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British Museum’s Display of Aboriginal Artifacts Prompts New Demands for Their Return

Mask from Mer, Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre, Torres Strait, before 1855 © The Trustees of the British Museum
Mask from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland (before 1855), turtle shell, shell, fibre (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

There are only a handful of bark art examples from the Dja Dja Wurrung in Australia, and they’re leagues away from their place of origin. A new exhibition of indigenous art of Australia at the British Museum, which holds these artifacts in their collections, will finally bring them back to the South Pacific. However, leaders there want them returned permanently.

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation opens April 23 in London, the first major British exhibition to focus on indigenous Australia through these artifacts, many which have never been on public display. The British Museum’s release notes it will be a “unique narrative exploring the complex history of Indigenous Australia from Captain Cook’s landing in 1770 up to the present day” and has been “developed in consultation with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, Indigenous art and cultural centres across Australia, and has been organised with the National Museum of Australia.” Many of these objects will then travel to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. As the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported last month, that “will be the first time that these objects have been exhibited in Australia since they were collected.”

Bark painting of a barramundi. Western Arnhem Land, about 1961. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Bark painting of a barramundi, Western Arnhem Land (about 1961) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)
Spear thrower. North Western Australia, late 19th or early 20th century. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Spear thrower, North Western Australia (late 19th or early 20th century) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

In a thoroughly reported Guardian article by Paul Daley published last week, an Aboriginal activist states that the lending of the bark art, following a failed 2004 attempt to seize them through the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act while on view at the Melbourne Museum, is “just rubbing salt into the wounds after last time.” Daley adds:

Compounding that insult is the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act. Federal parliament passed this legislation in 2013 amid scant media scrutiny and with bipartisan support from the major political parties. In the wake of the 2004 barks fracas the legislation was initiated at the behest of Australia’s major cultural institutions, which wanted to be able to give a watertight legal guarantee to foreign counterparts, not least the British Museum, that any collection items on loan in Australia would always return.

The British Museum, like many institutions of its era, is built partly upon the artifacts of a colonial age, its Rosetta Stone among the most prominent of the imperial trophies. The friction over the bark art, acquired in the 19th century, will likely continue through the run and tour of Indigenous Australia. It’s still just over a decade since about 300 remains of Aboriginal Australians were returned from various UK museums, and a balance of respecting the conditions these artifacts were acquired under and their role as sacred objects, with the preservation of world culture at the museum, still needs to be achieved.

Shield collected at Botany Bay during Captain Cook's visit, 1770. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Shield collected at Botany Bay during Captain Cook’s visit (1770) (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation is on view April 23 to August 2 at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London). 

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