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, , , , , , , ,

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, , ,

A taste for honey: bees in African rock art

Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.

Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

Above and below: Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building. (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

12-05-2015 16.30.06 My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent. Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.

Apis mellifera  (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The honeybee, Apis mellifera, with pollen basket. (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. © TARA/David Coulson.(Image not yet catalogued)

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men (honey-hunters) to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.

Wild bees' nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photo:

Wild bees’ nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photograph: by Erell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees' nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees’ nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. British Museum 2013,2034.12205. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. (Photograph: © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’ with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses (perhaps bees?). Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched (maybe they are harvesting?). Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’, with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses, perhaps bees. Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched – maybe they are harvesting? Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.

Painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

San painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by dancing figures and tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.

Further reading

Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.

Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.

Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.

Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.

Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.

Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.  

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, Collection, Research, , , , , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , ,

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, , , , , , , ,

Changing faces: revealing ancient alterations in Saharan rock art

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Jorge De Torres, Cataloguer, African rock art image project

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs, Chad

Fifteen years ago, I started my training as an archaeologist participating in a rock art survey in Extremadura, Spain. For a month I climbed cliffs and endured summer temperatures of 45ºC, looking for the flat rock faces where the schematic rock art we were looking for might be. One of those exhausting days, I crawled under a shelter during a break to escape the scorching sun. It was so small that you could only lie down and it had no space to turn sideways or sit. I rested for a while enjoying the shade, and then I saw them: four vertical, red lines painted on the inner part of the roof, clearly the imprints of four human fingers, made by someone who was once in my exact position, in a place where nobody but he (or she) – and thousands of years later, me – could contemplate them.

I’ve seen quite a lot of rock art since that summer morning, but I’ve always recalled that painting as one of the most important archaeological remains I’ve ever come across. Not because of its complexity, of course, but because of the exceptional possibility of recording and understanding the concrete action of an individual who existed thousands of years ago. Archaeologists like me are used to focussing on tendencies (chronologies, styles, geographical distributions) rather than individual human actions, which are usually very difficult to detect. However, while cataloguing the incredible collection of the African rock art image project, I found two such cases – both attempts to amend a picture once it was painted.

Figure 2 Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa

Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa, Chad

The depictions are found in the Ennedi Plateau in the north-eastern corner of Chad, a mountainous region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, full of huge outcrops and boulders, many of them covered with engravings and paintings dated from 5000 BC onwards. Although rock art in the Ennedi Plateau has a great variety of styles and depictions, probably the best known images in the area are the Niola Doa engravings: several groups of large figures (probably women), richly decorated, with one arm stretched downwards and the other bent upwards, usually resting sticks on their shoulders.

While describing these images, one caught my attention: an elegant, richly decorated woman, painted in red and white. There are several white lines around the neck, representing necklaces, and several more around the waist and hips, including series of white dots – possibly objects sewn onto a belt or directly to the skirt, reminiscent of the coin and shell belts often worn by dancers in the Middle East.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

Detail of the corrected arm from the painted woman

Detail of the arm from the painted woman, after colour enhancement.

There was something strange about the figure’s left arm: a red band under the left elbow, undoubtedly something painted, but a bit out of place. Using colour enhancement tools, such as those described by Elizabeth Galvin in a previous post, the result was astonishing. The enhanced photograph shows how the lower stain is in fact an arm that was painted stretching downwards, later corrected and repainted to bend upwards. The earlier arm is faint, but the enhanced colour shows how the tonality of both paintings is the same, implying that the same painter corrected the figure. Why was the image changed? We can only guess, but the final outline of the woman resembles the engraved figures of previous periods, so perhaps the painter was trying to emulate the impressive engravings that still give the place its name today (Niola Doa means ‘the dancing maidens’ in the local language).

The Archei Geulta (water pocket), Chad

The Archei Geulta, Chad

The second example comes from a very special place known as the Archei Guelta. A ‘guelta’ is a pocket of water in the desert (sometimes an oasis, but not always) that provides vital water to both people and animals. The Archei Guelta is one of the most important places in the region, with water available all year round, and home to one of the last remaining colonies of crocodiles in the desert. Like many other areas of the Ennedi Plateau, the whole area is full of paintings and engravings of many different periods and styles.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. The horse at the top is superimposed on an earlier painting of a man. See a larger version of the original image.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

One of these paintings is an extremely faint group of riders on horses, depicted in a very specific style of the Ennedi Plateau known as the ‘flying gallop’. Being so faint, the images were difficult to describe, and therefore I again had to use colour enhancement to identify them. By inverting the colours, I was able to see the riders and some previously undetected cows , but it also led me to an unexpected discovery: one of the riders was in fact a man on foot, with a horse superimposed. The paint of the man was much more degraded than that of the horse, implying that he was painted in an earlier period, perhaps prior to the introduction of horses to the desert. As in the first case, we can only speculate as to why the painters of the horses decided to amend the figure, but perhaps it was a way of incorporating older figures into the new scenes, adding as prestigious an animal as a horse. Perhaps they simply felt sorry for the lonely man walking among fast, powerful riders.

Detail of walking man superimposed by horse

Detail of the enhanced image showing a galloping horse painted over a standing man.

These two examples remind us that behind the broad categories into which we organize rock art were individuals who used these wonderful paintings and engravings as a way of sharing their own perspectives and interpretations of reality. The reinterpretation of older images raises interesting questions about how these populations interacted with their own past, integrating it within their narratives. And although the ultimate meaning of these changes can be difficult to comprehend, they nonetheless help us feel nearer to the people who made these images so many thousands of years ago.

This post is part of the African rock art image project at the British Museum, generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, Collection, , , , , , , , ,

The Haig-Thomas collection: two stories from the Arctic

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

A collection has recently been donated to the British Museum that throws light on two remarkable stories: how the Kalaallit people of Northwestern Greenland responded to Danish influence on their society during the early decades of the 20th century, and how one Englishman took it upon himself to explore their world.

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

The Englishman was David Haig-Thomas, educated at Eton and Cambridge, who while returning by boxcar from a fourth-placed rowing eight at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics stumbled across an old school friend named Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had soon persuaded Haig-Thomas to accompany him in a journey across the Ethiopian desert. A week into the expedition the pair had bitterly separated, Haig-Thomas left with serious injuries, a hefty bill and the sincere desire to travel as far as possible from the heat of Africa.

He swiftly enlisted as resident ornithologist on the Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition of 1934, organised by Edward Shackleton. The expedition ventured far into the Arctic, Haig-Thomas spending extended periods with the Kalaallit people of West Greenland, learning the Kalaallisut language. On his return to Britain he immediately began organising his own return expedition, raising commercial sponsorship for a party of geographers to map the far northern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago. His own role was to search for the skeleton of a large dinosaur rumoured to be somewhere in the region.

Haig-Thomas never found his skeleton, but he did spend many months exploring the frozen channels and islands of the far north, living off seal, walrus and bear meat and discovering a previously uncharted land which he named Haig-Thomas Island. During this time he was accompanied by his Kalaallit friend and guide, Ootah, who shared the long dog-sled journey with cheerful good-humour, even during the long periods when there was no food to be found. Haig-Thomas also became well acquainted with Ootah’s family and made many friends in the region, most especially among the local children.

Haig-Thomas returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. In his account of the expedition he wryly noted on the impending war that ‘whatever happened I had had a wonderful fifteen months in the Arctic, even if, in a few weeks’ time, I was riddled with machine-gun bullets.’ He joined the army, serving with No.14 Commando, a unit made up of polar specialists for service in Northern Norway. He was never deployed in the Arctic, instead accompanying the airborne assault on Normandy on 6 July 1944, armed with an oosik, an Inuit club made from a walrus’ penis bone. He was killed in action on the morning of D-Day in combat with German forces near the village of Bavent.

Shortly after his return to Britain in 1939, Haig-Thomas donated to the British Museum a small collection of archaeological finds discovered by workmen under an ancient house near Thule, North Greenland. It consists of fragments of bone and ivory tools, including the remains of a pair of bone snow-spectacles, dating to approximately 1200 CE. He left the remainder of the souvenirs from his trip at his family home in Essex, where it remained until this year, when his son Anthony generously donated it to the Museum.

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

This collection not only enables us to tell his father’s remarkable story, it also allows for an examination of the Kalaallit people during a time of great turmoil. There are 70 items in the collection, which can be broadly divided into three groups. The first consists of souvenirs: Danish travellers, missionaries and traders were not uncommon among the Inuit communities of West Greenland, and a thriving trade in souvenirs had sprung up. The collection includes an ivory letter-opener, several ivory snow-knives and a cribbage board carved from a walrus tusk. At the time, items of this kind were decried because, in the words of Danish archaeologist Morton Porsild, they would ‘find their way to museums, just where they ought not to be, as generally, with a few exceptions, they are devoid of all scientific value’, but in truth these souvenirs provide remarkably clear insight into the economic, stylistic and commercial preoccupations of the Kalaallit during this period.

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Sometimes they demonstrate this directly. Among the collection is an incised walrus tusk featuring scenes of Inuit hunters and fishermen using combinations of traditional and modern equipment. This is the second grouping, consisting of traditional tools often utilising European technology in their manufacture: a wooden awl with an iron nail for a point, brown thread used to stitch bone tools together and ulu knives cut from steel saws. The Kalaallit were and remain an ingenious and adaptable people capable of utilising all available resources in their daily lives and this collection amply demonstrates this important facet of their society.

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

The third group directly reflects Haig-Thomas’ close friendship with the Kalaallit boys he lived alongside. Among the Inuit peoples, once a child could walk and talk they were considered a full member of the community, and children would be expected to participate in family activities. Boys would be given small bows and harpoons, items we might consider toys but which to them were of vital educational value. Mock hunts would teach boys the skills required to procure the food necessary to keep the family alive during the long cold winters, while their sisters would be given utensils for cooking and making clothing, learning alongside their mothers in the home. The Haig-Thomas collection includes numerous such small weapons and equipment, obtained from his friends during his long months of residency with the Kalaallit.

With his generous donation, Anthony Haig-Thomas has enabled the British Museum to tell two intertwined stories of Arctic exploration: that of his father and that of the resourceful, hardy and intelligent friends that he made.

For further reading, see Haig-Thomas’ books, I Leap Before I Look and Tracks in the Snow, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre.
 
The objects that form the Haig-Thomas collection can be studied through the Collection online
.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , ,

How to collect a cave: digital photography and African rock art

digitally manipulated photograph of African rock art from Tadrat Acacus, Libya
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

I am currently looking at 25,000 objects from the Museum’s collection on my desk. These fantastic works detail an important part of human history in Africa and range from beautiful bas-relief cattle to stunning painted representations of women dancing. Yet these items are not from the Museum’s storage facilities: they are saved on a hard drive, as part of the African rock art image project. The project team is cataloguing and uploading these 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent, so each one of them is being registered into the Museum’s collection as an object in its own right and made available through the Collection Online.

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad. © TARA/David Coulson

While digital collections are a relatively new area for the museum industry, they are showing new and exciting ways museum visitors can engage with the collections, as well as adding to our scholarship. As part of this project, the digital photographs have allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ in Africa.

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685 © TARA/David Coulson

For example, this digital photograph shows a piece of rock art that has been chipped and faded through natural erosion. With the naked eye, we can see some remnants of a red-brown pigment. Maybe this was the legs of a quadruped or perhaps two abstract human figures. Most of the rock art in this area is thousands of years old, so knowing exactly what it looked like before it was eroded used to be impossible without extensive tests that could have easily destroyed the original work.

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685, showing enhanced elephant image

Digitally manipulated copy of the above photo (2013,2034.685) showing enhanced elephant image

Now, however, using photo manipulation software, we can run the photograph through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye. In this one, we can see that the legs belong to an elephant, complete with large ears, a tail and trunk.

Digitally manipulated copy of 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Run the same image through another enhancement, and we can see many more human figures that were previously invisible. The elephant is still somewhat visible in the background, highlighted in pink. But the fantastic hunters to the top right of the photo would never have been identifiable in the original rock art. Now we can see them with their bows and arrows in an active hunting scene. ‘Swimming’ figures are now highlighted in the centre of the photograph. At the right of the image, we are also able to see a section of a giraffe, depicted with a spotted coat.

By using new technologies with the digital collections, we are not only able to enhance our study of the rock art, but also to build a database to ensure open access to our work. We are regularly using social media, blogs (like this one), and thematic articles on the main Museum website, both to increase access to these amazing works of rock art, and to facilitate discussion with our online visitors across the world. While the Museum’s physical collections will always be at the core of its work, digital collections are letting us see objects in a new light. After all, a 21st-century museum requires 21st-century collecting.

On Monday 6 October 2014 at 1.30pm, Elizabeth Galvin will be giving a free public lecture on African Rock Art and Photography with renowned photographer David Coulson (from the Trust for African Rock Art),  in the BP lecture Theatre at the British Museum in London. Tickets are free, but booking is recommended via the British Museum website to ensure a place.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by the Arcadia Fund

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, Collection, Research, , , , , , , , , ,

Potlatch coppers: wealth and power on the Northwest Coast

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

Last year I began a Collaborative Doctoral Award at the British Museum and UCL studying Native American material culture, having worked for the Americas section of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Museum since 2008. In this post I want to introduce two new acquisitions that help the Museum illustrate the complex wealth-exchange systems of the North Pacific coast of North America.

At times of celebration, the wealthiest and most powerful chieftains among the tribes of the Northwest Coast would hold great ceremonial events, known as potlatches. These occasions could last several days, featuring a series of expansive feasts accompanied by dancing, singing and the telling of ancestral stories in the chieftain’s plank-built longhouse. During the potlatch, open negotiations over hunting territories and trading rights would be conducted, the host demonstrating his power and wealth by ostentatious demonstrations of disregard for danger.

The anthropologist Franz Boas describes an event that took place among the Kawkwaka’wakw:

When a person gives a grease feast, a great fire is lighted at the centre of the house. The flames leap up to the roof and the guests are almost scorched by the heat. Still the etiquette demands that they do not stir, else the host’s fire has conquered them. Even when the roof begins to burn and the fire attacks the rafters, they must appear unconcerned. The host alone has the right to send a man up to the roof to put out the fire.

At the climax of the event the host would address his guests in a ceremony centred on the distribution of lavish presents. Most significant of all gifts would be large sheets of shield-shaped copper decorated in a variety of tribal crests. These objects are known by various names: tináa to the Tlingit, t’agu to the Haida and collectively in English as ‘coppers’. Often individually named with complex life-histories, coppers carried a nominal value measured in blankets or slaves, but their importance lay primarily in the obligation they placed on the recipients as part of a network of wealth and power distribution.

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

To the people of the Northwest Coast, copper was an exotic item, originally traded from the north and later with Europeans. It held supernatural properties, and to present a guest with a copper or a piece from a broken copper placed on them a powerful obligation. A host who had received coppers from his guests at their potlatches was compelled to present them with a greater value of coppers than he had previously received and thus obliged his guests to present coppers of even greater value at their next potlatch. The wealthiest chieftains would even smash coppers or throw them into the sea to demonstrate their superiority and strength. A leader who could not afford to make these presents or did not possess coppers could not hold a successful potlatch to celebrate important events and would consequently be considered a man of little importance among his peers.

In the late 19th century, colonial authorities saw the potlatch as a dangerous, wasteful and subversive event and sought to stamp it out. It was outlawed in Canada in 1884 and in 1921 Dan Cranmer’s potlatch at ʼMimkwa̱mlis (Village Island) was raided by the local police who seized and confiscated hundreds of items of regalia. Potlatching did not cease, but it was forced underground, becoming invisible to the authorities as the regalia which supported it was gradually dispersed to museums and private collections around the world. Since the removal of the anti-potlatch laws in 1951 however, potlatching has once again become a prominent part of life for the people of the North Pacific.

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Two new acquisitions help the British Museum tell the story of the coppers. The first is an unadorned copper from the turn of the 20th century recently donated by the London School of Economics. Unlike the coppers already in the collection, which are made from single thick copper sheets, this is a thinner, lighter example made from two sheets riveted together, a method of manufacture which suggests a Kwakwaka’wakw origin. Unusually, this example is not etched with an animal crest, and is thus a so-called ‘spurious copper’, one which was a valuable but routine item of exchange passed from chief to chief from potlatch to potlatch but without the ritual significance of the decorated coppers.

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

The second acquisition is a pendant produced by contemporary Tlingit artist Alison Bremner. Titled ‘Five’ from her series ‘Potlatch Dollars’, this pendant is made from copper in the shape of a traditional copper. Printed onto the surface of the pendant is a detail from a $5 note originally issued in Seattle. Bremner writes:

Potlatch Dollars resulted from my consideration of the concept of money, as any self-employed artist will do. Tináa’s once held a money-like value that today is held by dollar bills. Money is the object that contemporary society chooses to place value on.

As a child of two cultures, I view these works less as an appropriation from one culture to another but as a joining of the two. The Potlatch Dollar is a symbol of the past and present that all Northwest Coast residents now live in.

In juxtaposing 19th-century embodiments of Native and non-Native conceptions of wealth, Bremner is highlighting both the similarities and the misunderstandings that have characterised Native and non-Native relations over the last two centuries and celebrates the re-establishment of traditional Native practices in recent decades.

For further reading, see Carol F Jopling, The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Developments and Possible Antecedents, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre (ALRC). These two new acquisitions will be on display at the ALRC until December 2014.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , , ,

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This is one of a collection of photographs taken by the photographer Frederick York of Notting Hill, London in 1875.
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