Indigenous Australians: Enduring Civilization

This is a re-publication of a news post I wrote for Eremos about the British Museum’s new exhibition of Indigenous Australian Art.
Detail from Kungkarangkalpa, 2013, by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Photograph: Courtesy: the artists/Spinifex Arts Project
Detail from Kungkarangkalpa, 2013, by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Photograph: Courtesy: the artists/Spinifex Arts Project.

From all accounts, it looks a visual feast and I am thrilled that Australia’s true history is being revealed so the general public can better understand the world’s oldest civilization.

Visitors will learn about the deep sense of history and place held by Aboriginals as well as their complex and settled lifestyle which for many years was denied to even exist. I hope people will start to appreciate the powerful connection to the land held by most Aboriginals.

As Jonathan Jones in the Guardian says, “it is savagely ironic that every bit of the continent Cook took for an un-owned wilderness was mapped by dreamings…Aboriginal art has a sacred bond with the places whose collective memories it preserves”.

Yet for several reasons, this exhibition is also making me feel uncomfortable despite being a Londoner by birth and a huge fan of the British Museum! The exhibition includes Aboriginal artefacts owned by the British Museum, some of which were acquired soon after Australia was first colonialized in 1788.

In total the British Museum owns about 6000 items and only a small percentage are ever on display. In addition, some artefacts hold deep spiritual significance linking Aboriginal descendants to their ancestors. Understandably these communities would like these items returned. I tend to agree.

The counter argument (which is also true) is that the Museum has preserved and conserved the items over the years, which the owners might not have done.

We will no doubt hear more about this issue later this year when Canberra opens a related exhibition, Encounters, which will include some of these artefacts ‘owned’ by the British Museum.

It seems they will be safeguarded under the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act 2013 which encourages the loan of objects for temporary public exhibition in Australia. It is therefore illegal for Indigenous moves for repatriation.

Perhaps the British Museum is not wanting to set a precedent as they might have to part with their beloved ‘Elgin Marbles?’ Interesting times ahead!

I wonder what others think about this?

The exhibition is at the British Museum from April 23 to August 2.

Originally published: https://www.eremos.org.au/news/blog/08_May/british-museums-new-exhibition

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