While museums were temporarily shut, the people working behind the scenes never stopped. Aside from the Museum at Home digital experience, staff like Kimberley Moulton, senior curator for Museums Victoria’s south-eastern Aboriginal collections, were also preparing for the state to reopen again.
A passionate advocate for First Peoples art and cultures (and a proud Yorta Yorta woman herself), Moulton has travelled the world for her job – from Scotland and London to South Africa and across Australia.
“I get to work with objects that are hundreds of years old,” says Moulton. “I am able to walk into the collections and visit them every day, research their story and connect them to community. That is a privilege. The museum is a place of wonder, and having the ability to connect to my colleagues in different disciplines is amazing.”
Moulton’s job is one of the most vital at the museum. We asked her about it.
How would you explain your job?
As a curator, I care for collections and see myself as a conduit for First Peoples communities to have access to and agency in their cultural belongings. I research and work alongside my colleagues in other disciplines to create enriching experiences that include First Peoples cultures across the museums.
I work with collections from the south-east of Australia, which hold over 4000 objects from communities. Some items are from the early 1800s, including shields, clubs, possum-skin cloaks and other extraordinary ancestral belongings. My practice also includes connecting contemporary artists and makers across multidisciplinary areas to reframe collections and create new dialogues with object and community.
My practice works with knowledges, histories and futures at the intersection of historical collections and contemporary art and making. I am also focused on anti-colonial curatorial methodology and First Nations representation in museums and galleries, which means critically looking at the way in which First Peoples objects and histories have been represented and the language used in museums, and creating platforms for change and agency within colonial institutions. Further to this, I am interested in extending the paradigm of what a museum can and should be from a First Peoples perspective.
What drew you to this area of expertise?
I am a proud Yorta Yorta woman. My people are First Peoples of north-eastern Victoria and my family history and culture has influenced my journey to being a curator.
Working as a curator is personal: there are family photos in the museum’s collection with ancestral belongings from my people and contemporary works that tell our stories. These are not just “objects”. My expertise is my lived experience as much as it is a continuum of learning. I reject the notion of “expert”, however I have my culture and many years’ experience that I build on.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve encountered on the job?
I’ve had some amazing, life-changing moments – from working on the conservation of the Yorta Yorta historical possum-skin cloak with my elders, to hosting Sir David Attenborough in the Museums Victoria collection. I have seen and researched cultural objects like the shield taken by Captain Cook in 1770 to stone tools from Yorta Yorta country in a museum in Scotland – being the first Aboriginal person to hold the objects since collection.
Travelling to Johannesburg and working with the Nelson Mandela Foundation as lead curator of the Museums Victoria Mandela My Life exhibition was also extraordinary. To be standing in Mandela’s house in the middle of Soweto was a surreal honour, and to learn about that country’s history of oppression and uprisings, and the similarities to my ancestors, along with presenting his life story was monumental.
And the most rewarding thing about your job?
Working with the First Peoples community to provide access to the museum, sharing my experiences and creating opportunities for them to connect to their cultural belongings. In one day, I might be holding an Aboriginal shield from 1880, or viewing a skin of a Tasmanian tiger with a First Peoples artist who is researching it. I am driven by the opportunity to learn from the objects and attempt to shift the colonial paradigm of institutions. To be able to critically engage in the history of these spaces and the collections they hold is crucial to the agency and futures of First Peoples in museums and galleries.
Now is a time of shifting consciousness around the world. First Peoples and people of colour are challenging the colonial structures that have oppressed us for so long, and to participate in these movements for the benefit of community, the collection and the future of the museum is important.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Museums Victoria.