The La Trobe Ethnographic Collection, a social history: Its provenance, history and significance

Dr John Taylor (Chief Investigator) with Dr Raymond Madden, Dr Nicholas Smith, Angel Bottaro and Cameron Wood

La Trobe University's ethnographic collection (stored at CAVAL, Bundoora) comprises some 976 objects from Australia, Melanesia and further afield, and is an important part of the University's unique history.  In 1981 an LTU Anthropology Museum was founded under the auspice of the Sociology Department to house the collection's growing number of artefacts. These were donated by numerous Melbourne collectors of Oceanic and Australian Art through the initiatives of past sociology and anthropology staff, and collected as a part of their own fieldwork. While underpinned by concerns around the preservation of material culture, the primary objective of the collection was teaching related: to engage students in studies of anthropology, art history, archaeology, material culture studies and museology by providing a wide-ranging tactile collection of material culture, and by giving context to the societies and cultures from which objects derived.

The current research project is a collaboration of the La Trobe University Department of Social Inquiry and the La Trobe University Museum of Art (LUMA), who currently manage the collection. The research aims to revitalise the value of the collection through its promotion within the University and wider community, with a primary focus of re-establishing it as a teaching tool, and more broadly to inspire the exchange and generation of new ideas, knowledge and approaches to material culture studies in the present.  Documenting a social history of the collection is the first step being undertaken, so as to establishing its provenance, history and significance.  Highlights of the collection include a small but significant group of bark paintings from Arnhem Land, a comprehensive example of Papua New Guinea Highlands stone-head clubs and a rare ceremonial dance mask from New Ireland, in the Bismarck Archipelago of Papua New Guinea.


For further information about this project, please contact:

Dr John Taylor 
Department of Social Inquiry
La Trobe University 
T: +61 3 9479 6696