Pacific Collection specialist Dr Jenny Newell joins the AM team fresh from her work with the American Museum of Natural History.

Jenny Newell in P3 Pacific Store 2018
Dr Jenny Newell, Manager of the East Pacific Collection holds items in the P3 Pacific Collection Store. October 2018 Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Director and CEO Kim McKay chats to Dr Jenny Newell, Manager, East Pacific Collection and Acting Director of Programs, Exhibitions & Cultural Collections at the Australian Museum.

"I’ve started up a network called ‘Museums and Climate Change Network’. It’s really people who work in museums or are involved in museums, thinking about ways of better engaging the public in the issues of climate change and hoping to get some progress, some advance there on trying to address those major problems. And really involving communities, no matter where they are in the world - who have collections in museums - in the struggle." — Dr Jenny Newell.

Kim McKay: Welcome to the Australian Museum's regular podcast, AMplify. I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO, and this is where I get the opportunity to talk to some of our wonderful team who work behind the scenes in the Australian Museum's extraordinary collections, building exhibits, working for the public in education, just doing all sorts of things. And today my guest is Dr Jenny Newell. Welcome Jenny.

Jenny Newell: Thank you Kim.

Kim McKay: It's so good to have you here. Jenny is one of our newer recruits. We've spoken to some staff who have been here for decades, Jenny, but you of course are Australian but came to us via the American Museum of Natural History in New York. How long have you been here now?

Jenny Newell: Since November.

Kim McKay: Since November. But you have a particular expertise in Pacific culture.

Jenny Newell: That's right, so I've been working on Pacific collections and with Pacific peoples for a long time now, since I finished off my PhD ages ago. So I've been really fortunate to work with wonderful people from across the region and out in the diaspora as well for a really long time.

Kim McKay: That's fantastic. So of course you studied at ANU originally, didn't you.

Jenny Newell: That's right, yes.

Kim McKay: So what did you focus on there?

Jenny Newell: So I did history of all sorts. I did Australian history, Chinese history and Korean history, but I didn't have the option of doing Pacific history, which I was really keen to do but they just didn't offer it, so it was one of those things I always wanted to learn more about our neighbours and this amazing huge region which I thought must be full of incredible people and incredible histories and amazing cultures. And I was right, so I was able to discover some of those with my first job after university, I worked at the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research, and that was wonderful, so I really learnt a lot there.

Kim McKay: So where was that Centre for Cross-Cultural Research?

Jenny Newell: That's at the ANU, and Nicholas Thomas was running that and so we were working on art and cultures of the Pacific, and I got to work on lots of 18th century voyage texts, lots of journals, the Cook journeys and other early voyages through the Pacific and looking at all those exchanges then.

Kim McKay: Which is one of the reasons, I have to say, why we stole Jenny away from the American Museum of Natural History. Apart from wanting to come back from New York with your family, it's also of course because the Australian Museum does house an extraordinary Pacific collection and of course a great many objects that are referred to as the Cook collection.

Jenny Newell: That's right, yes, it is pretty much the best Pacific collection in the world. It's not only absolutely massive, it's 60,000 objects, but also a huge range, very early archaeological works, right up to very contemporary things that the Museum has collected really recently from across the region.

Kim McKay: And it's just so important, isn't it, we live here in our case on the east coast of Australia, we are at the gateway of the Pacific, at the southern gateway certainly. We see a lot of our friends in New Zealand I guess, the Marie culture, but a lot of us are pretty ignorant about the rest of the Pacific and Pacific cultures.

Jenny Newell: Yes, it's unfortunate actually, there's not much awareness within Australia of Pacific cultures. And although there's a lot of Pacific people living here in Australia of course, there always have been, our histories have always been intertwined, we don't learn about a lot of that at school. And I think that's something that the museum can really help to address going forward because we can offer a lot of broadening of peoples horizons, we can really help them to understand the amazing region.

Kim McKay: Now, tell me, I know when you were studying, you went to London to work at the British Museum as well, didn't you.

Jenny Newell: That's right, yes, I was still doing my PhD but I went over to…I was able to land a job at the British Museum, which I was thrilled about, and so I was an assistant curator there in the Pacific collection, which was an amazing experience, and I learnt a lot there, it was just an amazing place to be. I was working with a great team there and also with all the local communities there. There's a really big Maori community in London and also people from across Micronesia and the rest of the Pacific, so it was a really good opportunity to really get to know a lot more about what happens within communities away from their homelands and how diaspora communities can really keep themselves together, keep themselves connected to home, even though they are a long way away, and seeing how the museum could help with those kinds of connections was really valuable and wonderful.

Kim McKay: That's pretty interesting, because I've lived in London too, and I wouldn't ever think about the Pacific cultural diaspora across the UK, but of course right across Europe it's reasonably strong, and there's this amazing interest in European museums and galleries in Pacific art and culture.

Jenny Newell: That's true. I think it's partly because of history, colonial connections to the region, so people in Britain know that there's quite a long connection with the Pacific through early voyagers, then through missionaries, then also colonial connections, but then you also get that through Germany and France, so there's a lot of understanding of the regions I think through that.

Kim McKay: So then you came back to Australia after the British Museum, you spent a bit of time at the National Museum in Canberra as well.

Jenny Newell: That's right, I had a research fellowship there which was wonderful and it gave me a chance to not only reconnect with my family but it also gave me a chance to work on some books, and so I was able to do some publishing while I was there in Canberra and also help with some of the exhibitions that were in train at that point.

Kim McKay: So what books did you author at that time?

Jenny Newell: So I got my PhD published, which was a good thing to do…

Kim McKay: That's always good, isn't it.

Jenny Newell: Yes, exactly, so that one, it's called Trading Nature, and it's about exchanges between Tahitians and Europeans, and particularly ecological exchanges, so plants and animals and the impacts that those exchanges had on Tahiti in terms of its ecology and its culture, which was a great topic to work on. It's sort of like an environmental history of Tahiti.

Kim McKay: Not a bad country to choose to…

Jenny Newell: I'm pretty clever.

Kim McKay: I bet you are. I know that actually, which is why we lured you here to the Australian Museum. So then you ended up in New York of course at the museum of museums, like the British Museum, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where of course Night at the Museum was filmed, which is why every kid who comes in here wants to play that out in their mind. What did you do there?

Jenny Newell: So I was the Pacific curator there, and I was able to get to know the collections to begin with when I first got there, and then I worked on really opening up the doors because there had been not much done with those collections for a really long time. They had Margaret Mead there as a curator for her whole career, and then after that there was really not very much interaction with that collection for a very long time.

Kim McKay: And how big is that collection?

Jenny Newell: 26,000 objects. It's a very broad collection, so it does cover the whole Pacific, and it hasn't been connected to its communities for a really long time and so I was able to start that process going, and over the course of the five years that I was there, we were able to have lots of visits from across the Pacific but also from people who were living in New York and across the States, and so that was really wonderful to see that happening and people recognising what was there and really reconnecting.

Kim McKay: So apart from Jenny currently managing and curating our Pacific collection, in conjunction with Dr Michael Mel, she is also now the acting director of public engagement and cultural collections and exhibitions at the museum while we find a new person to fill that role, which is very kind of you. But you told me that this wasn't the first time of course that you had been to the Australian Museum, that you had seen the Pacific collection here before.

Jenny Newell: That's right, so back when I was I guess…when was it? I'd been coming here for a while when I was doing my PhD and doing some research here, but then I came a few years ago with Dion Peita who was the curator at the time, the manager of the Pacific collection at the time. So he brought me down to see the collection, and he took me down to…

Kim McKay: A wonderful Maori man who is back at the Auckland Museum at the moment.

Jenny Newell: That's right, exactly. He did great work here, and we are hoping to carry on his legacy here, Michael and I. And when Dion took me downstairs…I had been up in the top levels of the Pacific collection before when I was doing my research, but then when he took me downstairs it was to see the Malagan collection, these amazing carvings from New Ireland, and these are carvings for a particular ceremony which is incredibly powerful. And as I walked in to see his collections of my jaw just dropped, I just was amazed at these collections, and I suddenly thought that what it's like to have your jaw drop, that's it, I've just had that happen.

Kim McKay: That's right, these masks are completely extraordinary, and do you know, when I first got here and Dion took me on a tour of the Pacific collections over the three floors of it that are in our basement currently, and I also got down there and saw those Malagan masks. My jaw dropped too, Jenny. I mean, they were the most extraordinary things I think I've ever seen. And I literally…each one of course is inhabited by a spirit, isn't it, and I literally did speak out loud to them and say, 'Don't worry guys, I'm going to spring some of you out of here.' And we did that with the Pacific Spirit Gallery up on level 2 of the museum now where we have an extraordinary display of those Malagan masks.

Jenny Newell: Yes, it's a very effective display at it's wonderful to see some of them out there being able to be viewed by the public and people being able to interact with them there.

Kim McKay: So these are Papua New Guinean Islands, to the north-east of PNG, and these carvings, I had never seen anything like them on all my tours of the world and world museums. To me they are the most extraordinary objects we hold in the museum.

Jenny Newell: Right, I agree, they're incredible.

Kim McKay: Really just amazing. But something I find really interesting where we've also got something in common maybe is this interest in the environment, and you have really spearheaded something globally in the museum sector, which is a focus of cultural communities impacted by climate change.

Jenny Newell: That's right, so I've started up a network called the Museums in Climate Change Network, and it's really people who work in museums or who are involved in museums, thinking about ways of better engaging the public in the issues of climate change, and hoping to get some progress, some advance there on trying to address those major problems, and really involving communities, no matter where they are in the world who have collections in museums in that struggle.

Kim McKay: Well, we know of course that poor communities are the first affected by climate change it seems. We also know that those island-dwelling communities such as those across the Pacific like the Marshall Islands are particularly impacted. We've already seen environmental refugees, in Tuvalu for example. Many of the Pacific Island nations are trying to plan for what they're going to do as they are swamped by rising sea levels. So it's a very emotional program to be involved in, isn't it.

Jenny Newell: It is, but a really important one. And it's been the most important work for me, my career, being able to talk to people out in the islands and really discover what it is that they are experiencing and how they are imagining they will move forward from this point.

Kim McKay: In fact you've co-edited a book, Curating the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change, to sort of create those links. And here at the Australian Museum of course at our Australian Museum Research Institute, a lot of our scientists are doing work linked to climate change by studying biodiversity and the impacts there. And by marrying that I think with what you do with the cultural collections, I really think it's going to give the Australian Museum a very interesting platform for the future, to communicate these issues that are happening on our doorstep.

Jenny Newell: I think so, I think we are really well placed. It's just wonderful that you are committed to these issues because I think it really gives us a huge amount of capacity and power to actually make a difference.

Kim McKay: Of course the environment I think is really important to Australians. We happen to live in a beautiful part of the world and we get to grow up surfing and swimming and enjoying nature in Australia, and I think most Australians value that. We need to listen to the scientists and the facts that they are telling us about the changing climate. And I think that the museum is in a unique position, don't you, to be able to communicate to kids and get them engaged in a really interesting way. So the term 'the Anthropocene' is being used regularly now. What does that mean?

Jenny Newell: So it's like the age of humans. So I guess we've had the Pleistocene and other 'cenes', this 'cene' is the one in which we've seen humans make an impact on the world that can be picked up in the geological record. And so humans have impacted the environment to such an extent that it is changing the face of the Earth, and so it is being called the Anthropocene, and it's a way of recognising that industrialisation has created the world we are living in now and it's created all the problems and challenges that we are living with now.

Kim McKay: In fact some museums around the world are starting to build new exhibitions about the impact of the Anthropocene. I know I was in Berlin last year and one is underway there, soon to open. So I think it's one of those great challenges because we have historic collections which gives us insight to be able to base some of our research on the changes that are taking place, but also museums need to be contemporary, they need to be able to provide that information.

Jenny Newell: Absolutely, and one of the challenges we have is thinking about how we collect in order to show the impacts of the Anthropocene, or how do we get those messages across to people through what we are collecting now. We could think about contemporary artworks but it would be good to also think about what sort of things about natural or about just everyday life we might want to be collecting in order to try and tell those stories.

Kim McKay: Well, Dr Jenny Newell, it has been an absolute pleasure to have you today on AMplify, and I look forward to welcoming you back because we've got so much to talk about in terms of the Cook collection here at the Australian Museum and some of our plans for Pacific culture study in the future. Thank you for joining the Australian Museum and your time today.

Jenny Newell: Thanks so much Kim.