Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum is nearing the end of its time at the National Museum in Canberra. Since late November, the free exhibition has displayed around 150 objects held by the British Museum, and almost as many contemporary Indigenous objects and artworks. Some items in the British Museum’s collection were exchanged as gifts, and some were entrusted to collectors to secure their posterity. Many, of course, were the spoils of frontier conflict, or were ‘salvaged’ from scenes of dispossession, believed to be ‘relics’ of a way of life fated for extinction.
All of these encounters, beginning in 1770, were resolutely colonial, a fact not shied away from. Stories of affection, respect and mutual curiosity, as well of exploitation, give context to the objects in the collection .This is the first set of encounters to which the exhibition name refers.
The exhibition’s title also refers to a series of encounters that have unfolded between Indigenous people today and objects long held by the British Museum but seldom seen. Twenty-seven Indigenous communities, from whence the objects were acquired, engaged in consultation about them. In the process, community members produced accounts of the objects’ significance, which are incorporated into the exhibition: Indigenous people share their divergent responses to contact with the often-everyday material heritage of their ancestors – stone scrapers, spears, baskets.
The ‘generosity’ of Indigenous people in offering these accounts, often charged with emotion, is noted throughout the book that accompanies the exhibition. Bundjalung woman Lauren Jarrett sums up what the experience means to her: ‘You really feel like you’re holding your past. It really has such an ancient energy.’ A looping red seed necklace called ‘kaldra’ is accompanied by a more ambivalent comment by a Dieri woman: ‘We make things to be used until it can’t be anymore. Then we make the same thing again. Those things weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to be used, worn.’
The atavistic potential of these objects is furthermore captured through the display of contemporary Indigenous artworks produced after an encounter with the collected objects. These either revivify a particular local practice, or riff off the objects, sometimes subverting the meaning of the display within which they appear.
All this results in a busy exhibition space, in which things, artworks, Indigenous ‘voices’ – in the form of audio and in writing – as well as archival excerpts, share the room.
There is no denying the power and aesthetic beauty of many of the items that sit inside glass cabinets. The Kimberley spearheads are luminescent, and their tiny serrated edges sparkle. Originally made from stone, glass and ceramics were quickly embraced. The spearheads displayed are fashioned from brown bottle glass, stone, and telegraph insulators, among other materials, and were donated to the museum from the 1890s though to 1950. A coral bager, a carved female figure collected on Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait in 1888-1889 is exquisite. It is explained that Meriam people placed bager figures next to fires to keep them alight while unattended.
Central to the exhibition is the shield collected in Botany Bay in 1770. Two Gweagal men armed with spears greeted Captain Cook’s party, who fired shots. One of the men was injured, and they retreated, leaving behind a shield punctured by a small round hole. ‘Pierced with a lance,’ according to its collectors. Gary Ardler, a Dharawhal man who is now deceased (but whose image and words are used with permission from his family), thought otherwise. ‘An elder wouldn’t use a damaged shield to defend against strangers. He would have dropped the shield after it became damaged – after they are shot at. That makes more sense. But no-one writes themselves down as the villains.’
Also on display are the Dja Dja Wurrung bark etchings that last visited Australia in 2004. They were on display at the Museum of Victoria when Dja Dja Wurrung activist Gary Murray joined with Gary Foley and others to prevent them from leaving the country. The fact that Dja Dja Wurrung representatives ‘unsuccessfully’ sought to stop the return of these objects to England is carefully acknowledged. Press a button and Murray’s soft voice starts talking about his aspiration to have the bark etchings stored in Melbourne, closer to home. ‘We beg the British museum to return our cultural materials.’
And then the visitor moves to the next exhibit.
I have no wish to dismiss the significance of this large-scale exhibition, the engagement with communities and the hard work of many Indigenous and non-Indigenous curators coming at these issues from the inside. But we should also be prepared to look critically at the consequences of acknowledging and listening, as if this were a political end unto itself.
What happens when critique is brought inside? Is it captured and, to an extent, nullified in the process? Surely the politics of ‘giving voice to Indigenous points of view’ and of ‘listening to Aboriginal people speak’ has exhausted itself in the moment we press that button to hear Murray insist the etchings be repatriated, and have the British Museum in reply say … nothing.
There is so much listening to so many voices to be done in this exhibition space that the British Museum somehow gets away with being pretty bloody quiet. One never quite encounters them. This might well be construed as a respectful, ‘it’s not our place to speak’ silence, familiar to anyone involved in Indigenous political contests in Australia. I see instead an institution with the power to be at once everywhere and nowhere in this exhibition. Never does it have to declare its intransigence.
Why was Murray’s attempt ‘unsuccessful’? Because the British Museum acted. The museum, too, is an actor. It was instrumental in ensuring legislation was passed to protect its interests. The Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act 2013 provides what is sometimes referred to as ‘immunity from seizure and suit’. We can’t understand Murray’s lack of success without understanding the actions of the British Museum in response to his activism. Agents this powerful don’t need to be ‘given a voice,’ and part of their power sometimes lies in choosing to remain silent.
Expertise is so diffused with Encounters – such a diversity of views on the legacy of collecting has been amassed and finds expression – that one fact risks being obscured: this institution’s conviction about the value of these objects and their rightful place overrides all views to the contrary.
The seed necklace won’t be worn again. And the Gweagal shield will be going ‘home’ to London.
Image: The Trustees of the British Museum