British museum preparing indigenous display for trip to Australia | Pacific Beat

British museum preparing indigenous display for trip to Australia

British museum preparing indigenous display for trip to Australia

Updated 12 November 2013, 17:52 AEDT

The Australian National Museum and the British Museum are joining forces to present one of the most important exhibitions of Australian indigenous artifacts, ever staged.

Among the many significant objects on display will be a shield collected after a skirmish in Botany Bay in 1770, with Captain James Cook's expedition.

Most of the objects are currently to be found in the British Museum.

On a trip to London last week, Jemima Garrett went to discover what is planned.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speakers: Gaye Sculthorpe, Oceania Curator, British Museum, London.

Lissant Bolton, Keeper, Africa, Oceania and the Americas, British Museum, London

GARRETT: The linked exhibitions in London and Canberra do not go on public display until 2015 but already research and planning is well underway.

The British Museum's curator for Oceania and Australia, Gaye Sculthorpe, is an indigenous Australian from Tasmania, with a long career in museums and as a member of Australia's Native Title Tribunal.

She took me to see the shield that was left on the beach at Botany Bay as Aboriginal people from what is now Sydney made their first contact with Europeans.

SCULTHORPE: This is a truly remarkable significant important object. There was an encounter with Cook at Botany Bay. There was a skirmish on the beach and this shield was dropped and it was collected and brought back to England. The shield is made of wood or bark. It is about a metre long and about 30 cm wide. There is a small hole in it and it is really symbolic of the first encounters between Europeans and aboriginal people in terms of settlement of Australia.

GARRETT: The hole is believed to have been made by a spear.

That shield along with a host of other objects from all over Australia will be part of the exhibitions.

Objects from the early days in Sydney are particularly significant because, after a fire destroyed the Australian Museum's collection in 1882, very few are left.

In the lead up to the exhibitions the British Museum has been consulting aborigiinal people about what should go on display.

SCULTHORPE: I recently had the privilege of hosting a visit here by 5 young Aboriginal women from the east coast of Australia, including some people from the Sydney region and this was the first time they had had the opportunity to view this object and it was a very emotional encounter and people had different responses to it and some of the thoughts were 'it is really important to know about Australian history, Aboriginal history, the role of English in australian history but also its importance for Aboriginal people in aust, partic young Aborig austns to be able to see an object like this and reflect on their history.

GARRETT: Gaye Sculthorpe believes the exhibition has the potential to contribute to reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

Lissant Bolton, the British Museum's head for Africa, Oceania and the Americas also has high hopes for it.

BOLTON: My dream is that it would have a bit of a paradigm shift effect and it would bring people to understand one of the greatest civilisations of the world and certainly the most enduring.

GARRETT: Gaye Sculthorpe's main role is to prepare the London exhibition.

SCULTHORPE: We hope audiences that see the exhibition will be first of all truly astounded to actually see the beauty and diversity of the objects. We think it is really important for audiences here to get an understanding of the concept of country to indigenous people, and the links between Aboriginal people, objects and country and how that is portrayed in art, dance, song. We think English audiences will be surprised by that. We also hope the audiences to London, who are very much an international audience, who come to this museum, will also get a better understanding of the history of race relations in Australia. To better understand the issues that are happening in Australia today.

GARRETT: In the course of preparing the exhibitions curators have discovered until now unknown drawings by early Australian artist Tom Roberts.

Lissant Bolton says another joy has been in delving into some of the close friendships between Aboriginal people and British settlers, such as that between Mokare and Alexander Collie in Western Australia.

BOLTON That relationship between them was quite a special one so just to have those glimpses that the remnants of history afford us of people getting on, of people talking of people exchanging information, of people valuing each other. It is not the whole story. There are terrible things that happened but those things did also happen and it is nice to know about them.

GARRETT: The 19th century is not the only focus of the exhibitions.

Gaye Sculthorpe, has been commissioning up-to-date repsonses.

SCULTHORPE: as part of the whole project a number of contemporary indig artists have been to London to view the collections and are making contemporary works in response to what they have seen and we have had about 4 visits so far and in 2 weeks we are having the next visit of 2 artists from Yirrkala, in Arnhem Land so there will be very much a contemporary thread throughout the exhibition.

GARRETT: It has been a long time since such an ambitous project has been staged.

Anticipation is building but audiences in London and Canberra still have more than a year to wait.

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