Inside Story

Forty millennia of Indigenous history at the British Museum

The British Museum’s Indigenous Australia exhibition could change the conversation about relations between Indigenous people, museums and collections

Maria Nugent Exhibition 8 May 2015 3466 words

Pivotal point: At the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition (from left) the Botany Bay shield, Michael Cook’s Undiscovered #4, Tupaia’s sketch, Cook’s map, and Vincent Namatjira’s James Cook – With Declaration. Rachael Murphy

The wide press coverage of the opening of the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition was as much a result of Prince Charles’s quips about Prince Harry on “walkabout” in Australia as it was of the exhibition itself. The formal reception, held in the museum’s Great Court, was a memorable event – and not just because one museum trustee, Grayson Perry, attended as his alter ego Claire in full Victoriana garb, or because Kathy Lette was swanning about in a dress styled on the Aboriginal flag, or even because Prince Charles asked me whether I had submitted my chapter for the exhibition book on time. (I had, nearly.) It was memorable also because it felt momentous – as ceremonial occasions for landmark events often do.

And there is little doubt that the exhibition is a landmark event. This is the first time the British Museum has staged a major exhibition devoted to Indigenous Australia, a fact that Neil MacGregor, the institution’s soon-to-be-former director, acknowledged more than once. He also observed what an anomalous and unacceptable state of affairs this was, given that Indigenous Australians are considered the “oldest continuing civilisation” in the world and the British Museum is an institution dedicated to telling the stories of the world’s great civilisations. Promises have been made to remedy the situation, with a permanent display of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history one possibility. It is late coming, but it is a start.

Indigenous Australia has been skilfully curated by Gaye Sculthorpe, a Palawa woman whose ancestors were from northeast Tasmania. Sculthorpe, who led the development of the Bunjilaka Gallery at Museum Victoria before spending a decade or so with the National Native Title Tribunal, is responsible for the Oceania part of the museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. She was enticed to the British Museum in 2013 by another Australian, Lissant Bolton, who heads up the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (or what is sometimes dubbed “the rest of the world”); by the time she arrived, the decision to mount an Indigenous Australia exhibition had already been made.

Since around 2007, the National Museum of Australia and the British Museum have been slowly developing a partnership that has included staff exchanges and collection research. Some foundational research was undertaken by Ian Coates from the National Museum of Australia, and that work, which had an emphasis on the collectors and the conditions under which objects were collected, has been bolstered by Sculthorpe and others since. This partnership eventually led to a successful Australian Research Council grant application for a project called “Engaging Objects: Indigenous Communities, Museum Collections and the Representation of Indigenous Histories,” led by anthropologist Howard Morphy, involving the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. Along with anthropologist John Carty, also from ANU, I have been involved in the project since it commenced in late 2011.

The future dimly glimpsed in 2007 has arrived. On taking up the position at the British Museum, Sculthorpe was immediately faced with the considerable task of pulling together an exhibition in a reasonably short time with limited labour and resources. Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation is largely due to her energy, unfailing efforts, and ability to bring people together. Early in the process, she developed a strong vision for the exhibition, which she envisaged would present an account of Indigenous Australia spanning 40,000 years and incorporate a component dealing with the almost 250 years since Captain Cook.

Her commitment didn’t falter, even though it was not common for British Museum exhibitions to deal with such “recent” history and even when early audience research indicated that some museum-goers didn’t want to be reminded of the terrible deeds done in Britain’s name. At the same time, Indigenous Australians were adamant that the truth should be told about violence on the frontier. The exhibition would need to be not only clear-eyed about the violence of that encounter and the dispossession and destruction it caused, but also attentive to Indigenous people’s agency, resilience and creativity. It is this doubled perspective that is captured in the exhibition’s subtitle, “enduring civilisation,” which signals the remarkable persistence of Indigenous Australian civilisation even as Indigenous Australians endured the imposition of European civilisation.

Since the media in Britain and Australia were told back in January that the exhibition was to be staged this year, much of the discussion in print, especially in Australia, has focused on the issue of repatriation of museum objects to Indigenous people. While few gainsay the repatriation of human remains, when it comes to “ethnographic” or cultural objects the matter is less clearcut. For those advocating immediate return, some familiar themes have been rehearsed, including the portrayal of the British Museum as an unreconstructed and irredeemable imperialist institution and its collections as little more than colonial loot.

Indeed, over lunch recently, Gaye Sculthorpe told me that the first review she read the morning the exhibition opened to the public was written by Zoe Pilger (daughter of Australian film-maker and writer John) for the Independent. In a blustering piece, Pilger the younger criticised the exhibition in rather simplistic terms as little more than a piece of colonial denialism, described the objects as stolen and called for their immediate return, and was indignant about various other matters on Aboriginal people’s behalf. Huffing and puffing about the inclusion of a larrakitj (memorial pole) by Gawirrin Gumana, which incorporates an image of both Barama and Captain Cook, and objecting to the wall text describing the object as “a gesture of historical and political generosity,” Pilger asked, “But why should the artist be generous?”

A righteous, moralising anger on behalf of Indigenous people has sustained the Pilger family output for some time. In a thoughtful rebuttal of the “review,” art critic Jeremy Eccles suggested in the online forum Aboriginal Art Directory that the comments demonstrated very little appreciation of “the remarkable Yolngu capacity for generosity in the face of white rapacity.” Instead of grasping the subtle politics of generosity and exchange within which much Indigenous art production is embedded, Eccles wrote, “Zoe oppresses them with a simplistic binary obsession with race and her assumption that Yolngu philosophy is as racist as her own.”

Generosity was much on display during the week of festivities surrounding the exhibition’s opening. In attendance were the young film-maker and director Ishmael Marika and the artist Wukun Wanambi, director of the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Arts Centre, who are both from northeast Arnhem Land. After visiting the British Museum and its collection in 2013 and seeing the crowds of people swarming around the Reading Room in the Great Court, Wukun Wanambi produced a remarkable memorial pole, or larrakitj, covered in his ancestral designs of fish. “The fish are swimming from creek to creek, river to river, searching for their destiny,” he explains. “Just like all these people from all over the world coming to the British Museum here. Everybody is searching for their own story.” This pole is on show in a small room (Gallery 3) off the main entrance of the British Museum, complementing the larger exhibition, which is upstairs in a gallery carved out of the old Reading Room. Ishmael and Wukun were present throughout the week of the opening, welcoming VIPs and others with song and music, patiently introducing them to their art and culture and thanking the British Museum for showing it to the world.

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer in the Torres Strait. British Museum

Few of the reviews of the exhibition that followed, and there have been many, have endorsed Zoe Pilger’s views. Sculthorpe was relieved that the second she read was by the Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones (not to be mistaken for the Wiradjuri artist of the same name). He gave the show five stars, appreciating a focus on Indigenous art and culture that doesn’t shy away from history and politics. Acknowledging the ever-present repatriation debate, Jones ended by saying that “the only thing to be said for museum ownership is that it makes it possible to put on an exhibition as enlightening as this.”

Other reviews that appeared around the same time engaged more directly with the section of the exhibition that deals with history since Captain Cook. The Times’s reviewer noted, for instance, that “Indigenous Australia represents more than just a fascinating jumble of artefacts. It sets out to present a wider, more subtly nuanced picture of the relationships between Aboriginal people and their colonisers… Even as it presents a confrontational history of fierce resistance to the relentless advance of the occupiers, of bloody attacks on settlers followed by even bloodier reprisals, it also speaks to two cultures coming together, attempting to understand one another.”

It is easy to criticise an interpretation of Australia’s colonial history that conceives of it as a “shared” or “entwined” history. (Pilger fulminated at the use of metaphors like this in the exhibition.) Some believe that it risks playing down the larger structures of colonial authority and domination that intruded into almost every aspect of Indigenous Australians’ lives, and within which Indigenous people were ultimately powerless. Yet, an overriding emphasis on dispossession and destruction also has limitations, playing down Indigenous people’s agency as they sought to engage with the colonisers, to persuade them of the value of their own civilisation, and to seek redress for the destruction of their rights and freedoms. These twinned historical themes are covered in the exhibition – but not, of course, to everyone’s satisfaction.

It is no easy task to negotiate the intricate politics of history and memory when it comes to Australia’s colonial past, and critics and visitors can sometimes underestimate the challenge. One way in which the curatorial team led by Sculthorpe has sought to tread the thorny path between telling histories of domination and histories of determination has been to work with the dynamism that is so often produced by putting together the old and the new. Contemporary art becomes especially powerful here.

There’s a corner (literally) of the exhibition where this works, in my view, in particularly productive ways. I might not be impartial here, because it is a “module” focused on the encounter between Captain Cook and Indigenous Australians, about which I have written a great deal. The display occurs at a pivotal point, where the exhibition’s narrative moves into a section covering post-contact history. It draws together an assemblage of objects that are all associated in some way or another with Captain Cook – the memorial pole, which Pilger mentioned; the shield believed to have been used by a Gweagal man in defence against Cook’s landing party at Botany Bay in 1770; a copy of Cook’s original chart of Botany Bay and the drawing made by the Ra’iatean man Tupaia (who had joined the voyage in Tahiti) showing three Gweagal people fishing with hand lines and spears from two canoes; and two other contemporary artworks: Michael Cook’s photograph Undiscovered #4, which shows an Aboriginal man dressed as Captain Cook standing on the beach with his ship behind him, and Vincent Namatjira’s painting, James Cook – With Declaration, in which the “proclamation” Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform.

In various clever and subtle ways, each of these “objects” works to destabilise the meanings embedded in other pieces and to enrich and multiply the possibilities for the interpretation of this history. Tupaia’s sympathetic drawing, for instance, points to interactions other than the violent one (which the shield symbolises) that occurred during the Endeavour’s time in the bay in 1770. Michael Cook’s photograph and Vincent Namatjira’s painting draw attention to the historical myth-making that Cook, as settler foundational figure, has come to represent. Gumana’s pole, by contrast, acknowledges Cook’s law, but shows that it did not displace Barama’s law in Yolngu country. It is not possible to convey all of these potential interpretations in the space of the exhibition, but nonetheless the exhibition provides the resources for interpretative work of this kind. Later this month, I have the opportunity to present a lunchtime lecture at the British Museum on Indigenous Australian interpretations of Captain Cook in which these ideas and arguments can be presented more fully.

So, for all of their educative qualities, exhibitions can only do some of the work of communicating complex ideas and difficult histories to audiences. They are constrained by limitations on the amount of text that can be included, the size and shape of the room (in this case an awkward dogleg) and other contingencies. The book accompanying the exhibition compensates to some extent by providing greater detail and contextual discussion. But other forms of interpretation and dialogue, and other forums, also play their part. Indeed, what is often overlooked in critiques of exhibitions is what goes on around them, and the ways in which they work to provide occasions – and create spaces – for other kinds of history-telling and history-making to occur. This includes, it must be said, the history-making and claim-making that occurs as part of discussions about repatriation that exhibitions like this one provoke.

Among the activity that took place in and around the Indigenous Australia exhibition during the week of the opening are some powerful examples of this expanded sphere of historical interpretation and debate, and these contributed to my growing sense that something momentous was taking shape. A number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had travelled to London to participate in the festivities, including members of the National Museum of Australia’s Indigenous Reference Group and many of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition.

Early one morning midweek, we gathered, along with invited media, at the exhibition to witness a gift-giving ceremony the National Museum of Australia delegation had arranged. They presented the museum director Neil MacGregor with a beautiful glass-blown sculpture in the shape of a dilly bag, made by the award-winning Canberra-based artist Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello. The gift was an expression of the relationship that was growing with the British Museum, and mediated in no small way through the exhibition-making process. On receiving the gift, Neil MacGregor acknowledged not only its sheer beauty, but also its significance in commemorating the exhibition and marking the beginning of a new friendship.

There was obvious symmetry between this event, which was conducted with a powerful grace and reminded us yet again about the subtle arts of the diplomacy of generosity, and some historical episodes featured in the show. A good example from 1863 involves the Coranderrk people of Victoria presenting Queen Victoria and her family with a cache of gifts as part of their efforts to engage diplomatically with the highest authority in Britain. This early-morning performance served to animate such episodes, drawing them into the present and pointing towards continuities that are not so easily captured or appreciated, but are a crucial part of the multilayered idea of “enduring civilisation” explored by the exhibition.

Among the visiting dignitaries to London last week was Bunuba woman June Oscar, from the Kimberley region in Western Australia. The British Museum, with the support of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College London, under the new directorship of Ian Henderson, brought Oscar over to help open the exhibition. On the evening before the formal reception, she delivered a powerful public lecture in which she took the audience on a journey into her ancestral country and people’s history by starting out from the place where we were. From the vantage point of the River Room at the university’s Strand campus, overlooking the Thames, she reflected on two histories of violence and impoverishment that come together on Australia’s many colonial frontiers. It was a masterclass in telling “entwined” histories.

Oscar treated the objects in Indigenous Australia – including a boomerang believed to have belonged to the Bunuba resistance fighter Jandamarra, and objects collected from “native camps” by the local policeman on that frontier and sent to the British Museum in the belief that they “might be of value and interest” – as mere props for her story. Here she reversed the usual order of things within exhibitions, in which objects take the privileged place. What was important in her lecture were the true stories of the frontier, the country that was Bunuba people’s museum, and the contemporary performances through which contemporary Bunuba keep Jandamarra’s memory and legacy alive.

Despite the depth of engagement, the sustained critical response, and the energy and excitement that is palpable around the exhibition, the Australian press has quickly become fond of saying that the exhibition has received “mixed” reviews. This is, it seems to me, a lazy assessment of the reaction to date. It is indicative of the ways in which the Australian media seems intent on finding controversy for the exhibition’s present run and for its upcoming iteration at the National Museum of Australia.

Rather than engage with the exhibition’s interpretative themes and arguments, the default position is to raise the spectre of repatriation. Calls for the return of cultural material will always attract more notice than other modes of engagement between Indigenous people and museums. As important as it is, and for some communities more than others, the preoccupation with repatriation in the Australian press is often at the expense of other issues and questions, not least of which are the interpretative challenges and possibilities involved in using a collection like the British Museum’s as a resource for telling true histories of the encounter between Indigenous Australians and British settlers in ways that reach new audiences.

Much important work went on in opening week, both at public events and behind the scenes. There have been meetings with the British Museum’s director and members of the Board of Trustees. There have been visits to the collection storeroom. There have been public lectures, a conference and various diplomatic and ceremonial performances. The British Museum has rung with the voices of a diverse group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, all with different views about it, and about museums in general. And many different statements about the repatriation issue were voiced, underscoring just how complex the issue is.

When, for instance, Ishmael Marika from Yirrkala was asked by an audience member at a panel discussion how he felt about his people’s things in the British Museum, he said that it meant that his culture and people were appreciated. For her part, June Oscar concluded her Menzies Centre lecture by suggesting that the objects in the British Museum, which speak to the shared history of Indigenous Australia and Britain, will be ready to return home only “when we have learnt from our mixed heritage and accepted our equal Indigenous and non-Indigenous nationhoods.” The idea that the objects will come home only when this mutual recognition of fundamental equality is achieved, and the continuation of Aboriginal law is acknowledged, in the way that Gumana’s memorial pole suggests, is a provocative one. Given the current state of affairs, it is hard to put a timeframe on it.

Peter Yu, a member of the Council of the National Museum of Australia and chair of its Indigenous Reference Group, also advocated for a go-slow approach to the issue. “Many Indigenous people and supporters demand that Indigenous property held by the British Museum be repatriated to the descendants of those who once owned it,” he said in a public presentation since published in the Australian. “I deeply respect that view and support the right of people to make that argument. But to move forward and advance the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples requires sophisticated dialogue.” Moreover, he argued,

A mature discussion would appreciate that repatriation is sensitive and problematic. Contemporary Indigenous ownership of the material is often not clear and in all honesty we should not shy away from this; rather we should challenge ourselves on how to retrieve the situation. This reality must be recognised.

This diversity of viewpoints won’t satisfy those who call for the immediate and wholesale return of objects. It complicates and unsettles the simple approach taken by much of the press, as journalists continue to canvass the issue as simply a choice between “preservation” and “plunder.”

Museums are complex institutions and exhibitions are productive and provocative events. Occasionally, a museum exhibition is staged that does much more than present new interpretations and stories to new audiences. Sometimes, perhaps only rarely, such an exhibition can change how the conversation about relationships between Indigenous people, museums and collections is conducted. Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation might well be one of those. •