Brit Asmussen

Senior Curator of Archaeology – Indigenous Cultures, Cultural Environments Program Queensland Museum 

Research is key – and sometimes even small objects can have big stories to tell.

Q. What pathways did you take to get to this career? (Marni, Atherton SHS)

A. I studied Ancient History in High School, and after leaving school I undertook a Bachelor of Arts degree, doing a Double Major in Anthropology and Archaeology at University, selecting all the anthropology and archaeology subjects I could. I then went on to do my Honours and PhD (doctorate) in Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology.

To do archaeology well you need to follow the data, have an open mind, a background and appreciation for the various sciences, and an interdisciplinary approach. This broad skillset creates opportunities to work across arts, humanities and sciences and to make research contributions across various topics and disciplines.

Q. Where do you plan on applying your archaeological work to modern society? (Marni, Atherton SHS)

A. Although archaeological research does focus on understanding events in the past, there are important implications and outcomes for people and society today.

I help share research on museum objects and collections with a broad range of audiences through exhibitions, social media, blogs, online collections, and academic papers. I collaborate with educators to build knowledge into education activities, school visits, and produce national events like National Archaeology Week, and National Science Week, and World Science Festival Brisbane.

As a Partner Investigator at the Queensland Museum on the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH), the project seels to dramatically improve our understanding of Australia’s past, to adapt to future changes, which is of significance to all Australians.

In a different ARC project, Sugarbags and Shellfish, the ‘material culture’ and archaeological collections are investigated by the team, including community partners, to investigate Indigenous food consumption in colonial Cape York Peninsula, which will provide insights into daily life, cultural values and social relationships and importantly contribute to ‘Propper History” by producing inclusive narratives of Indigenous peoples’ experiences of colonialism, and in the negotiation of power in colonial settings. QM is are currently partnering with various European institutions on the SEACHANGE grant which seeks to reconstruct the world’s oceans before major human impact using archaeological and marine shell collections. There is also the UQ WW1 Antiquities project, which uses the QM antiquities collection to learn about the collecting practices of WW1 service personnel. 

Through each of these projects, we can change various conversations and reframe history. Learning about the past helps to understand people and change today.

Q.What is an average day like for your work? How much of your work is on a site compared to working at the museum? (Marni, Atherton SHS)

A. On any given day, I could be researching the objects in the collections for exhibitions, presenting tours and talks, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples to explore the collections, undertaking research and writing for academic papers, writing blogs, being interviewed or undertaking administrative tasks. I also manage a wonderful team of curators and collection managers in the museum. The majority of my time is spent inside the Museum, and I have recently participated in archaeological fieldwork on Lizard Island, as part of my role in CABAH

Q. Do you mainly work in a particular environment? For example, marine, terrestrial etc. (Bernice, Southport SHS)

A. As an archaeologist, I have always been interested in understanding the lived experiences of people at a human level. I have specialised in analysing faunal remains in terrestrial archaeological sites, this includes animal bones and marine shells and I also analyse plant remains in archaeological sites. I utilise a multiple lines of evidence scientific approach to generate as much information as is possible from the often highly fragmented remains in archaeological assemblages. Such analyses can tell us about what people consumed, but also how resources were carefully managed for the long term, even though significant climatic change. Even small changes in what wallaby bones are present in an archaeological site and how they are fractured for marrow, can provide intimate glimpses into how people shared meals around the flickering light of a campfire, thousands of years ago. Such insights tend to collapse the distance of time between people and the past and the present.

Q. What has your biggest discovery been and how much impact did it have on your industry? (Bernice, Southport SHS and Emma, Babinda State School)

A. Within the Queensland Museum collections, this would have to be the discovery of the Book of the Dead of Amenhotep. Research is key – and sometimes even small objects can have big stories to tell.

Q. Working in Torres Strait, Papua New Guinea and north Queensland, what have you seen that is unique and you would never find at other sites around the world?

A. The sites reflect the lives of the people that created them. One important learning is that people and culture is diverse, ever changing and socially and politically complex.

Q. How do you work with Aboriginal communities to repatriate their cultural items that are held in museum collections?

A. Queensland Museum works in various ways with Aboriginal communities to repatriate Ancestral Remains, secret and or sacred objects and other cultural items to their communities of origin to help promote healing and reconciliation. For the past twenty years Queensland Museum and other museums in Australia have been working with Aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islander communities to return Ancestral Remains and Secret and or Sacred objects. Many of these objects and remains were taken without permission. Queensland Museum recognises that many remains and objects it has acquired belong to the communities from which they were taken. We have several repatriation projects which are funded via the IRP. The Queensland Museum Repatriation Fund provides funding to help communities repatriate the remains of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people ancestral remains, burial goods and secret and/or sacred objects that were collected by Queensland Museum and other institutions, to their community of origin. The fund is part of the Queensland Museum Repatriation Program.

Q. What do you enjoy most about your job as a curator? (Emma, Babinda State School)

A. Exhibitions, research and collaboration. In the collections there are many thousands of objects, which have often become physically disassociated from people and history. I work most recently with the Antiquities collection to develop an exhibition, seeking to connect people and objects over apace and time.

Where I work on community led ARC research, I work as part of a team, researching particular objects in the Museum collection which are from Australian Aboriginal communities. I enjoy working with individual objects and the research and detective work of how things came from their original owners, contexts and places to the Museum. This involves looking at the objects themselves for clues of their story (pencil marks, old numbers, how they are made, what they are made of) investigating the archives for old correspondence, letters, turning the pages of early museum registers, searching through Trove newspaper articles, photograph collections and other GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector resources, to piece back together the history of the object/s. It’s wonderful when objects and information can be reconnected with people and communities, which is significant for cultural maintenance and revitalisation.

Q. As a curator do you see yourself as more scientist or historian?

A. I think that equal measure of both is required, a good dash of detective work and strong coffee too! These skills are essential in scientific work and also in museum work, as they inform one another, and help to generate more nuanced and considered interpretations of the present and the past. It is also great to work as part of a team, where different knowledges, experiences and perspectives serve to enrich the experience and outcomes for all.

Dr Brit Asmussen is an established research professional and collaborator. She is currently Senior Curator, Archaeology, at Queensland Museum. Brit is also a Research Affiliate with the University of Sydney and an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at James Cook University.

Brit works with archaeological and object collections. In her archaeological work, she applies archaeological research methods to animal, mollusc and plant materials in archaeology collections, to consider long-term people:land:wildlife:climate relationships, how people negotiated past climate change and developed methods for sustainable resource use and environmental and ecological conservation. This work also requires the investigation of the effects of taphonomic processes on the content and structure of the archaeological record and sometimes experimental archaeological approaches. Brit is been involved in a number of archaeological research projects investigating these relationships in Australia, Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea. Brit is a Partner Investigator on ARC COE (CABAH) Australia’s Epic Story: Exploring 130,00 years of history. 

Brit works with cultural object collections held in Museums. In this work, Brit facilitates Aboriginal communities to access and research cultural items held in Museum collections, and to repatriate Museum information about them. Brit is a Partner Investigator on the ARC LP Sugarbags and Shellfish: Indigenous foodways in Colonial CYP.  Brit also works with Antiquities collections, and another project examines Antiquities collecting in the First World War (in collaboration with the UQ R.D Milns Antiquities Museum). 

Her research has been funded by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, The Wenner-Gren Foundation, Australian Institute of Nuclear Sciences and Engineering, and the Australian Museum. She has contributed one book and over 20 articles in the archaeology of Australia, PNG and Torres Strait and has also published on Museum collections and repatriation.