Two bark etchings and an emu figure made in south-eastern Australia in the mid 19th century are the subject of a dispute between the British Museum and indigenous activists. Only three bark drawings from this area, from this period, are known to survive. They are rare examples of ceremonial art that tell us about the lives of indigenous people. Or they could do – if activists stopped using them as weapons in their broader, political battles, doing a disservice to history, past people and their own material culture in the process.
The British Museum owns the barks and emu figure, which it acquired from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Since 2004, when they travelled to Australia for an exhibition, Gary Murray, a Dja Dja Wurrung’s Yung Balug clan elder, is claiming the artefacts as the tribe’s property and demanding their return. “The institutions in the UK obtained these items … in very dubious circumstances,” he says. They were “taken, stolen – and we just want to right these wrongs”. Murray’s accusation is familiar, his claim for repatriation far from an isolated case. Similar demands have escalated since the late 1980s. From the Elgin marbles to the sculptures and porcelain torn from the Chinese Summer Palace, to the glorious feathered cape and helmet obtained by Captain Cook during his Pacific voyages, objects in western museums are commonly described as “loot”. This comes with an insistence on their removal from these storehouses of colonial plunder and their return to the rightful owners.
But this is to rewrite the past. What is often described as stolen, wasn’t. Lord Elgin acquired the marbles with permission from the Ottoman authorities; the cape and helmet were gifted to Cook. Even some of the most heinous acts were legal, as with Napoleon hauling ancient treasures back to Paris for the Louvre. These acts may not be pretty, looking back from apparently more enlightened times, but it is far better to try to understand the past than treat it as a morality play with wrongs to be righted.
Those calling for the return of cultural property to indigenous people – an especially heated issue – stress the unequal relations during this historical period, whether they are referring to the acquisition of Native American sacred objects, or masks of Coast Salish peoples, which have been sent back to communities as a result.
According to academic Moira Simpson, “The fact that material of origin was acquired legally is often used as a defence against possible repatriation. However, the debate cannot ignore the colonial ancestry of the collections or the insensitivity of the methods with which many items were acquired.”
Yet in many cases, indigenous people willingly negotiated and sold cultural objects to Europeans in exchange for money, or nails, an axe or a gun.
The barks and emu sculpture were collected in 1854 by Scottish squatter John Hunter Kerr, after he emigrated to Australia. It is likely that he acquired the items in exchange for payment, with the active involvement of indigenous people. Relations appear to have been cordial. Murray, Simpson, and others ignore the agency of past people, choosing instead to view them as akin to children, unable to consent or make their own decisions. Past people who acted as equals, and whose actions had an impact are recast as passive and as simply having been on the receiving end of injustice.
Despite concerns about the legacy of colonisation, the demands for repatriation to indigenous groups – and current museum policy – echo and reinforce a racial way of thinking about people that should make us uncomfortable. Activists and sympathetic museum professionals consider Native Americans, Aboriginal people, First Nations, as the primary, if not sole, arbitrators and owners of their history and cultural artefacts. Lissant Bolton, a curator at the British Museum, puts the point like this: “In the Australian context, this means that any indigenous Australian is understood to have a greater right to speak about any Aboriginal object than any non-indigenous Australian.”
Here, an elision is made between someone’s identity and their authority to speak definitively about cultural artefacts, which excludes those who do not share that identity, despite their expertise. But who speaks for the relevant community, and on what basis? Who qualifies as indigenous or part of which tribe is a complicated question, as is the fact that “the indigenous”, like everyone else, rarely speak with one voice.
Claims that it is “their culture” tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders, without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. I am a white, middle-class woman who lives in Edinburgh, but that does not grant me the authority to speak on behalf of all white, middle-class women in the Scottish capital. Nor should it, for this practice shuts down the pursuit of knowledge, restricting it to people with the “correct” birth or belief system. It is said that returning artefacts will repair the past. “Cultural property turns out to be a particularly appropriate medium for negotiating historical injustices,” argues scholar Elazar Barkan.
But asking that museums atone burdens them with a task they cannot achieve. The movement of objects will neither change what happened nor ameliorate social problems that are rooted in the present rather than in events from centuries ago. Indeed, the dramatic rise in repatriation claims stems from a regressive shift away from future orientated demands for political equality and material improvements, towards more cultural and backward-looking concerns.
In becoming obsessed with past wrongs, campaigners lose sight of the original meanings and purposes of artefacts, viewing them only as objects of apology. That means forgoing an understanding of material culture and the people who made it. Kerr was the first southern collector to acquire Aboriginal artworks. He probably had a better understanding and respect for the ceremonial pieces and the people who made them than the activists today claiming them as their own.