Capturing Knowledge: Ethnographic Interviews

Xavier Leenders's blog | Created 3 years ago

In May 2014, my colleague, Ross Chadwick, and I travelled to Hobart to interview archaeologist/anthropologist, Kim Akerman, about his lifelong interest in recording, documenting and researching information about Aboriginal peoples and their material culture. The Western Australian Museum currently houses a large collection of objects collected by Kim reflecting Kimberley material culture, and we wanted to get his reflections on the collection and his collecting practices.

Kim’s breadth of knowledge about each object in the collection, their usage, and the culture that surrounds them is unparalleled. Ranging from artistic bark buckets and ornaments, to more functional items such as stone/glass points and stone axes, the collection tells a unique story about living in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Kim Akerman; Ethnographic Interviews in Action

Kim taking Ross through a database of his work.
Image copyright WA Museum 

In looking to capture this knowledge, we recorded a number of interviews across a four day period. Interviewing offers one method available to anthropologists to gather information on a range of notions and in this case, we felt that it would be invaluable in documenting the motivations and negotiations involved in the building of the collection. In addition to recording the interview, we also filmed each response, allowing us to capture the subtle gestures and nuances that enrich Kim’s story. Just as he collected ethnographic evidence in the field, so are we conducting ethnography of Kim’s sense of Kimberley material culture and his role in our understandings of it.

Kim Akerman; Ethnographic Interviews in Action

Setting up to record interviews in Kim’s house. Ross Chadwick (curator, Anthropology & Archaeology Department) on the left, Kim Akerman on the right.
Image copyright WA Museum 

Capturing local and cultural knowledge in anthropology is about accepting case studies and deconstructing the way in which people pursue their every-day lives. In the field of material culture however, we can come to understand a great deal about the culture of certain objects through the life of the collector. How they came upon the object, what brought them to the place of collection, how they came to understand its provenance, and what personal understanding they take from it; these questions mean just as much to the life of the object and its social history as the object itself!

What is of importance here is capturing information about the entire collection. Just as a person has a life history, so does the collection. As a discrete entity, we look to preserve not only each object in the collection, but its social biography as a whole. Separately, each object may or may not prove incredibly significant or unique, but as a network of heterogeneous objects, the collection speaks to stories of Kim’s life as an archaeologist/anthropologist/ and his time spent working alongside and in collaboration with people in the Kimberley region.