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Reconnecting communities with collections: a National Museum of Australia — British Museum collaboration
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection that is held in the British Museum is one of the most important holdings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material in the world. Since 2007, curators from the National Museum of Australia and the British Museum have been working together to research and make available information about the collection. Despite its significance, little is known about the diversity of material that is in the British Museum’s collection and the histories behind its formation. Through the joint work of the National Museum and the British Museum, this is changing.
The collection has been assembled over 240 years, beginning with material collected at Botany Bay in 1770, during James Cook’s first Pacific voyage. In addition to rare and precious objects, it includes photographs and artworks as well as correspondence detailing interactions between collectors and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout Australia, during various periods over the 240 years. The collection has particular strengths in rare early nineteenth-century material, which has little representation in Australian museums, and reflects the multiplicity of British and Australian imperial, colonial and scientific interests.
The collection is accessible online via the British Museum's website. This database is continually being updated with photographs and further information about individual objects that are being progressively added. The National Museum and the British Museum are working towards displaying highlights from the collection in a forthcoming exhibition, to be opened both in Australia and England.
The exhibition will include some of the most significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum’s Australian collections. This exhibition will be the first time the majority of this material has been publicly displayed.
The development of this project offers a unique opportunity to reconnect these objects with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of the regions and communities where they originated. We are working with relevant Elders and holders of cultural knowledge to record their perspectives on the key objects. This work is documenting stories and perspectives which will feature in the exhibition, alongside the historical narrative derived from archival records.
The exhibition will highlight both the historical encounters between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and British explorers and settlers, from which these objects have come; and the reconnections between contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their cultural heritage, occurring as part of developing the exhibition.
Displaying the British Museum’s early material with related highlights from the National Museum’s collections and with contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander narratives will also enable the earlier objects to be viewed through an historical rather than an ethnographic lens.
The National Museum and the British Museum are working with the Australian National University to undertake a major research project entitled ‘Engaging objects: Indigenous communities, museum collections and the representation of Indigenous histories’. The Australian Research Council is supporting this four-year project.
A key part of the ‘Engaging objects’ project is supporting a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fellows. Each of these fellows will have direct access to the collections in the British Museum. They will respond to elements in the collection through the production of new works, either in written or visual form, which reflect on the meaning and significance of individual objects. Their work will generate and exchange information about the historical and contemporary significance of the material. Some of the tangible reflections produced by the fellows will also be used in the exhibition.
Ian Coates, Senior Curator, ATSIP