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Investigating Encounters transcript

Encounters

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


Investigating Encounters panel discussion

Hosted by Paul Barclay

Recorded at the National Museum of Australia on 1 December 2015

Dr MAT TRINCA: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Mat Trinca. I’m the Director of the National Museum of Australia. It is wonderful to see you here tonight.

I would like to begin, as always at the National Museum, by acknowledging that we meet on the lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri peoples. I offer my respects to their elders past and present. Welcome also to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from other parts of Australia who are with us tonight. We’re honoured by your presence. I have seen already some of the people from the 27 communities across the country who’ve worked with the Museum over the course of the Encounters project. Welcome to you all for this very special event ‘Investigating Encounters: a panel discussion’.

The event has been organised jointly by the National Museum of Australia and ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program hosted by Paul Barclay – our particular thanks to Paul for his continued interest in the Museum and indeed his presence tonight. The event is focused on the important issues raised by the National Museum’s landmark exhibition Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum (BM) which opened late last week. Encounters shows 151 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the BM’s Indigenous Australian collection, set alongside more than 130 contemporary artworks from communities represented in the exhibition. These are objects that come from all states and territories across Australia, and they were collected between 1770 and the 1930s. They are objects that truly go to the very heart of our history detailing the earliest encounters between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in this country.

As you might know, this is a joint project with the British Museum that saw a linked exhibition in London in April of this year. From the start, both institutions were very focused on the idea that this project had to address the interests of those communities across the country from whence these objects came and to enable them to connect with their objects at the BM. I must say that our colleagues at the British Museum have been very open and embracing of this work right from the start. There is no doubt that the project raises issues at the core of the relationship between first peoples and museums more generally globally and not just in this country. Collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander materials held in museums in Australia and elsewhere around the world inspire deep emotion and feeling. They are part of people’s lives today as well as being reminders of events in the past. That is something this show communicates very strongly.

We want to bring these collections, and indeed the communities with whom we have worked over more than four years, to wider public knowledge and to support considered debate. It is certainly about the role of museums and the relationship to Indigenous Australians but also about our complex, and at times challenging, history in this nation. We also think that such collections can lead us to productive dialogue among all Australians about our past.

I would like to thank Paul Barclay for his interest in the project and his real enthusiasm for tonight’s debate. He is joined by a group of highly esteemed panel members.

Peter Yu is a Yawuru man from Broome in Western Australia, a member of the Council of the National Museum of Australia and chair of the Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group. Indeed he, together with other senior members of that group, has guided the Encounters project from the very start.

Carol Christophersen is a member of the Muran and Bunidj clans in Western Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park. She holds a bachelor of arts degree majoring in anthropology from the University of Queensland and is an anthropologist at the Northern Land Council where she’s worked for 13 years.

Ned David hails from the Kulkalgal nation in the central island group of the Torres Strait. He is co-chair of the Commonwealth’s Advisory Committee for Indigenous Repatriation, president of the Torres Strait Islanders' Regional Education Council and inaugural director of the Yumi Education Support Service.

Nancia Guivarra is a Meriam, Wuthathi and Bindal Juru woman who was born in Brisbane and raised in Gladstone, Queensland. She has more than 20 years’ experience in media production and communications, entertainment, arts and government policy.

I welcome them all here tonight. I’m looking forward very much to hearing their reflections on the Encounters project and beyond. Just to let you know that tonight’s debate is being recorded live and will be broadcast on 7 December at 8pm on Radio National. We’re also filming tonight and the video will be put on the National Museum of Australia’s website and social media channels. I’m told, although I am still a novice at this, to encourage people to tweet as we go using #NMAEncounters. The staff are cringing as I show my complete naivety about this but I promised I would say use #NMAEncounters. As a final reminder, please turn off those phones, enjoy the discussion and debate that follows. Over to you, Paul.

PAUL BARCLAY: Thanks, Mat, it’s great to be here at the National Museum of Australia. As Mat said, tonight’s discussion is being recorded for my program Big Ideas, which will be broadcast on Monday night at 8pm on RN and will be available online and via podcast. Mat might not be quite up to speed with twitter. If you are not up to speed with podcasting, you should be. Three million download podcasts of Big Ideas this year and rising. So it’s the way you can listen to these programs on your mobile phone when you’re having a walk in the morning. Tell your friends who can’t be here tonight that they can hear this conversation at their leisure.

Apart from this conversation about the Encounters exhibition, I’ll be back next year as well to talk about the National Museum’s Defining Moments in Australian History project. We kicked off that series of discussions not long ago, and I’ll be back to continue them next year. So watch out for that.

Encounters, the exhibition that we are here to talk about tonight, is the most significant exhibition in the history of this institution, the National Museum of Australia. I know this because the Museum says so and I’m not going to dispute that claim. Dare I say it is also the most controversial exhibition here at the Museum, controversial because, as you heard Mat say, the exhibition is built around 151 Indigenous Australian cultural objects from the formidable repository of the British Museum.

The artefacts are back in Australia. They are back home but only temporarily until the end of March next year. There are no plans for these seminal objects and materials to be permanently repatriated to Australia. Yet to some Indigenous activists and community members, they are Australia’s equivalent to the Elgin marbles and they are demanding their repatriation.

The exhibition, it needs to be said, is the result of a long and painstaking consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities over a considerable period of time. The incredible items on display, which I’ve just seen, include two spears and an astonishing wooden shield collected by Captain Cook in Botany Bay in 1770. The hole in that shield may well have been caused by a musket round or a spear following an altercation. I can’t tell you the feeling one gets seeing something like that up close.

The exhibition, which I’ve had a look at today, is simultaneously magnificent and unsettling. You realise these are not mere objects, they are stories and they are a link to the past and to the present. The Museum is to be congratulated for opening a discussion and a debate on this. This takes us to the heart of contested Australian history, and the Museum is up for the discussion.

As you’ve heard, we have a fantastic panel of guests tonight. They have been introduced to you. But just so that you know exactly who they are, on my immediate left is Carol Christophersen; next to Carol, we have Peter Yu; next to Peter, we have Nancia Guivarra; and next to Nancia we have Ned David. Please make them all welcome. [applause]

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, you visited the British Museum exhibition earlier in the year from which some of these items on display at the National Museum come from. How does it feel seeing them here at the National Museum for the first time? What’s your emotional response seeing them back on Australian soil?

PETER YU: Thanks, Paul. Can I first of all acknowledge and pay my respects, on behalf of all of us, to the traditional owners of this country here we are currently sitting in having this chat about. Well, I think like you said in your introduction, there’s a mixed emotion. There’s a sense of pride about the nature of what these objects represent in terms of the resilience, the nature of the survival of our first peoples of this nation, and the strength of that resilience in terms of its continuing practices and what it represents – the integrity of Aboriginal culture in all its diversity around the nation.

But at the same time you have to try to deal with the whole issue of sadness, I suppose, that permeates when you think about the history of the contact and the encounters. You’ve mentioned the shield and the spears. Equally all of the other objects surrounding it represent for those particular communities from which they started their lives and for people who were entwined with those objects, they equally represent the same kind of emotion.

So there’s no doubting that the overwhelming sense of feeling is one of a highly emotional experience, but at the same time I guess a sense of pride about the fact that we have survived. We have not only survived but also survived with great strength and great dignity. That’s something that this exhibition provides. It’s a portal into those very personal experiences. They are not mere objects. Yes, they are national treasures but, more importantly, they represent a whole range of different things for the Aboriginal people from which those things came. But what they do is they also represent the ongoing connection and the fabric of our continuing existence.

PAUL BARCLAY: Carol, how did you feel seeing it?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: The exhibition or the?

PAUL BARCLAY: The objects for the first time, these immensely significant pieces that tell us so much about our settlement, our history?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: I saw a number of these objects in the British Museum. I was fortunate enough to be able to visit them. My first encounter with them was absolutely a huge privilege. I can’t tell you all the emotions that were running through me because I was able to actually hold the objects and really think about who made these objects, and that was really, really important. Those images were coming to me about these human artefacts.

The Museum has treated them as objects but you’ll see in this display in the exhibition that really they’re a part of us; they are not merely objects. Walking into this Museum and seeing them for the first time here on display, I think there’s an enormous amount – and I know the work that’s gone into it – of respect that’s also been shown. You can hear that in the messages. Yeah, goose bumps. I felt absolutely privileged to be in their presence.

PAUL BARCLAY: Ned, some of these objects come from your country. We’ll talk a bit later about some specific objects and the relationship to your family, your ancestors. How do you feel being in the presence of the totality of the objects in the collection?

NED DAVID: Interestingly enough, Paul, not every group in the Australian setting is represented by these objects, but I think the collection in the exhibition itself has a direct impact on everyone. So in that way I think every group across the country that’s from the first peoples of Australia see this as a reminder of the first contact and the impact it’s had since – whether Cook collected that shield on that very first day or not. It’s a reminder of that point in time where the first contact with the colonialists arrived and the impact it’s had on us. But as Peter and Carol have said, we take great pride in the fact that we’re still here.

PAUL BARCLAY: So I suppose there’s the resonance of survival tinged with the sadness of what colonisation meant both hitting you in the face when you see these objects up close.

NED DAVID: Absolutely. I don’t think that impact is necessarily restricted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I suspect there’s many in mainstream Australia who draw the very same set of experiences, I guess. This is a seminal point in our history. We will reflect on this in years to come that these objects that were collected at that particular period of time have finally come – not necessarily, I suspect, to home but close to home. These objects are not at home here in the Museum. They are close to the different places where they were collected across the length and breadth of the country.

PAUL BARCLAY: Nancia, how did you feel?

NANCIA GUIVARRA: Overwhelmingly I had a visceral response. It’s amazing to see these objects that haven’t seen the light of day in Australia and have been in vaults in the British Museum overseas for such a long time. To have them here was a feat for the history of this country because they’ve been there for a long time. To get them here, I appreciate that, on behalf of the Museum. I felt sadness towards a lot of stories from some of the communities that I’ve read. My own community, being from a descendant of the Murray Island and the Meriam people, I actually felt a bit of happiness and connection. As a journalist I’ve heard of for a long time about the Alfred Cort Haddon collection and what it’s done in this country. The first film ever made in the country, the first sound recordings of our people, and it’s made the documentation of our peoples really possible, especially for me as someone who wasn’t brought up in the Murray Islands but on the mainland, so I felt a sense of connection with some of those objects.

I love the fact that they are paired with contemporary objects that are made from artisans up in the Torres Strait now and on the mainland as well. For example, the ghost nets of the boats that were built by the Darnley Islanders, and Darnley Island is where my grandfather, my father’s father, was born and raised. He used to make those nets by hand. As a child I used to sit in the backyard and he’d do that the whole time. For me, I loved that sense of the connection. It was a cultural affirmation for me as well to be able to see them.

I know there’s a range of emotions that other people feel about them that they should be back in their own communities. But I know that people in my community are actually proud of the fact that other people get to see them.

PAUL BARCLAY: We will talk about some of the specific objects too in a little while.

PETER YU: Can I make a point, it’s not we’ve just survived but Ned’s point is critical because we are at a seminal moment of where these objects sit within the contemporary context of this country. We’re still dealing with outright racism in our communities against our people right across the board. We’ve had reports of a coronial inquiry in Western Australia in the last week about the appalling treatment of that young woman, that death in custody. Those things happen on a day-to-day basis. We’re currently at the stage where we are contemplating the nature of major constitutional reform for the recognition of Aboriginal people.

So it’s not just survival. We’re still dealing with critical issues in the process of maturation of this nation. While it’s emotionally important for us to provide that and to get to understand what these objects represent, it goes to the heart of the nature of what hasn’t occurred in relation to the encounters. If you talk about that first day on the beach and what that represents, you contemplate the nature of the interaction. What was the strength of the nature and the dialogue? We know that Cook had a Tahitian – I forget his name – on the voyage that he brought as an interpreter across here with him. We’re still dealing with these issues. The exhibition is not outside of its contribution and its importance to the debate and the discussion in the nation.

As I say, they are not mere objects. They represent clear signposts on this very corrugated road of our relationship that’s been here for over 240-odd years or so, and we still haven’t come to terms with that. That’s the other sense of emotion that it has for Aboriginal people when they see these objects. It is clearly a challenge for the rest of the community to not only embrace the integrity and the importance of these matters to us, but it is clearly a time of reflection for the nation in respect of what it hasn’t yet been able to achieve in its settlement with the first peoples of this country.

PAUL BARCLAY: For those people who are listening and who obviously haven’t seen the exhibition, each of the items has a narrative of the place and the time it was taken, and these stories are the centre of the exhibition as much as the objects themselves. So when people visit the exhibition will not just see objects taken from places they know nothing about, they will be presented with an entire story.

Ned, unlike some of the Indigenous critics of not so much the exhibition but of the British Museum who provided 151 of the objects that are the centre of this exhibition, unlike them and one of the of them actually expressed his anger towards this exhibition on my social media feed the other day, Gary Foley – I am sure he won’t mind me mentioning his name in that context. Unlike him and others like him, you are an unequivocal supporter of this exhibition. Tell us why.

NED DAVID: Let me qualify that, Paul.

PAUL BARCLAY: Not unequivocal then.

NED DAVID: I specifically have a position on the collection that is directly connected to my great great-grandfather. That exchange and how that happened, that was done with full consent through AC Haddon and the others regarding the mask and some of the other objects that are in the exhibition. We have that story in our own oral history. Myself, as a descendant of Maino, I am not in a position to go and overturn that. I don’t think you do that in anything that has been set in place by our elders before us. So as it relates to those specific objects, that’s my position.

In terms of the rest of the collection, I can understand why there are a strong set of feelings around this simply because of how some of these objects were collected. That would be pretty much the same set of sentiments shared by a large number of other Indigenous peoples around the world should those things have been ‘taken’ under the same set of circumstances.

PAUL BARCLAY: Carol, does the issue of repatriation cast a shadow over this exhibition, in your view?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: I don’t think so. I guess my view is that these objects or artefacts were collected violently, quietly – there are all different stories – but there is a collection, and that collection has been held by museums. And today we’re able to access those collections. We’re able to view them, look at them, make protocols for museums that want to embark on that relationship with Indigenous people, put rules in place and have exhibitions. I absolutely understand people wanting to repatriate and bring objects back. For this exhibition I don’t think it should overshadow. I think there’s far too much value in that exhibition to worry about that.

PAUL BARCLAY: It doesn't overshadow the exhibition from my point of view either. But the question –

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: The question is there, yes. You can’t ignore it.

PAUL BARCLAY: You look at these pieces and you can’t help but ask yourself the question: why are they not here in this country where they came from, where they should be? I am fully aware that repatriation is a complex issue.

Nancia, did you get that sense that they will be going back to Britain at the end of March and they’ll be put in a vault and we may or may not see them, depending on whether the British Museum decide, as they are currently contemplating, to have a permanent Indigenous exhibition over there. They will go back into this vault and they’ll all be taken away from us again.

NANCIA GUIVARRA: I think they should be here, without a shadow of doubt. But I also think that the question of repatriation should be a question that is asked of the people who own those objects. It’s not for me to judge; it’s up to them. The responsibility to ask that question rests on all Australians and rests on the institutions that are involved as well – not just Indigenous Australians. It seems to me that the conversation is just between us and the museums or the institutions rather than these aren’t just objects that are important to us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, these are objects that are important to the Australian people as well. I think they should be included too.

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, repatriation we know can’t happen at the moment. The very reason these objects are in Australia is that there is now a law that has been passed. Without that law they would not be here, and that law ensures that the objects go back to Britain afterwards. The last time some of these objects came to Australia, a claim was placed on them that they not return to Britain.

PETER YU: Principally you can’t disagree with the argument of repatriation. Everything being equal in the world of course you want to see that happen, but we’re living in a real world and we have to deal with these matters. Let’s be clear about the legislation as well too because if we don’t understand what it’s intended to do or how it manifests itself in an exhibition like this, then we can get misdirected about it.

There are a number of key things. We have to distinguish between these objects and where there are other more sensitive objects that might be of a customary, cultural or ritual point of view that have security protocols coming from a customary position on these objects. They’re not included in that legislation. Traditional owners around the country can argue the case and seek to get those other objects back. I think it’s critical. It’s outrageous that anybody would ever think that they are entitled to have those objects in the first instance, in the first place.

But as my other countrymen sitting here have indicated, the success of the exhibition already is the fact that we’re actually talking about repatriation. It’s part of it. We’re not shying away it. It’s on the table. We can have a robust discussion. Hopefully it shows that there is this developing sense of maturity that we can do it. It’s not a simple answer.

The question about repatriation is about the protocols of access. At least now we are seeing it instead of it being locked up in the vaults. Otherwise we would never have had the opportunity to do that. We have now been able to have support from the Prince’s Charities Trust to establish six scholarship for six young Aboriginal kids from around the communities, as a legacy outcome of this project, to study here at the National Museum of Australia and also to spend some time in London at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art as well as have access to places like Oxford, Cambridge and the British Museum itself. That will present some level of empowerment for those individuals who have the great opportunity to do that. Hopefully they will bring that back and be able to use those skills that they learnt in their community.

Beyond that, the British Museum has welcomed the debate as well. It obviously sees itself these days and is marketed as the museum for the world. Notwithstanding the political and other sensitivities with things like the Elgin marbles, in our discussions earlier in the year in April, they recognised that if they were to be a museum representing the world – that’s what they are trying to do – they said, ‘If we do that, we have to recognise the oldest continuous living culture in the world. We have to have discussion between friends.’ The director of the British Museum is quoted as saying that.

Yes, we made some advances. It’s not perfect. But I think once we engage further and develop the trust relationship, we open further opportunities. We’ve got to be more creative. We can’t dwell in the rhetoric of emotion. It’s important to respect that and to understand what that is, but we have to be able to develop more creative solutions where we have these obstacles – various legislation, attitudes or whatever it might be.

PAUL BARCLAY: I think we are all on the same page in terms of hoping that this kickstarts a discussion about repatriation, as you say, Nancia, on the proviso that the communities themselves want those items repatriated, that that discussion begins from now.

Is that your thinking about this too, Carol, that hopefully we get this conversation started? I know that you’ve been involved in repatriation in terms of the human remains issue, which is not so much a part of this exhibition today, but you’re hoping that a general discussion about repatriation?

PETER YU: There is no skeletal material.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: Up until not so long ago – I’m not too sure what date – institutions were saying no to the return of human remains. It’s not without Aboriginal people, Indigenous people around the world, talking to these institutions, reminding them, teaching them about culture and things that they now have laws that enable the repatriation of human remains. So today the museums are saying no. Today there’s an exhibition that’s raising the awareness of these artefacts that are of huge value to Australians. The story will continue, I’m sure.

PAUL BARCLAY: Let’s talk about some of the objects in the exhibition and the stories we behind the objects. Ned, your great-grandfather, Maino, a Torres Strait Islander tribal chief, gave a headdress and a dugong charm, both magnificent items in the exhibition, to an English anthropologist, AC Haddon, back in the late nineteenth century, in 1888. Tell us a bit about the story behind that.

NED DAVID: AC Haddon was visiting – he was there on his own in the first instance when he went to the Torres Strait. The story, as I understand it, is he went straight to Yam because it’s in the centre of the Torres Strait, and that’s why people refer to it as the heart of the Torres Strait – I made that up. He befriended Maino, who was a significant elder in the community, and that friendship grew and matured into something far greater than what Haddon planned or expected. On his return visit, Maino became his friend and guide to other places. As a part of that association, which is extremely common in Torres Strait where you befriend someone, there’s always an exchange of gifts and every gift has a special meaning, those particular gifts that he gave Haddon, especially the mask that he built especially for the occasion to remember his father who was a great chief in Torres Strait history. On parting he said to Haddon, ‘I want to take you that back to your country so that I want your people and the world to know about my father who is someone of significance in the Torres Strait.’ Someone who was probably before his time, I think, in many of the things that he did with Haddon.

PAUL BARCLAY: So he knew, even back then, the historic significance of what those objects could come to mean in the decades and centuries later?

NED DAVID: As you would know and many of my colleagues on the panel, a lot of our elders were visionaries in their own right. People like Haddon, I think, knew how to sort people out in the groups that were leaders and that were thinkers. As I recall, Maino must have seen the change happening before his eyes, because Haddon himself said, ‘I want to catch the culture before it’s lost.’ That’s the entire premise of the Cambridge expedition around that to try to get as many of those things while they were still in place and being practiced, even though a lot of it has been lost.

I want to go back to a point Carol made about the importance of the exhibition and those objects for us. It’s those sorts of things that have happened where we can go to that’s proof or evidence for white fellas. We already know that; we ourselves know that; we’ve got our stories; we’ve got our history; we know our genealogies and connections. But these objects are proof for others that these are things that have been in place when the first sort of outsiders arrived. This is proof for us what was in place then. Today we still carry and practice a lot of those things. Those things are still respected and observed.

If I can say that’s quite possibly what Maino and quite a few others must have thought. Here is something that we can give. It’s part of the [in language] – how do you say that in English?; it’s not my first language so I tend to butcher the syntax from time to time. The gift giving that commemorates an occasion but has a lot of meaning behind it.

PAUL BARCLAY: That’s so true. You see knives, spears, axes, shields, stones used to grind up seeds, honey gathering hooks, digging sticks, tobacco pipes – they give a tremendous insight, Carol, into Indigenous life pre-European settlement. As Ned was saying, you guys don’t need proof of that, but somehow it brings alive that life to white fellas for the first time.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: That’s right. Those objects, that is the evidence of our occupation. We were all over this country. If you look closer at it, you’ll see the designs which are religion; you’ll see the technologies, the creativity and the artistry in all of those human artefacts which have absolute relevance to us today. That exhibition – we know that stuff. Exactly we know that stuff. Non-Indigenous Australia, we’re sharing it with you today.

PAUL BARCLAY: And some surprises too. The bamboo mini didgeridoo that to the naked eye looks like an oversized flute.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: It does.

PAUL BARCLAY: Does anyone know the story of that?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: There’s an image on the side of the plinth and I have a suspicion it was the same one from 1843 from Port Essington, that didgeridoo. Our language today we call didgeridoo bamboo – the old people do anyway. So traditionally it was made out of bamboo. That bamboo, I don’t know that it’s actually from Australia. I think it might be something from the Macassans. If you look at the length of it, there are telling signs it’s a little bit different to what you might find in the bush today. There’s lots of information there. All of those stories will tell you it was not what the English were after. They were after collecting, as you might collect teaspoons from the different cities.

PAUL BARCLAY: The stories are at the centre. The fact that your great-grandfather is befriended by a Cambridge University anthropologist and he is gifted these items, in itself that story tells us a story that confronts us with some of our one-dimensional ideas of contact, doesn’t it? In a sense, we find it hard to believe that an elder from the Torres Strait islands in the late eighteenth century could meet a Cambridge anthropologist and have an equal relationship. But that’s in a sense helping us to re-understand the complexity of that.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: You’re adjusting your knowledge of your heritage right now, and that’s exactly what museums are doing. You’re rethinking: who am I – actually, possibly?

PAUL BARCLAY: Is that what the point of this exhibition in a sense is?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: Well we know who we are. What we want Australia to do is go ‘Okay, maybe my history, there’s a few gaps there’.

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, these stories are about challenging us white fellas as much about who we are, our history and the nature of our interactions as well?

PETER YU: Yes, absolutely. When we had the exhibition in London in April, what was fascinating was the interest of the British public, the intensity by which they were viewing each of the objects and the stories behind them. The keyword that I heard throughout all of that was about reflection. We were having an early chat about the confidence, about England within the kind of European setting and more globally. People now are a lot more capable of being able to confront these things. We haven’t yet been able to do that in this country. There are many images of relationships that people established. They were good, bad and indifferent, and mostly probably bad for Aboriginal people in terms of the atrocities, and we still suffer from those historical grievances. But within that there are settings of human relationships that these objects point to, the stories, that allow you to investigate. In that plinth there’s the image with the didgeridoo where they are performing, there is one of the sailors in the middle.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: Yes, he has his arm around an Aboriginal man as they’re dancing.

PETER YU: I think your brother comments on that in the exhibition about that.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: That’s right – relationships.

PETER YU: In the mid-1850s, I think it was, where you have a colleague in Albany with Collie – I hope I have that name right; there are so many things to try to keep track of who’s who – who was in the service of the colonial army and when he died he asked to be buried with his Aboriginal friend who was his main contact. This guy was quite significant in that period of history in relation to the colonial administration. There are those stone knives, the axes and stuff.

The beauty of it is also in the technology. Carol mentioned that. If you look at the Kimberley spear points, they are beautiful objects. The kind of technology of understanding the material that you’ve got to work with and understanding about fire and what rocks you use and how you can make these works of art are incredible. We dumb down those things in this country. We deal with the negative stereotypes that we see on the news of the continuing subjugation and oppression that a lot of our people had.

What we want to do is get over the hurdle so that Australians need to be proud and embrace what we have contributed and continue to contribute. I think that we need our political leaders to show some leadership in this, because they are critical. We are in the midst of an interesting period in our history with a whole range of things that are not going that well, in my estimation. We need to have the fortitude and the ability to look beyond what’s restricted us. That’s the challenge that I think this exhibition helps to bring.

PAUL BARCLAY: Nancia, for someone like you, does the exhibition shine a greater light on, for example, the Torres Strait where your ancestors came from and the AC Haddon collection that you referred to earlier? Interestingly, you were telling me earlier that the AC Haddon collection quite possibly had a profound effect on the Mabo ruling itself?

NANCIA GUIVARRA: Yes. Coming off the back of what Peter was saying before about that historical acceptance, I think this exhibition has the capacity to build stronger relationships, because it is evidence that we’ve been here for a long time and have survived and that we have a great capacity to be innovative, to be sustainable peoples. I think Carol, you said we know we’ve been here forever, but in the Torres Strait it was ironically Alfred Cort Haddon’s evidence that was used as part of the Mabo claim to prove to the western legal system that it wasn’t terra nullius in Australia. It’s a bit ironic that that has happened in that way. We have had to use white man’s evidence to build our own case for something we’ve known all the time. That’s one of the capacities it has.

People now have to accept that we were here before Captain Cook. It [the exhibition] also then has the capacity because I saw a lot of educational groups come through here today. We know that it’s not in our educational systems necessarily as well. But when you look at these objects here, how can the children who see this go home and challenge older adults whose views are a bit more formed and harder to change that we have great value within this nation to add to what we have to offer the whole world in particular.

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, we need to talk about the Gweagal shield which is at the very moment of interaction between Cook and the Indigenous people. It’s really at the point where this country that was to become Australia – the Europeans arrive here, Cook arrives here, and he takes this shield. There’s a little hole in the shield. Do we know whether or not that little hole is actually the result of bullet fire?

PETER YU: It belonged to a Gweagal tribal warrior who was on the beach that day in April 1770, I think it was. There is speculation and that in itself is intriguing as an introduction to the context of the encounter. As I understand it, the research has suggested that it’s likely to be a spear, not a musket. But I guess looking at it, it conjures up in your mind that very day and what the environment was like on that beach. When you think about this Gweagal traditional owner defending his country standing there and you think about Cook or whichever of his members of his sailor group and what they were trying to do, what was the interaction.

It’s fascinating, too, because when you start to read a bit back in the history of the diaries written on that trip, there are clear misunderstandings. There was one situation someone has described to me where Cook and his sailors had got all this turtle from Botany Bay and put it on the boat. The traditional owners were coming and grabbing them off the boat and chucking them back onto their canoes and taking them back to shore because it was theirs. They owned it. They were allowing Cook to take some, but they were taking some because of the reciprocity rules that have existed and continue to exist today.

There is another story about a traditional owner walking down the beach and Cook or one of his men chasing him trying to find out how to catch fish and stuff, and this person was just ignoring him and kept on walking because he couldn’t understand them but he wasn’t going to tell them how to catch fish. That’s why it’s like a portal. You go into it and start to read and investigate. It’s not just about the issue of cultural awareness; it’s about orientation because these things aren’t easy. They require people to do some work themselves to investigate, to find out. That is what is challenging about this. It is not just coming and looking at these objects; it’s about understanding the context and circumstances of it all. You can make your own judgments then about that.

PAUL BARCLAY: The question about how they are acquired though becomes a significant question too, doesn’t it? There’s the shield and there are two spears both obtained around about the same time in 1770. Do we know essentially whether they’ve been stolen? Are they the result of combat? The shield pretty much immediately makes its way back to the British Museum I think by 1771 and the spears somewhere else. But do we know the circumstances under which they were collected, the legitimacy of the collection of these objects?

PETER YU: I don’t. But I think whatever conflict that occurred on that day – whether there was a musket fired; whether that was the first time the traditional owners had heard a musket; whether that was fired directly at the shield or around the shield and it was dropped and was taken as a souvenir; whether there was violent confrontation and they were taken back as trophies. There are different circumstances. Those circumstances happened all the country. That’s part of the story. That’s part of the investigation.

PAUL BARCLAY: Carol, are you happy about how the context of the objects is presented in the exhibition, the stories about how the objects came to be acquired?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: I haven’t read all of them so far. What I like about that exhibition is I can hear the Aboriginal person’s voice. So there’s a story that they are telling us about how they were acquired, and a lot of that is through oral histories about that particular region. I quite like hearing the Aboriginal voice, which was an important characteristic of this exhibition that the Museum wanted to have, and I think that’s come through.

PAUL BARCLAY: Ned, what do you think these exhibits from the Torres Strait, from your country, mean to the younger generation? What’s their contemporary meaning?

NED DAVID: Look, in this day and age this generation are faced with a range of different challenges, and I’ve said this before. Certainly at this point in time where technology certainly for remote communities means you are able to access everything around the world from your mobile phone to your laptop or tablet or whatever they call them these days, the positive for me I see in this, from the Torres Strait perspective, brings back some strong messages. One obvious one is this sense of identity that I think if we’re not careful we might lose it. In saying that, there’s a percentage, certainly a group within the younger generation that I think are borderline. I am simplifying a very complex situation here.

When you look across all those key areas of what people deem to be important elements of identity. One obvious one is language. All our languages across northern Australia are at threat, some critical in parts. All those elements of the part of identity and culture et cetera, I think this exhibition plays a massive role in hopefully inspiring our kids of this generation that here are some things to be celebrated; here are some things that can help reconnect and reinvigorate this generation about where you as Torres Strait Islanders fit into the overall global picture – not just within Australia but your footprint in the global walk, I guess. That’s how I see it can be of assistance in that regard.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: I understand exactly what you are saying, but maybe government might get inspired to include this history in our curriculum. So therefore our children are growing up with this on a national level not just from elders and the stories that we pass down but right across Australia that whole identity is adjusted, if you like, to include this information.

PAUL BARCLAY: Because these objects give us something that textbooks can’t provide, they bring alive stories in a way that books can’t bring alive. I saw a shield today used in combat, obviously, that also had all of these beautiful detailed etchings on them and I thought: here’s a culture that is not only developing implements to protect itself but also displaying its artistic prowess on the same object. It is just one object but that’s telling me something about a culture that I don’t know I would be able to get from reading a book about it. They are so vital in bringing alive that part of our story. I hope that school kids from around the country come and visit the exhibition.

The other that we haven’t spoken much about is that there is 151 objects from the British Museum, old objects, but then there’s a whole lot of new objects that are in some ways riffing off the cultural inspiration of the past. Nancia, I am wondering about the ability of these historic artefacts to kickstart some new cultural and artistic interpretations amongst younger Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

NANCIA GUIVARRA: I was actually surprised to see that in the video of Aven Noah from Murray Island in the Torres Strait he said that people stopped some of these practices. We probably necessarily didn’t stop of our own will in lots of instances. I know that was prevented from practising ongoing cultural practices. But what I do see as an arts journalist for some time in the Indigenous area, I can see a continuation of those practices from those old objects to now. There’s a basket there from Cardwell that’s an amazing basket. The detail in it is just beautiful that just shows excellence in craft to me.

PAUL BARCLAY: It’s incredible, isn’t it?

NANCIA GUIVARRA: Then a fellow in Cardwell has also seen that and has been inspired to make a new one which sits alongside it. It’s almost identical to me except that he has painted his. What I love about it is that seeing those objects has the capacity to inspire more generations of artists and artisans and craftspeople if we can get access to them, and I think that needs to be enabled. And also that continuation of practice I see strongly in a contemporary sense with some of the works that are in the contemporary exhibition that runs alongside as well. For example, Alec Tipoti in the Torres Strait – lino printing is quite a well-known craft that artists from the Torres Strait are famous for – you can see that in the old tobacco pipe that we looked at which had very fine incisions. I like the fact that it shows how innovative we have been over time to be able to draw from that.

Also for those people whose cultures and we know through historical circumstances for a lot of people there’s been a lot of disjuncture within their lives. They’re disjointed or they’ve been removed from families. If they are trying to find their way back or if generations of people haven’t been able to practice those techniques, then going back to those kinds of objects and having them in the community enables them to go back and relearn what it is. I think that gives us a sense of meaning and continuation for our cultures in the world.

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, another of the questions one asks oneself walking through the exhibition is: should I be seeing this? Should I be looking at this object? Is it right for me to be seeing this? I would imagine that, what you have done through the process of consultation with the communities from which these items originally came, is to get all of that checked out with the communities to make sure about that question. Perhaps you can tell us a bit about the whole consultative process behind this exhibition.

PETER YU: A lot of that is within the exhibition itself. There’s a lot of audiovisual material and a lot of statements. One of the clear winners in this exhibition is that it’s in the first person or the first people’s narrative. That’s what it makes it so unique and different. I have been around museums a little bit, but I think this is the first exhibition I’ve seen that it’s the people telling the story. There are no sensitive materials because all of those have checked. There is a number of different levels. Quite clearly under the Act we talked about before, these objects wouldn’t have come across if they hadn’t been provenanced properly. They have to be able to guarantee that these objects have been provenanced to come here in the first instance. That’s a technical level.

Secondly, quite clearly, the objective of the whole project was ensuring that there was significant ownership of the project and buy-in in terms of its representation of the objects, in terms of the stories that are interconnected, in terms of its contemporary relevance and positioning with culture groups. In terms of the community, the beauty of it also is that the communities have brought into the risk of this issue. Because I think the Museum – and there will be people critical. That’s part of democracy, as they say, a cliche. There will be people critical but part of the exhibition is to be critically analysed, otherwise it wouldn’t be what it is, the success that it’s going to be.

The people who were involved they have told their stories so they obviously knew what objects were being looked in terms of the British collection coming across. That is why they were targeted as first contact communities around Australia. There is no issue of a restricted nature in respect of anybody viewing the material per se, other than the fact there will be, as we have already indicated, the emotional response and reaction because of what it is.

PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. It’s a conundrum or a contradiction in a way, Ned, that many of the objects on exhibition here, when they were made, one imagines, were not made with the thought they would last over 200 years. The reason that they’ve lasted over 200 years is precisely because they’ve been sitting in a vault preserved by the British Museum. So in a sense that’s a contradiction as well that the reason we can see these terribly important Indigenous objects from the past is because this colonial institution, the British Museum, has looked after them so well. It’s a paradox, is it not?

NED DAVID: I guess there’s a massive assumption there too, because I think we would probably still have had those dowries if you guys hadn’t arrived and taken them off us.

PAUL BARCLAY: You reckon when those spears were made 250 years ago they were thinking they’d still be around in 2015?

NED DAVID: I still have mine but yes, that’s a good point. I think a couple of people on the panel have already touched on that as a great example where there are certainly some strong feelings about where these objects are, who owns them, they are only here for a short time and going back. There is obviously on the other side of that, as Carol and Nancia have said, we’ve used some of the evidence that was collected by Haddon and others for our own benefit basically using stuff that was collected by the other side to actually win quite a few significant battles against the other side. So yes, it is a bit of a paradox, isn’t it?

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, were there some objects that through the consultation process you decided not to bring out to Australia?

PETER YU: The British collection is around about 6000 so we had to make a decision, and obviously the decision is around the narrative of first contact.

PAUL BARCLAY: I suppose I am getting at items that would have been significant that people would’ve looked to have seen but for whatever reason didn’t make it here.

PETER YU: Some of them are very old and some of them can’t travel because they would disintegrate. There are particular conditions that you need to be able to ensure their security, I suppose. But to their credit the British Museum is putting that all online. They have documented that so that will be accessible. Hopefully there will be further exchanges. This hopefully won’t be the first and last of such an exhibition. We hope that there will be fellowships and other research projects enabling communities to visit to do that. Who knows – there may well be the opportunity at a later date where there is some considerable protocol in place between not only the two institutions but also puts front and centre the position of the community in terms of access and availability of those objects.

PAUL BARCLAY: Carol, can you begin to imagine how people from those 22 communities – delegates and members of those communities – will feel when they do come here to see the exhibit and objects from the first time? There are some people in the audience tonight who fall into that category. How they will feel when they see these objects for the first time from their communities; such important parts of their history?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: Absolutely overwhelmed, I’d say. We’ve been showing people photographs, look at this basket. So to see them up and close, albeit behind glass, talking about their community with their voices is just incredible. It’s an absolute honour and privilege to be able to see them up and close.

PAUL BARCLAY: Peter, what guarantee is there that the British Museum will not lock all this stuff up in a vault for another 20 or 30 years? There is I understand some discussion going on at the moment that there will be a permanent exhibition within the British Museum? What do we know about that?

PETER YU: I think the management is in transition at the moment. The outgoing director has certainly expressed a view that, if the British Museum was to honour the truth about it being a world museum, then it had to honour the oldest living continuous culture on earth. It remains to be seen whether that does happen under the new administration.

I would’ve thought there be far greater risk of wanting to lock it all up again, given the kind of exposure. It would be a complete contradiction in relation to expressions that certainly as I’ve interpreted them have been coming from there. We met with some of the trustees of the British Museum and they are forward, modern thinkers in their own right. They were very magnanimous in terms of their engagement with us. I’m an optimist. Being an Aboriginal person, you have to be the eternal optimist in this country.

PAUL BARCLAY: It will be a sad day though when these objects are boxed up and put back on a plane back to England, surely?

PETER YU: I think there is no doubt that that will be the case. But the truth will also be that we are a very generous and realistic people and we will have appreciated what we’ve had in the time we’ve had it. But that’s not the end of the story. Just because they are going back doesn’t mean they are going to be locked away and we are not going to have access to them because we won’t let that happen. We will work as hard as we can – this National Museum of Australia, we’ve had 110 per cent backing from the previous chair and our current chair and the directors and we’ve got the Aboriginal reference group. From a mechanical point of view in terms of the bureaucracy and in our relations with the [British] museum, I have great faith in the fact we will advance this relationship to a much better place in the future.

PAUL BARCLAY: Why don’t we take some questions from the audience. I have plenty more questions but I probably should give the audience the opportunity to ask some questions as well. Jose has some Twitter questions for us.

QUESTION: We had a Twitter Q&A last night with the curators of Encounters and some of the questions that came up were around community consultations. I have a question from a user called ‘anthrobeater’ for the panel. How would you define ‘consultation’ between museums and Indigenous communities?

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: One of my problems was defining a community, because where I’m from, it’s quite a large area. And with a very small budget I had to be quite efficient. Senior traditional owners of the region as well as community groups, youth, getting information out and seeing who was interested in being a part of this exhibition. I think it speaks for itself in the exhibition not only from the Northern Territory but all over Australia the people that have participated, and we’ve touched on that as well.

PETER YU: I think historically probably it hasn’t been good. This is what makes this project unique and why it is a milestone. I think a lot of the credit has to go with the staff who work in the Museum here. They’ve spent a long time painstakingly ensuring with great due diligence that they have been able to identify. Yes, there are issues as Carol raises about definition and there probably will be some gaps.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: Absolutely.

PETER YU: There is no doubt about that. But I certainly couldn’t fault the endeavor, the effort and the professionalism in trying to make sure that we’ve contacted the right people and that we pay the due respects to people. I think we’ve done that successfully. It shows itself in this exhibition. It’s something that will stand us in good stead because I think we are entering into that new era.

PAUL BARCLAY: I would imagine the Museum has learnt a lot about the exhibition creation process where Indigenous cultural objects are at stake throughout this planning behind the scenes.

PETER YU: I have been involved in working with the project. Other than being a member and on the reference group, I’ve also been working on the project. What has been an immense joy for me personally is to see not only the nature and dedication and professionalism of the staff but how they’ve all worked together. The feeling in this place has been quite unique. I think Mat Trinca has to take a lot of credit for that as the director and the other people working with him. I feel the staff have learnt a lot as well in this process of engagement. They’ve given their heart and soul in the preparation of this, and I think that comes out. It’s quite unique. I haven’t worked in a situation like this for a very long time. I say that in all honesty.

NANCIA GUIVARRA: I think the keyword that you just said, Peter, was engagement rather than consultation, because consultation is a word that can mean a meeting and we hear you but not necessarily it’s taken on board. That can be passed off as a consultation. I think we needs to move towards an engagement.

One of the things I’ve noticed with this Museum and with this exhibition is that it probably wouldn’t be possible if there aren’t Indigenous staff within these institutions. Fifty years ago there probably weren’t Indigenous staff in these institutions. Having Indigenous staff within them, and at the British Museum as well with Gaye Sculthorpe, is a key to ensuring we go a long way towards doing the community engagements and consultations appropriately.

PAUL BARCLAY: Anything to add, Ned?

NED DAVID: This project, as a number of people have already said, has gone a long way to building trust in most communities and I suspect that’s for the very same reasons that have already been stated. I think Peter and the reference group that advises the Museum plays a massive role in this regard. That in itself leads to establish trust in the first instance that there is a group made up of prominent Indigenous people – Victor McGrath has been a representative of Torres Strait for a long time on numerous boards – that I think cleared the road. And of course the staff, certainly from the Torres Strait perspective, already have an established link and relationship with us that was already there. It was a matter of growing that and identifying the right people to have a conversation with. Then everything basically ran according to script, I guess. That’s one of the major benefits or spin-offs of the project that, if you do it right, some great things can happen. I think this is evidence of doing all that lead-up work properly.

PETER YU: Can I add one small point that great credit obviously has to go to the communities because they enthusiastically embraced this. Notwithstanding the issues of risk and sensitivities and stuff, they took a lot of ownership in the way that that engagement process unfolded and the relationship. I think that’s true to say. A lot of credit has to go to those people who have been involved in this project in the community.

QUESTION: Thank you for the discussion. It’s been most enlightening. Downstairs we have a fabulous exhibition to enjoy. I’m interested in not so much the detail of the process but the length of the process that is involved in bringing something like this to fruition. You’ve talked about detailed and lengthy engagement with an enormous range of critical stakeholders. Somebody must have had an idea some time ago – Hey what about this? I’m interested in maybe how long ago that seed was planted either in the British Museum or here or collaboratively; and how long the whole process has taken from that seed to what we see downstairs?

PETER YU: Where is the bloke to blame, I think he’s there somewhere. Dr Ian Coates, one of the senior curators here, in 2007 was on a research fellowship in the British Museum. I guess having access and seeing the objects there, he questioned the whole validity and legitimacy and having these objects here and why aren’t they out there in the community. It started in 2007, if that’s the right date. It’s gained momentum over the last three and a half to four years where the project was established, there was ongoing negotiations with the British Museum and setting up the engagement methodology in the community. There is a current parallel research project with the Australian National University (ANU) and the Museum that is running at the moment which is tracking the engagement methodology. I know there have been many visits over that time with communities and particular individuals from those communities have been responsible representing their communities in this exhibition.

We had a large community workshop here in February this year where we brought representatives from all those communities here, and I think it was very successful. What you actually see in the exhibition is significant major input from that workshop, helping to challenge the Museum. Let me say it was very robust. People weren’t timid at all. That was fantastic. But to the Museum’s credit they took that on. I think what we have today is a successful representation of that match of the critical contribution that the community members made.

I don’t know if that answers your question, but it certainly started way back in 2007. There is huge expense with this. People will know that, like every other institution, the Museum has to deal with efficiency dividends – or cutbacks in simple language. There have been enormous cost issues for insurance, transport costs. Sponsorship is very difficult in this economic environment. You need to have significant creative thinking and partnerships. I think we’re very lucky to have pulled it off, and a lot of that goes to the management of the Museum. You have to think about all that in the process as well to understand how such an exhibition of this size and importance can come together.

QUESTION: Thanks to the panel for a very thoughtful discussion tonight. You were saying that stories are at the centre of this exhibition and that it has the potential to build stronger relationships between white Australians and Indigenous Australians. But I wonder sometimes with this language that we use about collecting, collectors, collections – these are really benign, neutral terms – yet the context in which many of these objects were collected were quite diverse. Some based on friendship; some forcibly removed. There are quite contentious histories around the objects.

I wonder if we need a more nuanced language to talk about how these items were procured in order to facilitate stronger relationships and a better understanding of the history of these objects and between the so-called collectors and local people. I am asking a question about the language that we use to talk about it.

NED DAVID: I didn’t get your name.

QUESTION: Julie Lang (?) from the Australian National University.

NED DAVID: I wouldn’t have expected any less from you, Julie. I think you ask a very important question. My personal answer would be, given what we’ve said so far in the discussions tonight, a lot of this has been around how the exhibition itself has impacted on different people, how we feel about it. We are quite keen to share that, whether you support it in its current form or you have a range of different feelings as to whether it’s right where it is or whether it should go back.

I think the onus at this point in time, given how willing I think we were to be part of this journey to get this to happen, is on museums themselves to see whether they want to have a real conversation on an equal footing – not necessarily just about the objects in this exhibition but a range of different things. In this regard I am hinting at secret sacred objects and, of course more importantly, ancestral remains. I am not in any way disrespecting the significance or importance of the objects in the exhibition now. I am wanting to make a point that we need to be very serious about how we can address some of the significant blights in the history that only collecting institutions can help equally address. The conversations and terminology that we use, whether they are genuine or not, and move away from just rhetoric, which has haunted a lot of people that have some really tragic histories and connections to collecting institutions. That would be my response.

PAUL BARCLAY: It’s a very good question actually. It was a question that slipped through that I wanted to ask about how this exhibition in a sense critiques museum collections themselves. I have been to the British Museum. I am sure plenty of people have been here to the British Museum. It’s an enviable collection. They are an incredible institution for preserving old things. But it is also a collection that tells us something about the colonial past of that institution not just as it pertains to Indigenous objects.

CAROL CHRISTOPHERSEN: That’s right, that’s non-Indigenous culture. That is it right there, and that is where our cultures are meeting right now. Until we’ve moved on I don’t think we can call it anything else but a collection. Maybe after this exhibition it will be something different.

PAUL BARCLAY: Do you think the exhibition does open up that question, Peter, of how museums acquire their collections? What they do with these collections? What’s the point of preserving collections, for example, if they can’t be seen like these people from where the collections originated? They are all important questions.

PETER YU: This exhibition opens the door to that discussion. Another exercise we’re embarking upon in the new year is a symposium on exactly this question of: What are the rights of first peoples and what is the role of cultural institutions in the 21st century? It’s a critical issue. This is what this exhibition does: it invites you into that discussion about all of those aspects. I don’t have any answers to that. But I think we’re starting to move in the right direction where we are trying to answer the question with a much more equitable participation and relationship that has ever been there before in the history of cultural institutions. I think that’s a good start.

PAUL BARCLAY: I am glad we got to that point. We are going to wrap this up pretty soon. Does anyone have a final question they would like to ask?

QUESTION: My name is Alex Marsden. A quick one not so much about challenges because I know there have been many but what learnings have surprised you so far and what learnings do you hope to get?

NANCIA GUIVARRA: I had to have a think about that one. I think the fact this has happened shows there is incredible goodwill in the community to bring these artefacts and objects here and to build a better relationship between Australians and Indigenous Australians or first peoples. Having that opportunity and knowing that you’re all here is really positive. It gives me hope.

Ned said something about trust earlier tonight. We know through the reconciliation barometer, which came out a couple of months ago, which measured the levels of trust between us, that trust levels aren’t high but the goodwill is there. It’s really an opportunity for us to further those conversations. It’s very timely that we’re heading towards issues about recognition, rights and sovereignty that all of this seems to be building up to me towards 2017, which is the anniversary of lots of important milestones in our history between Indigenous and black and white relationships in Australia. For me, that’s a good learning. At a micro level when I walked through the exhibition, there are some stories that still shock me today that really make you realise that we still have a long way to go, I suppose.

PETER YU: It’s not a learning but it’s more of a reaffirmation and confirmation that there’s tremendous creativity and intelligence out there that ought not to be underestimated. Particularly in the Aboriginal community in the way that people have with a great level of sophistication contributed and provided solutions in a critical area where those communities have been marginalised and dispossessed, yet continue to display resilience and continue to be able to engage in a way to provide the manifestations and expressions of that resilience and that pride and that dignity. What’s really important for me is that continues and continues to grow. That is something we all need to hitch ourselves to.

PAUL BARCLAY: We’ll leave it there. Thanks very much for coming along this evening. Thanks especially to our terrific panel of guests this evening – Peter, Carol, Nancia and Ned. Let me thank the National Museum of Australia for organising this and for really being up for embracing the complex issues, the argument and the controversy that is implicit in this important exhibition. It’s one thing putting on an exhibition like this; it’s another thing welcoming the debate that will rage around it. I think that’s almost as important as the exhibition itself.

Remember you can hear this on RN on Monday night at 8; you can download on your computer or iPod through podcast; you can also contribute to the discussion on #NMAEncounters if you want to continue to talk about this later. I will be back at the Museum again next year for more discussions about different issues, but for now I will hand back to Mat to wrap up the evening. [applause]

Dr MAT TRINCA: Thank you, Paul, and thank you all four panellists for what we would all agree was an immensely affecting and stimulating discussion. Not for the first time I feel greatly indebted to all these people here for the clear sense, the wisdom and the strength of view that they’ve brought to this discussion. Thank you also to Paul Barclay who so expertly curated, if I can use that term, the discussion tonight. Thank you all for being such an attentive and interested audience.

I hope you take this opportunity to tell friends, colleagues, associates about this work to really repay the great generosity that we’ve experienced here at the Museum from these people – from Peter, from Carol, Ned and Nancia and many more people from the 27 communities right across the country who’ve been so open, embracing and generous in this project. It really is their project. Thank you. [applause]