Accepted Paper:

Engaging objects: emerging encounters between the British Museum and Australian indigenous communities  


John Carty (South Australian Museum)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how the British Museum's Australian Aboriginal collections are being activated, and their history and meaning interpreted and challenged, through the process of developing two major Australian exhibitions.

Paper long abstract:

In 2015 the British Museum (BM) will host its first major survey of its Australian Aboriginal collections. This exhibition will be followed by an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia (NMA), wherein many of these materials will be returning to Australia for the first time. The British Museum is a complex site of symbolic (and often material) contestation in Australia. The display of these collections, whether in England or Australia, is laden with the tensions of ongoing and unsettled histories. As such the museums are collaborating on an expansive three-year community engagement process throughout source communities in Australia. This process, and the process of making these exhibitions, is being documented and informed by a collaborative research project entitled Engaging Objects, involving anthropologists, museum curators, Aboriginal artists and communities seeking to contribute to a cross-cultural 'ethnography of an exhibition'.

Through the Australian collections at the BM, and the comparative efforts to turn them into definitive exhibitions, the project (and this paper) looks at the 'culture' of museums, the practices of curatorship and the interpretation of material culture from Aboriginal as well as anthropological perspectives. The activation of these collections will also act as prisms for enduring anthropological questions of exchange: of what the original owners or creators of these materials understood of their exchange, what responsibilities and relationships these objects still index, and the extent to which museums and source communities today can productively re-engage and re-imagine the complex cultural interdependence such historical collections suggest and afford.

Panel P58
The enlightening museum: anthropology, collecting, encounters