New book explores Indigenous Australian collections in museums across the UK for first time

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New book explores Indigenous Australian collections in museums across the UK for first time
Emu feather skirt, from Port Phillip District. This is the earliest known emu feather skirt from the state of Victoria. The feathers of such skirts are typically tied on with vegetable fibre string but this one uses wire. Acquired in 1836 by pastoralist John von Stieglitz (1809–68). Donated by Von Stieglitz to Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society in 1856; gifted in 1910 to Belfast Museum. Ulster Museum, Belfast. L. 84 cm W. 21 cm. Photograph reproduced courtesy the Trustees of National Museums Northern Ireland.

LONDON.- Museums across Great Britain and Ireland hold Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage of exceptional value. Until now these collections have been largely unknown, rarely seen and sometimes misunderstood.

A major new book published by the British Museum on 2 September, Ancestors, artefacts, empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums explores nearly 160 artefacts selected from over 30 public museums. New high-resolution photographs are paired alongside text by twenty-two Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian and international experts. This landmark publication, the product of years of research, presents a multi-stranded narrative and interdisciplinary scholarship that reveals new insights into Britain’s Australian history as much as Australia’s British history.

Gifted, sold, exchanged and bartered by Indigenous Australian people, and accepted, bought, collected and taken by travellers, colonists, explorers, missionaries, officials and others, these rare objects date from Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia in 1770 to the present day. These items represent all regions of Australia’s vast landmass, from deserts, islands and coasts to tropical rainforests. Distanced from their places of origin and dispersed throughout Britain and Ireland, these objects are gathered together for the first time in this new book. They are evidence of the complex and often difficult relationships between Indigenous Australians and British people and institutions, as well as being powerful conduits for telling that history anew and in ways that seek to challenge and rework its legacies.

The editors of the book are: Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator and Section Head, Oceania, The British Museum; Dr Maria Nugent, historian and Co-Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University; Professor Howard Morphy, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the Australian National University.

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator and Section Head, Oceania, the British Museum, said: “Our ambition in this book has been to convey something of the incredible diversity and richness of Indigenous Australian objects and collections currently in British and Irish museums, and the multiplicity of people, encounters, relationships, discourses, contexts and experiences they represent. We hope that this work will make a contribution to further dialogue and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and open up new research.”

Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director & Curator, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, said: “This book is a revelation…But its most important element was imagination: a sense of what extraordinary expressions of ancestral heritage might be found in out-of-the-way collections, to be retrieved and recognised. And also, a sense that these ancestral works could be understood and animated, through work undertaken jointly, wherever possible, with the descendants of makers. The project’s Indigenous Research Fellows, in particular, brought their deep local expertise to the revaluation of what are not just ‘'objects’' but expressions of historic Indigenous agency.”

The book’s publication is one of the first major projects to feature in the UK Australia Season, a joint initiative by the British Council and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, under the Royal patronage of Her Majesty the Queen. The artistic programme in both countries for the Season ranges across theatre, film, visual arts, dance, design, creative technology, architecture, music, literature, museums, broadcast and talks, and features numerous exciting cross-arts commissions. There will be several world, UK and Australian premieres.

The programme in the UK is presented with season partners including the British Museum, BFI, Royal Opera House, Southbank Centre, Design Museum, The Box (Plymouth), Ikon (Birmingham), Belfast International Arts Festival, Wales Millennium Centre, and Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

The Season is funded through Australian Government and British Council support, as well as a philanthropic Patrons Board, co-chaired by Sir Lloyd Dorfman CBE in the UK and David Gonski AC in Australia, with members in both countries.

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