Category Archives: Museums

Small histories: a road trip reveals local museums stuck in a rut



Berry, and other tourist towns, are out of step with modern museum curation which is trying to include Aboriginal communities and their stories.
Shutterstock

Jen Saunders, University of Wollongong

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.

You leave Sydney and head for holidays on the South Coast. You plan to catch a quick surf, check out the boutiques and cafes, stroll around a local museum.

If you’re stopping in Berry you’ll notice a large steel sculpture in honour of two brothers, Alexander and David Berry. And in the main street you will encounter a bronze bust of Alexander, celebrating his determination to “replace bush and swamp”. The local hospital and a monument near the railway station recognise David. Old two-storey buildings along the main street, big trees and established gardens all add up to a picture of genteel pastoral history.

This polite scene ruptures if we know that Alexander Berry collected and traded in the bones of Aboriginal people, including those he had exhumed from their graves on his vast estate, Coolangatta.

Cultural institutions in our capital cities have begun to pay greater respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The Australian Museum in Sydney states “The First Nations collections belong to ancestors, to First Nations people of the present and to the young people of the future”. Melbourne Museum is “working to place First Peoples living cultures and histories at the core of our practice”.




Read more:
How living museums are ‘waking up’ sleeping artefacts


But away from the cities and – despite the good intentions of many staff members – small museums lag behind, presenting tourists with stories that give a narrowed view of local histories.

Cabbage Trees near the Shoalhaven River, 1860 painting by Eugene von Guerard.
State Library of NSW

Three towns, the same story

In a regional town museum you will probably encounter some version of the pioneer or settler story. This narrative is illustrated with the many farm tools, pieces of mining equipment, clothes, books, furniture and other domestic and civic artefacts donated by locals over the years.

In this version of history, pioneers move across the land, unencumbered by prior Aboriginal occupants, making it productive as they go. Small museums seem to get stuck in this white pioneer groove.

Historian Amanda Nettelbeck observes that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories are often presented as two separate sides of colonial history, rather than as an obviously connected relationship between British settlement and Aboriginal dispossession.

In the museums of Berry, Kangaroo Valley and Nowra, three towns central to the NSW South Coast tourism economy, the idea of a frontier (that space of conflict over land, resources, rights and sovereignty) is avoided. But how is this achieved, when the pioneer story depends on the frontier for its existence?

Looking at these three museums reveals artefacts of Aboriginal provenance are presented in ways that cast them as either relics of a distant past, symbols of a generic Aboriginality or curiosities with no political context. They celebrate the pioneer without acknowledging the founding dispossession of local Yuin people. Frontiers are messy; pioneers clean things up. And museums keep the story simple, neat and tidy.

Too hot to handle

This is not to say the dedicated volunteers who run these museums come down on one side of the “History Wars”. The staff who care for their collections are often keen to address their lack of information on specific Yuin histories.

In 2017, Nowra Museum hosted the travelling exhibition This is where they travelled, which accompanied Paul Irish’s book Hidden in Plain View: the Aboriginal people of coastal Sydney. In the same year, the Berry Museum hosted the Yuin anthropologist, the late Les Bursill, who delivered a lecture on Yuin history of the South Coast. Kangaroo Valley Pioneer Village committee members responded to a draft of this essay, saying they would renew signage in the museum and were keen to pursue new research on local Aboriginal histories.

Despite this, the overwhelming story remains that of white settlers’ hard work and perseverance. And although part of the reason for the static nature of museum stories is lack of funds and a reliance on the time and energy of volunteers, the narrative’s repetitive nature – and its general wear and tear – may also be due to its omissions. Bruce Pascoe reframes the perception of Australian history as boring, by drawing our attention to what’s left out: “Australian history isn’t boring, it’s just too hot to handle.”

The blinkered storyline of small museums is a symptom of what US scholar Mark Rifkin calls “settler common sense”. Settler common sense describes the feeling of “taken-for-granted” possession of, and belonging to, a place which has been taken from someone else.

Settler common sense exists as “a given”: we (as a white person, I include myself) have the unquestionable right to possess that which doesn’t belong to us. It normalises settler possession of, and control over, land and the stories about that land. The pioneer or settler narrative relies on that assumption: white rights to non-white land, and white rights to the telling of history.

The concept of settler common sense holds white rights to land as a given.
National Library of Australia

A place somewhere else

Pioneer Village Museum in Kangaroo Valley, NSW, presents Aboriginal history as far removed from its own backyard.

In one of the cottages in the recreated village hang two bark paintings, donated in the 1970s by a local who acquired them in Arnhem Land. In another cottage is a display case containing miniature souvenir versions of clubs, boomerangs and animal figurines.

Below these are a group of unlabelled grinding stones, which may or may not be from the local region. Labels for other objects in this display read “boomerang made from mulga wood” and “more mulga wood boomerangs” (mulga is a small tough acacia which grows in arid inland regions, not Kangaroo Valley). Other labels read: “replica of an emu egg”; and “fighting weapon could be used to split the enemy’s head open”.

These items are presented without context and without any relationship to Kangaroo Valley. They are accompanied by an illustrated word list entitled “Interpreting Aboriginal Symbols” and although the words are indeed Aboriginal, the language is Warrgamay, spoken by people of the Herbert River region of North Queensland.

By presenting objects that are replicas, miniatures, unlabelled or misleadingly labelled, the museum allows a generic “Aboriginality” to be visible while keeping it unrelated to Kangaroo Valley and local people. The presentation does not disrupt the Kangaroo Valley settler narrative because Aboriginal existence is presented as inauthentic and elsewhere.

Other histories about Kangaroo Valley tell a different story. The museum’s own archival sources document the many meetings in the region (albeit from colonial viewpoints) between local Aboriginal people and colonisers during the 1800s and 1900s, the large gatherings at Kangaroo Valley for ceremony and song-learning “for which they sometimes travel far” and the Aboriginal families who relied on work at the four timber mills in the town in the 1940s.

More than portraits

Drive south over the scenic mountain range from Kangaroo Valley and you will cross the Shoalhaven River to Nowra.

As a regional centre, Nowra has several museums to choose from: the Fleet Air Arm Museum for aircraft enthusiasts, Meroogal House Museum for lovers of old houses and domestic interiors, and the town museum run by the Shoalhaven Historical Society.

James Goulding and Mary Carpenter, Nowra, New South Wales, approximately 1905.
National Library of Australia

Nowra Museum’s exhibition of local Aboriginal presence is built around a collection of timber and stone artefacts and an impressive black and white photograph of an elderly couple, James Goulding and Mary Carpenter. They are seated on chairs in a garden, and wear European clothing typical of the early 1900s. Goulding, who also wears a top hat, has a ‘breastplate’ suspended from a chain, around his neck.

In a display case near the photograph, is a brass breastplate engraved with the name “Neddy Noora” and “Shoal Haven 1834”. Alongside this is a reproduction of a drawing that was part of a series of portraits of Aboriginal ‘kings’ and their wives done in Sydney by German-born Charles Rodius, in the early 1830s. The portrait shows the young Neddy Noora, wearing the breastplate over his European clothing.

The granting of breastplates to Aboriginal people signified a reward given for assistance or rescue and they were an attempt at gaining influence over individuals thought to be leaders.




Read more:
A breastplate reveals the story of an Australian frontier massacre


Aboriginal recipients also had a stake in these tactics, no doubt being well aware of the hierarchies so blatant in colonial society. Offered as a status symbol, acceptance was the “gracious and prudent thing to do”. However, by the end of the 1800s, breastplates lacked political currency and became prized by white collectors.

Entangled

Engraved on the breastplate James Goulding wears are the words “Budd Billy King of Jarvis Bay” (sic). Budd Billy is an Anglicisation of Goulding’s Aboriginal name Budbili. Ngarigu linguist Jakelin Troy gives the meaning of budbili as “possum-skin rug”.

This single word from the Dharawal language of the Yuin nation, links a person and a place with important historical and cultural objects – a pre-colonial possum-skin rug and a colonial metal breastplate – both of which existed within the tangled cultures of the pre and early post-Federation era.

A portrait of Neddy Noora by Charles Rodius.
Mitchell Library/State Library of NSW

The breastplate given to Neddy Noora was found in Broughton Creek (near the town of Berry) in 1925. Neddy and another Aboriginal man, Toodwit (also known as Broughton), guided John Oxley’s expedition to mark an overland route between Sydney and Jervis Bay in 1819. Toodwit was central to Alexander Berry’s 1822 reconnoitre of the region.

Nowra Museum’s display has been updated recently to include a brief explanation of the political aspect of giving and receiving breastplates and when I contacted Lynne Allen, president of the Shoalhaven Historical Society, she explained that museum volunteers can provide visitors with an explanation of breastplates as a European construct.

She said that the large portrait of Mary Carpenter and James Goulding was “consistently amongst our visitors, Aboriginal or otherwise, the most popular of all our items”.

Does this popularity translate into greater awareness of our complex local histories? The people in these portraits are not just entangled with the white cultures that entered their lands but are linked to Yuin descendants today.

Quaint and charming

Heading north, back to the city, you will again pass through Berry, advertised to tourists as an historic village with “the perfect blend of village charm and city style” that is “full of interesting history”.

Berry Museum plays its part, presenting Alexander Berry as a soft-hearted adventurer yet hard-headed businessman, who was distressed by any form of human suffering. His interest in phrenology and trade in the skulls of Aboriginal people is not mentioned in Berry Museum.

In 1822, Berry and his business partner Edward Wollstonecraft were granted 10,000 acres on the Shoalhaven River by Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane. This possession of a vast section of Yuin land, renamed Coolangatta, gave Berry access to Aboriginal graves.

Collection of human skeletal remains, particularly skulls, was not uncommon in colonial societies. Berry and Governor Brisbane shared an interest in phrenology (the study of skull shape), and Brisbane donated a “skull of a native female of New South Wales” to the Phrenological Society of Edinburgh.

During the 1820s Berry also actively sought out skulls from associates in Tasmania. In 1827, in a letter accompanying a “craniological specimen”, Berry describes Arawarra, “the owner of the present specimen”, as a “once formidable warrior”, being carried by his son to “take a last look of Cooloomgatta (sic) now occupied by strangers”.

Berry describes how the “venerable old gentleman” died two days after this meeting and was buried on the Coolangatta estate. He goes on to describe the manner of Arawarra’s burial, stating that he “lived to an extreme old age and died in peace”.

The tourist space

Historian and cultural studies scholar, Katrina Schlunke, asks “what can and can’t be said in ‘tourist space’?”. Vandalisation of burial sites and collection of skulls does not fit with the image of Berry as a relaxing country getaway. And including the story of Arawarra carelessly may risk further desecration of Yuin protocols if not undertaken with extensive consultation with Elders and community members.

Robert Marsh Westmacott’s picture depicting the ‘View in the Kangaroo Valley showing the manner the Natives climb the trees for opossums and bandicoots’.
National Library of Australia

Museums have never been neutral in the choices they make about what to display and how, but avoiding traumatic or difficult histories is not neutral either.

Wiradjuri curator at the Australian Museum, Nathan Sentance, states that museums and archives “should not just work to document bad history, but work to prevent bad history from happening”. Including the “bad” history of the town of Berry may work towards a better understanding of how replacing the bush and swamps greatly benefited some people at the ongoing expense of others.

Reinterpreting local histories is not for the fainthearted and the more the “top” layer of the pioneer story is disrupted, the more the “too hot to handle” stories emerge.

The Berry District Historical Society’s website claims, “the complete story of Alexander Berry is full of adventure and courage”. This pitch tells us there is some serious reconsideration needed regarding what constitutes a “complete” story.

History is messy

In 2018, the 10-Year Indigenous Roadmap, commissioned by peak body Australian Museums and Galleries Association, was finalised. The aim of the roadmap is to change “interactions, communication, understandings and ultimately, the Australian view of First Peoples”.

Small museums, with their wealth of material, stories, experience and passionate volunteer staff, could play an important part in achieving that aim.

Megan Davis, Cobble Cobble woman, Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Law at UNSW, reported that in the dialogues conducted in preparation for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the overwhelming view was that “a nation cannot recognise people they do not know or understand”.

The truth-telling the Uluru Statement calls for, could be work that local museums, in partnership with Aboriginal communities, could contribute to in ways that profoundly reinvigorate how local histories get told.The Conversation

Jen Saunders, Phd candidate, University of Wollongong

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Returning looted artefacts will finally restore heritage to the brilliant cultures that made them



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One of the plundered Benin plaques, at the British Museum.
Shutterstock.

Mark Horton, University of Bristol

European museums are under mounting pressure to return the irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times. As an archaeologist who works in Africa, this debate has a very real impact on my research. I benefit from the convenience of access provided by Western museums, while being struck by the ethical quandary of how they were taken there by illegal means, and by guilt that my colleagues throughout Africa may not have the resources to see material from their own country, which is kept thousands of miles away.

Now, a report commissioned by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has recommended that art plundered from sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial era should be returned through permanent restitution.

The 108-page study, written by French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr, speaks of the “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery and forced consent” by which colonial powers acquired these materials. The call for “restitution” echoes the widely accepted approach which seeks to return looted Nazi art to its rightful owners.

The record of colonial powers in African countries was frankly disgusting. Colonial rule was imposed by the barrel of the gun, with military campaigns waged on the flimsiest excuses. The Benin expedition of 1897 was a punitive attack on the ancient kingdom of Benin, famous not only for its huge city and ramparts but its extraordinary cast bronze and brass plaques and statues.

Three British soldiers in the aftermath of the Benin expedition.
Wikimedia Commons.

The city was burnt down, and the British Admiralty auctioned the booty – more than 2,000 art works – to “pay” for the expedition. The British Museum got around 40% of the haul.
None of the artefacts stayed in Africa – they’re now scattered in museums and private collections around the world.

The 1867 British expedition to the ancient kingdom of Abyssinia – which never fully acceded to colonial control – was mounted to ostensibly free missionaries and government agents detained by the emperor Tewodros II. It culminated in the Battle of Magdala, and the looting of priceless manuscripts, paintings and artefacts from the Ethiopian church, which reputedly needed 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry them all away. Most ended up in the British Library, the British Museum and the V&A, where they remain today.

Bought, stolen, destroyed

Other African treasures were also taken without question. The famous ruins of Great Zimbabwe were subject to numerous digs by associates of British businessman Cecil Rhodes – who set up the Rhodesia Ancient Ruins Ltd in 1895 to loot more than 40 sites of their gold – and much of the archaeology on the site was destroyed. The iconic soapstone birds were returned to Zimbabwe from South Africa in 1981, but many items still remain in Western museums.

Zimbabwe’s soapstone birds, photographed in 1892.
Wikimedia Commons.

While these are the most famous cases, the majority of African objects in Western Museums were collected by adventurers, administrators, traders and settlers, with little thought as to the legality of ownership. Even if they were bought from their local owners, it was often for a pittance, and there were few controls to limit their export. Archaeological relics, such as inscriptions or grave-markers, were simply collected and taken away. Such activities continued well into the 20th century.

Making them safe

The argument is often advanced that by coming to the West, these objects were preserved for posterity – if they were left in Africa they simply would have rotted away. This is a specious argument, rooted in racist attitudes that somehow indigenous people can’t be trusted to curate their own cultural heritage. It is also a product of the corrosive impact of colonialism.

Colonial powers had a patchy record of setting up museums to preserve these objects locally. While impressive national museums were sometimes built in colonial capitals, they were later starved of funding or expertise. After African countries achieved independence, these museums were low on the priority list for national funding and overseas aid and development, while regional museums were virtually neglected.

Nowadays, many museums on the African continent lie semi-derelict, with no climate control, poorly trained staff and little security. There are numerous examples of theft or lost collections. No wonder Western museums are reluctant to return their collections.

If collections are to be returned, the West needs to take some responsibility for this state of affairs and invest in the African museums and their staff. There have been some attempts to do this, but the task is huge. It is not enough to send the contentious art and objects back to an uncertain future – there must be a plan to rebuild Africa’s crumbling museum infrastructure, supported by effective partnerships and real money.

The rightful owners

The Hoa Hakananai’a: a Moai at the British Museum.
Sheep, CC BY-NC-ND

Will the Musée de Quai Bramley, that great treasure house of world ethnography in Paris, which holds more than 70,000 objects from Africa, be emptied of its contents? Or the massive new Humboldt Forum – a Prussian Castle rebuilt at great cost to house ethnographic artefacts in Berlin which opens early in 2019 – be shorn of its African collections? There are already fears at the British Museum that a very effective campaign may lead to the return of its Rapu Nui Moai statues to Easter Island.

This year is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Magdala, and the V&A Museum has entered into worthy discussions to return its treasures to Ethiopia. But there are reports this would be on the basis of a long-term loan, and conditional on the Ethiopian government withdrawing its claim for restitution of the plundered objects. The Prussian Foundation in Berlin entered into a similar agreement, unwilling to cede ownership of a tiny fragment of soapstone bird to the Zimbabwe Government in 2000.

The report by Savoy and Sarr offers hope that such deals could become a thing of the past and that Africa’s rich cultural heritage can be returned, restituted and restored to the brilliant cultures that made it.The Conversation

Mark Horton, Professor in Archaeology, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum



File 20180525 51121 1n9yd2p.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Aboriginal protectors Walter Roth and Archibald Meston between them collected over 700 objects for the Queensland Museum.
State Library of Queensland

Gemmia Burden, The University of Queensland

Europeans collected a huge number of Aboriginal artefacts during the colonisation of Australia. These include weapons, bags, toys, clothing, canoes, tools, ceremonial items, and ancestral human remains. Many institutions that hold these items are repatriating them to Aboriginal people. While repatriation is important, what often goes unrecognised is the crucial part that collectors played in the violent dispossession of First Nations people.

My research is on the Queensland Museum’s collecting networks. Formed in 1862, the museum amassed a significant collection of Aboriginal artefacts over the following 60 years. Despite countless, undocumented interactions between makers, owners, collectors and curators, many of which were no doubt benevolent, frontier violence was a crucial aspect of the museum’s collecting.

Instances of grave robbing and body snatching as methods of collecting are not specific to Queensland. Many institutions in Australia and abroad have problematic acquisition histories, particularly in relation to the study of remains.

Activists have been agitating for the return of cultural materials for decades, and museums across Australia, including the Queensland Museum, have developed repatriation programs and policies. It works closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to prioritise the return of ancestral remains and sacred objects. But much material collected through violent means is still held in its collection.

While there is no evidence of the museum being directly involved in frontier killings, the use of the police, protectors, missionaries and frontier doctors as the dominant network of collectors implicates the museum as a passive beneficiary of dispossession.

In a response to The Conversation, the Queensland Museum said: “We believe these are important stories to be told and understood, and we recognise past hurts and are actively working to address these issues.

“Queensland Museum Network acknowledges that between the 1870s and 1970s, a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ancestral Remains, Burial Goods and Secret and/or Sacred Objects were acquired without consent or due regard to traditional lore and custom.”

Illustration of the new Exhibition Building at Bowen Park, 1891.
State Library of Queensland

Dispossessing and collecting

In the 1870s, police Sub-Inspector Alexander Douglas, noted for his role in violent dispersals of Aboriginal people, sent the Queensland Museum ancestral remains and burial goods. These had been stolen during punitive raids on Aboriginal people in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The following decade, Francis Lyons, a “pioneer resident of Cairns”, offered the museum mummified remains he had stolen during a retributive attack on Aboriginal people. In his accompanying correspondence he wrote:

They abandoned everything except the [remains] … and it was not until after a long and desperate chase, and when their lives were in imminent danger that the[y] … dropped it.

In many instances cultural items – mostly weapons and bags – were purchased from Aboriginal people. The museum issued its collectors with tobacco for payment, itself pointing to the power imbalance of frontier currency. Yet as both Lyons and Douglas’s cases show, items were also removed after Aboriginal people were forcibly dispossessed from their country, taken from the surface, and at times stolen following raids.

Inside Queensland’s first natural history museum, 1872, showing Aboriginal artefacts and images on the back wall.
State Library of Queensland

Some ancestral remains held by the museum were plundered from grave sites. Remains were dug up, stolen from caves, burial trees, and bags, depending on regional customs.

While these practices may have sat outside the bounds of European expectations of death and burial, the plunderers were acutely aware of the damage they were inflicting. One correspondent informed the museum in 1880 that exhuming the remains of a recently deceased man was “too much like desecrating unless it was in the interest of science”. The idea of contributing to scientific knowledge was used to justify these actions.

Remains were also plundered from massacre sites, often decades after the event, as well as former mission sites, and sent to the museum with the sanctioning of the police and protectors.

Remains were also taken from regional hospitals, at times with the approval of the Chief Protector, the government agent responsible for Aboriginal people. Rogue doctors stole others from post-mortem rooms. In 1885, for example, the remains of South Sea Island labourers were sent from the Polynesian hospital in Mackay with specific instructions to “make them look a little ancient”.

Empire and science

The emergence of racial science in the mid-19th century, combined with the British Empire’s expansion, drove the desire for Aboriginal artefacts. Objects were collected as anything from curiosities to scientific specimens, tendentiously used to “prove” European superiority.

With an interest in the “science of man”, the Queensland Museum’s curatorial staff maintained a network of collectors across the colony through relationships forged with (predominantly) men in remote locations. They included missionaries, journalists, station managers, doctors and public servants. A 1911 request targeted these networks, stating that “every effort” must be made in “acquiring those symbols of the life of the original Australian inhabitants whose rites, ceremonies, customs and traditions are becoming obsolete and being entirely lost to us”.

Plate from The Evolution of Culture, Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, 1906, Plate XII.

However, the most profitable collectors were the government agents regulating Aboriginal people’s lives. For example, from the 1870s, the police channelled material and information to the museum. The Native Police officers became particularly important contributors.

The museum exploited their violent methods of colonial policing and practices of “dispersal” – a euphemism for massacre – and the police themselves noted this role. Following his dismissal from the force, and five years after leading an attack on Aborignal people at Creen Creek, former Native Police officer William Armit wrote of ethnographic collecting that “no one can be more fortunately situated for such work than the Native Police officers”.

The passing of the 1897 Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act also led to increases in the museum’s acquisitions. Protectors, such as Northern and later Chief Protector Walter Roth and Southern Protector Archibald Meston, were active collectors. They became two of the museum’s largest donors with upwards of 700 items between them, both acquiring material through their official duties.

Collecting as violence

Apart from benefiting from the spoils of colonial violence, the act of collecting itself can be seen as violent. Structural violence – the social, cultural, legal, economic and political structures that marginalise groups – does not only cause physical harm, it also inflicts damage on the mind and spirit.

Collectors knew that taking ancestral remains from burial places would cause harm. Indeed one collector noted: “I feel repugnance to hurt their feelings willingly.” While procurement may have been void of direct violence, waiting for an old man to die in order to send his body to the museum, as in one case in 1915, was a malevolent act of indirect violence.

Taking materials from country also served Europeans in claiming possession, both emotional and physical, of the land. By removing Aboriginal people and culture, the invaders were writing their own narratives of ownership over the land. As settler colonies were built on the dispossession of Indigenous people, the removal of cultural materials became part of the appropriation of land.

The ConversationWhile repatriating Aboriginal cultural materials is undeniably important, we must also acknowledge the histories behind their collection. This is an important part of the repatriation process itself.

Gemmia Burden, Faculty Post-Thesis Fellow, Honorary Research Fellow in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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