"I think it’s important that we continue to invite Aboriginal professionals, artists and curators to come through and interpret the collections and the cultural material, and work right across the Museum, and be collaborative with the other areas in science and natural history.
To think about how science and Indigenous knowledge systems are really important to the way that we operate at the Museum and the collections that we hold. To think about how in the longer term that Aboriginal people have access, more access, to their cultural objects." - Sharni Jones.
Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's regular podcast where I get to talk to all sorts of wonderful people who work here at the Australian Museum or who are visiting with us. My name is Kim McKay, I'm the director and CEO of the museum, and it's my great pleasure today to welcome a relatively new member of the Australian Museum staff, but she has been around before here I know, and that's the wonderful Sharni Jones who is manager of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections. Sharni, welcome.
Sharni Jones: Thank you Kim, it's great be here.
Kim McKay: I'm so glad you are, and of course you bring so much to the museum on so many levels. Of course you are an Aboriginal woman. Do you want to tell us about your personal history and where you came from in New South Wales?
Sharni Jones: Absolutely. This could be a telling sign, given the State of Origin is on tonight. My family are Waka Waka, Kabi Kabi people on my maternal side, so my grandmother, my great-grandmother spent time on Cherbourg Mission before moving to Brisbane.
Kim McKay: That's in Queensland, right, the Cherbourg Mission, very famous.
Sharni Jones: That's right, south-east Queensland, but I've spent my formative years growing up in Wollongong on Dharawal country, so in New South Wales. So tonight when the football is on, I'll be going for New South Wales and not Queensland.
Kim McKay: Right. So how do you define yourself then as an Aboriginal woman? Do you take the place where you grew up or do you take the place where your maternal ancestors come from?
Sharni Jones: A very good question. I do take the side of my maternal ancestors. So for me, south-east Queensland will always be home to me in terms of that area, but having spent a lot of time around the water I feel like I'm a saltwater woman as well. So Gympie, Mt Widgee is where my great-grandmother was born, and so for me that's also those mountains and that side is very important.
Kim McKay: Oh fantastic. And now, you've been working with us at the Australian Museum for how long now?
Sharni Jones: Five months.
Kim McKay: Five months you've been back here, isn't that great. Okay, so you work with the Aboriginal collection and also with our Aboriginal staff as well, so you are looking at all sorts of things. Tell me about a day in the museum for you, what do you actually do here?
Sharni Jones: A day in the museum? Well, obviously it's 190 years old, and so day-to-day we are really looking at the collection care of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection. But more than that, the preservation and the maintenance, it's really about engagement with community. So for me as an Aboriginal woman and why I'm here and so passionate about the museum is the first rites of passage. The first rites of passage for me as a custodian, as we all are at the Australian Museum, is to enable access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, whether they be artists, academics, members of the public, mob that we know or that we don't know right across Australia. And so for me it's about being a facilitator, so thinking about that engagement and engaging with the sector and also engaging with our staff. So more broadly it's about looking at building the capacity of all staff at the museum and thinking about how we engage and work with Aboriginal staff here and across the Aboriginal arts and cultural sector. So that's pretty exciting and challenging.
Kim McKay: It is, and it is a challenge because we've got a diverse workforce here at the museum, and we're going to strive to try and make all of our staff culturally competent, so that they have some level of competency in understanding the first peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal people's customs and practices and a great respect for those. And so that's a long journey, isn't it, it's not something we can do overnight.
Sharni Jones: No, that's right. I think as an agent of change, as an Aboriginal woman that's really important to me, to be able to embed those practices right across the museum with your support and with the executive here, and to be able to think about how we may have been as Australians but how we are today and what's important in terms of contemporary practice and how we think about enabling practice and revitalising practice in a myriad of ways.
Kim McKay: And that's so important. I just took someone through our Garrigarrang: Sea Country Gallery, and the thing I love about that Aboriginal gallery is that it's not just about the historic artefacts that we hold as custodians here at the museum which tells about the Aboriginal relationship to the ocean and to fishing and to rivers, but it's also about contemporary Aboriginal practice today, to show that this is very much a living culture.
Sharni Jones: Very much so, a living, breathing culture that evolves with technology and the way that we interact with each other on a local and global scale. And so that's really wonderful to be able to see that interplay and the way that we can re-contextualise those cultural objects, and particularly those as custodians that we hold here at the museum and engage with contemporary artists and arts workers as well as academics who are looking at other careers.
Kim McKay: That's right, an interpretation of that collection, as you said, it can be through an artist, it can be through an academic, it can be through a local community who are just interested in the artefacts that their ancestors created. We are quite fortunate at the museum to have an extensive collection. What, about 20,000 objects we think?
Sharni Jones: 20,000, 23,000, and we also have an extensive archaeological collection as well, so that's pretty exciting and important to recognise that.
Kim McKay: So they are the stone tools and…it is an extensive collection, isn't it.
Sharni Jones: That's right, yes. So for me the cultural objects are something that are probably the most dear to my heart, coming from a creative arts, visual arts background as well. So, as you mentioned earlier I did start my life working at the Australian Museum many, many years ago.
Kim McKay: What brought you here then?
Sharni Jones: Well, I was doing my internship at the Art Gallery of New South Wales with Hetti Perkins, and I fell in love with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection and the exhibitions that were on display there. And so it was fortuitous that I had my first gig as an emerging curator at the Australian Museum with Djamu Gallery back in the day, so they were great times.
Kim McKay: Wow, that was the Djamu Gallery that was down at Circular Quay in the old Customs House building, correct?
Sharni Jones: That's right, yes.
Kim McKay: It's not there anymore unfortunately but we've got so many great plans in the future to show more of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections. What does it for me is that when people visit Australia, what is our point of difference? It is our Aboriginal people and their traditions. And if more Australians could embrace that, of understanding that that is what makes us very different in the world.
Sharni Jones: Absolutely, and Sydney, being on the land of the Gadigal people, the traditional owners and custodians here, is really important, and that's where the Australian Museum stands, a very significant place as that point of first contact. And so we can embrace our culture and our living practices the way that we celebrate it today as all Australians particularly share that with our international visitors who are looking at what does make us unique and understanding this rich history and our connection to our earth and to our culture.
Kim McKay: So, as you said, you came here early in your career, but where did you actually study to become on this path? I'm sure people listening would love to know how you become a curator at a museum.
Sharni Jones: I either thought I wanted to be an artist or an art therapist when I was doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Wollongong because I did a bachelor of creative arts, majoring in sculpture. I always knew that I wasn't going to become a professional artist, but I loved the creative practice, and so for me that was really inspiring and going through that art history. So then I went on to do a masters of arts administration (it's not called that anymore) which was at the University of New South Wales. And I guess I happened to fall into it whilst I was undertaking my internship, so very early on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Kim McKay: So do you still sculpt?
Sharni Jones: No, I don't. I actually moved on from sculpture to more semi-abstract drawings, particularly landscape. So for me that whole something that's quite dear to my heart. But I guess my creative practice is manifested in other ways, particularly that deep critical thinking about writing and that exchange around facilitation and engagement. So my creative practice evolved in other ways.
Kim McKay: It's very satisfying, isn't it, to see somebody from a local community in Australia come in to see the collection and to discover objects that are very important to that group and have that reconnection occur. It's almost electric.
Sharni Jones: That's right. That is the most significant thing of why I'm at the museum, is to be able to engage with communities and to be able to look at how when we enter the collections in terms of its history and its vibrancy. As we know, Australia's history hasn't been a smooth one. And so to have community come through and to see cultural objects from their community perhaps for the first time is electrifying and it's very significant because it's about a mutual exchange, and so that storytelling is important as well for the museum and its future but also for those communities in understanding more about their practices and their culture in a contemporary way and being able to share that. It's our shared history.
Kim McKay: It is our shared history. I just love that when objects that you wouldn't expect that are held in the collection are revealed to people. I love those children's toys, for example.
Sharni Jones: They're gorgeous. And you've just hit it, the collection today, the objects reveal themselves, when they want to be seen they will show themselves and that's really exciting, having been here for five months I'm always discovering the collections when I am either in there undertaking research or we are there with our corporate partners or with community. It's wonderful to be able to have some of those objects be revealed from a time. And also if they don't want to be revealed then they won't show themselves in that way, so it's quite exciting to be able to see more and undercover about who we are in a contemporary way and what they mean to Aboriginal people today.
Kim McKay: And in fact the Australian Museum holds one of those wonderful collections of string games, doesn't it.
Sharni Jones: Yes, that's right, amazing string games from Yirrkala in Arnhem Land. Aboriginal people have been working with other objects to think about how they engage with the natural environment and to play and to sign as well, and they were really important as a way of communication. So we hold a fantastic collection of the string games here.
Kim McKay: Which is amazing because when you are growing up and you might learn something about Aboriginal culture at school or you read a book, you forget that the children made so many different toys themselves or their parents made the toys for them too. I mean, we've got rattles in the collection for babies, all sorts of things.
Sharni Jones: We do, and they are really exquisite and aesthetic in their own right. To think about these utilitarian objects that are made from the earth, made from the ground, from the natural environment, and they still hold such relevance today in the way that they've been crafted, that craftsmanship and that artisan that we see right across practice.
Kim McKay: It really is fantastic. So for you, let's cast forward five years, let's try and think into the future; what would you like to see more of at the Australian Museum from the collection?
Sharni Jones: I think it's important that we continue to invite Aboriginal professionals, artists and curators to be able to come through and interpret the collections and their cultural material and work right across the museum and be collaborative with the other areas in science and natural history and to think about how science and Indigenous knowledge systems are really important to the way that we operate at the museum and the collections that we hold, and to think about how in the longer term that Aboriginal people have more access to their cultural objects.
Kim McKay: Absolutely, and we can do that both in the physical sense but also of course through the digitisation of the collection. Some communities that are very far distant and, as you said, we have quite a collection from Arnhem Land, from that 1948 expedition that was undertaken, to be able to share the collection digitally with people and have them experience in that way when before they can maybe have the opportunity to come here in person and see it or us to travel an exhibition.
Sharni Jones: That's right, not everybody has an opportunity to come to Sydney, so the more that we can digitise our collections and have that cultural exchange, which is the way that we are working within the team to work with community to digitally repatriate some of those cultural objects and to look at their stories and the way that those communities want to tell those stories today for their future and for their young ones who will be the leaders of tomorrow. So that's really important, that we look at how collections will be focused for our young people of tomorrow.
Kim McKay: Totally. Now, I know you have quite an interesting story about your grandmother Elsie Lewis. Do you want to tell me that?
Sharni Jones: My grandmother, she is one of a number of very strong women in her family, and growing up on Cherbourg Mission. And my grandmother then married an Englishman, and so she had an opportunity when she was working as a domestic, as it were, in those days, working for a QC, that a lot of the Aboriginal mob when they came off the mission would be housed in my family's home. And so she was really an activist before her time, and just being a strong resilient woman is something that I've always admired for all the women in my family, my mum and my aunties.
Kim McKay: And that's fantastic, that you've got those role models, isn't it, women who really knew who they were and stood up in a very strong way. And it's wonderful that you've brought that spirit as well to the Australian Museum Sharni. It's great to have you here and great to have your knowledge and your background, and I know we are going to do great things together at the Australian Museum in the future and really bring that collection out to the fore because it is one of the finest Aboriginal collections in Australia, and we are just the part-time custodian of it, just passing through.
Sharni Jones: That's right, we are indeed, we are just the facilitators.
Kim McKay: Good on you. Well, welcome again back to the Australian Museum, great to have you back here, and great to hear about your story today.
Sharni Jones: Thanks Kim.