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What can a linguist do on a hot summer's day on North Terrace in Adelaide? Once upon a time I loved the SA State Library &mdash they had a very good collection of books looked after by helpful specialist librarians who knew the collections inside out, and the Friends of the State Library of South Australia did an excellent facsimile publishing service which ensured that nineteenth century materials on South Australian languages were available. Now, while the Friends are still doing good things ..there's an enormous Christmas tree and fake-looking presents in the new energy-inefficient glass foyer, a closed Circulating Library ("You can hire this book-lined room for a party!"), a billboard for the Bradman collection merchandise, and the historic Mortlock reading room has been converted into a low-lux display room (oh yes, and you can hire this room for functions too!). OK - so the library needs to raise money, and maybe someone who buys a Bradman t-shirt will browse a book. But when the rumour spreads that the State Liibrary is going to evict the Royal Geographical Society library and its superb Australian collection, you have to wonder if some people think of books as Christmas trees, temporary decorations for a convention centre. Please tell us the rumour is false!

The Art Gallery of South Australia? Sure &mdash there's a Tiwi art exhibition Yingarti Jilamara (glossed as 'lots of art’), and there are some interesting early colonial portraits of encounters between Aborigines and Europeans.

But the must-see is the Pacific Cultures Gallery in the South Australian Museum. It's free, it's cool, and it has the largest collection of Pacific artefacts in Australia. This will attract people working on languages of Papua New Guinea (including Bougainville), the Solomon and Santa Cruz Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, as well as Fijian and Maori.

The gallery's been renovated, but they've deliberately kept the classic displays. Nothing minimalist here &mdash no treating the museum-goer as art groupy. Instead there are lots and lots and lots of objects displayed in original large wood and glass cases. Betel nut and lime pots, spoons, fans, cloth, pottery, bracelets, head-dresses, fine etchings on bamboo, carved clamshells. And it's great &mdash by seeing lots of hunting arrows fanned out , you can work out what's in common and what's idiosyncratic. Linguists wanting to refresh the memories of older speakers in documenting past practices for text and vocabulary collection could find it useful to look at the large number of items collected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that probably aren't made now. To the old material, the curators have added some films, shown on screens above the cases. I watched a fine subtitled film about shark-calling from canoes.

The displays can be quite confronting &mdash honoured death masks and decorated skulls, skulls deformed for aesthetic reasons, alongside old photographs showing a baby with its head bound to elongate its skull, or a man with two parallel vertical grooves notched in his forehead from babyhood. (Incidentally, for those worried about the sensitivity of descendants to the display of human remains, the Museum notes that its staff have worked closely with peoples of the Pacific in refurbishing the gallery).

The labelling is hierarchical &mdash the cases are labelled by country, and the objects (or representative ones) have early typewritten labels of the kind "war club collected on the Sepik and donated to the Musuem in 19xx by X.Y." They've added some other information &mdash mostly about collectors. So it's noted of Kenneth Thomas (1904-1973), who collected in the Sepik area in 1927, that he wrote "Notes on natives of the Vanimo Coast" (1941) and that copies of his field-notes, diaries, and maps are in the SA Museum archive. Might be useful to people working on modern languages of that area? There's also a start on mapping areal properties, e.g. the distributions in PNG of shapes of stone-headed clubs &mdash pineapple, star and a deadly-looking disc, and the distribution of Lapita pottery.

There's a promissory note about more electronic information coming later. So, here's a suggestion. A lot more could be done with the labels. Language for instance &mdash labelling artefacts with the name in the relevant language. (This was done in a 2006 exhibition at the National Museum of Australia of artefacts collected mostly by Johann Reinhold Forster on Captain James Cook's Pacific voyages, and normally housed at the Georg August University of Göttingen in Germany). And, using the Lexicon of Proto Oceanic: The culture and environment of ancestral Oceanic society, they could do some brilliant maps showing how ideas and artefacts and words for them spread around the Pacific.

A fine place to spend a hot day. And a reminder that even if libraries aren't libraries, museums can be museums.


I went to the Ethnology Museum at FU Berlin (amongst other museums) over Christmas and this post really resonated. They had a wonderful Oceania collection, including some things from Australia (I wish they wouldn't put secret stuff on display, though!) It was such a contrast to Berlin's Jewish Museum, which is a "post-modern" interactive design, and didn't even have the the groupy feeling. More a crisis of audience feeling than anything. It was very weird - it's not everyday that a group gets complete control over how they are presented in a museum and I wasn't left with any idea much about anything. With the Oceania collection, I was.

I guess an exhibition is the product of the ideas and imagination of a curator or two - and if a group has complete control over what's displayed, they'd only be able to display what they agree on, which might be rather small.

Something I didn't mention is that some museum designers hate text - saying that people don't read much, and labels are just visual clutter. Lack of good text also leads me to a feeling that I haven't learnt much.

And as for interactive design, that often means interacting with computers - while you can do lots of interesting things with them - especially showing artefacts in use - an image of the Rosetta Stone is no substitute for looking at the actual slab.

On the threatened closure of the RGS(SA): the vice-president Valmai Hankel wrote "the current Libraries Board, having decided that the space occupied by the RGS is needed for other things, has served notice on the society to quit the premises before mid 2008." in Adelaide Review, 17 Nov 2006

"interaction" also seemed to mean pulling out drawer-things with a very small amount of additional information on them, or pressing a button to see the label light up.

Barry Craig sent a response which we have put up as a guest post.

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