Monday, November 9, 2009

Six Exhibits With Ambiguous Authenticity

What is meant by "ambiguous authenticity" here? Given the information that is currently coming to the attention of the network of investigators looking at shell necklace making in Tasmania it is becoming increasingly clear that there has been at least two classes of shell necklace making going on in Tasmania:
Firstly, there is the cultural production of the Tasmanian Aboriginal people;
Secondly, there is the commercial mass production of shell necklaces for the retail jewellery market (domestic & export) and the souvenir market; and perhaps
Thirdly, the seaside holiday pass-time shell necklaces made by various Tasmanian 'settler' families – anecdotally 1950s and quite possibly much earlier but seemingly relatively insignificant by number ... For those who recall shell necklace making from their childhood seaside summer holidays they are ambivalent about the extent to which this may have been some kind of mimic of an Aboriginal precedent Lindsay Broughton Tim Smith et al ... all of which used 'kelp shells' of various species – or at least predominantly so.

Given this the "Aboriginal authenticity" can no longer be considered 'a given'.

For example, Sydney's Powerhouse Museum has a necklace in its collection that might well be the best reference here Click here to go to source – see image below. Interestingly in this image the 1905 accession is compared to and contrasted with two other necklaces #93/404/1 & #93/404/1 by Lola Greeno, Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, circa 1993 click here to go to source. Circumstantially, it seems that due a lack of contrary evidence the 1905 accession was thought to have been, or likely to have been, of Aboriginal origin. CLICK FOR MORE INFORMATION ON THIS NECKLACE'S PROVENANCE
Given shell necklaces' somewhat iconic connection to the Tasmanian Aboriginal story and prominent ancestral Aboriginal makers such as Truganini and Fanny Cochrane Smith, all this is understandable.

Until recently, and given the ambiguity of, and paucity of, accession documentation at the time, this necklace may well have been attributed to an unknown Tasmanian Aboriginal maker. However, given the accession date, it is quite likely that this necklace was produced by M M Martin, Hobart & Honolulu given its anecdotal connection – Grace Cochrane [1][2][3] – to the 'Mawle Report of 1918.' Furthermore, the necklace came into the Powerhouse collection in 1905 in the context of it being "an example of a commercial use of a natural resource", again this is consistent with the Mawle Report connection.

The Possibly Ambiguous Necklaces in "Strings Across Time" exhibit – The diagram below charts the position of the six necklaces currently under investigation. What these necklace have in common is:
  • Each one is dated as 20th Century with one being described as early 20th century on the exhibit labeling;
  • Each is made using 'maireener' shells found in Tasmania albeit sometimes of a different species/subspecies;
  • Each is a long endless threading of the shells.
There are seven other shell necklaces in the exhibit dated as 20th Century, and without 'named makers', but it is highly unlikely that they are a part of Tasmania's mass produced and commercial shell necklace trade – late 19th – 20th Century.

Nonetheless, the Aboriginal women who are circumstantially the most likely makers of these necklaces were living on the Furneaux Group of islands to the north east of the Tasmanian mainland. Oral histories and anecdotal references suggest that in Launceston similar necklaces were being sold in various shops on or near Brisbane Street in the 1940s & 1950s and known to have been made "on the Islands" by Aboriginal women. This was so albeit that the racist 'Truganini myth' that she was "last true Tasmanian Aboriginal" was deeply etched into Tasmania's imagined history of the time.

'maireener' Shells' Scientific Information
Taxonomic information
Family (-subfamily): Trochidae - Trochinae; Genus: Phasianotrochus Fischer, 1885; Taxonomic validity: acceptable;
Phasianotrochus irisodontes (Quoy & Gaimard, 1834) “rainbow kelp-shell” ... Taxonomic validity: acceptable Synonym(s): irisodontes Quoy & Gaimard, 1834 virgata Menke, 1843 iriodon Philippi, 1845 laetus Philippi, 1850 schrayeri Philippi, 1850 virgulatus Philippi, 1850 minor Philippi, 1851 vulgaris A. Adams, 1853 nitidulus Philippi, 1855. Compare with: Cantharidella tiberiana, Phasianotrochus bellulus , Phasianotrochus rutilis
Phasianotrochus bellulus (Dunker, 1845) “elegant kelp-shell” ... Description and identification Typical adult shell-length: 18 mm; Compare with: Phasianotrochus apicinus, Phasianotrochus eximius [P.eximius 2], Phasianotrochus irisodontes .

Habitat and distribution:
Presence in Tasmanian waters: confirmed; Introduced?: no; Extinct?: no; Occurrence on Tasmanian beaches?: occasional, Substrate: among macroalgae, Depth-range: in the shallow subtidal ... Australian range: TAS, VIC and SA – Global range: southeastern Australia

NB: The 1905 shell necklace in the Powerhouse Museum's collection is described as 'Cantharidus badius' – Powerhouse E3623 – click here
  • Clarification of the context for the different taxonomic naming is being sought.
  • Accession information in respect to the six necklaces identified here as potentially having an element of ambiguity in their authentication is also being sough.
Ray Norman 2009

maireener: What's in a word?

In a global context, it seems that the palawa kani language word maireenerhas been added to the lexicon when it is necessary distinguish one shell necklace from another. This is evidenced on eBAY where 'the word' has currency when it comes to asserting a 'necklace's' Tasmanian Aboriginal credentials or bona fides.

maireenerhas come to carry layers of meaning to do with identifying a class of ‘adornment’ cum cultural identifier. It is also the word used to describe the kind of shells used to make one.

It seems that a maireener is not by necessity a necklace, it is a maireener, it has distinct cultural meanings attached to it, it also has cultural functions and cultural significance – without these things it would seem that it is not a maireener nor might it have meaning, a narrative or carry any cultural cargo. Firstly, it is itself, a maireener, and almost coincidentally it might function as a necklace. Plainly, it seems that a maireener might not have a function within Tasmanian Aboriginal culture without its Aboriginal cultural cargo.

A maireener is something more than a necklace. It is a cultural treasure that can function as a gift of honour and token of esteem: a gift of welcome or departure; a relationship marker. Collectively maireeners represent a significant cultural link to the past and they carry the imprimatur of a cultural continuum – and a mareener can be worn like a necklace.

Sometimes, perhaps, a maireener might indeed be a necklace. In a kind of way a maireener cum necklace may have significance as a kind of cultural crossover when it is used as a memento of ‘place’ a souvenir. It seems that the maireener idea’ is somewhat ‘liquid’ in so much as it seems to seep into a contexts and in doing so it seems to wet ideas with layers of meaning.

It would seem that in the end a maireener is a 'connector' and a kind of bonding agent – the gift of one seems to connect people, the making of one clearly connects people to place and the acquisition of one seems to connect people to a set of ideas and beliefs. In a kind of way a maireener seems to be something like a symbolic umbilical cord that connects people to a culture – a way of believing and being.
Ray Norman 2008-2009

lei: What's in a word?

With the turn of the 20th Century the world saw an explosion in the ways, the speed in which and the distances ideas began to travel and be traded. The sun never set on the British Empire. Alongside that European colonial expansion was building empires wherever Britain had not and the industrial era was in full flight. Little wonder it all turned out to be a century of diabolical conflicts.

Exotic ideas changed the ways people lived in the world – even if their own world did not change all that much. Nonetheless popular culture introduced people almost everywhere to the 'exotic other' via cheaper travel and books, cinema and later on, vicariously via TV.

In amongst all of this in far removed theatres and living rooms there was the 'Polynesian paradise in the Pacific' idea with palm trees, Honolulu, ukulele, the hula hula and the surf.

In amongst all that there is the ‘lei’. Lei is a
Polynesian cum Hawaiian word for a garland or wreath. However, a lei can be flowers, leaves, shells, nuts, seeds or feathers strung together with the intention of them being worn. The most popular lei in Polynesian culture is a wreath of flowers draped around the neck presented upon arriving or leaving as a symbol of affection and connection.

This concept was popularised through tourism between the
Polynesian Islands, continental USA, Australia and Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries." LINK

In Hawaii there is a lei for everyone of all ages and ranks. Lei are a way of telling people's stories, their mythology, their legends, their histories, and talking about their culture. A lei comes charged with cultural meaning.

It seems to follow that a lei is not simply a necklace, it is a lei. Like a maireener, it has distinct cultural meanings, cultural functions and cultural significance. Without all this, it seems that it could not be lei. It would lack the narratives and cultural cargo that invest it with meaning. Nonetheless, it appears that sometimes, a lei might even become a simple necklace as well outside its cultural context – and in some kind of diluted cultural crossover.

Like a maireener, it would seem that in the end a lei is a kind of 'cultural glue'. Likewise, the gift of a lei seems to connect people, the making of a lei clearly connects the maker to 'their place ' and the wearing of a lei seems to connect people, places, ideas and belief systems.

The question
arises as to whether it is place that defines culture or alternatively, it is a culture that defines place. Whichever, lei seem to play a part in connecting people to their place, or a place, and a the way of believing – and a way of being that belongs to the place.

SHELL LEI LINKS: Image Source [1] [2][3] [4]

Ray Norman 2009

necklace: What is in a word

A ’necklace’ can be many things: a souvenir; a token; a decoration; an adornment; and more still. But importantly it is often a ‘jewel’ ready (in waiting?) to be invested with cultural meanings, a cultural function and perhaps cultural or personal significance – a carrier of ideas, sentiments etc and especially so when it is a gift.

A ‘jewel’ is recognised as something precious, a gem, a treasure and a valued object that carries a narrative. In the end, it is the ideas and imaginings that are invested in jewels that are more precious than the 'stuff' of which it is made and its intrinsic 'values'.

It is hard to imagine a ‘jewel’ without a story or narrative – meanings, functions, significance. Indeed it is hard to imagine that a jewel without a story as being any kind of jewel at all. Undeniably, necklaces invested with meanings immediately become jewels. For example, a crown of either ephemeral flowers, or the incorruptible preciousness of gold, without a realm over which to reign is no crown at all. Likewise a wedding ring would not in fact be one unless there were two people bound in 'marriage' by it. They would be but mere baubles.

Essentially, “necklace” is a Eurocentric (global?) idea, and it does not fit at all well within either Polynesian or Aboriginal naming systems, or the belief systems, that are defined within, and by, ‘language’. A necklace is a kind of generic term that best fits the circumstances of the industrial era. It is a catch all, somewhat lowest common denominator, term that comes to a wearer, typically via mass production, ready to be invested with meaning – typical private and intimate meanings and symbolisms.

Furthermore, in a postcolonial cum ‘global’ paradigm, albeit often unacknowledged, various kinds of ‘necklaces’ – rosaries, chains of office etc. – carry hidden subtexts that typically emerge from the ether to haunt us in various ways. Interestingly, they are rarely if ever referred to as "necklaces."

It is now known that that Hawaii's Queen Liliuokalani, the last of Hawaii's monarchs, had a number of Tasmanian kelp shell necklaces that seem to have come to her via a retail sale in Honolulu. They are now in the collection of the Bishops Museum in Honolulu.

Queen Liliuokalini lived until 1917, and thus it’s most likely that she would have either bought them at a store, or perhaps someone might have given them to her, but probably (again) just by having purchased them commercially. By the time she was an adult, Hawaii had a completely westernized economy, particularly in Honolulu – DeSoto Brown, Bishop's Museum Oct 2009 .

The circumstances seem to be there for these 'shell necklaces' originating in Tasmania and them finding their way to Honolulu via the M M Martin enterpriseHobart & Honolulu.

Attempts have been made to homoginise language and use more general, inclusive and global terms, such as neckpiece, body adornment etc etc. Ultimately such words fail in their hollowness. They carry little if any cultural cargo that is of much use in projecting shaded meanings with depth, subtleness, substance, dimension, whatever, found in material cultural production.

When lei and maireeners are claimed as “necklaces” it seems that it is not only unhelpful in understanding the cultural context of the object in hand but also potentially derisive. Undeniably, there is a good case to argue that it is an act of cultural colonisation – albeit most times unconsciously so. Perhaps it goes further, possibly it is an act of cultural homogenisation that is more to do with "blandingthan it might have anything to do with blending" Rod Ewins paraphrased ... from a presentation on Fijian Art to the Oceanic Art Society, Sydney, March 17, 1999.

Ray Norman 2009 - 1995

The Beeton Necklace

The QVMAG's Lucy Beeton Necklace somewhat ironically this 'necklace' in a kind of a way has become a quasi 'signature' piece in the exhibit. In various ways it is an atypical example of necklace making in Tasmania – albeit that there is little doubt about its authenticity given its apparent provenance.

This necklace is idiosyncratically itself and a standout example of Tasmanian shell necklace making. Interestingly it is too short to function as do many 'endless' maireener necklaces made up of 'kelp shells'. This may be because it is in fact a remnant of a longer necklace – or possibly not intended to be worn in fact. [more information needed to contextualise this object]

THE EXHIBITS DESCRIPTION LABEL TEXT: "Necklace, 1870-1886 Thalotia conica, linen thread
This necklace once belonged to James Peppiatt (1838-1916) of Launceston. According to the stories handed down through his descendants, he was a good friend of an Aboriginal woman known as 'The Queen of the Islands' who used to stay at the Old Brisbane Hotel in Launceston. This lady was Lucy Beeton (1829-86) who lived on Badger Island in the Furneaux group. Her mother was Emmerenna from the Cape Portland band of people. The necklace was thought to have been a gift from Lucy to James Peppiatt.

An educated and successful business woman, Lucy Beeton was aware of the value of eduction for children. In 1849 she set up and operated the first school in the Furneaux Group on Gun Carriage Island. Later in 1857 she established a school on Badger Island, employing two teachers from Victoria. To conduct her business affairs in Launceston, she sailed with a fleet of boats from the islands as their Commodore. She was a leader of the Aboriginal community on the Furneaux Islands and a great campaigner for her people.
Donation of Christine Minchin, 1999"

Glenda King August 3 2005

Authenticity & Provenance

Since the early 1990s museums, art galleries and private collectors throughout Australia have been collecting the cultural production of Tasmania's Aboriginal people and in particular their 'shell necklaces' more actively – Reference Links [1][2] [3] [4] [5][6][7][8] [9][10] As a consequence "Tasmanian Aboriginal Shell Necklaces" have since received more attention in the wider Tasmanian community than they have previously enjoyed. On the other hand, shell necklaces have been sought after souvenirs in Tasmania since 19th Century colonial times.

Arguably, 'shell necklaces' are quintessential exemplars of 'Tasmaniana' even if currently that may be a revisitation of a past understanding.

As is the case with all material cultural production 'provenance ' is the key element in developing meaningful understandings of the cultural cargo an object carries. Sadly, the hierarchies attributed to 'personal adornment' has meant that its significance has often been downplayed. Consequently, when such work came into a museum collection it often came with a paucity of information relevant to provenance, authenticity and cultural context.

Since 2001 the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (QVMAG) has been at the forefront of raising the wider community's awareness of Tasmanian Aboriginal shell necklace making. When the QVMAG opened its Inveresk campus in 2001 the museum consolidated its activities on two campuses. In doing so it substantially extended its exhibition opportunities.

The QVMAG "Strings Across Time" exhibit opened at that time and it was a high point in the opening of the redevolped Inveresk campus. The museum finally had the opportunity to exhibit this component of its collection in a contemporary context. Furthermore, it also had an incentive – subliminal ? – to do so given the sociopolitical and cultural dynamics that were in play at the time – and that largely remains the case today in Tasmania and nationally.

After a long period of contention to do with the museum's representation and presentation of Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural material the Strings Across Time exhibit held the promise of a more inclusive future. This was something that was long awaited by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. The ways Tasmanian Aboriginal community and their cultural production has been represented in both of Tasmania's major museums (TMAG & QVMAG) has been contested – and it remains a highly contentious aspect of museum practice in Tasmania.

This particular QVMAG exhibit is unique in Australia in that it brings together a comprehensive survey of 40 necklaces and all largely drawn from the museum's own collections compiled over the life of the institution. Interestingly, since the early 1990s public collections throughout Australia began to actively collect and pay more attention to these necklaces in parallel with a more intense interest in Aboriginal artmaking in Australia. Consistent with this the prices contemporary makers are able to realise for their work have increased significantly.

The QVMAG's Strings Across Time exhibit aims to be definitive. In many ways it sets out to chart and celebrate the evolution of the cultural practice in Tasmania. The work of 19th Century Tasmanian Aboriginal makers is exhibited alongside the work of contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal women. Indeed it includes material collected by George Augustus Robinson who has provided some of the earliest reports relevant to Tasmanian Aboriginal necklace making – and these reports continue to be valued as an important reference.

By implication, this QVMAG exhibit can also lays claim to, and is understood as, setting a national benchmark reference for the handling of this aspect of Tasmania Aboriginal cultural production. Somewhat ironically the piece that has become the quasi 'signature' piece of a kind in the exhibit is in various ways an atypical example of necklace making in Tasmania – albeit that there is little doubt about the necklace's Aboriginal authenticity given its provenance.

It turns out however that the Strings Across Time exhibit does not draw attention to, indeed it overlooks, the colonial commercial production of shell necklaces that it seems came to be known as "Hobart Necklaces" [LINK] at least euphemistically. These necklaces exploit the same key shells [LINK] used in Tasmania Aboriginal cultural production. Commonly this material is being confused with Aboriginal cultural production in the 'Australiana cum antique' market – especially so most recently on eBAY.

The Hobart Necklace story comes with its own rich set of narratives even if they are contentious – and unsurprisingly laced with 'colonial innuendo'. Nonetheless, there is increasing evidence that these necklaces were produced in quite large numbers from at least 1875 and seemingly up until the 1950s – and possibly longer – and for the most part as souvenirs of Tasmania.

There is increasing evidence that this material was largely understood in the context of the 'economic use of Australia's/Tasmania's natural materials' and more to the point, in a colonial context – i.e. A shell necklace, shell, 'Cantharidus badius', Australia, 1905 Powerhouse Museum collection E3623.

There are distinctions between Aboriginal cultural production and the commercial production of Hobart Necklaces however they are unclear and confusing. The two are confusable and it is increasingly clear that 'Hobart Necklaces' have been deliberately, surreptitiously or unknowingly misrepresented as "Tasmanian Aboriginal Maireener Necklaces". This has been seen most recently on eBAY.

The incentive to represent this material as 'Aboriginal' seems to be to do with the ascending value of Aboriginal art and material cultural production. This increase in 'value' is evidenced by the fact that in the early 1990s contemporary necklaces made by Aboriginal makers were selling for less than $100 whereas currently examples of similar quality regularly command prices between $1,000 and $2,000 with some possibly selling for higher sums.

None of this discounts in any way the authenticity or integrity of contemporary Aboriginal shell necklace making. Neither does it do anything to downplay the cultural potency of, or the integrity of, Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural production in community life prior to the 1990s. Indeed to the contrary!