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There’s no doubt it’s been an amazing week at the National Museum of Australia. The media preview for Encounters on 26 November was the prelim to this extraordinary exhibition opening to the public the following day. And the formal launch just a few days ago was really a great ‘thank you’ party for the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants, contributors and partners in this project over the last 7 years.
However, bracketed between them was the ‘Investigating Encounters’ panel discussion. This was recorded at the Museum and will be broadcast and released via podcast to an enormous listenership on Tuesday 8 December on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program. For me, just one of the 150 or so members of the audience, it was a privilege to be present for such a thoughtful, emotional and important conversation.
The session was intended to be about the exhibition, the community engagement process, museums and the repatriation of objects to communities. It was all this, and so much more. Panellists Carol Christophersen and Ned David spoke about their personal experience of reconnecting to objects that were made and held by their ancestors, but which are now in the British Museum’s collection. Whether these precious things were taken or given in friendship, the sense of sadness and loss expressed by the panel was countered with great pride that through the exhibition the objects can now be shared with all Australians.
Both Peter Yu and Nancia Guivarra talked of how the issues that Encounters raises are important not just to Indigenous communities but to all Australians as we move towards the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum and consideration of recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution. The speakers, guided by host Paul Barclay, ranged across the many personal, local, national and global issues raised by Encounters.
History and politics were undeniably there, but also affirmed throughout the evening was the belief that objects and museums can be a portal for understanding our shared pasts and helping us resolve unfinished business.