LONDON — Yesterday, Australian Aboriginal rights activist Rodney Kelly visited the British Museum to demand the return of an artifact with a potent history: the Gweagal shield. The shield belonged to Kelly’s great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Cooman, and was seized in 1770 by Captain James Cook during the first encounter between the British and Indigenous Australians. It was later given to the British Museum. The bark shield bears a bullet hole, marking the first shot fired in the long history of violence toward the continent’s Indigenous people.
Kelly, who has been campaigning for the shield’s return to Australia, visited the BM yesterday to hold a series of unsanctioned “rebel lectures” aiming to expose the shield’s history, discuss other ill-gotten items in the museum’s collection, and explain — with support from theatrical protest group BP Or Not BP? — why oil giant BP is an unacceptable sponsor for the museum. The group says the energy giant’s sponsorship “effectively brands all the artifacts in the museum with the logo of this destructive company.” The museum signed a new five-year sponsorship deal with BP in 2016.
Kelly arrived at the BM equipped with a didgeridoo and clap sticks, and headed to the “Living and Dying” Room to speak next to a cabinet of Indigenous Australian objects. (The Gweagal shield is not currently on view as it is undergoing “scientific analysis and historical research,” according to a museum spokesperson.) Between talks, Kelly played the traditional musical instruments, and BP Or Not BP? supplemented statements on the hypocrisy of BP’s sponsorship with their own, while performers dressed as robbers held a banner with the slogan “Stolen Land, Stolen Culture, Stolen Climate.” Members passed out informational flyers that mimicked the museum’s house style, appearing at first glance to be official notices. The museum did not intervene in the unsanctioned event.
“I’m hoping to gain support for the cause, and to educate people so they understand why we need the shield back,” he told Hyperallergic. “It went well: people listened and learned. I’ve had no contact with officials today, but I’m meeting a curator [Monday] to discuss the ownership and testing of the shield.”
Each of Kelly’s talks attracted between 30 and 40 curious tourists and visitors, and reactions from the public were broadly supportive, though one passerby commented: “There’s a double message here — I think sponsorship and repatriation should be discussed separately.” Another said: “I don’t think BP’s sponsorship is a good deal for the British Museum. They’re getting a nice image for their company, but the amount the museum is paid in return for this controversy isn’t enough.” Between 2017 and 2022, the museum will receive around a quarter of BP’s £7.5 million (~$9.7 million) budget for cultural sponsorships between 2017 and 2022.
Kelly, who only able to travel to the UK thanks to a crowdfunding effort, had hoped that museum officials would meet with him after what he described as past ‘failures’ in communication. Kelly met with museum trustees in October 2016, but has heard little since.
The Gweagal shield was previously featured in the British Museum’s BP-sponsored exhibition Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation in 2015. Many of the Indigenous communities whose artifacts were exhibited claim not to have been informed that BP was sponsoring the show.
“It’s hypocritical of BP to put their logo on shows of artifacts belonging to the same cultures they’re damaging,” said BP Or Not BP? member Danny Chivers told Hyperallergic. The group uses the term “carbon colonialism” to describe the oil giant’s actions, and believes that “BP’s extractive activities and climate change are directly threatening the lives, lands, and cultures of Indigenous peoples around the world.”
Kelly has called the shield “a gateway with the potential to open the discourse on the tragic modern history of Indigenous Australians under colonization,” adding: “The healing power that this shield has for Aboriginal Australia is much greater than any value it can have as part of the British Museum. No foreign institution can tell our stories as we can.” The museum holds more than 6,000 Indigenous Australian items, making it the largest collection of Aboriginal cultural artifacts outside of Australia (though only 1% of this collection is usually on display).
In August 2016, the parliament of New South Wales passed a motion supporting Gweagal ownership of the shield and urged its repatriation. Kelly’s family has previously complained of the ‘insult’ of the Museum’s offer to loan — rather than return — the shield back to Australia. Earlier this week, Kelly visited the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to demand the return of four spears taken during the same encounter in 1770.
Yesterday, in a final address to the assembled museum visitors, Kelly said: ‘On behalf of Gweagal elders, ancestors, and people, I’d like to call on the trustees and the directors of the British Museum to open their hearts and return this shield.’
In a statement sent to Hyperallergic, a British Museum spokesperson said:
The British Museum respects other people’s right to express their views and allows peaceful protest onsite at the Museum as long as there is no risk to the Museum’s collection, staff or visitors. The long-term support provided by BP allows the Museum to plan its programming in advance and to bring world cultures to a global audience through hugely popular exhibitions and their associated public programmes. Over 4 million people have enjoyed an activity at the Museum supported by BP.
Whatever the eventual fate of the Gweagal shield and the British Museum’s partnership with BP, this isn’t the first time the institution has been the focus of intense debate regarding the repatriation of items in its collection and its controversial sponsorships — and it surely will not be the last.