Reconnecting Milingimbi's objects and the descendants of their creators

Roberta Colombo Dougoud

The collaboration with the community of Milingimbi is part of the project "Reconnecting collections and source communities” as defined in the objectives of MEG's strategic plan 2020-2024. This project aims to support communities seeking to restore connections with the objects conserved in ethnographic museums, to create new forms of co-management and co-responsibility for collections, and finally to understand whether and how these collaborations can be considered as forms of reparation for the violence of colonialism.

Sculpture d’un cormoran wurran


Sculpture of a cormorant wurran, a clan totem

Australia, Northern Territory, Arnhem Land, Crocodile Islands, Milingimbi

Yolngu. Mid 20th century

Wood, pigments. H 41 cm W 5,5 cm

Acquired at Berkeley Galleries, London, in 1957; collected by Rev. Edgar Almond Wells at Milingimbi

MEG Inv. ETHOC 026814

Photo: Johnathan Watts/MEG

Milingimbi, locally called Yurruwi, is the largest of the Crocodile Islands off the coast of Arnhem Land in northern Australia. From the 1920s, with the establishment of a Methodist Mission by the Reverend James Watson (1865-1946) and for over 50 years, Milingimbi (1923-1974) was a prolific centre of artistic creation and a starting point for many collections travelling to the rest of Australia and the world.

The several missionaries working in Milingimbi encouraged local artistic production and the preservation of customs not deemed intrinsically oppositional to the missionary way of life. By being allowed to maintain certain aspects of their ceremonial life, the Yolngu of Milingimbi created objects sought after by museums, in exchange for money and goods. For the missionaries, artistic production in Milingimbi was undoubtedly an important source of income and for some of them, Thomas Theodor Webb (1885-1948) and Edgar Almond Wells (1908-1995) in particular, a means of gaining a better understanding of the culture of the local people. For the Yolngu, the motivations were complex: the economic aspect of this production was of course of interest to them, but it was also a means of educating the missionaries about their life and traditions, as well as participating in missionary activities to promote their language, a kind of lingua franca for spreading the gospel in the region.

Between 2013 and 2016, Louise Hamby, Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University (Canberra) and Lindy Allen, then curator at Museums Victoria (Melbourne), directed a prestigious Australian project, The legacy of 50 years of collecting at Milingimbi Mission. The aim was to identify objects, images, films and videos, recordings and archives collected at Milingimbi from 1923 to 1974, which are now dispersed in different collections. The objective was also to work with the Milingimbi community in order to develop models of engagement with the cultural heritage held in museums, galleries, archives and libraries around the world. This project can be seen as a catalyst for different cooperation initiatives between the Milingimbi community and museums.

MEG is one of 52 institutions worldwide holding Milingimbi objects. About 50 items were acquired from different sources. For several years now, we have been in contact with the Milingimbi community to share images and information about this collection. This relationship has been consolidated over the last five years with exchanges of correspondence, information and visits. Several steps have already been taken. From 3 to 5 September 2018, we had the pleasure to welcome to our museum Helen Ganalmirriwuy and Ruth Nalmakarra, two women artists from the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre, Rosita Holmes, coordinator of the centre, and Louise Hamby, from the Australian National University. This delegation was able to access all the information in our possession about the collection and came to the MEG to study the Milingimbi objects.

Visite dans l’exposition permanente

Visit to the MEG’s permanent exhibition. Photo: Rosita Holmes

Visite dans la réserve du MEG

Visit to the MEG’s storage. Photo: Lucie Monot/MEG

Ruth Nalmakarra et Helen Ganalmirriwuy

Ruth Nalmakarra and Helen Ganalmirriwuy in the MEG’s storage holding a

bark painted by Yilkari Kitani (1891-1956). Photo: Carine Ayélé Durand/MEG

Milingimbi representatives also gave a workshop/conference in our education space.

Atelier /conférence avec le personnel du MEG

Workshop/conference with MEG staff. Photo: Rosita Holmes

Apprendre à tresser une cordelette

Learning how to make a string. Photo: Lucie Monot/MEG

During this visit, we finally discussed the presence of two painted skulls (liya) in our collections and the possibility of obtaining information through a scientific study of them.

To continue the dialogue and collaboration, Roberta Colombo Dougoud, curator of MEG's Oceania collection, visited Milingimbi in April 2019, together with Louise Hamby, Lindy Allen, Beatrice Voirol, curator at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, and her assistant Michèle Monnier.

Photos des objets de Milingimbi

Photos of Milingimbi objects held at the MEG in the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre database. Photo: Roberta Colombo Dougoud/MEG

More specifically, the purpose of this trip was to transmit to Rosita Holmes and Chris Durkin, managers of the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre, all photographs and documentation concerning the thirty-three Milingimbi objects kept at the MEG, as well as that relating to twenty-nine objects whose precise provenance was not indicated, but which turned out to be from Milingimbi. Through its curator, the MEG also transmitted the photographs and documentation relating to the two painted skulls. All this information is now stored in the centre's database where it can be consulted by interested persons in accordance with local practices (following the cultural restrictions on access related to age, gender, clan affiliation and degree of initiation, in particular).

Collaboration between museums and source communities is a more concrete and pragmatic effort than one might imagine. During her visit to Australia, Roberta Colombo Dougoud was struck by the presence at the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre of two MEG publications Traces of Dreams. Bark Paintings of the Australian Aborigines and L’effet boomerang. Les arts aborigènes et insulaires d'Australie. She was also interested in the artists' attentive eye and comments on the images of the objects kept at MEG, those of Milingimbi of course, but others as well. The photos of our objects and those of other museums, which feed the virtual restitution project, are constantly consulted as a source of information and inspiration.

Artiste au Milingimbi

Artist at the Milingimbi Art and Culture Centre flipping through the MEG publication L’effet boomerang. Les arts aborigènes et insulaires d’Australie. Photo: Roberta Colombo Dougoud/MEG

Consultation à Milingimbi

Consultation in Milingimbi on painted skulls held at the MEG. Photo: Michèle Monnier

Finally, the two painted skulls held at the MEG have already been analysed by Jocelyne Desideri, Julie Debard and Déborah Rosselet-Christ of the Laboratoire d'archéologie préhistorique et anthropologie of the University of Geneva. In Australia, consultations are under way to determine the clan to which they belong. The valuable information that can be provided will then open a new chapter in the collaboration between Milingimbi and the MEG.