The other drawcard that lured us to Canberra last week was the Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia which was also slated to close on 28 March 2016. Once again, to my regret I find myself writing about an event that has already concluded but I wanted time for my thoughts to percolate about it before putting fingers to keyboard.
Encounters presents a large, beautifully curated exhibition of artefacts sourced from the huge British Museum collection, supplemented by current-day responses crafted by living indigenous artists and craftspeople from the regions where the artefacts were originally ‘collected’. I use the inverted commas deliberately: some were given as a sign of respect; some were purchased, and others were quite clearly stolen and appropriated.
It is a very well-mannered exhibition. As you enter, there is a large video welcome and introduction by representatives of the many tribal groups who have been involved, and it has truly been a continent-wide consultation process (as you would hope it would be). The artefacts come from twenty-seven communities right across the country, reinforcing the ‘national’ nature of the museum. The explanatory panels surrounding the artefacts are very well done, describing the mobility of the object and explaining the means by which it came into the British Museum’s collection. In many cases, artefacts are accompanied by a video with a present-day community member explaining the importance of the artefact as a reaffirmation of identity or as prompt to new learning about production techniques that had been forgotten or changed in the generations since the object was first collected. Several of the speakers expressed gratitude that at least the object had survived to be seen by later generations, an ironic consequence of its appropriation and removal to the museum environment. Others expressed joy at the continuity of knowledge within their community, despite a policy of repressing traditional language and crafts. Others again mourned for the loss of the object and yearned to have it literally re-placed and brought back to where it came from.
The most discussed item in the exhibition is the shield collected by Captain Cook in 1770, dropped by a Gweagal man after the ‘encounter’ on the beach turned sour. The hole in the middle of the shield was caused by a spear, generations of White custodians and curators told themselves. I’m not convinced. That hole speaks volumes. The sight of it literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
Much of what this exhibition did was done very, very well. But what of my comment that it’s a ‘well-mannered’ exhibition? Many questions bubbled under the displays: how many of the people of the community are going to see this artefact? Why does it belong to the British Museum? Why does it have to be returned? The questions were asked sotto voce but the exhibition was too polite to ask them out loud.
One of the exhibitions is the Dja Dja Wrung bark etchings which were last seen in Australia in 2004 as part of the Etched on Bark exhibition under the auspices of the Museum of Victoria. As that exhibition drew to a close, activists Gary Foley and Gary Murray launched a series of emergency declarations under the 1984 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act in an attempt to keep the etchings here in Australia. Eventually a court decision found in favour of the British Library and the etchings returned to London. There’s an interesting article written by the curator of that exhibition in 2007 here.
It comes as a surprise, then, to see the Dja Dja Wrung etchings back in Australia again, just over ten years later. An act of good faith on behalf of the British Library perhaps? Or a provocative gesture now made from within the safety of the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act of 2013? This Act was initiated at the behest of Australian cultural institutions that wanted to be able to give a water-tight guarantee to their international counterparts that items would unequivocally return to the lending institution. The etchings have travelled here because the British Library knows that they will be returning to London.
In an article in Overland (21 March 2016), Eve Vincent reflects on the display of the Dja Dja Wrung etchings:
Also on display are the Dja Dja Wurrung bark etchings that last visited Australia in 2004. They were on display at the Museum of Victoria when Dja Dja Wurrung activist Gary Murray joined with Gary Foley and others to prevent them from leaving the country. The fact that Dja Dja Wurrung representatives ‘unsuccessfully’ sought to stop the return of these objects to England is carefully acknowledged. Press a button and Murray’s soft voice starts talking about his aspiration to have the bark etchings stored in Melbourne, closer to home. ‘We beg the British museum to return our cultural materials.’
And then the visitor moves to the next exhibit.
This exhibition is actually one half of a matching exhibition called Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisations which was on show at the British Museum in London between April and August 2015. An excellent article by Penny Edmonds in The Conversation in 2015, reviewing the British exhibition, highlights the curatorial challenges faced by in the British exhibition for a British audience. The British Museum is not unfamiliar with disputes over provenance and custodianship – after all, they’ve been fighting over the Elgin or Parthenon Marbles for decades and decades. While the issues of collection and colonialism, ownership and custodianship were discussed in the abstract in London, there was an expectation (fear?) that the conversation would be more pointed when the Australian exhibition opened.
But it hasn’t happened in this strangely decontextualized exhibition which says little about the international politics, or the emotional and intellectual motivations in act of ‘collecting’ that lie at the heart of this particular display. I think that it is an opportunity lost. It was almost as if we were on our best behaviour, not wanting to cause a fuss. I’ve read a few articles about the “conversation” that is being had here about such issues, and it evokes for me the insistence by the Irish government on the “maturity” of the discussions surrounding the commemoration of the centenary of the Irish Rising this week. No-one wants to seem “immature” and the insistence that things are kept within the bounds of “conversations” and “dialogues” are curbs that can only be made from a position of power.
So, my response to the Encounters exhibition? Beautifully curated and thought-provoking but at its core timid and polite.
But maybe I speak too soon? Now that the exhibition is being packed up and taken away again, the whispered question is being voiced aloud- see a recent article in the Guardian here; on The Conversation website here and an ABC report from the very day I am writing this here. Perhaps, now that it’s finished, we don’t have to be on best behaviour any more.