Encounters was a collaborative project between the National Museum of Australia, the British Museum, the Australian National University and a range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia.
Community engagement was central to the project. Over seven years, staff from the National Museum and the British Museum worked with 27 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia.
The project generated two closely related exhibitions featuring highlights from the extraordinary collection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects held at the British Museum.
National Museum, Canberra
The exhibition, Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, was on show at the National Museum of Australia from 27 November 2015 to 28 March 2016.
British Museum, London
Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation was on show at the British Museum in London from 23 April 2015 to 2 August 2015. It was launched by the exhibition’s patron, HRH The Prince of Wales.
June Oscar, Bunuba elder, 2013:
These objects and stories are part of who we are ... they have a life and they have a history.
Kenny Brown, Tiwi elder and artist, Melville Island, Northern Territory:
We want to share with people, so they can understand what we do, and how we do it.
At the core of the Encounters project was a program of extensive Indigenous community engagement across Australia. Museum staff worked with and recorded elders and cultural knowledge holders from 27 communities where objects from the exhibition originated.
This provided many communities with an opportunity to learn about these objects and their underlying histories. Reconnecting people with these aspects of their cultural heritage prompted discussion about the Indigenous legacy of first encounters with British settlers.
Research project: Engaging Objects
A key part of the Encounters project was the allied Engaging Objects research project. This was a collaboration between the National Museum of Australia, the British Museum and the Australian National University, with the support of the Australian Research Council.
The project offered a unique opportunity to research and document the ways in which museums can work with Indigenous communities to develop innovative and collaborative exhibitions.
The Engaging Objects research collaboration aimed to:
- provide opportunities for Indigenous artists, performers and scholars to work with the British Museum’s collection
- examine and document the exhibition-making process
- provide a best-practice example of museums working collaboratively with Indigenous communities.
The Engaging Objects international research team comprised:
- Professor Howard Morphy, Dr Maria Nugent and Dr John Carty from the Australian National University
- Dr Lissant Bolton from the British Museum
- Dr Ian Coates and Dr Michael Pickering from the National Museum of Australia.
The Australian Research Council contributed $525,000 to the research component of the Encounters project.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects in the British Museum
The British Museum's collection of nearly 6000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects is one of the most important outside of Australia.
It includes material collected during Lieutenant James Cook's visit to Botany Bay in 1770.
It also includes an extensive range of objects, photographs, artworks, and correspondence detailing interactions between British collectors and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout Australia.
The British Museum's collection of more than 3,500,000 objects can be searched on the British Museum website.
Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation
The British Museum’s exhibition, Indigenous Australia – Enduring Civilisation, was on show at the British Museum from 23 April to 2 August 2015.
Drawing on objects from the British Museum’s collection, accompanied by important loans from British and Australian collections including that of the National Museum of Australia, the exhibition presented Indigenous Australia as a living culture, with a continuous history dating back more than 60,000 years.
Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation was launched by the exhibition’s patron, HRH The Prince of Wales.
Present at the launch was a delegation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including members of the Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group (IRG). Also in attendance were Australia's High Commissioner to the UK, the Hon Alexander Downer AC, the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, and the Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dr Mat Trinca.
The following photos from the launch were taken by Benedict Johnson:
Supporting the Encounters project
Discussion and debate
Encounters is generating a rich program of discussions and debates about the nature of Australia’s colonial history in different parts of the continent.
It is also generating discussion about the stewardship role of museums in holding Indigenous materials linked to these histories.
Encounters has the capacity to influence public discourse about these fundamental issues, and we look forward to all Australians participating in this project.
Support the Encounters Fellowship Appeal to provide Indigenous cultural works with positions at the Museum and to enable research projects and placements at international cultural institutions.