Indigenous Australia At British Museum: Does It Offer More Than Controversy?

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 34 months ago
Indigenous Australia At British Museum: Does It Offer More Than Controversy? ★★★☆☆ 3
A fearsome turtleshell mask made by Torres Strait islanders. © The Trustees of the British Museum
A fearsome turtleshell mask made by Torres Strait islanders. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Pukara tells the story of one snake pursuing another and in this process they carved out the contours of the land.  © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.
Pukara tells the story of one snake pursuing another and in this process they carved out the contours of the land. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.
There are many bark paintings on display including this one of a barramundi. © The Trustees of the British Museum
There are many bark paintings on display including this one of a barramundi. © The Trustees of the British Museum
Kungkarangkalpa is one of the striking paintings in the familiar Aboriginal pointillist style. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.
Kungkarangkalpa is one of the striking paintings in the familiar Aboriginal pointillist style. © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.
This basket is an example of modern weaving carried out by Aboriginal people today using the techniques of their ancestors. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Martumili artists
This basket is an example of modern weaving carried out by Aboriginal people today using the techniques of their ancestors. Reproduced by permission of the artist and Martumili artists
The treatment of Aborigines is tackled head on. An example is this protest banner from 1972. National Museum of Australia
The treatment of Aborigines is tackled head on. An example is this protest banner from 1972. National Museum of Australia

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

This exhibition sparked outcry before it opened, with a call for many of these artefacts to be returned to Australia and the British Museum should be credited for not ducking the controversy in this show. While it understandably doesn't take a stance on the thorny issue of returning items, it does open with some text on the adverse impacts of colonialism and how since then the Aboriginal peoples have fought to have their values, culture and beliefs respected.

The first item is a large striking painting in the Pointillist style that has now become associated with Aboriginal art, but as a nearby map demonstrates we can't view this as an exhibition of one culture — there were dozens of communities across Australia all with their own languages, customs and laws.

There are several more fantastic items on display including a massive crocodile mask, bark paintings of animals and an arresting painting of mouthless spirit ancestors with hollowed out eyes.

The exhibition explores the time of Captain Cook's first expedition in Australia, including a shield that was dropped in the first violent encounter. More recent history is also represented, with a protest placard asking for land rights for the Aboriginal people. There is also a sobering note on the effects of colonisation that are still felt today — Aboriginal people experiencing higher rates of imprisonment, poverty and suicide.

This display tries very hard to tackle the controversial past, and although this is an important issue, the downside is that the exhibition jumps around quite a bit and doesn't have a narrative arc for visitors to follow. As the exhibition is largely based around the British Museum's collection it was always going to be an incomplete history, but it still contains some fantastic items with historical significance.

Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is on at The British Museum until 2 August. Tickets are £10 for adults, concessions available. Also still on at The British Museum are the fantastic sculptures in Defining Beauty, the propaganda of the Napeolonic era and the excellent scientific study of eight mummies in Ancient Lives.

Last Updated 25 April 2015