Enduring civilisation, enduring empire?

The "Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation" exhibition at the British Museum leads to the overarching question of who is authorised and best equipped to tell the story of the artefacts displayed, and on whose terms.

Zoe Holman
20 July 2015

It is vaguely incongruous to be encountering these Australian spearheads –“the most beautiful spearheads made by any natives in the world!” according to one effusive missionary of 1936 - for the first time in London, many thousands of miles from both our native continent. But their presence here, like mine, is the product of a history of power, prejudice and denial – a continuing legacy which is now reflected back behind glass casements at the British Museum.

The artefacts are among the some 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects in the institution’s collection, a fraction of which have been on display since April as part of the BP-sponsored, “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation” exhibition. Encompassing a vast geography, myriad cultures and 60 millennia, the show has been hailed as the most important of its kind in Britain, with the potential to both enlighten and to challenge. Through 170 pieces, it documents the relationship between Australia’s first people and their environment, as well as more recent indigenous responses to “changing historical circumstances” in the form of devastating European colonialism. This is, as the Museum notes, a complex story that is still unfolding. Nor does “Enduring Civilisation” shy aware from this complexity. But the contested nature of its showcase is an equal reminder of the iniquities which have endured alongside this prized civilisation.   

“This has to be called theft as these items were collected during a colonial era when indigenous people had no power,” says Gary Murray, an activist and elder of the Dja Dja Wurrung people of South-Eastern Australia. “The whole question of sovereignty has been undermined by British colonialism and so we are saying to people: don’t pay to go there and see stolen objects.”

Murray is among a number of indigenous Australians involved in long-standing, but so far fruitless, efforts to reclaim artefacts currently in the Museum’s possession, who are calling for a boycott. As Gary Foley, a fellow activist and Professor of History at Victoria University observed on the Museum’s Facebook page with the exhibition opening, “bet they won’t be prepared to seriously discuss issues of repatriation of cultural materials obtained through nefarious means ... because of their retention of the so-called ‘Elgin marbles’.”

Indeed, Britain appears to be as tenacious in its hold on indigenous artefacts as on the notorious Grecian booty – a grip which will provoke all the more ire and insult when the collection tours the National Museum of Australia in November. Among the objects visiting Canberra will be a number of sacred ceremonial barks claimed by Murray’s clan, but now shielded from seizure by Australia’s 2013 Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act. This legislation covers objects on loan from all countries, but was drafted specifically to prevent the repatriation of Australian Indigenous artefacts, and reflects the alarm induced in museums worldwide by previous efforts to reclaim barks and other items from London under Aboriginal Cultural Heritage legislation during a 2004 visit.

Such legislative barriers have been disparaged as anachronistic by indigenous campaigners, sceptical of the British Museum’s claims to benevolent enlightenment and universality. “Who authorised this notion of ‘a world museum’?” says Murray. “It is all part of a basic ‘it’s my cookie and not your cookie’ sense of appropriation - an attitude of extreme elitism which refuses to engage in a discussion about what is culturally significant.”

A long shield made of bark
A painting of a man in 18th century naval uniform holding a document

In turn, Australians like Murray have canvassed allying with indigenous groups and other claimants abroad who might themselves mobilise international law against these perceived injustices. As Murray explains, “there are two schools of thought – let [the British Museum] run its race, keep its things and bring them out to torment us with. And then there’s those who say, no, let’s take them on with the Greeks, Ethiopians and Native Americans. This is a global ethical issue and it is time we started boycotting, otherwise the British Museum will be seen to be just a bunch of red-necks.” Reflecting this allegiance, further attacks were levelled at the Museum by Foley in March at a joint seminar convened by Melbourne’s Greek Orthodox Community. As he observed, “the British Museum grew out of the era of colonialism. The rest of the world grew out of those ideas 100 years ago. Their position has no credibility in the modern world.” Despite parallels with the Museum’s much-vaunted Parthenon marbles, indigenous claims are in many ways distinct from the often nationalistic wrangling over artefacts and historical narratives between state bodies. Rather, they entail issues of culture – its ownership, elimination and expropriation - which transcend, and in this case, pre-date national boundaries. As Jason Farago notes in response to the question of who owns such forms of indigenous culture: “we can confidently assert the truth of one response: not the nation state… Here the petitioners for restitution are not the government, but rather contemporary indigenous communities whose understanding of culture, time and kinship comes into direct conflict with the imperative of the Western museum.” This unresolved tension around the role of the museum as conserver of so-called ‘artefacts’ in the face of living claims of cultural entitlement has not been wholly airbrushed in London. The current exhibition itself notes that “for many indigenous Australians, museums are places that house objects without their consent.” It quotes a number of indigenous Australian detractors of its collection, alongside the words of the Gooniyandi/Kidji advocate of repatriation, Neil Carter that: “it is a responsibility of museums to tell the truth about the people and the history and the culture if they are to keep the objects.” A bark shield - part of the exhibition‘Enduring Civilisation’ makes for the most part a laudable effort at telling such truths. This is achieved powerfully through the objects themselves - for example, a wooden shield collected by crew of Captain Cook’s HMB Endeavour during a violent encounter with tribesman following their first 1770 landings at Botany Bay. The exhibition notes also detail the violence, prejudice and subjugation that flowed from colonisation, with its arbitrary imposition of British laws and culture across a continent of several hundred indigenous ‘nations’. Likewise, the collection documents through artworks and archival materials continuing efforts to dispute, subvert and make reparation for this imposition. Notable among these is a recent photographic work by Michael Cook, entitled “Undiscovered”, which recreates the first landing scene with the indigenous artist himself posing on the shoreline clad in the Captain’s attire. It is the illumination of these alternate narratives, and attendant “fraught and challenging issues”, which highlight the value of the British Museum’s collection and has formed the central justification for its display in London. The exhibition includes objects obtained through a range of means – not merely theft and plunder – with many on loan or donated by indigenous Australians eager for their stories to reach a wider audience, in a “museum of the world, where people can see them” as one elder explained. Other indigenous representatives have endorsed the role of the museum in preserving cultural artefacts, many of which were collected well before such facilities existed in Australia. In this vein, their presence in Britain has doubtless proved educative for local and international audiences who, as the exhibition curator Gaye Sculthorpe notes, are often unaware of the complexities of Australia’s past. Vincent Namatjira, James Cook - with the Declaration, 2014“I am struck by how intently people are reading the labels and looking at the objects,” says Sculthorpe, who curates the museum’s Oceania and Australia section. “It seems that this history and many of these objects, in particular some of the recent paintings, are unknown to people – even those who have been to Australia. I think the international public hear a lot of news items about indigenous issues in Australia and this exhibition, the talks, lectures and seminars, gives some context to this. It is quite a revelation.” The expertise behind its curatorship – Sculthorpe is of indigenous Tasmanian background and has herself been involved in previous land title claims in Australia – is therefore key to the nuanced story crafted in the exhibition. As she explains, “this is not a simple history. You have to make choices to tell a story, as every object has its own story, so it is a question of getting the balance right with a narrative that makes it flow.”

Such acknowledgements lead back to the overarching question of who is authorised and best equipped to tell the story of these objects, and on whose terms. Many indigenous detractors have refuted Britain’s capacity to appropriately handle such a collection, claiming that items have in the past been misused, misunderstood and misrepresented. Likewise, the Museum’s defensive retention of its extensive collection has for many undermined claims about its primary intent to exhibit and inform. As Murray notes while endorsing Sculthorpe’s role at the Museum, “who gives Britain the right to display these objects and why does conservation not include the victims and displaced owners? Our barks have been there since 1850 and have come out twice – what does that tell you about their educational function if they are just sitting in a drawer?”

Perhaps aptly, many of the items in the collection are dated only with approximations – ‘before’, ‘about’ or ‘collected in’ – as if somehow expressing Britain’s inability to calibrate or conceive of a vast civilisation which predates and eludes its own temporal empire. Alongside indigenous claims, such features point to the chief shortcoming of ‘Enduring Civilisation.’ Although the exhibition does not seek to censor colonial atrocities in Australia or their ongoing implications, there is a dissonance from the absence in this narrative of Britain’s own, enduring part in this circumstance. The Museum notes explain delicately that “Australia is still seeking to reconcile conflicting world views into a more cohesive future”. By contrast, it seems that in many important respects, Britain, ever eager to distance itself from the domestic legacies of its empire in now distant nation-states, has yet to embark on similar efforts toward reconciliation, coherence or evolution. 

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData