Deeply uncomfortable. The one take away from the British Museum’s Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization. Let us not forget the history, nay tradition, of Australian misrepresentation in British cultural institutions (i.e. Australia, Royal Academy of Arts, 21 September – 8 December 2013), so the British Museum had a lot to make up for this controversial and topical socio-political disarray in their own take on Aboriginal and Indigenous cultures in Australia.
Let us start from the top and work our way through this exhibition. First, the title of the exhibition: Enduring Civilization. Enduring: connoting a continued lasting persistence of a culture no matter the efforts to stamp out. Now, in fairness, perhaps it was not the intention of the British Museum to instill this kind of tone in the exhibition. In fact, the museum claims to be “celebrating the cultural strength and resilience of both the Aboriginal peoples and the Torres Strait Islanders” (British Museum). But as a symbol of culture, the museum has a responsibility to take care and caution when crafting exhibition titles as these are consumed by the public and reinforce this negatively suggestive perception of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Perhaps the use of Persevering Civilization with a positive tone of the Indigenous cultures being able to survive the systematic suppression of the British colonizing powers on their native land and peoples would have been a more appropriate title to start out on the right foot with this exhibition.
Secondly, the display of the artifacts, artworks, and cultural objects largely comprised of the Museum’s own collection acquired throughout the colonial period (1770-1859). There is a fundamental problem with the very idea of displaying these objects in the first place. We must understand and respect that these objects a) are not ours (Western Culture) to display—they belong to the attributed cultures and to their people as they have cultural ownership and significance to the championing of the respective living cultures—and b) these objects are for use, not for display for the consumption of the public—they are objects used for storytelling, learning, wear, and the day to day use of these cultures. Shoulder pieces, neck medallions, necklaces, masks, and headdresses, for instance, were not designed to lay flat in glass boxes with spotlights—they were created for wear and use by the cultures who created them as a way to represent their culture, traditions, and use for future generations to learn about their cultural heritage and traditions. To top it off, the lack of organization with a rather hap hazard display of items with no concrete theme tying them together other than the fact that they were all Aboriginal or Indigenous artifacts and artworks from the respective Peoples coupled with the lack of explanatory text and context (re: Britain’s accepted role and responsibility in the decimation of a culture) ultimately lead to a naïve and an embarrassingly poor attempt to tell multiple cultural histories.
Thirdly, the gift shop every exhibition-goer must endure as we exit. Immediately, we are bombarded with the classic kitsch items of printed scarves, key chains, faux-artifacts, and the oh-so-coveted glossy exhibition catalogues stacked with precision. The main grievance here, however, were the small canvases of original paintings by Aboriginal artists working in artist centers. Though a seemingly a good thing to contribute to because, “hey, I’m going to be helping support the artist with my purchase!”, what is really at play here is a larger issue of further Western control and systematic repression of the Aboriginal cultures and the exploitation of their culture to turn a profit on the sale of their artworks while lining the pockets of the white dealers who often run these centers. Oh, and bonus! If you are a British Museum Member and flash that swish member card, you get a discount! Huzzah!
And finally, though the British Museum hosted an evening event, Indigenous Australia Late: Origins Festival at the British Museum, 12 June 2015, the entire experience of the exhibition was incredibly disappointing. To the credit of the Aboriginal performers at this event, they were wonderful and contributed to the representation and knowledge of Aboriginal cultures throughout the evening—Francis Firebrace- elder storyteller of the Yorta Yorta, David Milroy-musician, Heath Bergersen-didgeridoo player and actor, and the Zugubal Dancers from Badu Island in the Torres Strait who all brought to life differing Aboriginal cultures with what the British Museum seriously lacked. What could have been the saving grace for the British Museum was rounded off with Kangaroo Carpaccio served on a bed of greens as the final nail in the coffin of the museum’s misguided attempt at Indigenous and Aboriginal representation.