Indigenous objects return to Australia in new exhibition

By Amelia Caddy 7 December 2015
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
More than 100 sacred Aboriginal items have been temporarily returned to Australia, many for the first time in centuries.

WHEN LIEUTENANT CAPTAIN James Cook and his party landed at Botany Bay in 1770, their first encounter with the region’s Aboriginal people was fraught, and deep impressions were made.

Cook left Botany Bay with several stolen items, including sacred spears and a shield. Now, some of those items have been returned to Australia for the first time since.

The National Museum of Australia’s Encounters exhibition features 151 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects that were either taken or gifted during the first encounters between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia.

Dr Shayne Williams, a Gweagal Dharawal elder from the Botany Bay region, grew up hearing stories about his peoples’ stolen spears, and decided to find out what had become of them.

After almost over a decade of research, he discovered the spears and shield were held by the British Museum and University of Cambridge, and began campaigning to have them brought back to Australia, if only temporarily.

Through the Encounters exhibition two of the four remaining spears have been returned, an achievement Shayne describes as being both emotional and “very surreal”.

“They’re here now and we get to see them, and future generations of Aboriginal people will get to see them as well,” he says.

Ancient traditions alive today

The exhibition also features modern objects created by Aboriginal people from some of the 27 different communities involved in the project. Among the contemporary items are spears made by Shayne’s nephew, Rod Mason.

Spear making is an ancient skill, and both Shayne and Rod come from a long line of spear makers.

Without having seen the spears made in the 1700s, Rod created almost exact replicas of them based on the knowledge passed down by his father, including embedding shell into their tips.

“That proves to us that there’s been a continuation of cultural knowledge from that time until now, and it’s an unbroken knowledge to manufacture spears of that nature,” says Shayne.

Exhibition raises questions around repatriation

Like the Kurnell spears, many of the objects displayed in the exhibition were stolen from Aboriginal communities, and their temporary return to Australia has started a conversation about whether or not they should be permanently returned.

It’s an issue Peter Yu, chairman of the NMA’s Indigenous Advisory Committee and a Yawuru Man, is very sensitive to.

“The objects tell the stories themselves and people have different versions of those stories… it will be controversial, but I don’t think the exhibition can shy away from that,” says Peter.

The objects will be returned to the British Museum once the exhibition is over, but Peter says it has already helped begin more “creative discussions” around providing better access to the objects in the future, and their ongoing relevance.

“People can look at those objects having come from those communities and see that they’re still practicing the culture, speaking the language, still making the designs. It’s quite an emotive experience,” he says.

The exhibition will run until 28 March 2016.