Return to Baguia: an ethnographic museum collection on the edge of living memory




Barrkman, Joanna

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The question of what significance ethnographic museum collections might hold for source communities in the current era, particularly when collections sit on the edge of living memory, is explored in this thesis through a case-study of the Baguia Collection and its virtual return to the Makasae people of Baguia Sub-district, Timor-Leste, in 2014. The Baguia Collection was acquired by Dr Alfred Bühler on behalf of the Museum der Kulturen Basel, Switzerland, in 1935 using salvage ethnology methodologies. This diasporic collection now exists in Switzerland as a record of Bühler's accomplishments and of Swiss ethnographic history, and as a time capsule of Makasae heritage. This research explores an initial phase of engagement between the residents of Baguia and the Baguia Collection. Makasae responses to this Collection, which consists of 691 material culture objects and over 300 historical photos, raise issues pertinent to contemporary museology practice as it seeks to identify appropriate relational processes in collaborating with source communities. The research findings support proposals for the flexible, pro-technological access and digital return of museum collections to source communities, yet considers the inherent limitations and complexities in this methodology as well. I argue that the Baguia Collection has shared heritage values and that digital access arrangements will enhance the restitution of cultural knowledge and its subsequent inter-generational transmission in Baguia while also providing the Museum der Kulturen Basel with more updated and relevant information about the Collection. My project demonstrates that access to digital images of the Collection has enabled residents of Baguia to assert their cultural authority over the Collection, and that with further digital access they would activate the Collection to meet their own development agendas. By animating the Collection through 'acts of transfer' the Baguia community illustrated the potential for the Collection to become a source of metacultural production that reinvigorates contemporary Makasae identity and develops Makasae social and cultural capital, while ultimately enhancing their capacity to aspire.



Museum practice, ethnographic museum collections, source communities, communities of origin, Baguia, East Timor, Timor-Leste, Makasae, digital return of museum collections, contemporary museum practice, curatorial practice, community engagement with museum collections




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