British Museum blog

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, , , , , , ,

11 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Reblogged this on Cat Among the Pigeons Press and commented:
    Looking forward to seeing this exhibition!

    Like

  2. GM says:

    Wonderful post, but the title “before the ship arrived” is very inspired…

    Like

  3. ali taufik says:

    James Cook History I like it ,thank for Vincent Namatjira

    Like

  4. decorlois says:

    Thanks for the post!

    A good opportunity to get to know the culture of the indigenous Australians

    Regards

    Like

  5. Zinthia says:

    Nice post!
    the culture of indigenous Australians is poorly understood. Did not know this information.

    Thanks!

    Like

  6. JRW says:

    Reblogged this on Spirit of the page and commented:
    Wanted to see this at the British Museum members’ evening but by the time I went to the desk they had run out of tickets! Didn’t matter – I spent the whole evening in ‘Bonaparte and the British’ anyway. But I think some people were quite unhappy about it.

    Like

  7. Catherine Marburg says:

    I’m surprised to see the term “Enduring civilisation” used about Australian indigenous people. “Civilisation” refers to a complex society, as “civis” meaning “city” is the stem from which it comes. The aborigines were hunter gathers who used stone tools. They had no written language, no permanent structures, were fragmented into warring tribes, and civilisation is completely the wrong term to use to describe them. They had a stone age culture.

    I suggest that the exhibition should be titled: Indigenous Australia: Enduring Culture.

    Like

  8. Sandra says:

    Hello!

    Fantastic post about this culture so unknown and which has suffered so much because of European colonization.

    Thanks

    Like

  9. Sandra says:

    Hello!

    fantastic post about this culture so unknown and which has suffered so much because of European colonization

    Thanks

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,356 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

The Museum looks spectacular with a blue sky overhead – especially in this great shot by @whatrajwants. You can see the beautiful gold flashes shining in the sun. This triangular area above the columns is called a ‘pediment’, and was a common feature in ancient Greek architecture. The copying of classical designs was fashionable during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and was known as the Greek Revival. The sculptures in the pediment were designed in 1847 by Sir Richard Westmacott and installed in 1851. The pediment originally had a bright blue background, with the statues painted white. #regram #repost #architecture #neoclassical #sculpture #gold #BritishMuseum Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum In 1991, BMW invited South African artist Esther Mahlangu to make a work of art in their Art Car project to mark the end of apartheid. Her work, with its brightly coloured geometric shapes, draws on the traditional house-painting designs of Ndebele people in South Africa. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation.

See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
#SouthAfrica #history #art #design Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. This gold rhinoceros, alongside four other gold sculptures, was discovered in three royal graves there. They are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat, and a rhinoceros – and also objects associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or crown. These treasures were discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe for trade with the coast, as part of an international trade network stretching as far as China, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 16,356 other followers

%d bloggers like this: