Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Dispute over Indigenous relics

Paul Daley, ‘It taunts us spiritually’: the fight for Indigenous relics spirited off to the UK, The Guardian, 14 February 2015


Shield collected at Botany Bay during Cook’s visit. Source: The Australian. Photo: Trustees British Museum.

Three precious examples of bark art taken from the Dja Dja Wurrung people in central Victoria in the 1850s were sold to the British Museum. Now these and other treasures could return to Australia – on loan only – as part of an exhibition

When Gary Murray contemplates the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects held in the vaults of the British Museum in London, he strikes a simple analogy.

“All of these things that belong to our people in Australia – they don’t tell a story about the Queen of England, do they?” he asks.

“No way. They tell stories about the people that made them and used them – that’s our people here in Australia. We don’t have the Queen’s crown jewels. And we don’t want them. But what we do want is to get our things back from the British Museum. We want them back.”

Specifically, Murray and his people want returned to Australia three pieces of bark art – a shield, emu carving and a scene the British Museum controversially claims depicts a kangaroo hunt – that were crafted by his Dja Dja Wurrung people in central Victoria. They were taken by the Scottish settler John Hunter Kerr in the 1850s and sold to the British Museum.

Bark art is usually synonymous with Indigenous people from northern Australia and the three Dja Dja Wurrung pieces from the comparative far south are believed to be the only ones of their period in existence. They may be precious to the British Museum but they are sacred to the custodians of the land around Boort from which they were taken.

At least one of the barks is likely to be included in a forthcoming Australian exhibition of items from the British Museum’s collection. After five years of planning and extensive contact with Indigenous communities, the exhibition, Encounters, is due to open at the National Museum of Australia in November after a linked exhibition at the British Museum, which opens in April.

In 2004, Murray, on behalf of the Dja Dja Wurrung, used the federal Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act to seize the barks while they were on loan to the Melbourne Museum (now Museum Victoria). After a protracted court case brought by the Melbourne Museum the barks were eventually returned to the British Museum, the repository of colonial treasure from all corners of the once-great empire it served.

The British Museum’s mere contemplation of lending the barks to another Australian institution (in this case the National Museum) only to once again have them returned to the archives in London, is, according to some Indigenous Australians, profoundly provocative and insensitive.

It is, in the words of one Aboriginal activist, “just rubbing salt into the wounds after last time”.

Compounding that insult is the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act. Federal parliament passed this legislation in 2013 amid scant media scrutiny and with bipartisan support from the major political parties. In the wake of the 2004 barks fracas the legislation was initiated at the behest of Australia’s major cultural institutions, which wanted to be able to give a watertight legal guarantee to foreign counterparts, not least the British Museum, that any collection items on loan in Australia would always return.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Mr Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum PO Box 234 Adelaide, South Australia 5001 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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