The COVID-19 pandemic has no borders and has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of citizens from countries across the globe. But this outbreak is not just having an effect on the societies of today, it is also impacting our past.
Cultural resources and heritage assets – from sites and monuments, historic gardens and parks, museums and galleries, to the intangible lifeways of traditional culture bearers – require ongoing safeguarding and maintenance in an overstretched world increasingly prone to major crises.
Meanwhile, the heritage sector is already working hard to preserve the COVID-19 moment, predicting that future generations will need documentary evidence, photographic archives and artefacts to help them understand this period of history.
Closed to visitors
The severity of the pandemic, and the infection control responses that followed, has caused great uncertainties and potential long-term knock-on effects within the sector, especially for smaller and medium-sized institutions and businesses.
A survey published by the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO) and communications within organisations such as the International Committee for Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) show that the majority of European museums are closed, incurring significant losses of income. By the beginning of April, 650 museums from 41 countries had responded to the NEMO survey, reporting 92% of them were closed.
Large museums such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam are losing €100,000-€600,000 (A$168,700-A$1,012,000) per week. Only about 70% of staff are currently being retained on average at most of the institutions.
Museums (both private and national) located in tourist areas have privately reported initial losses of 75-80% income based on the Heritage Sector Briefing to the UK government. Reports are also emerging of philanthropic income fall of 80-90% by heritage charities with many heading towards insolvency within weeks.
Meanwhile, restorations to the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris came to an abrupt halt due to coronavirus just prior to the first anniversary of the fierce fire that damaged it. Builders have since returned to the site.
The situation is especially dire for culture bearers within remote and isolated indigenous communities still reeling from other catastrophes, such as the disastrous fires in Australia and the Amazon. Without means of social distancing these communities are at much higher risk of being infected and in turn their cultural custodianship affected.
It is interesting to think about how this crisis will reshape visitor experience in the future.
The NEMO survey reports that more than 60% of the museums have increased their online presence since they were closed due to social distancing measures, but only 13.4% have increased their budget for online activities. We have yet to see more data about online traffic in virtual museums and tours, but as it stands it is certainly showing signs of significant increase.
Work is underway to preserve this legacy with organisations such as Historic England collecting “lockdown moments in living memories” through sourcing photographs from the public for their archive. Twitter account @Viral_Archive run by a number of academic archaeologists is following in a same vane with interesting theme of #ViralShadows.
In the United States, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has assembled a dedicated COVID-19 collection task force. They are already collecting objects including personal protection equipment such as N95 and homemade cloth masks, empty boxes (to show scarcity), and patients’ illustrations.
The National Museum of Australia has invited Australians to share their “experiences, stories, reflections and images of the COVID-19 pandemic” so curators can enhance the “national conversation about an event which is already a defining moment in our nation’s history”. The State Library of New South Wales is collecting images of life in isolation to “help tell this story to future generations”.
Citizen science is a great way to engage public and although such work is labour-intensive it can lead to more online traffic and potentially fill in financial deficits by enticing visitors back to the sites.
The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic – occurring in the immediate aftermath of severe draught, catastrophic fire season and then floods, with inadequate intervening time for maintenance and conservation efforts – presents new challenges.
The federal government reports that in the financial year 2018-19, Australia generated A$60.8 billion in direct tourism gross domestic product (GDP). This represents a growth of 3.5% over the previous year – faster than the national GDP growth. Tourism directly employed 666,000 Australians making up 5% of Australia’s workforce. Museums and heritage sites are a significant pillar to tourism income and employment.
Even though the government assures us “heritage is all the things that make up Australia’s identity – our spirit and ingenuity, our historic buildings, and our unique, living landscapes” its placement within the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment’s portfolio shows lack of prioritisation of the sector.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.