There’s a map at the beginning of a newly launched book by the British Museum which pinpoints all the institutions in Britain and Ireland that hold objects made, used or simply valued by Australia’s First Nations people. Each of the 70 museums gets a red spot – making a connection for me with a potent Judy Watson canvas, ‘a picnic with the natives’, which similarly marked known massacre sites on her ancestral Waanyi Country below the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Is that a fair linkage? The general assumption could well be that colonisers may have collected a massive total of 39,000 objects – spears, shields, hair skirts, kelp water containers, king plates, etc, etc – as the scavange of a massacre. Indeed, the book goes so far as to suggest that Aboriginal objects were “prized above Aboriginal lives” in the Kimberley. And even if killing wasn’t involved, how equal could the dealings have been between tribal Aborigines and the ‘superior’ Enlightenment invaders as they spread out and grabbed land across the continent?

Didn’t Lieutenant Cook in 1770 start the whole process off badly by firing at the unwelcoming Gweagal people and grabbing a handful of fishing spears they’d been waving at him when they ran off?

BTW, Cook did not grab a shield at the same time – with or without a bullet hole through it. Researches behind this splendid book, ‘Ancestors, artefacts and empire; Indigenous Australia in British and Irish museums’, have now debunked that good story, which was still supported by the British Museum as recently as its Indigenous ‘Enduring Civilisation‘ exhibition in 2015.

In fact, ‘Ancestors, artefacts and empire‘ comes up with a far more balanced conclusion. As the tome itself states; “Our ambition in this book has been to convey something of the incredible diversity and richness of Indigenous Australian objects and collections currently in British and Irish museums, and the multiplicity of people, encounters, relationships, discourses, contexts and experiences they represent”.

Well, it’s hard to go past the first item pictured in the book. It’s a classic pair of tiny shell slippers from La Perouse, made in 1927, which ended up in the most unlikely of places – Windsor Castle. What a leap in grandeur. But then the current Queen might well have appreciated the fact that they were originally presented to her mother, on tour in Australia with the Duke of York – destined to become George VI – who was then newly separated from her baby Elizabeth. That’s possible. But could she also have appreciated, as the book suggests, that the unknown maker of the slippers was likely motivated to make them by a need for funds to stop her babies from being ‘taken away’?

Ancestors, artefacts and empire‘ is generous in denying that the removal of 39,000 objects wasn’t all about ‘colonial loot’ but that gifts were given, work commissioned, things traded, and Indigenous production may well have been modified in the process. As early as 1820, for instance, Noongar in the far south-west were making objects to swap for metal tools on Phillip Parker King’s ships as they circumnavigated Australia.

The method behind the ARC-funded process behind the book – called ‘The Relational Museum and its Objects‘ – is called ‘double vision’ – though ‘two-way’ would seem better, given its provenance in Jirrawun’s philosophy as enunciated by the Gija. Research has brought together the European custodian institutions, and surprisingly often their ignorance of what they possessed, with the understanding of descendants of First Nations makers.

“You have the objects, we have the stories,” they told Gaye Sculthorpe, the Tasmanian Aboriginal curator, now Head of the Oceania Section at the British Museum. So a Worcester museum had a woven bag labelled “Collected at Port Essington by Robert Cale”. But the style was not that of the Coburg Peninsular, where the Port briefly survived as the loneliest of outposts in the North; it was better identified with Cape York – where Robert Gale had been surveying in the 1840s.

Sculthorpe visited 45 institutions from Northern Scotland – for many a Scot had fled its poverty for the colonies – to the Channel Islands. In Exeter she found that they had no idea that they possessed (and rarely showed) 12 objects from the first ever Australian cricket tour to England by an all-Aboriginal team. As well as winning matches, they entertained with shields, spears and boomerangs, and left them behind. “People were astounded when they began to hear the story,” says Sculthorpe.

Other unlikely repositories for Indigenous culture included Maidstone, Birchington-on-Sea, Warrington and Stromness. And questions might well be asked as to why the pioneering anthropologists Spencer & Gillen gave a hundred objects from their desert forays to the British Museum rather than to Spencer’s home museum of Melbourne? More recently, why would the Captain Cook Museum in Middlesborough, where he was born, have received gifts from the Aboriginal Arts Board in the 1980s of both treasured barks by the likes of Birrikitj and Lofty Bardayal and priceless early Papunya boards by Tim Leura, Old Walter Tjampitjinpa et al?

And where do such transfers fit into the developing case for the return of such items of cultural importance to Australia? The book makes the case for “Museums as sites of persuasion, chosen by Indigenous People (note the new capital P!) that show the world the value of their culture”. Perhaps that would work better if the British and Irish institutions actually knew and appreciated that value! But an outcome of this research and book should be greater accuracy in describing objects, and greater exposure, both onsite and online. And that, the authors believe may satisfy the “hunger for inspiration” felt by Indigenous artists and cultural leaders today for their history.

An artist like Badu Island’s Alick Tipoti from the Torres Strait has certainly benefited from visits to the great Haddon Collection in Britain, which ‘rescued’ so many traditional objects from the islands as the Christians arrived to sideline them.

As a result, the British Museum commissioned a mighty ‘Kaygasiw Usul/Milky Way‘ mask from Tipoti in 2015 (pictured) to reflect the fact that all of this effort is on-going: “We offer this book as a resource for new engagements with objects and collections, providing we hope a springboard for other stories, interpretations, perspectives”. And the cover picture by contemporary desert artist, Vincent Namatjira shows ‘The Queen and Me’, which editors Gaye Sculthorpe, Maria Nugent and Howard Morphy (plus 19 other writers throughout the book, including eight Indigenous People) delightfully interpret as evidence of the “shared humanity” across oceans, races and classes which lies behind their project.

A suitable project to use to announce the beginning of the joint DFAT/British Council promotion, The UK/Australia Season, claimed to be the largest ever cultural exchange between the two nations, running well into next year.  The book may be obtained currently from the British Museum, costing a mighty GBP60.




Artist: Judy Watson, Birrikitj, Lofty Bardayal, Tim Leura, Old Walter Tjampitjinpa, Alick Tipoti, Vincent Namatjira,

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Tags: alick tipoti , Birrikitj , British Museum , Gaye Sculthorpe , howard morphy , Jeremy Eccles , judy watson , Lofty Bardayal , Maria Nugent , old walter tjampitjinpa , Tim Leura , Vincent Namatjira ,