Curatorial assistant Sarah Ridhuan inspects a painting unrolled from storage for signs of deterioration. (ABC News: Pamela Medlen)
Tucked away at the back of a car park, underneath a gallery in a Perth university, sits a museum most West Australians would not even know existed.
It houses what is believed to be one of the most culturally significant collections of Indigenous artefacts from around Australia and the Pacific.
But right now, the Berndt Museum is more of a storeroom — and its collection is hidden in cardboard boxes.
The museum has about 12,000 objects, as well as 35,000 photographs and archival material documenting Aboriginal Australia.
Vanessa Russ is pushing for a dedicated space for the museum’s collection (ABC News: Pamela Medlen)
It was given to the University of Western Australia (UWA) in the 1950s by world-renowned anthropologists Catherine and Ronald Berndt.
The Berndts spent 60 years travelling to Indigenous sites around Australia and other parts of the world, collecting and commissioning artefacts and documenting their studies.
For decades, their collection was stored in a basement at the university, but in 2010 it was moved to its current site — originally intended to be temporary.
Vanessa Russ has been pushing for a dedicated, purpose-built space for the collection since she became associate director of the museum.
“We don’t have anywhere for permanent display … the collection generally is pretty safe, it’s pretty healthy, but it’s a bit of a challenge to access it,” Dr Russ said.
“We do have visits from the community and often there’s sometimes a bit of frustration at not being able to just walk into a space and see it for themselves.
“But we do assure them that UWA is very passionate about this collection and we know there’s definitely a future for it.”
Help needed to fund ‘front of house’
After a conversation with Dr Russ, Australian National University (ANU) research fellow Louise Hamby was invited to study some handmade baskets uncovered last year in an old flour bin that had remained unopened for 75 years.
Carved heads were among a host of artefacts found in a flour bin at the museum. (ABC News: Pamela Medlen)
She said her first impressions of the Berndt Museum were that it was quite mundane.
“Cardboard boxes don’t quite give you that sense of awe, but taking them out, looking at the objects, looking at the things around you, that’s when you get this wow effect,” Dr Hamby said.
Kent Anderson says UWA needs help to fund an appropriate space for the collection. (ABC News: Pamela Medlen)
“A museum for a lot of people is just the front, the showroom and in this case … there’s no sort of front of house, if you would like, it’s all back of house.”
Getting a dedicated space has been a slow process.
“We’ve been working on this for about 10 years … the university would love to have facilities that match the grandeur of the collection, it really is a great collection,” UWA vice-chancellor Kent Anderson said.
But Professor Anderson said they would need help to fund a project of that size.
“Getting there is always a challenge, particularly in Western Australia in these current times. We really need some financial support to make it happen,” he said.
Meanwhile, back in the storeroom
The museum faces another challenge — the small space means it has limited resources to share the collection with communities, researchers and students.
Researcher Donna Oxenham has been working with Indigenous photo collections from across the world to return the images to the communities where they were taken.
Donna Oxenham wants to see some the museum’s material returned to Indigenous communities. (ABC News: Pamela Medlen)
“I would love to see … Aboriginal people be able to come and view these records, and if they find pictures of their ancestors and community members, even images of country, they’re able to take that away with them,” she said.
“It’s like a family heirloom that is priceless to a lot of Aboriginal people.”
Dr Russ agreed that a facility would be necessary before the collection could be used to its full advantage.
“When you do provide a facility that has the archives and the photographic collections and display areas and study spaces and labs, you do then allow someone to come in and actually sit with an object and see the photographs and hear the songs being played,” she said.
But until there is a firm commitment, the team at the Berndt Museum will continue to safeguard the collection and share it with researchers.
“I think as Aboriginal people we wait for a long time for a lot of things, so we’re very patient about it,” Dr Russ said.