British Museum blog

Collecting Indigenous Australian art

Rachael Murphy, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

There should always be controversy in the air surrounding artists and makers, museums and objects and culture… It is this that keeps museums alive and relevant, part of an on-going dialogue and questioning as the past and the present collide and coalesce like a walk in wardrobe of old, deep memories and sparkling new acquisitions.

Judy Watson, artistic fellow

There is no need for me to explain the importance of the contemporary art in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation when Judy Watson, who has two prints on display in the show (2015,2004.3 and 2015,2004.4), does it so eloquently. The exhibition showcases some of the most striking work to come out of Australia in the last five years, as well as the breadth and diversity of art forms, from an installation by Tasmanian artist Julie Gough to a basket by Abe Muriata, a master weaver from rainforest Queensland. These pieces pose a range of opinions, statements or questions, contributing to the dialogues throughout the show. The reasons for collecting, commissioning and displaying these works are as diverse as the art forms themselves. It is only, perhaps, the artists’ ability to engage with the visitor, that provides some common ground.

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Watson, a Waanyi artist, who lives and works in Brisbane, first visited the British Museum and other museum collections in the UK at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996, beginning a long relationship with UK institutions. She returned to the British Museum in 2013 as an artistic fellow on the research project Engaging Objects, a collaborative research project between the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. After this trip Watson produced a series of prints, the holes in the land, which layer delicately etched drawings of Indigenous Australian objects in the British Museum collection over historical plans for the Museum’s building and showcases. Behind these silhouettes are bright, swirling colours, suggesting, perhaps, the blues, greens and yellows of the Australian landscape.

Judy Watson, The Holes in the Land 2, 2015.  (Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Judy Watson, the holes in the land 2, 2015. 
(Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Other contemporary works in the exhibition, such as Angela’s Torenbeek’s ghost net basket speak of events that take place far beyond the Museum walls. Ghost nets are fishing nets which have been detached from commercial vessels and drift in the ocean. Many wash up on islands in the Torres Strait, including on the beaches of Torenbeek’s home, on the island of Moa. Nets pose a significant hazard to marine life and weaving provides a way to recycle them. The plastic fibres are hard to weave, but resistant to damage and decomposition. There are parallels with Torenbeek’s own gentle persistence in educating people about ghost nets.

Ghost net basket, 2010. Mahnah Angela Torenbeek (Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

Mahnah Angela Torenbeek, Ghost net basket, 2010. 
(Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

The value of Torenbeek’s work does not lie only in the messages it conveys. The basket on display is small and shallow, its modest form made bold by the bright blue, green and red of the coarse synthetic fibres. Frayed white nets, trailing from tight stitches, evoke feathers, a material that has been used in the Torres Strait for (at the very least) hundreds of years. While many other artists in the Torres Strait and along the northern coastline of Australia weave with ghost nets, Torenbeek’s work stands out for this striking use of colour and form and playful use of materials. Her flair for innovation is apparent in every work, from small baskets to large scale sculptures. In 2012 she collaborated on a giant ghost net crocodile which sat at Bondi Beach in Sydney. More recently she has been using animal bone in her work. As Torenbeek modestly puts it: ‘I like to do something different’. It is a quality that makes her work compelling to collectors, both private and institutional.

The Museum considers many factors when acquiring contemporary works, not least that they complement and enrich existing collections. Private collectors may collect artworks for other reasons, which speak to their personal experiences, interests or aesthetic tastes. Despite this, there are often close parallels between public and private collections, suggesting that while there is no single definition for a good artwork, it is still an interesting question.

For an insight into the world of collecting Indigenous Australian art you can listen to some of the most esteemed collectors, advisors and dealers at the upcoming debate Collecting Indigenous Australian art, chaired by the renowned art dealer Rebecca Hossack, on Friday 03 July.

Thank you, as always to all of the artists and other groups and individuals across Australia who have contributed to this exhibition.

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

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

Ancient beauty and modern lives

Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford

It’s hard to walk past so many beautiful naked bodies in a dark room without thinking a bit about sex and love; and in an exhibition like Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, there’s always the tendency to play the mental game of trying to decide who you fancy most out of all the represented people. The display of male beauty in Greek art has had a huge impact on European culture, and sometimes on very intimate levels, even though the exact role of same-sex desire in ancient Greek society remains controversial. Ancient Greek art has been one of the ways in which LGBT people have recognised their presence in world history, and this capacity of art to help awareness of sexual identity has produced a wonderful continuing dialogue between ancient and modern works.

This struck me particularly when I was in front of the Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican Museums, because it’s displayed next to some of the Museum’s own Michelangelo drawings. This stunning juxtaposition gives a vivid – almost physical sense – of Michelangelo’s deep engagement with classical art. In a culture where sodomites were consigned to hell, Michelangelo’s own attraction to male beauty found a passionate, if uneasy, resolution with his spirituality through classical philosophy and thought. He expressed this not only in his images of muscular male figures but also in poems such as this one of around 1549, which merges his desire for earthly beauty with his love for God:

My eyes, seeking beauty,
and my soul, seeking salvation,
have no other way to rise to heaven except by looking at beautiful things.
From the highest stars, a splendour come down
which draws desire to them,
and which here is called ‘Love’.
The noble heart has nothing to make it burn or love, or to guide it,
except a face as fair as those stars.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Above: The Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm; W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Below: Michelangelo’s study of a reclining male nude inspired by the sculpture. Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Florentine, around 1511. 19.3 x 25.9 cm. British Museum, London 1926,1009.1

26-06-2015 17.40.07

Later, Michelangelo’s own ‘beautiful things’ became works through which gay identity was expressed, with the very 20th-century Benjamin Britten composing a song-cycle of the Renaissance artist’s sonnets. This was dedicated to his life-partner, the singer Peter Pears, and was first performed publicly by the two of them together in the early 1940s, when ‘homosexuality’ was illegal in Britain.

Among the first audiences for the song-cycle was the novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), for whom classical culture had also offered a sense of personal (humanist) salvation. In his novel Maurice, young men try to understand their desires for each other through images of Michelangelo’s works and reading Plato’s dialogues, eventually realising that ‘I have always been like the Greeks and didn’t know’ (chap. 11). The novel was written in 1914 and was dedicated ‘to a happier year’ when same-sex love would be regarded as equal. Significantly, a crucial scene of Maurice is set in the British Museum’s classical galleries and the adjacent Assyrian rooms, as Maurice and the gamekeeper Alec finally realise that they are in love, surrounded by ancient art. The novel was magnificently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987, on location and (of course) in exactly the right galleries. The film concentrates on the Assyrian rooms, but the Greek sculpture of the Parthenon gallery had already featured in Merchant Ivory’s earlier film of Henry James’ Bostonians, also with a same-sex couple, Olive Chancellor and her beloved Verena Tarrant.

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory's Maurice (1987). Copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory’s Maurice (1987). Photo: copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Maurice was filmed in the 1980s, the period of the now infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 that prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Attitudes in Britain are thankfully now very different, but I remember the 80s well as a time when it was easy for young people coming out to feel alone: history was almost unremittingly heterosexual, gay stereotypes were often mocking, and there was a general invisibility in culture. Michelangelo and Maurice were hugely reassuring. Memories of these feelings of cultural isolation helped shape a recent British Museum project on LGBT history, which I hoped would help LGBT people find themselves in world history. A long line of very different, interconnected works of art stretches back to those Greek statues, explaining and legitimising the diversity of human desire to modern generations.

Ideas of beauty and desire are culturally constructed in many different ways, but this particularly Greek vision of beauty can still have a personal impact. Standing in front of the hunky Belvedere Torso, I wonder how many people have come to understand their own hearts and identities through looking at these statues carved millennia earlier. The statues don’t even have to be male or naked. Defining beauty also includes one which was much loved by Forster – the (clothed) goddess Demeter from Knidos. The statue features as a symbolic motif in his novel The Longest Journey, and she is in many ways a mythic archetype for his famous mature female characters, such as Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore, who embody an instinctive wisdom that sees beyond social conventions and recognises (in the words of the second Mrs Wilcox) ‘that people are far more different than is pretended’ (Howards End, chap. 44).

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Looking at ancient beauty can perhaps encourage our world to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards human diversity – which is still urgently needed now when militant groups are not only overturning ancient statues but also executing gay men by throwing them from buildings. While they are destroying, and more people are dying, Forster’s Demeter sits in the British Museum as a benign and inspiring presence, waiting patiently for that ‘happier year’. It’s now much closer than it was across the world, but not quite with us yet.

Further reading:

B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (British Museum Press 2013).

M. Forster, Maurice (Penguin Classics 2005)

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Weapons of resistance: Jandamarra, a hero of the Bunuba people

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

Across Australia, each of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have historical figures that live on in the memory of people today. For the Bunuba people of the east Kimberley region of north-west Australia, Jandamarra (once referred to by Europeans as ‘ Pigeon’, 1873–1897) is considered a hero of the resistance.

In the 1890s the Kimberley region was a violent place. Bunuba territory was invaded by Europeans looking for land for cattle. Aboriginal people living there resisted these incursions, occasionally attacking individuals. The European settlers called on the police for greater protection. Jandamarra was a young man who first worked for a cattle station owner and then as an Aboriginal tracker for the police. He helped to capture some of his own Bunuba people, and later turned against the settlers and decided to fight in defence of his people and their lands. After killing his colleague Constable Richardson, Jandamarra led a resistance movement for two and a half years in the rugged gorges around the King Leopold Ranges. Eventually he was found by an Aboriginal tracker and shot and killed near Tunnel Creek in 1897. After his death, his head was removed and sent to England. The location of his skull is unknown today. Bunuba people would like to see it returned to their country, and in recent years have been working with historians and other experts to trace and find it.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation brings together what is believed to be Jandamarra’s boomerang, on loan from Museum Victoria, Melbourne, and a spear collected by Inspector Ord, the policeman who led the hunt for Jandamarra. The boomerang is finely decorated with red and white ochre. The spear has a head made of green glass, showing the innovative use of new materials by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region in the 1890s. Inspector Ord donated the spear and other materials to the British Museum in 1899. He had collected these from various Aboriginal camps during the course of his work. This is the first time that the spear and boomerang (normally housed in London and Melbourne) have been displayed together.

(2)Boomerang  An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police.  Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. Wood, pigment. L. 52.5 cm Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848 Courtesy Museum Victoria

Boomerang, made of wood and decorated with pigment. An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 52.5 cm
Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848. Photo: Courtesy Museum Victoria

Wooden spear with a point of green glass, acquired by Inspector C.H. Ord. Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461 Donated by C.H. Ord.

Wooden spear with a point of green glass. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461. Donated by C.H. Ord.

I am delighted that a Bunuba leader, June Oscar, has contributed to the multimedia guide for the exhibition and participated in opening events. She visited the Museum in 2014 and viewed the objects collected by Inspector Ord. While she has described the sadness in seeing these objects and thinking how they came to be in the possession of Inspector Ord, she also notes that these objects have the potential to tell a truth that should be told to the world. This is a view shared by many Indigenous Australians who have participated in the research project behind the exhibition and whose views were recorded by colleagues at the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia.

Over the years, the descendants of Inspector Ord and Bunuba people today have discussed these historical events and noted the importance of recognising the difficult past. Bunuba people have commemorated Jandamarra’s story in a number of creative ways, including a new work composed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

As June Oscar says, Jandamarra’s story lives on in current generations of Bunuba people who continue to visit these places and keep his story alive.

‘As far as we’re concerned, Jandamarra lives on. His spirit lives on, his people still live on. His spirit is carried in this country by people who speak the same language as he did. For as long as we’re alive, the children will know the story of Jandamarra.’

‘Alongside… the tragic history of the Bunuba people is the pride that we take in Jandamarra standing up for country, defending country, and displaying his skills, his talents, his knowledge of organising his warriors, and the way he evaded the police for so long.’

You can read more about June’s views in this transcript of her lecture at the opening of the exhibition. The audio recording of this speech will be available here soon.

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

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , ,

What lies beneath: drapery and the suggested form

As a new painting by Alison Watt goes on display at the British Museum, the acclaimed artist talks about the inspiration behind the painting…

From the moment I first heard Ian Jenkins, curator of Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art talk about the Parthenon sculptures, my understanding of them was enriched. And it was as much about the way he spoke as what he said. As with the sculptures themselves, there was an unmistakable rhythm to his words – I was struck by his use of language, its musicality, as he talked of the sculptures in terms of their flow, their movements. Listening to him, it was as though a pulse ran through the stone itself.

I clearly remember my response to these representations in marble, many years ago when I first saw them. It was visceral. Even now, they remain startling to me but ultimately, elusive. They are so full of drama and atmosphere and one of the things that makes them so compelling is their ability to trigger the senses. It’s no wonder that, since their creation, they have been influencing artists throughout history.

In the show it seemed entirely natural to be drawn to the sculpture of Iris, the messenger goddess as a channel for my ideas. She’s a virtuoso performance by her creator; a simply astonishing portrayal of the human form. But Iris is not only a piece about the contingency of the human body. She’s also a piece about fabric. Within this thinly-veiled form, there is an element which goes beyond nature, something which does not exist in real life, and that is the element of fantasy. What we feel when we look at her is as important as what we see.

Marble figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon. Greek (Athens), about 438–432 BC. H. 135 cm. British Museum 1816,0610.96

Marble figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon. Greek (Athens), about 438–432 BC. H. 135 cm. British Museum 1816,0610.96

Here, visual reality has been subtly improved and intensified, the fabric itself fetishized, and so it transcends its proper function. The sensual is highlighted with an emphasis on tactile sensation. We also become much more aware of the less tangible features of cloth, such as how it might sound as it moves. And that’s why the use of fabric in this piece is so powerful and makes our response to it so complex. It somehow encapsulates a sense of movement which feels perpetual. As in a fold itself, there is a simultaneous display of two positions. It at once hides and discloses; like a fold there is always a promise to reveal.

My fascination with depictions of drapery began with a childhood visit to The National Gallery and its exquisite collection of old master paintings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to portrayals of fabric: how it falls, how it moves as the body moves and how it often seems to have its own secret interior. Fabric has been a powerful vehicle for my imagination and the memory of it often conjures sensations that are difficult to describe.

Although my paintings may appear to be devoid of a human presence, there is a suggestion of the body – a body which is absent but implied. While I no longer paint directly from the human figure, I’m still fascinated by it. Indeed I once spent an intense period of ten years working every day with a life model in order to immerse myself in the process of looking. Spending time with another human being in such intimate conditions has the effect of heightening consciousness. A small shift in weight in an observed body becomes a monumental act. As the brain edits what the eye is seeing, it begins to abstract what is keenly observed. The geometric balance, the spacial order so important to the success of a painting comes from this study. I have never looked at the human body in the same way since.

With Iris, the parts that have been discreetly draped reappear in the cloth itself, which clings to her thighs and torso like a second skin. There is no bulk in this drapery which only enhances the erotic tension of the piece. Of course the erotic relies on suggestion and this work is all the more alluring because of what it might reveal. The cloth appears almost like a membrane, an intimate barrier between the body and what exists outside of it. In places it melds with the naked form, tantalisingly emphasising its shape. Therefore the properties of both fabric and body are captured simultaneously, drawing our attention to the behaviour of both.

Iris is a sculpture which is both beautiful and disconcerting. In its now fragmentary condition we are left without its extent. It seems to have no end, and indeed goes on in the imagination. The use of drapery all at once reveals her, conceals her and frames her but it cannot contain her.

Over the years, I’ve moved away from painting directly from life. I found myself looking for other means of representing the human form – ways to suggest the body and its movements. So now the memory of a piece of fabric becomes a metaphor for the body. The severing of drapery from its original narrative gives it added potency, while isolating it from its surroundings heightens our awareness of what is missing – the human presence.

Alison Watt, Himation, 2015. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 71.1 cm.  Alison’s painting will be on display at the British Museum in Room 18a until 5 September 2015.

Alison Watt, Himation, 2015. Oil on canvas, 106.7 x 71.1 cm. Alison’s painting will be on display at the British Museum in Room 18a until 5 September 2015.

One of the reasons my paintings take their current form is because there are certain proportions that are satisfying and which make sense to me, and that has come from years of studying the human figure – whether it be in a piece of art, often a painting or sculpture, the written word, or even the experience of intimacy. For sure, all of these influences affect how I make my paintings. But above all, painting is an emotional experience for me because it’s about what lies inside, what you can only sense, feel or imagine.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
 until 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , ,

Indigenous Australia: multi-sensory engagement for families

Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager (Digital Content), British Museum

Temporary exhibitions at the British Museum are a wonderful opportunity for the Schools and Young Audiences team to think creatively about new ways to engage our family visitors. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is no exception and is accompanied by a specially devised range of family-friendly activities and events. To create this programme, the Schools and Young Audiences team worked closely with the exhibition’s curatorial and interpretation teams.

Indigenous Australia family guide

Indigenous Australia family guide

For our Indigenous Australia family guide, we wanted to try something a little different, going beyond the traditional medium of paper-based trails. We felt that the content of this exhibition, with its bold range of practical as well as ceremonial objects, lent itself particularly well to alternative formats. Inspired by the collection on display, we decided to create a multi-sensory, three-dimensional interpretive device, featuring replicas of objects or parts of objects from the exhibition. We worked with 3D designers Topographic who used a range of materials including wood and acrylic along with techniques such as etching, lamination and sculpture to produce 6 unique objects with very different textures. Placed around a hoop, the miniature replicas provide a non-linear trail, allowing visitors to dip in and out as they wish.

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

In terms of the content, we worked with the exhibition curators and interpretation officer to select the most appropriate objects across the exhibition – objects that young people would find inspiring and which would give families clear ‘ways in’ to the main themes of the exhibition, including ancestry, ritual and livelihood. The layout of the exhibition itself was also a consideration: thinking from the point of view of a young child and whether or not they would actually be able to see the object in question.

Ask for the guide at the exhibition entrance to try it for yourself.

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish
Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1888. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Our craft-based family half-term workshops in the Museum this month will enable participants to build their own ‘fish hats’ inspired by objects in the exhibition, such as this dance mask. Fish are a key symbol in the exhibition and are a vital food source and totemic animal for Indigenous Australians. We wanted to create something that people could wear, and hope that the Museum will be filled throughout half term with ‘schools’ of fish as families wearing their fish hats move around during their visits. Participating families can decorate their hats in natural colours drawn from the palette of the exhibition, with plenty of scope for fun and individuality.

Throughout half-term week, artist David Allsop will be facilitating a collaborative artwork around the theme of ‘journeys’. Families are invited to contribute to the artwork using a colour-coded system representing how and why they have come to the Museum. Based on mark-making and the system of colours as symbols, the final outcome will be a large painting shown on the floor in the same way that paintings from Spinifex communities, Western Australia, are displayed.

Drop by the Great Court between 11.00 and 16.00 during half-term week (25–29 May) to take part in these activities. Tell us that you took part by sharing your artwork on Instagram and Twitter using #IndigenousAustralia. We can’t wait to see what you create!

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

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , , , , ,

Making histories: Captain Cook and Indigenous Australia

Maria Nugent, Research Fellow, Australian National University

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition.

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum, London

There is a corner (literally) in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation that features the famous British navigator Captain James Cook. It occurs at a pivotal point, where the exhibition’s narrative moves from the hard-to-fathom timescales of the Dreaming (the complex system of beliefs and stories that explain the meaningful creation of the world, and how humans reproduce that system through ceremony, art, storytelling and other meaningful action, which one anthropologist described as an ‘everywhen’) and the 40,000 plus years of human occupation of the continent, to the much shorter and more immediate timespan of the last 245 years since British encounters with Indigenous people there began. While Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese voyagers had visited since the early 1600s, Cook was the first British navigator to explore the region. And whereas other European expeditions were mainly on the western and northern coasts, Cook and his expedition charted the east coast. Although Cook is often credited with claiming the entire continent for King George III, he was careful to only take possession of its eastern side, acknowledging as he did that the Dutch had already claimed the west.

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2 Reproduced by permission of the artist © Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre http://www.yirrkala.com

This corner of the exhibition draws together a fascinating assemblage of objects that work together to present diverse representations of Captain Cook and his place within Indigenous Australia’s deep history. There’s a larrakitj, or memorial pole, that was made in 2002 by Gawirrin 1 Gumana. At the top on one side he has painted the ancestor figure Barama and on the other Captain Cook, but he hasn’t specified which is which. The rest of the pole is covered with the artist’s ancestral designs, and so it acknowledges Cook’s historical presence, but shows that it did not displace Barama’s law in Yolngu country (northeastern Arnhem Land).

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Next to it, in a large case and lit up against a striking green background, is the shield that is believed to have been used by a Gweagal man in self-defence against the violent incursion of Cook’s landing party into his country in late April 1770. (Although it is tempting to believe otherwise, we know for sure that the hole in the centre of the shield was not made by a bullet.) This is an especially powerful object, because it symbolises that first fateful meeting.

There is though, I think, a risk that by concentrating only on the first landing that other equally significant and revealing interactions that took place over the week that Cook’s ship the Endeavour remained at Botany Bay are overshadowed. Other objects in this corner of the exhibition provide intriguing perspectives on that historical encounter.

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

The drawing made by the Ra’iatean man Tupaia (who had joined the voyage in Tahiti) is especially important here. It shows three Gweagal people fishing with hand lines and spears from two canoes. This was a drawing made from life and is a beautifully detailed and sympathetic scene, which not only shows details of their canoes and fishing spears, but also reveals how the local people continued to go about their business despite the unwelcome presence of the British sailors. Tupaia was an important intermediary in interactions between the British and Indigenous people in Australia (and New Zealand as well). But his role has not been given much attention in histories of Cook in Australia. Later, when the Endeavour was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, he warmed relations there with the local people, so much so that some men went on board the ship and some vocabulary was collected. Below Tupaia’s drawing is a copy of Cook’s original chart of Botany Bay, which indicates water sources and other environmental features. Augmented by James Cook’s and Joseph Banks’s descriptions, the chart reveals evidence of Indigenous people’s management of the landscape.

These two drawings, produced as a result of interactions with Indigenous people and their country in 1770, are flanked by two contemporary artworks. One is Michael Cook’s photograph, Undiscovered #4, which shows an Aboriginal man dressed as Captain Cook (or some other British naval officer) standing on the beach with his ship behind him. The other is Vincent Namatjira’s vibrant painting, James Cook – With Declaration (British Museum, 2014,2007.1), in which the ‘proclamation’ Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform. These contemporary pieces belong to a much larger corpus of visual representations by Indigenous artists that provide alternative images and interpretations of Captain Cook and his history. Michael Cook’s photograph, for instance, raises questions about who ‘discovered’ who. Vincent Namatjira’s painting suggests the ways in which Captain Cook wrote the country into British possession and how he is literally the embodiment of Britain’s territorial claims.

This is my favourite part of the exhibition, but I might not be completely impartial in my choice, because I have been interested in the historical relationship between Captain Cook and Indigenous Australians for some time. A few years ago, I published a book called Captain Cook Was Here, which provides a close analysis of the encounters between Indigenous people and Cook’s crew in 1770 and also discusses the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have told stories about Captain Cook over the last two centuries, turning him into a founding figure within their respective interpretations of history. As the historian Chris Healy has written: ‘Captain Cook is a name common to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories. … His name can be considered as a term which creates a possibility of dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of making histories’.

Later this week, I will be giving a lecture on Indigenous Australian visual and oral storytelling about Captain Cook from the early 1800s to the present. I hope to see you there.

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

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

Let’s talk about sex: men and women in Greek art

Dr Katherine Harloe, Associate Professor of Classics and Intellectual History, University of Reading

Browsing the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art on a rainy afternoon, an Athenian red-figure mixing-bowl caught my attention. It shows the death of Kaineus, a mythical Thessalian hero who had the misfortune to be present at the wedding feast of Peirithoos, King of the Lapiths, and his bride Hippodameia. The celebrations famously ended in a fracas when the centaurs among the wedding guests became drunken and violent, attempting to rape their hosts’ wives. The ensuing battle, which the Lapiths won, came to stand for the conquest of savagery by civilisation. It features as such on the decoration of important civic and religious buildings, including the Parthenon and the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai. On this vessel, made for mixing wine at a drinking party, it warns of the dangers of overindulgence.

Red-figured mixing-bowl (column-krater). Greek, made in Athens, 480–460 BC, attributed to the Pan Painter. British Museum, London 1846,0925.6

Red-figured mixing-bowl (column-krater). Greek, made in Athens, 480–460 BC, attributed to the Pan Painter. British Museum, London 1846,0925.6

Marble metope (XXXI) from the south side of the Parthenon, showing a Lapith and a centaur fighting. Greek, 447–438 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. British Museum, London 1816,0610.15

Marble metope (XXXI) from the south side of the Parthenon, showing a Lapith and a centaur fighting. Greek, 447–438 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. British Museum, London 1816,0610.15

Section of frieze from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 420–400 BC. As Kaineus is hammered into the ground, his muscular, twisting torso aligns him with the heroic Lapith warrior who comes to his aid, and contrasts with the swirling drapery of the female escaping to the side. British Museum, London 1815,1020.4

Section of frieze from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 420–400 BC. As Kaineus is hammered into the ground, his muscular, twisting torso aligns him with the heroic Lapith warrior who comes to his aid, and contrasts with the swirling drapery of the female escaping to the side. British Museum, London 1815,1020.4

Kaineus was killed during the fighting, though not (so Ovid, who gives us a poetic account of the battle in his Metamorphoses, says) before he had dispatched six centaurs to their deaths. He was a difficult to kill because his skin could not be pierced by sword or spear. In the end the centaurs could only overcome him by hammering him into the ground with rocks and tree trunks. The vase shows this moment – the helpless Kaineus looks up in dismay at two centaurs bearing down on him with large boulders. But within the myth, the warrior’s invulnerability supersedes and compensates for a previous vulnerability. For, as the hero Nestor recounts, Kaineus had been born a girl, Kainis, who was raped by the god Poseidon and in return granted the fulfilment of one wish. She asked to become male, and in granting her a masculine body Poseidon also made it one that could not be penetrated.

Scholars of ancient gender and sexuality have made much of this myth’s association of impenetrability with the male sex. Its popularity in Athens might also tell us something about that society, where the law protected male citizen bodies from violation while overlooking violence towards others. But Kaineus/Kainis can also help us think through some of the issues around the sculpted male and female forms that provide the highlights of this exhibition. An impenetrable body which can be hammered into the ground sounds like nothing so much as a statue. Ovid also hints at this when he describes the centaur Latreus’s sword bouncing and shattering off Kaineus as if it had struck ‘a body of marble’.

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos, Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos, Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

The exhibition gives us marble bodies aplenty, male and female, as well as several in bronze. But the male and female bodies we encounter in the exhibition are different in several ways. Most obvious to me, and perhaps striking to most visitors, is the contrast of clothed and unclothed. Male figures, from the beautiful bronze Apoxyomenos (‘sweat-scraper’) in the first room to the Belvedere Torso at its end, are all presented nude. The females – unless they happen to be Aphrodite, or to be modelled on her – are clothed.

Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

Not that the drapery on the female statues always conceals much. In the case of the nymphs from the Nereid Monument, belly, breasts, thighs, are all visible through the moistened folds of their clothes. Their eroticism is obvious, even without the colour that would once have created the illusion of living, breathing flesh. But there is a paradox here – it is often said of the Greek male sculptural nude that its eroticism is downplayed. For a statue like the Apoxyomenos, nudity does not equal nakedness but – as Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor puts it in the exhibition catalogue – ‘a suit of morally charged new clothes’. The female body, by contrast, tends to be undressed even when dressed.

Does this tell us something about ancient Greek attitudes to women, or does it have more to do with our own ways of viewing male and female bodies? Michael Squire, the classical art historian whose voice is one of the first you hear on the exhibition’s multimedia guide, has argued that sexualised responses to naked Aphrodites overlook their religious significance, her status as a goddess and the awe in which ancient worshippers would have held her image. Now that mainstream advertising has begun to serve up naked or near-naked male bodies to sell everything from designer underwear to fizzy drinks, can we look at Greek male nudes afresh, with greater sensitivity to their erotic charge? The distinctions between nude and naked, male and female, are not as clear cut as they first seem, but still make me uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why, of all the beautiful objects in the exhibition, I am most drawn to the figurines from Tanagra – miniature statuettes of heavily draped, yet graceful women, with fashionable hats and hairstyles, dolled up to appear in public yet somehow conveying a womanly world and messages all of their own.

Terracotta figures of a woman. Greek, about 300–200 BC or later. Said to be from Tanagra, Boeotia. British Museum, London 1875,1012.9; 1875,1012.12a; 1874,0305.65

Terracotta figures. Greek, about 300–200 BC or later. Said to be from Tanagra, Boeotia. British Museum, London 1875,1012.9; 1875,1012.12.a; 1874,0305.65

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

One-hit wonders: spear points from the Kimberley

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.

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010 National Museum of Australia

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010
National Museum of Australia

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.

A group of spear points Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940 © The Trustees of the British Museum

A group of spear points
Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940
© The Trustees of the British Museum

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

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

The passion of Ajax

Ian Jenkins, Curator, ancient Greece, British Museum
I am often asked what my favourite object is in the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. I answer this by marching my interrogator past the great white marble sculptures glowing in the mysterious half-light of the gallery to a showcase containing a primitive and seemingly unprepossessing bronze figure, only seven centimetres high. I am usually greeted with a look of incredulity. But this is my favourite object; partly because I discovered it in 1996 in what we now call the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, and partly because of what it shows and how it shows it.

The object is a helmeted matchstick man, forged from solid metal tubing, drawn out to represent the subject, sitting on a low stool, with his arms extended in front of him and a dagger turned inwards. At a glance, you can see that this is, by virtue of the action, a suicide caught in the moment before the dagger is forced in.

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum 1865,1118.230

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum, London 1865,1118.230

The short version of the story of Ajax’s suicide as told in Greek myth goes something like this: Ajax was big dumb-dumb Ajax, brave and good-hearted but not a subtle thinker. It was he who carried the body of Achilles, dead from the battlefield, and it was he who should have had the armour Achilles was wearing – armour that was made by the god of smiths himself, Hephaestus. But with weasel words, wily Odysseus manages to deprive Ajax of this prize. In rage and shame a night-long fit of madness fell upon the hero, who thought he could hear an attack by the Trojans on the Greek camp and set about single-handedly defending his companions from the danger. It was not until the cold light of the morning lifted the veil of his madness that the nature of his folly was revealed. For in fact there had been no attack – only the sound of the herd of Greek cattle moving about in their pen, every member of which he had slaughtered. With nothing left by way of honour, now twice humiliated, Ajax killed himself.

The image of the death of Ajax that comes most readily to mind is that in Sophocles’ tragic dramatisation of the story, where the brooding hero prepares to fall on a sword set into the Trojan earth. This, as Ajax bitterly remarks, is a hostile soil and the sword is that of his old enemy Hector. The sad story of Ajax’s suicide is not told by Homer in the Iliad. This centres instead on a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, and its impact on the progress of the Trojan War and the lives of those people caught up in it. In this Achilles does not yet die but his eventual end is related in a number of other contemporary epic poems, including The Aithiopis, which relates the heroic life of Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, sometimes known as ‘The Black Hector’. The little bronze has none of the literary power of either 8th-century BC epic poetry, nor of the 5th-century BC tragedy. But it has an indefinable poetry all of its own that, in spite of its great simplicity, seems to capture something of the bleak and solitary circumstances of Ajax’s death.

Like the great Greek sculptors of a later age, the smith of this bronze has chosen not to represent the act of suicide itself, but the moment just before the dagger is buried in the body of the hero. What really, though, evokes absolutely the mental agony of Ajax is his large erection. This has nothing to do with any ideas of the erotic charge of death. It is instead a metaphor used to mark Ajax as a figure undergoing extreme trauma. In the symbolic use of the phallus, the smith is straining at the very limits of his powers. He has departed from actual representation and makes a metaphysical statement instead. When we compare such art with contemporary literature, we find nothing in the former of the narrative and descriptive power of the latter. Nonetheless, our little stick-man Ajax points at the direction in which Greek artists will go in their quest to tell stories of the kind that Homer had already mastered in the medium of words.

The object dates to around 720–700 BC and as such may be among the earliest representation to survive of a named mythological character in Greek art. Because of its phallic nature, it had been previously misclassified in the Museum’s collection, now dispersed, of erotica. Its appearance in our exhibition seems unpromising on first acquaintance but, on reflection, it turns out to be an object with great poetic presence and one which anticipates the visual power of later Greek art.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Indigenous Australia: before the sheep arrived

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

As curator of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation it is a great privilege to be presenting this major exhibition in London. Over the past two years, it has been a special and sometimes moving experience to view and discuss objects in the collection with artists and community visitors from Australia – and to see these special objects up close. It is a big responsibility to put together an exhibition that does justice to the cultural and historical complexity of the story of Indigenous Australia – a story that is still unfolding.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Early British visitors to Australian shores were surprised to learn that there was more than one Indigenous language spoken across the vast continent. Even today in London, audience research makes clear that it is still a revelation to many to learn that there are hundreds of different Aboriginal language groups, each associated with a particular defined territory, and each with distinctive traditions and customs. Few here have heard of the Torres Strait islands and the distinctive culture and history of the Islanders. Familiar names and words in Australia – such as Namatjira, Mabo, ochre, dugong, sheep station and goanna – are foreign to British audiences. Questions such as ‘were there sheep in Australia before the British arrived?’ indicate that Indigenous Australia is still a subject about which international audiences know comparatively little (*see below). Some of the art styles may be recognisable, but the complex meanings and history remain little understood.

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. From Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. Mask, from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre; L 400 mm. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

In telling this story, with many objects collected in the late 1700s and 1800s, questions of how these pieces were brought to the British Museum and where should they be housed now are likely to arise. Some of these issues are addressed both in the exhibition itself and in the accompanying book. There are individuals who think there are objects in London that should be returned to Australia; others consider that objects exhibited here have an key role in showing the world that the history and culture of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders is as important, valuable and unique as any other civilisation in the world. These matters will no doubt be further discussed during the exhibition run in London and when many objects go on loan later this year to a related exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, H 1010 mm, W 760 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2007.1

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas; H 1010 mm, W 760 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2007.1 © Vincent Namatjira

For me, it is particularly significant that these objects are being exhibited first at the British Museum in London, a city that once sat at the heart of a Britain that ruled Indigenous Australians and the colonies that joined to become the nation of Australia in 1901. Indigenous Australians have been engaging with London and its museums since 1792 when Governor Phillip brought back Bennelong and Yemmerawanne, who visited the Parkinson Museum in London that housed objects from Cook’s voyages. In the mid-1800s Aborigines, such as those on Flinders Island in Tasmania and in the state of Victoria, made appeals to and sent diplomatic gifts to the Crown. At one level, the curation of this exhibition and the engagement of contemporary Indigenous artists in its creation and related events is an extension of this ongoing relationship between Indigenous Australia and the UK, but it puts Indigenous Australians in the centre rather than the periphery.

In the coming two weeks, the British Museum will be visited by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, artists, and museum professionals who will be participating in discussions, giving lectures and seminars, and reconsidering the legacies of colonialism for contemporary museums.

This includes a special event on Friday 1 May: The art of country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art today, and the conference: Challenging colonial legacies today: museums and communities in Australia and East Africa on Saturday 2 May.

These and other events offer British audiences the opportunity to hear more about the nuances and regional variation in this rich story. I hope visitors to the exhibition and those who attend the related events appreciate the beauty of, and knowledge embedded in, the objects presented, the diversity of Indigenous cultures across Australia, and the complexity of the engagement with outsiders since 1788. Despite being affected by direct violence and the impact of new diseases, this history demonstrates that rather than being passive victims of an aggressive British colonisation, Indigenous Australians have since 1788 engaged with outsiders in strategic and diplomatic ways that continue today.

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra. Paint on Masonite board; H 485 cm, W 815 cm. National Museum of Australia, Canberra

I would like to acknowledge the generosity of those Indigenous communities and individuals in Australia who participated in discussions about the objects and the exhibition (not all of whom may agree with my views). I would also like to acknowledge the input of my colleagues in Australia at the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University who, with the help of funding for research through the Australian Research Council, have contributed significantly to the exhibition and associated publication.

*Sheep came with the First Fleet of British settlers and convicts in 1788 and merino sheep, famous for fine wool, in 1796. Spot the beautiful woman’s apron made of wool in the exhibition.

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

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , ,

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This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai We welcome nearly 7 million visitors a year to the Museum and this photo by @zoenorfolk wonderfully captures the movement of people around the Great Court. Completed in 2000, the Great Court also features a quote by Tennyson: 'and let thy feet millenniums hence be in the midst...’
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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
The two-acre space of the Great Court is enclosed by a spectacular glass roof made of 3,312 unique pieces!
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