Sydney Morning Herald Column


Published February 11, 2016
Mask made from turtle shell plates, Mer, Torres Strait islands. Acquired by an unknown collector before 1855.

‘Civilisation’ is a concept that has changed beyond recognition over the past century. To the pioneering ethnographers of the Victorian era, tribal cultures were merely stages on the way to the civilised state. Viewed as backward, impoverished and superstitious, it was accepted that such communities would wither and die as they fell under the spell of European systems of knowledge and government.
For a very long time nobody questioned the morality of the colonial enterprise. The British could claim they were conferring the blessings of civilisation on people who had previously lived as savages. Whether or not these people wanted such gifts was never a consideration. Indigenous people were treated like children, not capable of making rational decisions.
The Aborigines were seen as a “doomed” race, even by those who approached them with a keen sympathy. For many settlers they were simply a pest that had to be moved on or eliminated. Although one shouldn’t confuse the barbarities of frontier justice with the actual law of the land, the doctrine of terra nullius meant that indigenous people had no title to country their families had inhabited for thousands of years.
The artefacts made by tribal people were coveted by private collectors and museums, but the greatest repository of all was the British Museum. It is only in recent times that the museum’s right to hold ethnographic material has begun to be challenged by descendants of the tribes whose sacred and utilitarian objects were plundered or bartered away.
The argument for the return of such property is that the original owners were effectively tricked into surrendering items of value in exchange for beads and trinkets. The museum’s argument for keeping the goods is that it has preserved things that would otherwise have been destroyed or fallen into decay. It could also be argued there is a role for a great museum to bring together objects from all places and all times, as a contribution to universal knowledge.
The National Museum of Australia’s Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, addresses these issues and seeks a reconciliation. The beginnings of the project go back to 2007, when NMA curator, Ian Coates, undertook a residency at the British Museum, working with the Australian collections. The first part of the collaboration was a show called Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, held at the BM from April to August last year.
A unique aspect of the partnership has been a five-year research project in which a curatorial team interviewed members of 27 indigenous communities around Australia. That project plays a big role in Encounters, which includes 149 objects from the BM’s permanent collection. Many of these objects have been in London for over a century, and might never have been expected to return to Australia. Instead, they are back, and being shown to the descendants of the original owners and makers. It’s been a moving experience for community members who put huge value on these pieces, and beneficial for curators, who have learned much about the origins and use of certain objects.
The obvious question the museums and communities had to confront was: “Don’t these pieces actually belong here, in their place of origin, rather than in a foreign museum?”
The catalogue contains many quotations from community members expressing such opinions, but just as many who recognise that the only reason most of these artefacts still exist is because they have been so well looked after. There is a body of opinion that it’s a good thing for the BM to have these items so that people from around the world will get to know about indigenous culture. The same view was expressed by the Torres Strait Islander elder, Maino, in 1888, when he traded objects with the British zoologist, Alfred Cort Haddon.
Other contacts between Europeans and natives were not so cordial – perhaps even the very first encounter between Captain Cook’s men and the tribesmen of Botany Bay in 1770. A roughly carved shield, belonging to the Gweagal people, has what appears to be a bullet hole, right at the centre. One can hardly imagine an artefact of greater historical – or symbolic – significance.

The shield is an important motif in this exhibition, which includes an elaborately carved piece collected from the Queensland rainforest in 1866-68; a parrying shield acquired by Major Thomas Mitchell on his expedition across the Riverina in 1836; and an early shield from the Kaurna Miyurna people of Adelaide, collected in the 1840s. There are also brand new shields by artists such as Jack Buckskin and Sean Faigan; and the shield-as-surfboard, made by Vernon Ah Kee and Peter Farmer. Are we meant to see a positive message in a weapon of war being transmuted into an instrument of leisure? The artists could just as well be saying that indigenous people still need their shields today.
Encounters is full of stories of cruelty and bloodshed, along with tales of more productive relationships between the tribes and the colonists. Yet the overall tone is melancholy. Confronted with the objects made by their ancestors, many of the people interviewed express their sadness. Others say they feel proud that age-old techniques of carving or weaving have survived, and are even undergoing a revival.
The most vivid impression one takes away from this show is of the resilience of indigenous culture. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use the word “culture” they mean something more profound than arts and craft traditions: they are describing a spiritual connection with a place that pre-dates a brief period of colonisation which has changed every other aspect of life.
In many ways Encounters is a model project. It deals with highly sensitive material in an intelligent, thoughtful manner. The only drawback is the nature of the presentation which utilises all the familiar devices of the modern museum – the glass cases, extended labels, video displays, and so on. It’s a style that prefers education to seduction, and for members of the general public it may feel a little dull.
No exhibition could be assisted by the architecture of the NMA, which combines cavernous spaces with frivolous postmodern touches to create a building that seems like a bad joke. It’s a structure that’s never managed to grow on me.
To prove there are other ways of presenting artefacts and items of material culture, I’d refer viewers to My Learned Object: Collections & Curiosities at the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University until the end of this month. Guest curator, David Sequeira, has been turned loose among the university’s diverse collections, and has come up with one of the most brilliant, entertaining shows of the year.

This may be only a distraction alongside the colossus of Encounters, but there are so many clever connections, so many surprising discoveries, that descriptions are inadequate. Imagine a show with Greek vases, surveying equipment, rare books, stuffed animals, abstract paintings, Japanese matchboxes, baroque engravings, rocks, crystals, musical instruments, and highlights from Percy Grainger’s wardrobe, and you’ll have a rough idea of the material Sequeira has accumulated.
There must be a place where the scholarship of the museum can be combined with some of the showmanship of the Potter show. David Walsh has shown this is possible at his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, and the lesson is gradually spreading among our public institutions.
One can recognise the significance of an exhibition such as Encounters, but few of the artefacts have the kind of visual impact that might have been expected. It may be different for people from communities who have a familial attachment to certain pieces, but it would be good to arrive as a detached observer and feel the power and the sense of history invested in these objects.
There may never have been an exhibition that has tried harder than Encounters when it comes to engaging with an indigenous audience, but it’s not easy in the NMA’s temporary exhibition space. The creation of context is important but the object needs to speak on its own, intimate terms. Perhaps we’ve reached the point where we need a little less civilisation and a bit more savage beauty.
Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum
National Museum of Australia, Canberra,
until 28 March
My Learned Object: Curiosities & Collections
Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne University
Until 28 Feb.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 13th February, 2016