Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Removal of Indigenous culture

Aboriginal protectors Walter Roth and Archibald Meston between them collected over 700 objects for the Queensland Museum. Source: State Library of Queensland.

Gemmia Burden, The violent collectors who gathered Indigenous artefacts for the Queensland Museum, The Conversation, 28 May 2018

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.”

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.

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”.

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