• “It’s truly survival and the more collective we are the more we understand it is never about us": Vanessa Russ. (University of Western Australia)Source: University of Western Australia
It’s a collection of Australian Aboriginal art and culture which Sir David Attenborough says the world needs to see, and now it’s being headed by an Indigenous woman for the first time.
Philip Ly

5 Apr 2016 - 1:51 PM  UPDATED 5 Apr 2016 - 2:09 PM

Vanessa Russ, a Ngarinyin-Gija woman, has been named the Berndt Museum’s new associate director at the University of Western Australia.

She says she hopes to bring a collective approach in her role to ensure the longevity and survival of the museum with the university and its collections, some of which are on UNESCO’s Australian Memory of the World. 

“It’s truly survival and the more collective we are the more we understand it is never about us, it’s about the future generations and the people who came before us too,” Dr Russ says.

The museum was founded in 1976 on the personal collection of anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt, and today has more than 11,5000 objects and 35,000 photographs.

Dr Russ says the Berndts always had a vision for an Aboriginal museum director.

“I know certainly that when they opened it, they invited a number of elders down and talked a lot about self-determination.”

She says difference needs to be celebrated and embraced, not feared, and the museum will help achieve that.

“In Australia I think our identity has morphed into this British-Aboriginal identity. They work in tandem. If you take one group away from the other, you can’t explain Australia,” she says.

“With the Berndt Museum it’s really an opportunity to come up with something that’s really new, to think outside the square but be inclusive, and we really need that across Australia and around the world.”

She believes Australia needs to put culture first, not last and a cultural trade of sorts that engages with other Asian neighbours will help people learn more.

She says the museum is important because the high level of archiving - which gives objects in the museum meaning - and people look at things differently when they know the humanity behind it. 

The associate director’s role

Artist and academic Vanessa Russ has been entrusted to look after the museum and care for its collections.

Her main responsibilities involve a two-pronged approach where she takes care of the museum’s curating and accessibility, and manages its operations.

She has is also responsible for managing her staff and says her role is about making sure the collection has a future.

“I ensure people have access to collections in a culturally appropriate way, promote the collection, curate exhibitions and work across the (University of Western Australia) campus and will teach next semester,” she says.

“I engage in discussions around the faculties, write articles and do research, while also making sure other researchers can do research too.”

She says she’s examining the idea of the museum by unpacking it, reframing it and then repacking it to tell a new story of Australian-Aboriginal people for the world to see.

But she said she’s also promoting the importance of Aboriginal people around the world.

“It’s quite a broad brush.”

A lasting legacy?

She hopes to change people’s minds and give the museum a voice and let people know it is there and increased community engagement.

“I think we really need to have an Aboriginal male and Aboriginal female curator so we can start talking about the male and female narrative that exists because it’s really important,” Dr Russ says.

She wants to curate collections, so it’s stored in one place so her successor can receive the Berndt Museum in a better position.

“But I want to take it to the next step for the university to see longevity in the museum.”