The recent opening of the landmark Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition in London was an opportunity to pursue a dialogue about repatriation said Russell Taylor, Principal of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
Mr Taylor travelled to London as a member of the National Museum of Australia’s (NMA) Indigenous Reference Group, to see key objects in the British Museum’s extensive collection of approximately 6,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artefacts. Parts of the exhibition will then travel to the NMA later this year.
“There’s no doubt the joint exhibition and particularly of course the objects collected in the early times of Australia’s colonial experience are significant and will attract controversy,” Mr Taylor said.
“However, the way the exhibition has been curated, the narrative gives a very accurate message about of the history of colonisation, particularly the more negative components involving conflict and resistance by Indigenous people. I think it goes a long way to allow the truth of that experience to emerge.
“I congratulate curator Dr Gaye Sculthorpe and her team on presenting that narrative and certainly one of the things the exhibition does highlight is that the issue of repatriation is unfinished business from the point of view of the Indigenous Australian community.
“The British Museum are aware of this, as is the NMA, and whilst the British Museum is still resistant to the idea of repatriation, I think as a result of our visit, the Trustees of the British Museum are certainly better informed about the significance of Indigenous communities’ relationships with the objects, and the strength of the desire to have those things returned.
“I do believe one of the benefits of institutions like museums having these items in their collections is that we can now look at those artefacts and see how things were made, how our ancestors created them. In terms of cultural strength, revival and maintenance, it is important as these items serve to link the past with the present and the future.
“Included in the exhibition is a boomerang and spear associated with Jandamarra, a very important person in the history of the Bunuba people from Fitzroy Crossing. In her address delivered at the Menzies Studies Centre, Bunuba woman, June Oscar commented that these objects and the narrative and discussion about them serve to bring out the truth of the colonial experience.
“It is appropriate these artefacts are now respected by the world because they are an example of resistance, proof of someone who sought and fought very hard to protect his culture and his community from the threat of the colonists. June called them perennial markers of that part of history, which also draw attention to the fact the Bunuba people are still there, they’re still in country, still surviving and prospering.
Mr Taylor stated that June’s words delivered at the Menzies Centre as well as her remarks at the opening of the exhibition where she introduced His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, were one of the highlights of the week.
“June is an amazing Australian and Indigenous ambassador, and as a former AIATSIS Council member, I was very pleased and very proud of her participation. I would encourage everybody to read her address.”
Mr Taylor was also invited to present at a symposium organised by Dr Gaye Sculthorpe involving a group of senior British Museum curatorial staff, where the philosophical approach of institutions as custodians was discussed. Mr Taylor drew upon the experience and practice of AIATSIS in his presentation.
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