A few years ago we visited the British Museum’s ‘enduring civilisation’ exhibition which was an incredibly moving experience. The skill required to produce these incredibly beautiful artefacts including the feathered string necklaces, pearl shell pendants and woven baskets was breathtaking. The exhibition revealed so much more about the gifted Aboriginal people than we were taught at school in Australia. It helped explain a deep intelligence connected to the land and animals which flew directly in the face of any colonial claims the Aboriginals were “primitives”.
Amongst the artefacts held by the British Museum many are sacred and therefore not supposed to be seen by the uninitiated - seeing them was a guilty pleasure but also helped us understand why they were so important to the Aboriginal groups they had been taken from. Large tranches of artefacts in Australia are held in the National Gallery of Australian in Canberra (among other state galleries/museums and private collections) with only the traditional owners allowed access to view them.
Next year marks the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage which took him to Australia and ultimately led to the end of the Aboriginals traditional life and the removal of their cultural heritage. Manchester Museum is marking the event by returning 43 ceremonial artefacts to the Aranda people and Gangalidda Garawa people among other Aboriginal groups.
This repatriation of Aboriginal artefacts by Manchester Museum back to those they were taken from over the course of white Australian settlement will no doubt lead to healing and reconciliation between all those now occupying the vast Australian continent.