Engaging Objects: Indigenous communities, museum collections and the representation of Indigenous histories

Engaging Objects is a collaborative research project involving the Australian National University ANU), the British Museum (BM) and the National Museum of Australia (NMA). It is a four-year Linkage Project funded by an Australian Research Council grant.  The Research Team comprises Professor Howard Morphy (ANU), Dr Lissant Bolton (BM), Dr Ian Coates (NMA), Dr John Carty (ANU), Dr Maria Nugent (ANU), and Dr Michael Pickering (NMA).


In 2015 the British Museum and the National Museum of Australia are staging two linked exhibitions based on objects drawn from the British Museum’s collection of Australian Indigenous material. This will be the first time most of these objects have been displayed in Australia.

The British Museum’s collection is one of the most important holdings of Australian Indigenous material in the world. It has been assembled over two hundred and forty years, beginning with material collected at Botany Bay in 1770, during James Cook’s first Pacific voyage. In addition to rare and precious objects, it includes photographs and artworks as well as correspondence detailing interactions between collectors and Australian Indigenous people throughout Australia and over a long period of time.

Despite its breadth, depth and historical importance, the collection has been little researched, either in Britain or Australia. Its contribution to understandings of the diversity and history of Indigenous material culture, histories of Australian Aboriginal people and their relationships with early settlers, as well as the collection’s meanings and significance to contemporary Indigenous communities, is therefore largely unrealised.

The Research Project

Museum collections are powerful sites of cultural and cross-cultural interpretation. The contents of museums, and their imagined contents, anchor diverse histories and interpretations about the past and the present. In the case of the British Museum, so often portrayed as a symbol of residual colonial power, its contents stand for narratives ranging from 'global heritage' to 'colonial loot'. The rhetoric around the museum, particularly in terms of its Australian collections, requires more detailed and sustained engagement from Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices in Australia. This research project and the associated exhibition are providing an opportunity to re-examine the ways in which Indigenous cultural materials entered the museum collections. By investigating these localised narratives - of trade, theft, loot, gifts and commissions - the project is opening up the diversity of historical narratives and relationships that shaped the collection.

The central hypothesis of our project is that exploring the history of these objects, as a collaborative endeavour by museums and Indigenous communities, enables us to explore broader questions of history in Australia's cross-cultural present.

The Engaging Objects project is using the making of the exhibition as an opportunity to explore these issues – of museums and their relationship to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities - via an innovative partnership between the ANU, the NMA and the BM in collaboration with Indigenous research participants and communities throughout Australia.

Our specific aims are:

  • To examine and document the exhibition-making process, from the perspectives of Indigenous stakeholders Museum staff and researchers.
  • To provide a critical and cross-cultural perspective on the way museums are working with Indigenous communities
  • To give opportunities for Indigenous artists and scholars to interrogate and work with the British Museum’s collections.

The display of this material in Australia for the first time is a unique opportunity to reconnect these objects with the contemporary Indigenous people and regions from which they were collected. It also provides a critical moment in Australian discourse when questions not only of museums, but of History – can be examined through the prism of these objects. Our ambition is not simply to conduct research with communities, but to support existing community researchers and projects and encourage the development of community-based research projects more broadly. Our collaborative outlook is creating opportunities for individuals and groups to respond with their own research, politics and values to the museums and the premises of the exhibition.

Curators from both institutions are working with relevant Indigenous communities and individuals to discuss the premises of the exhibition, the role of the British Museum in collecting such objects, and the contemporary meanings ascribed to such materials. Artists and community members are contributing to the exhibition in direct ways, by contextualising museum objects through the perspectives and values of modern day people. This work is providing contemporary Indigenous objects, stories and perspectives which will be featured in the exhibition, alongside the historical narrative derived from archival records.

Engaging Objects is exploring this process, and providing Indigenous artists, curators and community members with a range of opportunities to critique and/or contribute to the development of the exhibition and the broader issues it raises in Australian public life. 

Community Engagements

In 2012 we visited Albany, Perth, Broome, Fitzroy Crossing, Yirrkala, Sydney, Cardwell, Cairns and The Torres Strait Islands.  These communities, and others associated with materials in the exhibition, will be visited again multiple times throughout the project.

Creative Fellowships

Our community consultations are complemented by a series of Creative Fellowships offered to selected Indigenous scholars and artists who are interested in engaging with the British Museum’s collections of Australian material.  A growing number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists are drawing on early examples of Indigenous artefacts and early European visual works held in museum collections as inspiration for their art. Their work constitutes a canon of Indigenous commentary on contact history, colonialism, empire, museums and race relations. These Fellowships are enabling direct access to the collections in the British Museum. They run parallel to the community engagements, and are providing an opportunity for Fellows to respond to the exhibition contents in tangible ways, including the production of new works. It is hoped that these critical and artistic responses will sit in dialogue with the historical materials, and the community responses, in the final exhibition.

At present these fellowships have been awarded to: Judy Watson, Jonathan Jones, Julie Gough, Elma Kris (Bangarra Dance Theatre), and a collective of Yolngu artists from Buku- Larrnngay Mulka.

Updated:  17 September 2012/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications