I rarely write about museum exhibitions, and when I do it’s usually in the context of a travel post, but I do want to share with you our National Museum of Australia’s current exhibition, Encounters. Subtitled “Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, it is described by the Museum as “one of its most important exhibitions”. That could sound, of course, like your typical promo-speak, but in this case I’m inclined to agree. Encounters is a very interesting and, yes, important exhibition – one that is not without its controversy.
The foundation pieces of the exhibition are 151 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects, including masks, shields, spears and spearheads, didgeridoos, baskets and head dresses, which were collected by a wide range of people – settlers, explorers, administrators, and so on – between 1770 and the 1930s, and which are now held by the British Museum. Complementing these are 138 contemporary items, some specially commissioned for the exhibition. The objects are supported by excellent interpretive labels which convey both the history of the objects and contemporary responses to them. The end result is a conversation between past and present that is inspiring and mind-opening.
I’m not going to formally review the exhibition. You can read a thoughtful one published in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, including a discussion of the repatriation controversy. (Thanks to brother Ian for pointing me to this review). Instead, I’m just going to comment about its impact on me. So, here goes …
One message I took from the exhibition is not a new one at all, really, but more a confirmation: it’s that indigenous people, like all of us, are not one! It is way too easy for us (no matter who “us” are) to simplify “other” (no matter who “other” are). We tend to think that “they” all think the same, but obviously, like “us”, “they” don’t! This is made patently clear in Encounters where we see different responses by different indigenous communities to the objects. Some are adamant that their objects should be returned to them. Others may agree with that, but that’s not their priority (perhaps because they realise such a goal may not be realistic, in the short term at least!) They, such as Robert Butler, a Wangkangurru man from the Birdsville area, believe that the objects should not have been taken in the first place but recognise that the fact that they were now means they are available once again. Still others argue that the important thing is not the object itself, but the knowledge and skill they can obtain from it. Obtaining knowledge and practising skills that can be passed on, they argue, are the crucial thing, because they are critical to indigenous people’s identity and mental health.
I was consequently interested, for example, in a comment from the Noongar community regarding objects that had been collected by a young Englishman Samuel Talbot in the 1830s. He made detailed notes about the objects, demonstrating his keen interest in understanding Noongar culture. Present day Noongar woman, Marie Taylor, says:
I want to acknowledge the white people who sat down with the Aboriginal people, who wrote the stories down, who collected this information that still exists today. Down here in Noongar country, we may have lost all of that had it not been for many of these people.
Talbot is one of many such people. Lieutenant Dawes, about whom Kate Grenville wrote in her historical novel The lieutenant (my review), is another. Taylor’s response is, though, a generous one, since had there been no white people, they would not have lost (or been at risk of losing) their culture in the first place!
A very different story comes from far north Queensland. The panel that accompanies a shield, club and basket is titled “Guerrilla warfare”. The objects were collected in the 1860s by settler John Ewen Davidson at Rockingham Bay. He’d gone there, we’re told, “in 1866 to establish a sugar plantation. He began as a shocked observer of the violence of the occupation, yet within six months he was part of it”. Coincidentally, this story reminded me of another Grenville novel, The secret river, in which her fictional protagonist commenced with the aim of being peaceful but he too got caught up in violence.
Then there’s a comment that touched me on a more deeply personal level. It comes from Aunty Barbara Vale, a Dieri elder in South Australia. She says:
When I visit Killalpaninna I get a strong feeling of belonging. It’s our land, Dieri land. I feel safe and relaxed and always come away feeling good for having been there.
Now, I know my connection to the land is nothing like that of an indigenous person’s sense of belonging to and responsibility for their country, but Vale describes perfectly how I feel each year when Mr Gums and I go to Kosciuszko National Park – safe, relaxed, and a lovely sense of well-being. I don’t presume at all that my feeling is the same – it’s not – but her statement did give me a sense of connection, and, in that, of the validity of my own “truth”.
Towards the end of the exhibition, I came across a recent statement by Don Christopherson, a Muran man. He said:
And that is the spirit I’d like to think we all have in Australia today. It is surely the only real way we can move forward. Objects like the ones in this exhibition are crucial to this process, because, as one elder said, they bring the past into the present, which then enables us to move into the future. And, I’d say, they provide an excellent basis for a conversation.
A wonderful exhibition that I’ll try to visit again.
POSTSCRIPT: Here is a link to short films included in the exhibition. Many depict the way contemporary indigenous Australians are making objects today – some making traditional objects, some making modern ones commenting on contemporary relationships and concerns (like the ghost net project on Darnley Island – Erub – in the Torrest Strait).