Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums [Hardback]

Gaye Sculthorpe (Editor); Maria Nugent (Editor); Howard Morphy (Editor)

ISBN: 9780714124902 | Published by: British Museum Press | Year of Publication: 2021 | Language: English 256p, H224 x W283 (mm) 160 images

Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire


Museums across Great Britain and Ireland hold Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (collectively referred to as 'Indigenous') cultural heritage of exceptional value, but which is largely unknown, rarely seen and poorly understood. Gifted, sold, exchanged and bartered by Indigenous people, and accepted, bought, collected and taken by travellers, colonists, explorers, missionaries, officials and others, these rare objects date from Captain Cook in 1770 to the present day. Numbering over 35,000 items, they represent all regions of Australia's vast landmass, from deserts, islands and coasts to tropical rainforests.

The book uses nearly 160 artefacts, selected from over 30 public museums, both large metropolitan and small regional, to present a multi-stranded narrative that opens up vistas on Britain's Australian history as much as Australia's British history.

More than twenty Indigenous, Australian and international experts weave together deeply-contextualised accounts of objects and object-types; of makers, communities and regions; and of collectors, networks and institutions, while also exploring the meanings and importance of this material in Australia, Britain and Ireland, and the world today.

Distanced from their places of origin and dispersed throughout Britain and Ireland, these objects are gathered together for the first time. Out of museum stores and into this book, they are evidence of the complex, and often difficult, relationships between Indigenous Australians and British people and institutions, as well as being powerful conduits for telling that history anew and in ways that seek to challenge and rework its legacies.

Table of Contents

Foreword: Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)  
Section I – Encountering objects  
1.Introduction   Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum) Maria Nugent (Australian National University), and Howard Morphy (Australian National University)   
2. Assemblages: Researching and interpreting dispersed Indigenous Australian objects and collections (Gaye Sculthorpe and Maria Nugent)  
Section II – Moving objects  
3. Reciprocity: Artefacts of Aboriginal trade and exchange Philip Jones (South Australian Museum)  
4. Travels with Bennelong: collecting in early colonial Sydney  Maria Nugent (Australian National University)  
 5. String ecologies: Indigenous country and pastoral empires  Jilda Andrews (National Museum of Australia & Australian National University)  
6. Naval Pathways: Tracing objects from nineteenth century Royal Naval voyages Daniel Simpson (Royal Holloway University of London)   
7. Excellent judgement: bark paintings in the National Museum of Scotland  Howard Morphy (Australian National University), Antje Denner (National Museums Scotland), and Bree Blakeman (Australian National University)  
8. Indigenous Afterlives in Britain Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum)  
Section III – Telling objects   
9. You are on Aboriginal land: interpreting gifts of stone Matt Poll (University of Sydney)  
10. Visitors to the rainforest: Engagements and encounters in far north Queensland Lissant Bolton (British Museum)  
11. Life in death: Funerary and mourning objects Julie Finlayson (Australian National University)  
12. History by design in the Kimberley Shino Konishi (University of Western Australia) and Alistair Paterson (University of Western Australia)  
13. Silent testimonials': shields from Queensland frontiers Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum)  
Section IV – Unsettling objects  
14. Exile and punishment in Van Diemen's Land Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum)  
15. Intimate Relations: Objects from the Port Phillip District  Penelope Edmonds (Flinders University)  
16. Woven lives
I: Women's objects in colonial South Australia (Maria Nugent and Gaye Sculthorpe);
II: Threads of reckoning / An Afterword (Natalie Harkin, Flinders University)   
17. New postings? The Swan River Colony  Tiffany Shellam (Deakin University) and Shona Coyne (National Museum of Australia)  
18. Rough justice in the northwest Ian Coates (National Museum of Australia) & Peter Yu (Australian National University)  
Section V – Performing objects   
19. Unmasking the Torres Strait: objects and relationships  Chantal Knowles (Monash University)  
20. Slow awakenings: Institutional engagements with Indigenous art  Howard Morphy (Australian National University) & Gaye Sculthorpe (British Museum)  
21. 'Strange and complicated feats with string'  Robyn McKenzie (Australian National University)  
22. Show people: Objects of popular performance Maria Nugent (Australian National University)  
23. 'Three boomerangs…shillling for each': Linking objects and images from Moreton Bay  Michael Aird (University of Queensland)  
Afterword: Howard Morphy, Maria Nugent, Gaye Sculthorpe  
Appendix 1 Museums with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collections
Appendix 2 Finding guide to collections
Appendix 3 Researching collections  
Further Reading
Image credits  

Reviews & Quotes

"A beautifully produced book, thoroughly readable "

Archivaria, The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists

"A fascinating read. We are so glad to have participated in the project."

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth

"Splendid book."
Jeremy Eccles
Aboriginal Art Directory (20/10/2021)

"This book is an exemplary work in the field of museum studies. That's not just because of the sheer scope and diversity of Indigenous artefacts it includes from a wide range of collections across the UK and Ireland, or the expertise and engaging writing of a large and diverse group of authors represented. Or the immaculately presented text and images, complementing each other in a way few other comparable books in the field have managed to do. It's also because of the sustained effort made by the editors and contributors to trace the histories of Indigenous objects that have been mute, abandoned even, for far too long; and thereby to connect these object histories to the experiences of the families and individuals who made, used or collected them. Whether mundane or extraordinary, touching or disturbing, these stories make for compelling reading. The book raises new and urgent questions about the circulation of objects, the uses of collections and the ecologies, landscapes and material culture of Indigenous Australians."

- Felix Driver, Professor of Historical Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London (04/10/2021)

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