collection' at the MKB. Then I took the scanned images of the Collection to Baguia, Timor-Leste, and commenced six months of fieldwork.

In Baguia my research process involved the temporary return of digital copies of the Baguia Collection (approximately 700 objects), together with scans of 300 black and white photographs that were taken by Dr Bühler in 1935. I facilitated 10 public presentations of the Collection images in seven villages across Baguia Sub-district. We projected images on walls in local halls, schools and meeting places. That was quite an undertaking! Many people turned up at the public viewing and were amazed at the images. Then I arranged to meet with various elders, artisans or clan leaders, at a later date, to talk to them in more detail about an aspect of the Collection that interested them. In relaxed contexts we viewed either printed images or digital images on an tablet. Ultimately, we collectively documented to Collection. I collated the information that people shared with me on the ANU Online Cultural Collection Analysis and Management database (OCCAMS) designed by the ANU Centre for Digital Humanities Research. However, my interest was captured how the images triggered memories of lived experiences and resulted in a restitution of knowledge that, once recalled, people sought to transmit inter-generationally. Ultimatley, my thesis Return to Baguia: an ethnographic museum collection on the edge of living memory explores this topic through the case study of the Baguia Collection and the community of Baguia. It examines how digital access to a museum collection can foster local community and cultural development.

Currently, I am working with MKB and colleagues in Timor-Leste toward finalising the OCCAMS database so it can go online. Then people in Timor-Leste can have longer term access to the Baguia Collection. My thesis in also under consideration for publication as an academic monograph. A longer-term goal is to develop a catalogue-style publication of the Baguia Collection, together with the MKB, so that this important Collection can become more widely known and accessed by the residents of Baguia and Timor-Leste.

Undertaking my thesis was a fabulous experience. I enjoyed being part of a cohort of post-graduate students - exchanging experiences and receiving and offering support to one another throughout the process was essential. My supervisors were all highly experienced in their fields and incredibly professional in the manner in which they engaged me in discussions, provided me with feedback and generally steered me through the process. Learning Tetum language and ethnographic film-making was stimulating, in advance of my fieldwork in Timor-Leste. My fieldwork period in Switzerland exceeded expectations and in Timor-Leste, although it was more challenging because I was working in a remote area, it was an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience. Baguia, is a mountainous place of great beauty, so on those occasions when things were not going my way I was went walking along the mountain roads and enjoyed spectacular scenery!

The most challenging aspect of my candidature was returning to fulltime employment upon the completion of my fieldwork. By day I worked and by night and during the weekend I synthesised my fieldwork and began to draft my thesis. That required commitment. Toward the final 'writing-up' stage of my candidature I benefited from residing at ANU's University House. The natural beauty and bird-song of the campus, the wonders of Menzies Library with its extensive Asian-related publications and my sun-filled office were all minutes away each day. I was able to focus on my final writing stage in an amazing environment (with occasional bike rides, art exhibitions and visits to the Palace Cinema thrown in as an occasional distraction!)

During my PhD candidature I was offered a position as the Senior Curator, Southeast Asia and Pacific Arts, at the Fowler Museum at University of California, Los Angeles. The fact that my thesis was well progressed when I was considered for this position undoubtedly helped me to secure this role. I submitted a chapter that the Museum der Kulturen, Basel had published in 2016, as a recent example of my writing to the interview panel. The chapter, although not central to my thesis topic, drew on an aspect of my fieldwork experiences in Baguia and was evidence of my recent research. Upon reflection the time I spent writing that chapter for publication was well spent, even if it did take my focus temporarily away from my thesis!

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster