December 2015 - January 2016

Arts & Letters

Bringing them home

By Quentin Sprague

Dugong figure, Tudu Island, Torres Strait. Collected by AC Haddon in 1888. Donated to the British Museum in 1889.

The National Museum of Australia’s ‘Encounters’ and the politics of collection

“The English took the place without consent.” Harley Coyne, a Noongar man in his late 50s, was speaking to me in early November from Albany, on Western Australia’s southern coast. His country, that of the Menang people, extends around King George Sound, the striking inlet that now cradles the city. The first decade or so of contact in the area had been notably harmonious, Coyne explained, but relations shifted dramatically as pastoral settlement gained momentum in the late 1830s. As hunting grounds were compromised, conflict ensued. “Things were good, initially,” he said, “but then things got tricky and stayed that way for a very long time.”

As familiar as the story is, it makes a small group of objects that are held in the vast stores of the British Museum (BM) in London all the more resonant for Coyne’s community. They were collected in that brief window when Noongar and settler worlds approached something close to parity. Not only did Coyne’s ancestors once handle them, but the objects also speak of the short-lived promise that initially attended the region’s settlement. As Coyne pointed out, they represent “a process of sharing, of reciprocity”.

I’d seen three of them – two graceful long-handled knives and a small hafted stone axe – earlier that morning during a preview of Encounters: Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum, the new exhibition at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra (until 28 March 2016). They struck me as humble, utilitarian things, worn smooth by many hands. Collected in the 1830s, they made their way slowly to London, and eventually to the BM, where they languished unexhibited for close to 150 years. In Canberra they join 148 other objects from the BM’s 6200-item Australian collection, along with contemporary and historic pieces from the NMA. It’s as close as they’ve yet come to returning home.

Encounters, a complex and politically fraught undertaking, has unfurled over a number of years. In addition to the museum partners it has encompassed researchers at the Australian National University and stakeholders, such as Coyne, in a range of “source communities” around the country.

Earlier this year, the BM produced a linked exhibition, Indigenous Australia: Enduring civilisation. Helmed by Gaye Sculthorpe, a curator of Tasmanian Aboriginal descent who joined the BM as head of Oceania in 2013, the exhibition opened in April to reviews that ranged from ecstatic to excoriating. Supporters noted a marked willingness not only to involve indigenous communities but also to foreground difficult colonial narratives. For detractors, it was the spectre of repatriation – whether or not objects should be returned to the communities from where they came – that cast the longest shadow. The issue illuminates something of the difficult terrain that the contemporary museum now must negotiate. If an institution like the BM once played a central role in legitimising colonialism’s master narrative, how might its role now change?

As if in answer, the exhibition at the NMA wears its consultative bona fides prominently. Multimedia screens play looped interviews with community members. There are recent objects that have been made in direct reference to the BM’s holdings, such as a contemporary version of the Menang axe by Noongar man Larry Blight, and large photographs of country that site the exhibits against specific landscapes. As we walked around the gallery, Ian Coates, the project’s initiating curator at the NMA, pointed out to me the carefully chosen quotes from a range of community stakeholders that have been printed in vinyl and affixed directly to the walls.

“The ancestors are watching from the hills, and the rivers are our mother’s milk,” reads one from Lynette Knapp, a Noongar elder from Albany. Another, from Rodney Carter, a Dja Dja Wurrung man from western Victoria, reads, “These objects mean so much to me and to Dja Dja Wurrung people that we were willing to go to the wall for them – and we did.” Carter’s quote refers to the court bid to repatriate two bark engravings – including one from the BM collection, included in Encounters – and an emu head figure following an exhibition at Museum Victoria in 2004. Although the bid ultimately failed, it drew the question of repatriation to the fore. It remains unresolved.

“If you go back and you look at the longer history of museums, objects do move around,” Coates told me when the issue came up during an earlier discussion at the museum. “In some instances, what’s happened with some of these overseas collections is that [the objects] become stuck in one location. I hope that what this project does is free those objects up a bit.”

Although repatriation is not a blanket aspiration across the varied communities involved, for many the prospect of re-experiencing their cultural material within the broader historical context of colonisation is charged. Peter Yu, a Yawuru traditional owner from Broome and the chair of the NMA’s indigenous reference group, attended the opening of the linked exhibition in London in April.

“[The exhibition] has quite an emotional impact for Aboriginal people,” he recently told me from Perth, where he was preparing to board a plane back to his hometown.

Yu singled out the unadorned wooden shield that was “collected” by Captain Cook’s party in 1770 during the very first moments of contact at Botany Bay. This was one encounter that quickly turned: the shield, which holds a prominent place in the NMA exhibition, was dropped by a Gweagal man after he and his companion were fired upon. The small impact hole near its centre – perhaps pre-existing, but thought by some to be from a musket round – renders its once-pragmatic function tangible: it was used to protect a human body from violence. Think outwards from that fact, and the whole horrible mess of settlement begins to take form.

“You look at the shield and you want to weep,” Yu said. “This is material that represents the whole human interaction, [not just] that particular time and place.”

In this, the Gweagal shield is ground zero. In the following decades colonisation spread like wildfire: a momentary skirmish on a beach took on the features of a clandestine war fought at the very outer reaches of empire. Even if there were moments of parity in the early days of contact, much greater disparities prevailed: Australia’s indigenous peoples were decimated, and links to ancestral countries, languages and trade networks often fatally ruptured. It follows that Australia, as a nation, is implicated in each and every one of the objects that Encounters displays: if they tell an overarching story, it is that all of us, black and white alike, remain sealed together in the historical compact of colonial encounter.

For Ian Coates, this is exactly the point: the project’s value, he argues, lies directly in its ability to re-engage contested histories.

“I think the best objects are those that remain unresolved,” he said. “They sit outside of historical narratives in a way that there’s a kind of contradiction to them: on the one hand they remain the same, yet on the other the interpretations around them can change over time.”

The NMA has long been a leader in the field of community consultation, and in the past has repatriated objects from its own collection and made specific items available for ceremonial use. But, as Coates pointed out, the ultimate power to resolve specific issues lies in this case with the BM. Even if Encounters contributes to a more fluid relationship between museums and indigenous communities, as Coates hopes, the exhibition itself will only be part of a continuing process: it’s what happens next that matters. As Peter Yu put it, repatriation remains a “legitimate aspiration” for various communities, it’s just that the debate needs oxygen (and time) to occur.

“How do we define the roadmap to get there?” he asked. “How do we find the right protocols, the appropriate consultations?”

In Albany, discussions are already well under way. The solution put forward by the Noongar community is as obvious as it is compelling: they want the Menang objects from the BM to be exhibited in Albany. There they might provide a practical means to re-engage with culture, a process that would, one assumes, also serve to simultaneously reinvest them with contemporary knowledge.

The BM, for its part, is receptive: talks have been held in both Albany and Canberra. But although the wheels are turning, the endeavour (as a BM spokesperson pointed out to me via email) remains burdened by logistical challenges.

Coyne is unequivocal on the matter: “We understand the role that museums play in preserving things,” he said. “[The objects] wouldn’t be here if not for that, but by the same token our reconnection with those things is very, very important.”

At one level their desire is simple: members of the community want to hold the objects in their bare hands. “You can’t really connect with them without having the bare skin on them,” Coyne told me.

“To go across to Canberra and to see it all in a glass case over there is fine. But we’d prefer to see things back here, on country. Obviously. That’s the dialogue we need to have.”

To its great credit, Encounters hasn’t avoided the anxieties that it has raised. Instead, it has sought to establish itself as far more than a static display of objects: a “project” with many stakeholders, an unresolved “discussion” that will extend far beyond the exhibition’s closing. Because of this, its overall success will not be measured in audience attendances. It will be felt instead in the effect it might have on the very nature of the contemporary museum.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer. His first book, The Stranger Artist, won the 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for nonfiction.

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