sensory, material, & digital anthropology

Visiting Indigenous Australia at the British Museum

Now in its final weeks, the British Museum’s exhibition ‘Indigenous Australia; Enduring Civilisation’ explores a ‘civilisation’ that has endured, and a people that have endured a colonial ‘civilising’ mission. The exhibition showcases a selection of beautiful and interesting objects, which reflect the diversity amongst Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait islanders and present a story of a culture at one with the land. The exhibition also addresses some of the more challenging stories surrounding these objects and the ongoing struggles faced by Aboriginal Australians whilst celebrating the resilience of the community.

On first entering the exhibition, I was met with a large and vibrant purple painting of a ‘Dreamtime’ story connected to a particular place, Pukara, painted in 2013 by a group of artists from the Spinifex community. The Spinifex people were moved off their traditional lands in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for atomic weapon testing, and artworks such as this became an important part of the reclaiming of these lands from the 1990s as evidence of a connection, understanding and ownership of the land. Placing this contemporary artwork at the start of the exhibition communicated from the get go that this exhibition is about an ongoing culture and living communities, about traditional and contemporary artefacts and artworks, and about the stories of social changes and cultural continuities these collections reflect.

The exhibition uses historic and contemporary objects and artwork to tell and allude to many stories. The first part of the exhibition includes a range of objects from the many and diverse indigenous communities in Australia, particularly showcasing a strong relationship to land and spirits. There are paintings, spears and shields, digging sticks and baskets, and a female figure made of coral. One of the most magnificent objects is an intricate decorative crocodile-like Mabuiag mask from the Torres Straits and the label which includes a sketch by anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon from 1888 and explanation of the instructions received from the community on how the mask should be displayed in the exhibition, revealing insights into different moments of the object’s life history.

The latter part of the exhibition explores the story of colonisation and encounter and the legacies of this. One of the objects I found particularly interesting in this section was a poster, a pictorial representation of the consequences of conflict between colonists and locals, encouraging good relations and reflecting an incoming imposition of the British justice system. Towards the end of the exhibition is a panel and case of objects addressing how these objects came to be ‘Out of Country’ and at the Museum, and a panel considering how indigenous Australians think and feel about museums and how indigenous artists are subverting and drawing on museum collections for new works.

The exhibition has prompted criticism and controversy, provoking questions around ethics of sponsorship (the exhibition is sponsored by BP, which many believe to be problematic) as well as repatriation and responsibilities to source communities (an ongoing debate surrounding many museum collections). Some believe the objects in the exhibition should be returned to the communities from which they originate, while others see the exhibition as an opportunity for the world to learn more about the history and culture of the indigenous communities. I’ll sit on the fence here but it does seem to me that the exhibition is an important moment at the Museum, directly addressing some of the challenging stories and contexts surrounding its collections. What does seem evident is that there has been work done to collaborate and consult with communities. The exhibition features quotes and voices from the communities, and this is also notable before you enter the exhibition where a sign advises Torres Strait Islanders and aboriginal people that images of deceased people feature in the exhibition- some may question whether a sign is enough of a courtesy or if it is appropriate at all to feature said images, but it suggests an understanding and respect.

When I visited the exhibition, there was a complimentary contemporary art installation in Room 3, ‘Larrakitj: Aboriginal memorial poles by Wukun Wanambi’. Wanambi is an indigenous artist from Arnhem Land in northern Australia whose work is grounded in tradition and considers traditional practice and indigenous histories. In this installation, Wanambi presents six larrakitj, which are hollow poles, usually Eucalytpus, created as the secondary burial place for bones of the dead. The poles are traditionally decorated with clan designs and are left to weather and disappear into the land. Three of the poles show the stages of preparation of the larrakitj. The display is simple and powerful, leaving visitors to consider this traditional art form and cultural practice, and its significances within the community today.

During this visit, I was also lucky to catch a community created display ‘The London Walk’ inspired by the Indigenous Australia exhibition and echoing the Room 3 exhibit. ‘The London Walk’ columns explored people’s relationship to their surroundings in London referencing the importance of landscape for indigenous Australians as well as different painting techniques such as dot painting. The display was the culmination of a series of creative projects with local community groups led by the Mary Ward Centre, including an art group run at the British Museum in partnership with the Centre.

britishmuseumlowImage taken from Mary Ward Centre website

Having these complimentary displays alongside the main exhibition gave an opportunity to focus in on different elements and themes and deepen engagement. Those involved in the exhibition have also been active on the Museum’s blog, sharing a bit about the process of putting the exhibition together as well as drawing out particular stories from the exhibition in more depth.

If you visit the exhibition, let us know what you think in Twitter @SensibleCultr.

Note: Lorna works at the British Museum but all views expressed here are her own.

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This entry was posted on 24/07/2015 by in Lorna Cruickshanks and tagged , , , , , , .