Possibly the most confusing (and equally the most straight-forward) way to try and understand indigenous Australian cultures – and that of the Torres Strait islanders – is their use of the word ‘country’ to mean the places where they lived, intimately linking the land, nature, their culture, and ultimately their identities. These ancient cultures probably understood the relationship between place and identity even more than we, as modern geographers, do today. They were inseparable principles, and entirely intertwined their cultural habits and traditions into the diverse natural landscape around them.
Without wanting to romanticise this traditional lifestyle, it was also clearly a more environmentally sustainable way of existence. Indigenous Australians would likely have struggled to separate themselves from nature even if they wanted to. It’s a far cry from our contemporary Anthropocene-based discussions; wherein our civilisation has become so far removed from the natural world that we can contemplate calling it a new geological age.
With all that in mind, this new exhibition at the British Museum arguably presents the best way to try and understand these ancient relationships (without going to rural Australia, of course). A wide range of objects dating from the 19th century illustrate how materials from the natural world could be turned into objects essential for an indigenous Australian way of life. These materials include wood, bamboo, plant fibres, shells, feathers and many others; all clearly crafted from nature, and all for the purposes of activities such as hunting, worship, fighting and, of course, forming that intimate connection with the land all around them.
Examples include different varieties of boomerangs, used for hunting birds, an array of necklaces worn by women from the Torres Strait islands, bags and baskets weaved from long plant fibres, and special water-carrying devices crafted from old coconuts. There is also an immense assortment of artworks, both ancient and modern, attempting to illustrate the ‘Dreaming’ experiences – so central to Aboriginal cultures – and to tell the stories of ancestors and nature which people experienced during these times.
Great effort has also been taken to fully outline the significance of the arrival of Captain Cook to Australia in 1770, and the process of colonisation started by the British in 1788. Having spent time trying to understand the world of indigenous Australians, it becomes easier to realise how impossible it must have been for the Aborigines and the conquering British to have come to know each others’ very different worlds. Indeed, the ongoing fight for justice among modern Aboriginal communities against crimes committed by the British over 200 years ago shows how psychologically far apart these two societies still are.
Interestingly, the exhibition also acknowledges the controversy which revolves around whether it’s right for these priceless cultural artefacts to be kept in the British Museum, instead of with the descendants of their creators back in Australia. The complications involved in this dispute – trying to establish which objects were given as gifts, and which were stolen, as well as exactly which of the hundreds of indigenous communities different objects came from, and consequently who they would theoretically be returned to – epitomises the huge upheaval and change which has happened to Australia since the late 18th century, after 60,000 years of relative stasis.
Overall, it’s a strong and powerful exhibition, and one which asks tough questions about the inclusion – or exclusion, as it has historically been – of indigenous Australians within modern Australia.