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Colonial encounters and Indigenous stories: The NMA’s new exhibition

A shield taken during Captain Cook’s first visit to Botany Bay in 1770. A striking c.1920s pearl shell ornament from the Kimberley. In total, 149 Indigenous artefacts from the British Museum’s vast collection will return to Australia for the National Museum of Australia’s landmark exhibition, Encounters, which opened last month.

Collected during various stages of colonisation, these priceless objects capture our frontier history — and two colliding worlds.

Encounters is part of a multiyear collaboration between the National Museum of Australia, the British Museum and 27 Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities from which these 149 objects had originated. It brings together these historic artefacts, many of which are returning down under for the first time, alongside contemporary responses from local Indigenous communities captured in film and art.

In in this extract from the Nov-Dec issue of Inside History, Sarah Trevor talks to Ian Coates, co-lead curator of Encounters, about working on this landmark event.

'On Murray Island', a watercolour painting by Tom Roberts, 1892. All images courtesy NMA, the Trustees of the British Museum, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.
‘On Murray Island’, a watercolour by Tom Roberts, 1892. Images courtesy NMA, the Trustees of the British Museum, and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge.

The exhibition is called Encounters because it involves three sorts of encounters. The first are the ones that occurred between the people who collected the objects and the Indigenous people back in the 19th and 18th centuries. The second encounter is the one that occurred between the British Museum’s collection and Indigenous people in communities today. The exhibition features their responses to that material — whether it be through quotes, new objects that we’d collected to display along the older ones, or films that they might have made.

The third encounter is the one which happens when visitors to the exhibition look at this material and reflect on what it tells us about the history that’s unrolled in this country and how we are all connected to that history.

There were instances where the Indigenous communities themselves shed insight on the objects. For example, in Cardwell in northern Queensland, there had been some objects collected there and one of them had been described as a kangaroo net. And they said, “Well, you don’t get kangaroos around here, because we’re in the rainforest!” So it would have been a turkey net or a bird net rather than a kangaroo net. What the collector at the time thought was going on isn’t what was going on.

As it turns out, one of the strengths of the British Museum’s collection is its really early material. It has the earliest suite of objects from the Swan River settlement in Perth for example, dating back to 1838, which is within 10 years of the establishment of the settlement. And there’s nothing like that in museums in Australia. Similarly, some of the Victorian and Tasmanian material is from the beginnings of the long colonisation process that unfolded.

This diversity of objects tells us a couple of things. One is that there’s no single narrative that describes what settlement or colonisation was like. There were lots of different people involved and they all had their motives and they all did things differently.

Mask made from turtle shell plates, Mer, Torres Strait islands. Acquired by an unknown collector before 1855.
Mask made from turtle shell plates, Mer, Torres Strait islands. Acquired by an unknown collector before 1855.

What these objects remind me is that many of them are the result of a personal encounter between a settler and an Indigenous person. And while they’re operating within a colonial system, they are individuals and they are making choices. There can be a range of contradictory things going on: there can be friendship; there can be violence. Often there’s a lot of misunderstanding.

In some ways, in those very early moments of encounter when you don’t have a shared language or a shared culture, the exchanging of objects becomes a universal language.

So it can get you past the language barrier. That’s not to say that there’s not power inequities involved in there. But every culture in the world is used to trade and trading objects.

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