Dr Jilda Andrews is reimagining the future of museums

Dr Jilda Andrews is reimagining the future of museums
Dr Jilda Andrews. Photo: Dave Fanner/ANU
Tuesday 28 May 2024

This article was originally published in ANU Reporter by Luis Perez on 24 May 2024.

When Dr Jilda Andrews first stepped into a museum collection storeroom 26 years ago, little did she know the secrets the objects nestled within would whisper.

As beacons of human legacy, modern museums aspire to become vivid reflections of the real world. However, in Australia, after decades of efforts to right historical wrongs, museums still struggle to paint a clear picture of the past and the origins of many of the artefacts they contain.

As a passionate advocate for First Nations history and culture on the global stage, Andrews —once the curious observer in the museum storeroom— is now leading the charge for change.

Catching fire

Andrews’ fascination with the study of museum artefacts was kindled by an unexpected spark.

“I was a trainee working in the Australian Museum’s marketing team when I first came into contact with a collection storage facility,” she says.

“I had no real idea about the scale and breadth of what museum collections held at the time. But this initial encounter, though naïve, sparked the flames of inquiry that fuel the questions I am tackling today.”

Years later, as a cultural practitioner and a Research Fellow at ANU, Andrews has left her mark in the sector, having contributed to hundreds of museum projects, including the critically acclaimed Great Southern Land exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

Andrews’ work as a practitioner is as captivating as her innovative research, where she looks at museum artefacts not merely as objects but as windows into forgotten pasts.

“Objects are a combination of people, places and rich cultural worlds that span beyond imagination,” she says.

It is precisely by harnessing the untapped power of these collections that she can envision a brighter future.

Regenerating the past through fire

Historically, Australia’s First People have used fire as a land management tool, employing cool-burning to rejuvenate the landscape and eliminate the underbrush.

Andrews’ relationship with fire, rooted in the customs of her Yuwaalarray Country, is one of partnership and respect.

“Several years ago, my cousin invited me to participate in cool-burning land on Ngyimpaa Country. This was a deliberate action to regenerate Country in hopes that the malleefowl, an endemic bird, would return to its habitat,” she recounts.

Inspired by her own heritage, Andrews is now applying her family’s cultural practices to her research, introducing what she describes as a “metaphoric cool-burning of museum collections”.

“By figuratively cool-burning the collections I want to clear away the tangled overgrowth brought by layers and layers of value and different meanings placed around museum objects over the years,” she says.

In doing so, Andrews is unveiling untold stories beyond those historically anchored to the objects, many of which bear associations of colonial domination.

She has examined breastplates, called gorgets, which were given to Aboriginal people in the early days of settlement to identify people of authority and influence.

“By cool-burning these breastplates I have been able to disrupt the dispossessive memories, discovering who their owners were and remembering the rich cultural worlds they were part of,” Andrews explains.

“This offers a way of engaging differently with our complex histories, a dialogue that doesn’t overlook the complexity, but explores it.”

With her method, Andrews envisages a future where new readings of objects make their way to display and exhibition in museums.

“These I understand as Ancestral Futures, a view that extends equally into the future as it does the past,” she says.

An incandescent future

At present, Andrews’s gaze is fixed on the distant past as much as it is on the vast horizon, with her work spanning oceans.

In an admirable international trajectory, she has worked with museum collections around the world, including the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington and the British Museum.

Driven by a conviction to share Australia’s gifts with the world, Andrews’ curatorial work is illustrating the profound connection between First Nations cultures and Country.

“I understand museum objects as ambassadors. They are active in informing a vision of our countries, speaking across time and space,” she says.

She is also part of the team developing the Australian Pavilion at the upcoming Expo 2025 in Japan.

“In Osaka, our theme, ‘Chasing the Sun’, will place Country at the centre. The invitation for visitors to step into Country will be awe-inspiring,” she says. “Cultural diplomacy is something that Australia can better invest in.

“Doing so could see us having a coordinated approach and a narrative that is inclusive of local, state and national interests with regards to Indigenous cultural heritage overseas.

“In my vision, I see our spirits of the past proud and assured that we are attending to long-imagined continuities.”


Updated:  29 May 2024/Responsible Officer:  Centre Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications