Rachael Murphy, Project Curator, Oceania, British Museum
The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation has been open for a few weeks, long enough, it seems, for some favourite objects to emerge. Many visitors have remarked on a 2-metre-long mask in the form of crocodile with an open mouth full of white teeth – it was made of plates of turtle shell on the island of Mabuiag in the Torres Strait, Queensland. Michael Cook’s photograph Undiscovered #4, a reimagining of early colonial encounters, is another favourite. The image positions an Aboriginal man on the shore, dressed in the red-and-white 18th-century uniform of the British military, as a tall ship sits on the horizon.
Perhaps the most talked about exhibit is a group of spear points from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For anyone who is familiar with Kimberley points the interest is unsurprising. Tear-shaped and double-edged, their uneven, symmetrical surfaces catch and reflect the light. More often than not they are made from exceptional materials – one is of mottled grey stone intersected with quartz veins, others are shaped from translucent green bottle glass. It is difficult to deny their aesthetic appeal, especially when they are displayed as a group.
The points are also great ambassadors for much of Indigenous Australian technology – they present an economy of form that is underpinned by deep knowledge and skill. At one time all spear points in the Kimberley region were made from various types of stone. Men made the points using wood and bone tools to shape and sharpen the point. Each stage of the process requires a different technique, the final stage being the precise application of pressure to sharpen the edges by flaking off small pieces of stone. The points are attached to a wooden shaft with gum and cord made out of plant fibre. It is a time-consuming process and they are something of a one-hit wonder – the brittle stone tends to break on impact.
Points made out of bottle glass and ceramic insulators (taken from telegraph poles) are innovations from the late 1800s. Ceramic is particularly good spear point material as it is less brittle than stone, meaning the points can often be reused. John Carty of the Australian National University describes the meanings, making, uses and evolving importance of spear points in the book Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which accompanies the exhibition.
One of the joys of seeing so much interest in the points lies in the fact that stone tools are not usually regarded as show-stopping objects. Around a third of the British Museum’s 6,000 objects from Australia are stone implements, so it is great that visitors are recognising and celebrating such an important technology. It is especially so since the Kimberley points are displayed with a simple label, describing dates and materials. The points appear to be doing a good job of transmitting their value for themselves.
Some other unsung heroes of the exhibition are the people who care for the collection. In the past few years the staff of the Oceanic section have been assessing, measuring and photographing Australian stone implements and adding this information to the Museum’s database. Shooting, editing and uploading these images falls into an important, but often unnoticed, category of Museum work. By the time I took a turn, the glamorous spear points and axes had already been documented and we were working our way through several hundred tiny scrapers and flakes, often overlooked products of the skilled manufacturing process. Most of this work was done by Curator Ben Burt and Museum Assistant Jill Hassel, assisted by a number of volunteers. It is a point of pride in our department that the records for the Museum’s entire Australian collection are online and soon every object will have a photograph too. The benefits of this are enormous, as not only does it allow audiences around the world to view the collection, but it also permits us to gain from their knowledge and research and feed this back into the collection database.
One of the best examples of the value of this type of collection work is the exhibition itself. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was enabled and enriched by the contributions of others, in particular the Indigenous Australian individuals and groups who have been so generous with their time and knowledge.
The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online