Tynan Waring, Indigenous Visitor Services Host at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, spent three weeks at the British Museum during the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.
He writes on professional development, educating audiences on Indigenous Australia and holding stone tools used by his ancestors.
My name is Tynan Waring, and I am an Indigenous Visitor Services Host working for the National Museum of Australia (NMA), in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. I was lucky enough to be selected for a professional development opportunity at the British Museum and was flown to London to work for three weeks around the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The exhibition resulted from a joint research project between the institutions and a version of the exhibition called Encounters, focusing on contact between Indigenous Australians and European visitors to our shores, is due to open at the NMA at the end of the year.
I had the honour and privilege to work in many different areas of the British Museum – visitor services, learning services, the Anthropology Library and adult programming. It really was remarkable, despite the vast differences in not only distance and location, but also the themes of the two institutions’ collections, just how similar Museums are. The problems faced by museums and collecting institutions seem universal and even the people working at them almost have doppelgangers, or at least foreign versions of themselves working at other museums.
I was working with the brilliant curatorial staff of the Oceanic collection and I was very fortunate to take a trip to the stores and see and hold some objects that will be displayed in the Encounters exhibition. Even more exciting than that, was the opportunity to connect with my past and my heritage. The British Museum has a vast collection of Indigenous material, even if not permanently displayed and I was able to find stone tools and ochre that my Awabakal ancestors had used on the beaches of the place I was born and raised.
In the Anthropology Library, with more than a little help from the supremely knowledgeable Jim Hamill (Curator, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas), I was able to find images of Awabakal men with ritual scarring I had never seen and a photograph of a man labelled Weymera ‘king’ of the Hunter River, at one point recognised by the European settlers as leader of my people. For a person whose heritage was only realised at the age of 14 after extensive research into family history, this provided a connection to my past and where my family has come from. Touching objects used by people I may be descended from, or who knew the people I am descended from, and seeing images of them was a very moving experience.
I had a very touching and educational visit, I learnt so much not just about the British Museum’s collection and storied history, but about museums in general, about collecting, about sense of self. I was there during the biannual Origins – Festival of First Nations. I helped to organise the Museum’s Indigenous Australia Friday night late event featuring Alick Tipoti’s Zugubal Dancers and it was wonderful to see Indigenous Australian culture so eagerly enjoyed and accepted.
This makes me very hopeful for the continuation of the partnership between the museums and I hope our exhibition at the NMA continues the illuminating look at the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their cultural items and how collections play a part in that story.
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