Friday, December 11, 2015

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia

‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’.

I think the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum of Australia is shaping up to be a once in a lifetime event. The first I heard of it was an article in the Sydney Morning Herald by Julie Power subtitled ‘Our Elgin Marbles Come Home’. The excellent article is well worth reading as it gives a sense of the significance of the exhibition and reading it really brought home what we have here.

Sydney Harbour with later additions in the background and in foreground original landscape from time of British arrival, with many rocks still bearing incisions and carvings by the original inhabitants.

The article mentioned that the exhibition would include two of the surviving spears stolen by Captain Cook’s crew from Gweagal inhabitants of what was one day to become Kurnell in Sydney. Together with 150 other objects from the British Museum they represent the oldest artefacts collected from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The article notes that the exhibition also includes more than 138 contemporary Indigenous objects, mostly from the National Museum of Australian own collection. Included are some that are quite new, adding a contemporary component to the exhibition and underlining how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are still very much ongoing and evolving activities.

Few generations ago
Astoundingly this exhibition makes you realise that all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that Gweagal descendants still talk about that first eight day encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday.

For explorers at the time Australia must have seemed like another planet. For the Gweagal people watching Cook’s sailing ship comes gliding through the entrance to Botany Bay it must have been the equivalent of seeing an intergalactic space ship approaching. To grasp what it must have felt like for both parties we have to step into the world of science fiction to reconnect with the sense of strangeness.

For European seafarers sighting the alien coastline, vegetation and wildlife – even the colours and feel of the air would have been different – they must have been completely dazed. After all they really had travelled to the other side of the Earth, often taking years to get there, not knowing where ‘there’ would be or even if it would be. It must have been like a spaceship approaching the surface of Mars. 

Contemporary traditions
Amongst the contemporary objects are two new spears made at Kurnell by a family member descended from those original spear-makers that are almost identical to the ones Cook took. It there were any doubts that tradition lives on, this most ancient of objects and its modern counterpart should put them to rest.

It brings home the fact that the past is always changing as the present, which is so intertwined with it keeps changing shape. I've said before that Australia might look like a modern, innovative and forward looking sort of country but it is really two separate countries overlaid – each going in opposite directions. Choosing which country you want to be part of is partly about the future but it is also about clearly understanding the past.

Shayne Williams, a Gweagal Elder who played an important part in the development of the exhibition, concluded the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ article with a very pertinent comment about history, ‘Our histories might not have been a good one, but they were a shared history just the same. We have a shared history, a shared present, and we have a shared future.’

Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Scheme
Interestingly I assume that this exhibition would not be possible except for some recent work over a couple of years by the Ministry for the Arts, completed while it was part of the Attorney-General’s Department. The Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Scheme makes it more likely that overseas institutions will release stolen artefacts for loan. It provides legal protection for cultural objects on loan from overseas lenders for temporary public exhibition in Australia. The scheme ‘limits the circumstances in which lenders, exhibiting institutions, exhibition facilitators and people working for them can lose ownership, physical possession, custody or control of objects while on loan to an approved Australian institution. This protection is often referred to as “immunity from seizure and suit”’.
I suspect that the exhibition of these objects will serve to increase pressure for the eventual return of the objects to the communities from which many of them were originally looted. That issue will fester for ages, as the case of the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles shows resistance is strong.

Looting and piracy
Talk about 'Pirates of the Caribbean' - the whole of Western civilizations seems to be firmly based on looting and piracy. At various stages in my travels I've visited the Vatican and the Museuminsel in Berlin and gaped at the vast quantities of stolen goods from around the globe adorning the walls and rooms. In Berlin there are even whole reconstructed city gates and temples inside the museum halls. I felt as though I should jump on the line to the Flying Squad to get the whole crew nabbed for breaking and entering – sadly it doesn't work that way.

Despite this, it is excellent that these objects are returning, however briefly, to their homelands. It will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are.

A version of this article was originally a post on my public Facebook page 'indefinite article'.

See also

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research 
‘Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face’, History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Whatever the question, China is the answer
‘It has been said, only half jokingly, that whatever the question, China is the answer. China has its own distinctive problems but this has an underlying element of truth, especially in our current century, the much heralded Asian Century. Our major cultural institutions have risen to the challenge of the Asian Century, playing a leadership role in building the soft diplomacy which enables a deeper and more durable relationship with Asian nations. In the latest example of this engagement, the National Library of Australia has done what national cultural institutions do best – it has collaborated with the National Library of China to produce an outstanding exhibition, “Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644-1911”. This is a case of cultural interaction building enduring bridges that all the ore trucks in the world can't match’, Whatever the question, China is the answer.

The island to the North – turning the map upside down
‘Our geography teacher taught us about the Australian fear of the Yellow Peril, ready to pour down from Asia and inundate the almost empty island to the South’, The island to the North – turning the map upside down.

Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less

‘The announcement by new Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield that he will step back to a degree from the decision of his predecessor about national arts funding is a good call – but not good enough. This is what happens when there is no policy framework or set of strategic principles guiding changes to programs or development of new programs. Flexibility is an excellent thing and so are attempts to develop new programs to support areas that might not have been able to gain support before. The problem is ad hoc policy on the run is no substitute for carefully thought through changes. In a context where there have been significant long term cuts to arts and culture funding in the last two budgets, particularly the 2014-15 one, these changes only worsen the situation’, Arts funding changes on the run – doing less with less.

National arts and culture funding – follow the money
‘In the continuing furore over the transfer of funds from the Australia Council to the Ministry for the Arts in the 2015-16 budget, most of the focus to date has been on the Australia Council. What has been happening to the funding of the Ministry for the Arts itself? Based on the publically available budget figures since 2012, it is possible to compare the level of program funding managed by the Ministry for the Arts and see the reduction in funding following the election of the current Government’, National arts and culture funding - follow the money.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister
‘I ventured out through the dark wilds of the Australian National University to hear the Opposition Spokesperson on the Arts, Mark Dreyfus, share his view of what a contemporary arts and culture policy might look like. It was a timely moment, given the turmoil stirred up by recent changes to national arts funding arrangements and the #freethearts response from small arts and cultural organisations and artists. Luckily, as he himself noted, he has a very recent model to work with. The National Cultural Policy is little more than two years old,’ Out from the shadows – the other Arts Minister.

‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel
‘Faced with the increasing prospect that it could become the next Australian Government, the Labor Party is reviewing its ‘arts’ policy. Whatever happens and whoever it happens to, considered and strategic discussion of arts and culture policy is critical to Australia's future.’ ‘Arts’ policy and culture – let's not reinvent the wheel.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world.


No comments:

Post a Comment