Over the last decade, I have been involved in large collaborative research projects with museum partners to research and interpret ethnographic collections and objects, mostly dating from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia, and now held in British and Irish institutions. The work began with a corpus of around 150 objects in the British Museum, and which formed the basis for the twin exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation (British Museum 2015) and Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum (National Museum of Australia, 2015-2016). Now, as a result of a survey conducted by Dr Gaye Sculthorpe over the last three years, the material archive with which we are working has expanded greatly to encompass objects that are widely distributed in public collections, large and small, across the United Kingdom and Ireland (over 30,000 in total). Efforts to identify, document and describe these objects, many of which have not attracted much curatorial interest for some time, and most of which are poorly documented, has been taking place as calls for the return of material culture as a form of reparation for historical wrongs grows more insistent. In this paper, I will discuss the approaches we are using in a forthcoming multi-authored book and in a new ARC project to experiment with the ways in which extant overseas ethnographic collections might be mobilised for ‘material histories’ of colonial -- and contemporary -- Australia.
This seminar will be given as part of the ANU School of History's Seminar Series.