The University of Western Australia is pleased to appoint academic, artist and Ngarinyin / Gija woman Dr Vanessa Russ as Associate Director of the Berndt Museum.
The UWA graduate, who was born and raised in the Kimberley, will now head up one of the most important research collections on Australian Aboriginal art and culture in the world.
Dr Russ is the first Aboriginal director of the Berndt Museum in its 40-year history.
Founded in 1976 from the personal collection of noted anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt, the Berndt Museum has grown to comprise of more than 11,500 objects and 35,000 photographs from throughout Australia.
A number of works in the collection are recognised internationally on UNESCO’s Australian Memory of the World.
Sir David Attenborough describes the Berndt Museum as “a collection the world needs to see”.
Growing up in the Kimberley, Dr Russ’s first gallery experience was the rock art paintings of the Wandjina and people crafting objects, singing and storytelling using drawings in the sand, memories that have stayed with her throughout her life.
Later, she undertook her PhD through UWA, studying Australian Aboriginal art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
In 2014, Dr Russ became one of just 13 Western Australians selected for a Churchill Fellowship, where she travelled across the US, Hong Kong and Singapore investigating the effects of national identity in mainstream art museums on Indigenous populations.
Dr Russ said The Berndt Museum not only provided access to a world-class collection, it celebrated difference as something to aspire to and not something to be afraid of.
“The challenge of questioning whose identity we nationalise is not a local phenomenon but an international paradigm that will need to be addressed by all nations - especially if the world continues to move towards a unifying set of ideologies,” Dr Russ said.
“Our differences celebrate our uniqueness in the world and that is best reflected by Indigenous people globally.
“This collection allows us to recognise the amazing contribution that Aboriginal Australia has made to the arts and culture through the simple act of making, from stone tools to high art.
“It provides a clear historical path from objects of use - to works of art that can be seen to define the contemporaneity of the art world itself.
“Most importantly, the collection provides UWA with an opportunity to create something that has not been fully achieved – an Aboriginal-led university museum on a national scale with its own collection holdings.”
Dr Russ said Australia had an opportunity to lead the way, as a nation that seeks to raise the respect of Aboriginal people, through active innovation and the capacity to seek out excellence.
“The challenge of creating a museum that is focused on an Australian Aboriginal continent in the Asia Pacific should be seen as a priority,” she said.
“It will provide a dynamic and multi-purposed campus facility for all Australians to learn about the first people, while engaging young Australian Aboriginal people in new ways of accessing cultural knowledge.”
Dr Vanessa Russ (UWA Associate Director, Berndt Museum) (+61 4) 07 440 941
Jess Reid (UWA Media and PR Officer) (+61 8) 6488 6876