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Dr Mathew Trinca Director, National Museum of Australia, 16 March 2016

DR MAT TRINCA: Can I start by offering my respects and acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of Canberra – their Elders, past and present. And I look forward to Adrian Brown, who is a member of our Indigenous Reference Group joining us soon to welcome you to Country.

Thanks really also to all of you for attending this event, to the organisers, to the speakers, the participants, in what has been a much anticipated moment. This New Encounters conference which is really, as Margo [Neale] has pointed out, the companion to the major project that has seen linked exhibitions and associated works in London and also now in Canberra. It’s humbling when I heard Margo’s introduction. It’s very humbling to be here with you speaking on this morning of the conference, not least because of the many friends and colleagues who’ve labored together on this project, and who are now joined here for a discussion that I hope will range widely over important territory that connects museums to First People’s communities; not just in this country, but right across the world.

Indeed, I take a very special pleasure from the fact that we’re joined by a former Director of this Museum, Dawn Casey, who actually gave me my first job in this institution many years ago, and I really thank her for returning to us, and for being a part of this major conference.

Now in this Museum at present, there’s a remarkable wooden shield. A shield of the Gweagal people taken by Lieutenant James Cook to England in 1770–71, and invokes a time and place indeed, an event that lies at the very epicentre of our history in this nation.

The shield was collected in the aftermath of that fateful first encounter between Cook’s landing party and two warriors on Gweagal land, the beach at a place we now know as Botany Bay, in April of 1770.

The historian Maria Nugent, I don’t know if she has joined us today, but Maria has written extensively of this moment, based on accounts by Cook, by Joseph Banks and other members of the landing party. In his journal, Cook wrote that two men came onto the beach and challenged his crew, as the boats from the Endeavour reached the shore.

At first, the accounts suggest the landing party fired a warning shot at the two men, but then when they continued to advance, they fired directly at them. One man was wounded and ran off to get a shield. On his return, the party from the Endeavour fired on both men again.

The accounts say that the encounter ended inconclusively – there’s much behind that, of course, and there’s a continuing debate about the terms, exactly, in which this encounter ended. But it’s remarkable that the shield here in the Encounters exhibition is believed to be the one that was left on that beach that day.

Now this epic failure of dialogue, when two worlds collided on those shores, almost 250 years ago, was marked by violence. It stands as a potent emblem, of much that came after.

We know that these events were repeated in other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands, as frontier conflict swept across the continent with devastating consequences in the late 18th, the 19th and 20th centuries. In my view, it is impossible not to feel deeply moved, in looking honestly and directly at this challenging and confronting history.

The Encounters exhibition marks the first time that the Gweagal shield has been in this country since 1770. It’s among the 151 early Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects in the British Museum, that have come here to the National Museum of Australia after a related exhibition at the British Museum in London, curated by Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, who I think is with us today or certainly at the conference. Welcome Gaye.

Also I welcome the presence of Dr Lissant Bolton of the British Museum who’s done so much to ensure that this project would happen.

Now all the objects from the British Museum here for Encounters, have a strength and potency that has affected every one of the many people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who’ve been involved in this work. That they are here, in my view, is a tribute to the people of the 27 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around this nation from which these objects originated, who’ve contributed so much to bringing the project to fruition.

For more than four years, they’ve worked alongside the British Museum and National Museum. And we are indebted to their generosity and their grace in giving voice to the interests and wishes of their people. They’ve given a lot of themselves. And for many of them, as you might understand, this has been a difficult and emotional journey.

The exhibition also is the result of the work of this Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group led by its chair, Mr Peter Yu, who sadly wasn’t able to be here for this conference. I spoke to Peter Yu yesterday and he asked to be remembered to you all and to encourage you in the discussions that we are going to have over these coming days.

All of these remarkable leaders in that Reference Group – Peter himself, Adrian Brown, Jason Eades who’s here, Greg Lehman who’s here with us, Henrietta Marrie again who’s joined us, Vic McGrath who’s here, Irene Stainton and Russell Taylor – my great colleague, the CEO of AIATSIS [Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies] just across the way – have offered sound advice and direction as to how this project might proceed.

They have also encouraged the Museum, rightly in my view, to embrace the searching debate that such work has inspired. I really salute them all and thank them for their courage and commitment to this over so many years.

The Aboriginal community of La Perouse in Sydney are the inheritors of that historic encounter on the shores of Botany Bay in 1770 that I recalled at the start of this paper. Dr Shayne Williams is an Elder of the community and also with us at the conference. I do not know if Shayne is here, where is he? Welcome Shayne.

This is what he said in the past about the Gweagal shield, and I’m quoting.

That shield represents a whole history of this country. This country was annexed by the British and there’s questions as to whether it was rightful or not at the time.

So it brings up all sorts of discussions and areas to be explored and I think the shield too represents all Aboriginal people because that very place where the shield was taken from is where the rest of Australia was annexed to the British. Aboriginal dispossession started there in that very place.

Shayne goes on:

What it reminds me of is Aboriginal resistance. And not just resistance back then but resistance to the destruction of our culture up until now. That we’re continuing to resist the infringements and impacts and the decimation of our cultures and our identities. It’s going to be a great source of pride for a lot of Aboriginal people. There’s a lot of emotions involved in this. We feel spiritual about it and we feel proud about it.

There’s such strength of purpose and pride in what Shayne Williams has said about the shield, and indeed the broader project under discussion. He tells us that the shield is an emblem of Indigenous dispossession and that it represents a history of Aboriginal resistance to colonial settlement. That it has a rich symbolic value as an emblem for the colonial moment that stretches beyond the Sydney region, right across the country.

Dr Williams also makes clear that the shield is deeply implicated in the lives of his people today. As much as it tells us about the past, it is also very much alive in the present. It’s material evidence of cultural diversity and endurance of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It manifests the truth of culture continuing and resonating in communities throughout Australia. For non-Indigenous Australians too, the shield carries complex historical meanings and involves narratives that speak of the nation’s self-conception.

It’s a physical trace of the first encounter that ultimately led to the creation of the modern Australian nation state, so it exists in relation to the wider Australian community, as part of a deeply held foundational narrative.

It’s also associated with an historical figure who has an almost mythological status in Australia, and indeed, around the world, James Cook. Given that it’s also been held in the collections of the British Museum since the late 18th century, it also reminds us of a colonial history that explains the continuing presence of British forms in national life and which, in some senses, belies our allegedly post-colonial condition.

Now, these are powerful, intertwined, and at times competing narratives. Not just about this one object, the Gweagal shield, about which I’ve been speaking, but indeed about all the objects in Encounters.

Put simply, they complicate our conventional understandings of this nation’s past. From western Australia, for instance, come two taap or knives, and a kodj, an axe, collected by the first government resident of the early British settlement at Albany, on the continent’s South Coast, Alexander Collie, in 1831 to 1833.

Now, we don’t know for certain how these objects into Collie’s position but, what we do know was that he was a great friend of Mokare, a Menang leader who guided the government resident on several journeys and made him aware of the impact of colonisation on his people.

Collie nursed Mokare when he was dying; looking after him, in his home. When Mokare died, Collie helped bury him according to Aboriginal custom. In turn, when Collie died just a few years later, in 1836, he asked to be buried alongside his friend, at Albany.

And Tiffany Shellam – I don’t know if Tiffany is here – but, Tiffany Shellam’s great book, Shaking Hands on the Fringe, is a rare work that really unpacks these early encounters at Albany with nuance and great subtlety.

The taap and kodj are embedded then in a narrative of friendship that confounds our assumptions about what happened on the Australian frontier. They remind us that there were, always, other possibilities for human action, aside from those which so often descended into violence and resulted in death.

In some cases, at least, other roads were taken that led to dialogue and friendship rather than the fear, distrust and conflict that characterised many early encounters. Now, there’s a tremendous power in these objects to help us come to a deepened sense of our history and, this morning, I’ve got time to speak about just a few of these objects that have been brought to this country for the Encounters exhibition.

They all take us inside past events and compel us to consider what was, but, also, what might have been. And that searching examination of our past is something from which, I think, we should not shrink, nor be fearful. Instead, we stand to gain so much from being open and honest about what we learn about our history and the responsibilities it entails. Now, seeing these things and hearing the stories of people from their communities of origin, has had a heartfelt impact on the visitors, the many visitors, more than 80,000 already, who’ve seen these things in recent months.

Consider some of these responses gathered by the Museum through a new digital application, Articulate, in the exhibition space. Just got to mention a few.

From Hillary Gilmore, and I’m quoting:

They’re making me rethink the language available to me to describe my relationship with western museum objects.I use them as sources to rediscover old lost making skills, but we never talk about that meaning-making as a way of connecting with our ancestors and their knowledge. If we did, maybe we would value them more as connectors with the living past.

From someone who just wrote her name as Jackie:

I’m deeply moved, my skin is tingling and my eyes are damp. There is much work to be done, grateful for this awakening exhibition.

From Fredrick Holton:

It’s a connection to a part of my family history that has been lost, a story I want to learn to tell our daughter.

And from Leonie Ebsury:

Everything was amazing. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the dilly bag that one of my ancestors weaved so many years ago.

Now ultimately, the historical meaning of these objects, their power to materialise the past for us, may actually, in some ways, be less important than their continuing power and resonance as cultural objects in this present.

I think that’s apparent in the comments that I’ve just reviewed, in what Shayne has said about the Gweagal shield and, indeed, others have said about the other objects in this exhibition.

Harley Coyne, a senior Noongar man who’s with us today – Harley, are you here? All right, there he is – has said about the objects from Albany, for instance, before they arrived in Australia, and I’m quoting him:

As a Noongar man from this country, I’m looking forward to examining that material to see what types of resins they used to make the stone axe and what type of wood they used to make the spears. I’m just going to, I think, confirm that we were taught the right way.

The remarkable thing about these objects is that, while they all speak to us of the past, they also transcend those moments to exert an emphatic and undeniable cultural power in this present. It is connection and correspondence to communities, and their continuing cultural practices, that make them live or more properly alive, in this moment.

Now, it’s not my place to speak for these objects nor, indeed, to speak for the desires or interests of their source communities or communities of origin. A range of opinions have been expressed about these collections by community members, ranging from the repatriation of these objects to their homelands, through to the idea of their continuing display in London to represent Indigenous Australian cultures to the world, and much more will be said in months and years to come.

But this work has stimulated great discussion about the future and future possibilities and it’s impossible to know all that the future may bring. I do believe, however, that the relationships forged by this project between communities, between this Museum and the British Museum will be enduring and productive to the people in every one of the communities that has worked on this project.

In particular, I hope this work opens up more possibilities, more opportunities for new kinds of relationships between museum collections and communities of origin. Not just in respect of the collections of the British Museum, but indeed for all museums that hold collections of the material culture of First Peoples.

After all, the collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in museums of this country are vast compared with those of the British Museum, notwithstanding the particular issues that have been raised in regard to this collection.

Now it’s almost 20 years since the scholar James Clifford’s influential accounts of museums as contact zones where first and settler peoples might meet in cultural exchanges around object collections. In those much quoted essays, Clifford encouraged us to see meaning-making in museums as more volatile and dynamic, and ultimately a more productive cultural and, indeed, political practice than we might otherwise have thought.

He also called for an expansion of the range of things that can happen in museums and museum-like settings; for less emphasis on the categories of possession and preservation, and more on the responsibilities of custodianship to enable use and circulation of objects.

By implication, he suggested that we see collections in more fluid relational terms rather than striving to fix their meaning as one thing or another. My colleague, Dr Richard West, will speak in a few minutes about the ways in which museums in the United States have thrived and learned much from their close engagement with First Peoples. I’m getting the bell, so I better wind up.

Clifford’s argument has been, itself, endlessly debated. For my part, I’ve come to see the Gweagal shield, the Menang taap and kodj and other remarkable works in this exhibition, more in terms of their relations to people in the present, connected and meshed in the lives of people living culture today, than in the historical past.

The shield, taap and kodj move out of the historical circumstances of Botany Bay and Albany encounters, and draw meaning from their deep connection to the people I’ve met at La Perouse, Albany and other communities around the nation. And if they transcend those historical events by moving into the present in such a dynamic manner, then it’s also the case that they internalise the cultural logic of the long, successful human history of this continent, which reaches back at least 60,000 years. They bear material witness to the clear truth that this is a continent lived in for countless generations.

As a non-Indigenous person, it makes me think how fortunate I am to live in a place like this, with such a long and remarkable human history, marked by the great capacity of its First Peoples to adapt and innovate in the face of wrenching climatic, geophysical, and biotic changes over millennia.

For museums like this one, the responsibilities that I’ve outlined require us to think differently about the collections we hold, and to consider how we can connect them productively to communities and peoples from whence they came.

This means that we must rethink some of the persistent conventions of museum practice, and think in more expansive and dynamic terms about how to ensure communities are empowered in the ongoing management of collections, not just in terms of specific program or project needs.

It’s possible, for instance, to imagine such objects might always be documented, stored, and displayed with the act of involvement of communities, not just in terms of a shallow process of consultation, but through a deep considered engagement, co-labouring between people and the places where they are housed.

I’ll leave it to others to judge Encounters. But I do feel encouraged that it has opened up a productive dialogue about these matters, of a kind that has sometimes been lacking in our history. I’ve said already that it is difficult to predict the future, but I hold a strong hope that this project might help change the relationship between Indigenous Australian communities and museums.

Though the caveat I would apply to that is that there is still much that remains to be done. Now you will rightly wrestle with these issues through the course of this conference, and it maybe that you will not always agree. In embracing the opportunity to debate such matters, you show a willingness to confront and deal with this nation’s history for all its challenges.

Indeed, with the history of other colonial encounters between settler and First Peoples in ways that can help us build a stronger conception of a shared future for all peoples, and of the part in that which museums might play. For that, I commend and thank you all. Thank you.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–24. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 01 January 2018

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