Enlivening Australia ethnographic collections through exhibition: a catalyst for new national narratives
Ian Coates (National Museum of Australia)
Paper short abstract:
This paper examines an innovative mobilisation of the British Museum’s Australian ethnographic collections via the recent Encounters exhibition. The exhibition’s performative power created a new context for interpretation bridging cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences.
Paper long abstract:
This paper examines an innovative mobilisation of Australian ethnographic collections via the recent Encounters exhibition in Canberra, Australia. During its development 150 ethnographic objects from the British Museum were brought into dialogue with 27 Indigenous source communities across Australia. This reconnection culminated in a major exhibition in the nation's capital - a locale where national narratives play out. Resulting from a variety of collecting contexts, many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians conceptually link these objects to a broader history of dispossession of Indigenous land by British settlers. These objects - removed from Australia to London, the centre of empire, have become emblems of that dispossession. For some, the return of these objects on loan - the first time they had been displayed in Australia - was a provocative act. However the performative power of the exhibition created a new and complex context for their interpretation - one bridging cultural differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences. The exhibition stressed connections between objects and source communities, privileging community views over authoritative curatorial voices. For Indigenous participants, the exhibition became a powerful platform to interrupt broader public discourse. For many Australians the nation's colonial heritage is still to be recognized and acknowledged. Encounters created a 'safe' space in which non-Indigenous Australians were able to engage with this rarely articulated past. In this case the 'cosmo-optimal future' is one acknowledging continuing impacts of the colonial moment in which these objects were initially acquired; an acknowledgement which is a catalyst for legacies continuing beyond the exhibition.
Re-visioning material anthropological legacies for cosmo-optimal futures