WARNING: Visitors should be aware that this website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
One of the great privileges, and joys, of being a curator is the opportunity to get out of the office and meet and work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experts, on their home lands, in the development of new exhibitions. Members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program (ATSIP) have recently been consulting with individuals and communities across Australia about a future exhibition, which has the working title of 'Encounters'. The views and knowledge of the participants have been exciting and refreshing, with varied, and sometimes contrasting, opinions as to museums and their collections. The Encounters project is based on Australian collections that are held by the British Museum in London. A number of these objects will be loaned by the British Museum to the National Museum for exhibition in 2015. Each object has its own history as to what its original cultural context was and how it was collected. Museums sometimes forget to consider the stories of how objects were collected, and instead focus on the object as a cultural artefact. The Encounters exhibition will explore the stories of collection, using different examples from across Australia - including stories of objects having been given to collectors in trade, through purchase, or as gifts between friends; there are also stories of objects that were collected from camps after the Aboriginal people had been killed or driven off. Although the exhibition will focus on several specific examples, the case studies that have been gathered so far reflect the range of historical experiences from across Australia.
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Abe Muriata, basket maker and master craftsman, being filmed at Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre in Cardwell, north Queensland. He is looking at one of the baskets from the British Museum that were collected from his country 150 years ago, 2012. Photo: Jay Arthur
Ian Coates discussing objects from the Albany region with Lynette Knapp and Winnie Larsen, 2012. Photo: Benita Tunks.
Natasha Fijn filming Rodney Mason and Shayne Williams making a gararra fishing spear at Cook’s landing site, Botany Bay 2011. Photo: Benita Tunks
Every object has a past history. But, every object also has a future history. Through the Museum's consultations, it is clear that people know their own histories and have continued to draw inspiration from their cultural heritage. Showing images of the objects to be loaned by the British Museum excites discussion. Sometimes, people are seeing certain types of objects for the first time, although they have often heard stories of them. Sometimes they go straight to their desks or cupboards and pull out identical objects made by themselves or families. Sometimes they have examined old museum collections to inspire new works of art and craft, both in a traditional style and in more contemporary artworks. On occasion, an object is shown to have been wrongly documented by the collector, or else additional and important information is provided regarding the object.
It is an important reminder, to curators and researchers, that the history of objects is not frozen in time. This project provides an opportunity for these objects, many of which are over 150 years old, to be bought to life again by community elders and knowledge holders.
We also hope to display modern opinions. Some participants would like to see objects returned permanently to their traditional owners, others are happy for them to remain in museum collections. The stories the various individual and community participants are contributing to the project attest to the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural life, and individual identity, across Australia.
The project is also providing opportunities for curators from the British Museum to meet and engage with community members. This engagement leads a growing appreciation by overseas museums of the living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is certainly opening doors to future engagements. The National Museum is, once again, privileged that people are so generously sharing their stories and opinions with us.
Dr Michael Pickering Curatorial Research Fellow