Dr Vanessa Russ, the Berndt Museum’s first Aboriginal Associate Director, certainly isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. With a collection that encompasses more than 11,500 objects and 35,000 photographs, the museum’s archives also represent an amazing asset in itself, making the Berndt the envy of other universities.
“This is a university collection with huge national importance. We have a real treasure on our hands here, and I think the overarching strategic question we need to answer is ‘what do we want the Berndt Museum to be’? It’s not just about a building or what’s in it. The collection itself is beautiful and full of historically important objects but the museum is more than that,” Dr Russ says.
“It’s about the extensive archives we have, the Berndt’s field notes that are released from embargo in 2024, engagement with Aboriginal communities and of course how we can assist research that will benefit us, the Aboriginal people and Australia as a nation. It’s about ensuring we operate in a way that does justice to the museum as a whole now and in the future.”
Vanessa believes that while the Berndt Museum is something to be treasured now, more discussion must be had about how it’s shaped for tomorrow.
“The honour and pride of managing a collection that will go on for over 100 years cannot be undervalued, and all going to plan we will never reap the full benefits. We will plant trees that we will never see, but they will benefit future generations and UWA will always be central to that,” she says.
“That’s possibly one of the most exciting parts for me. We have ten years’ worth of archiving to be completed, which is a massive job, but we will literally be unpacking Aboriginal history. The more we learn about yesterday the more we can pass on to tomorrow.”
For now though, Vanessa is working through the current needs of the museum.
“It’s a real balancing act at the moment determining where to commit resources. Do we focus on curating, archiving, meeting research needs? In the end it’s going to be a mixture of everything. But one thing we absolutely must do is ensure we demonstrate best practice in all our work,” she says.
“As we move towards the Berndt Museum of the future, ensuring we are at the forefront of storage collection, archiving, research collaboration and community engagement is a priority, so we can say hand on heart we are a world class museum.”
“We also have the opportunity to leverage the museum to embed the importance of Aboriginal art and culture internationally. We have notable Asian objects in the collection that we can use to start a conversation with Japan for example.”
Three months into a two-year term, Dr Russ doesn’t have all the answers yet but feels Berndt’s place at UWA goes beyond art, and conversations about its future direction are important.
“We have an historical asset right here on our doorstep. But it’s more than art, it’s a resource for all and that’s how I want the museum to be seen,” Dr Russ says.