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Encounters blog: a place for conversation

Caution: This exhibition and website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


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11 Dec 2015

By Assistant Curator Dr Lily Withycombe

The stories of people involved in Encounters, past and present, are at the core of the project. Film enables us to present the thoughts, opinions, memories and reflections of community members in the first person. More importantly, the personal stories give deeper insights into the objects on display. The objects are incomplete without these stories, which reconnect people, objects and communities.

Peter Yu and June Oscar
Chair of the Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group, Peter Yu, interviewing Bunuba woman, June Oscar AO.

For the exhibition, the curators chose objects with a strong provenance, and a known collector and date of collection. They approached the community associated with the place from which a given object or objects were taken to see if they were interested in being involved in the project. Following discussions with the curators, community members were asked if they would like to be filmed. Curators bought a small film crew with them, either from the Museum or provided locally, and interviewed a number of people – men, women, elders, youths – about their thoughts on history, custodianship, loss, forgiveness and the role of museums.

Lily Withycombe
Assistant curator Dr Lily Withycombe viewing Bundjalung weaving in northern New South Wales.

Even though communities had been sent booklets of information and images, often our filming captured the moment where an individual saw an object that they previously hadn’t known existed. This moment of recognition is incredible to observe – these objects, treasured by the British Museum curators for years, became something different when the community members recognised them as something made by their ancestors. The object then transformed from something inanimate held in an overseas museum to a living object charged with living memory. Film can capture this moment perfectly.

Back at the museum, every interview was transcribed, and a short film created by the media team and the curators. Around 30 clips from filmed interviews feature in the exhibition. Every filmed interview will eventually be available on the Encounters website, forming an incredible archive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander opinions, thoughts and feelings about these objects returning to Australia from the British Museum for the first time.

This post is drawn from an article published in the latest issue of The Museum magazine, which is available from the Museum's online shop.


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