'It taunts us spiritually': the fight for Indigenous relics spirited off to the UK

When Gary Murray contemplates the
thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander objects held in the vaults of the
British Museum in London, he strikes a
simple analogy.
“All of these things that belong to our
people in Australia – they don’t tell a story
about the Queen of England, do they?” he
asks.
“No way. They tell stories about the people
that made them and used them – that’s our
people here in Australia. We don’t have
the Queen’s crown jewels. And we don’t
want them. But what we do want is to get
our things back from the British Museum.
We want them back.”
Specifically, Murray and his people want
returned to Australia three pieces of bark
art – a shield, emu carving and a scene the
British Museum controversially claims
depicts a kangaroo hunt – that were crafted
by his Dja Dja Wurrung people in central
Victoria. They were taken by the Scottish
settler John Hunter Kerr in the 1850s and
sold to the British Museum.
Bark art is usually synonymous with
Indigenous people from northern Australia
and the three Dja Dja Wurrung pieces from
the comparative far south are believed to
be the only ones of their period in
existence. They may be precious to the
British Museum but they are sacred to the
custodians of the land around Boort from
which they were taken.At least one of the barks is likely to be
included in a forthcoming Australian
exhibition of items from the British
Museum’s collection. After five years of
planning and extensive contact with
Indigenous communities, the exhibition,
Encounters, is due to open at the National
Museum of Australia in November after a
linked exhibition at the British Museum,
which opens in April.
In 2004, Murray, on behalf of the Dja Dja
Wurrung, used the federal Aboriginal
Cultural Heritage Act to seize the barks
while they were on loan to the Melbourne
Museum (now Museum Victoria). After a
protracted court case brought by the
Melbourne Museum the barks were
eventually returned to the British
Museum, the repository of colonial
treasure from all corners of the once-great
empire it served.
The British Museum’s mere contemplation
of lending the barks to another Australian
institution (in this case the National
Museum) only to once again have them
returned to the archives in London, is,
according to some Indigenous Australians,
profoundly provocative and insensitive.
It is, in the words of one Aboriginal
activist, “just rubbing salt into the wounds
after last time”.
Compounding that insult is the Protection
of Cultural Objects on Loan Act. Federal
parliament passed this legislation in 2013
amid scant media scrutiny and with
bipartisan support from the major political
parties. In the wake of the 2004 barks
fracas the legislation was initiated at the
behest of Australia’s major cultural
institutions, which wanted to be able to
give a watertight legal guarantee to foreign
counterparts, not least the British Museum,
that any collection items on loan in
Australia would always return.
Some, like Murray, view the legislation as
another act of cultural colonialism and,
given its importance to the British
Museum, imperialism, too – a continuum of
the British invasion of the great southern
land, the murder and dispossession of its
first inhabitants and the theft of their
cultural property, even their dead.Henrietta Fourmile Marrie is an adviser to
the National Museum of Australia and
descendant of Ye-i-nie – a chief of the
Yidindji people of north Queensland in the
late 19th century. She describes the 2013
legislation and the intransigence of the
British Museum in returning objects
belonging to her people as consistent with
the “institutional racism” she insists is still
extant in some collecting institutions.
She says:
My people had no idea where these items
would be taken to just in the same way that
skeletal remains were dug up or our people
shot for the basis of taking their remains
overseas to these museums. And here we have
today in the 21st century the Australian
government of the day making laws to
continue to protect those institutions that
have continued to be the beneficiaries of our
culture, our knowledge and our peoples’
history. It is a real insult.”
Certainly, Encounters would not be
possible without the Protection of Cultural
Objects on Loan Act. A significant black
and white Australian audience would
otherwise probably never see some of the
likely exhibition items, which include the
wooden shield dropped by a Gweagal
tribesman during a violent conflict with
the men of Captain James Cook’s HMB
Endeavour at what is believed to be the
moment of first east coast European-
Indigenous contact at Kurnell, Botany Bay,
in autumn 1770.
The botanist Joseph Banks recorded: “... a
man who attempted to oppose our Landing
came down to the Beach with a shield of an
oblong shape about 3 feet long 1 and a half
broad made of the bark of a tree; this he
left behind when he ran away and we
found upon taking it up that it plainly had
been pierced through with a single
pointed lance near the center.”
Some Indigenous Australians who tell the
story of that first-contact shield insist the
hole to which Banks refers resulted from a
musket round. Cook shot at the tribesmen
who opposed his landing that day,
wounding one.
It is reasonable to interpret the shield
(part of the British Museum collection
since 1771, along with a number of spears
that were also taken that day) as an
incisive symbol of how profoundly
different stories can attach themselves to
collection items. And that is why the
acquisition stories (Indigenous and white)
of the British Museum objects that were
selected for loan to their country of
provenance will be central to Encounters.
Encounters is the most ambitious
exhibition in the life of the National
Museum of Australia, which opened in
2001 on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin
in what remains a sacred corroboree place
for the Ngambri people of the Limestone
Plain upon which Canberra was built.
Certainly, the exhibition is likely to be its
most controversial (although controversy
has never been far from the museum’s
doors since it became central, in the late
1990s, to the so-called “culture wars” over
interpretations of Australian frontier
violence).
The curators of Encounters, Ian Coates and
Jay Arthur, and the National Museum of
Australia’s director, Mat Trinca, recognise
the exhibition has the potential to ignite a
furore. But they view it as an opportunity
(a seminar involving the communities of
provenance will precede Encounters) for a
new discussion about the ownership and
custodianship of Indigenous cultural
objects.
They insist that within the communities
there are many divergent views about the
British Museum’s claims to their cultural
property and whether it should be
permanently returned. They also point out
that the acquisition stories vary greatly;
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gave
some items to anthropologists, explorers
and settlers in amity. Others were stolen in
situations of violent conflict.