The British Museum opens a major new exhibition presenting a history of Indigenous Australia opening to the public 23 April. This exhibition will be the first in the UK devoted to the history and culture of Indigenous Australians: both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders. Drawing on objects from the British Museum’s collection, accompanied by important loans from British and Australian collections, the show will present Indigenous Australia as a living culture, with a continuous history dating back over 60,000 years.
The objects in the exhibition will range from a shield believed to have been collected at Botany Bay in 1770 by Captain Cook or one of his men, a protest placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy established in 1972, contemporary paintings and specially commissioned artworks from leading Indigenous artists. Many of the objects in the exhibition have never been on public display before.
The objects displayed in this exhibition are immensely important. The British Museum’s collection contains some of the earliest objects collected from Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders through early naval voyages, colonists, and missionaries dating as far back as 1770. Many were collected at a time before museums were established in Australia and they represent tangible evidence of some of the earliest moments of contact between Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and the British. Many of these encounters occurred in or near places that are now major Australian cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth. As a result of collecting made in the early 1800s, many objects originate from coastal locations rather than the arid inland areas that are often associated with Indigenous Australia in the popular imagination.
The exhibition will not only present Indigenous ways of understanding the land and sea but also the significant challenges faced by Indigenous Australians from the colonial period until to the present day. In 1770 Captain Cook landed on the east coast of Australia, a continent larger than Europe. In this land there were hundreds of different Aboriginal groups, each inhabiting a particular area, and each having its own languages, laws and traditions. This land became a part of the British Empire and remained so until the various colonies joined together in 1901 to become the nation of Australia we know today. In this respect, the social history of 19th century Australia and the place of Indigenous people within this is very much a British story. This history continues into the twenty first century. With changing policies towards Indigenous Australians and their struggle for recognition of civil rights, this exhibition shows why issues about Indigenous Australians are still often so highly debated in Australia today.
The exhibition brings together loans of special works from institutions in the United Kingdom, including the British Library, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A number of works from the collection of the National Museum of Australia will be shown, including the masterpiece ‘Yumari’ by Uta Uta Tjangala. Tjangala was one of the artists who initiated the translation of traditions of sand sculptures and body painting onto canvas in 1971 at Papunya, a government settlement 240km northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Tjangala was also an inspirational leader who developed a plan for the Pintupi community to return to their homelands after decades of living at Papunya. A design from ‘Yumari’ forms a watermark on current Australian passports.
This exhibition has been developed in consultation with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, Indigenous art and cultural centres across Australia, and has been organised with the National Museum of Australia. The broader project is a collaboration with the National Museum of Australia. It draws on a joint research project, funded by the Australian Research Council, undertaken by the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. Titled ‘Engaging Objects: Indigenous communities, museum collections and the representation of Indigenous histories’, the research project began in 2011 and involved staff from the National Museum of Australia and the British Museum visiting communities to discuss objects from the British Museum’s collections. The research undertaken revealed information about the circumstances of collecting and significance of the objects, many of which previously lacked good documentation. The project also brought contemporary Indigenous artists to London to view and respond to the Australian collections at the British Museum.