Aboriginal bark etching returned to Australia… for now

Posted on: April 15, 2016 by

Since we last reported on the matter, there have been some (potentially positive) developments on the issue of the Australian Aboriginal bark etchings in the collection of the British Museum being claimed by descendants of the Dja Dja Wurrung people who had initially made them in the mid 19th century. An article by Paul Daley in the Guardian from February reports on the discussions between leaders of the Aboriginal group and the British Museum, which could very well result in the three contested barks being loaned in 2017 to the Bendigo Regional Art Gallery, located on the Dja Dja Wurrung’s traditional lands in Australia. And possibly more…

The British Museum has some 6,000 Indigenous Australian items in its collection, but these three bark pieces are of particular importance, both historically and spiritually, to the descendants. They directly represent the work, craftsmanship and beliefs of ancestors who lived over 150 years ago – a generational continuity that is central to many Aboriginal belief systems. They are also extremely rare: these are the only known bark etchings of their kind to have survived to the present day. The works had been acquired in the 1850s by a Scottish settler who had associated with some of the local Aboriginal groups. The barks were later sold to the British Museum.

Dja Dja Wurrung bark etching, c. 1850, in the British Museum's collection (photograph: National Museum of Australia)

Dja Dja Wurrung bark etching, c. 1850, in the British Museum’s collection (photograph: National Museum of Australia)

When the barks (along with a ceremonial emu figure) were loaned by the British Museum to Museum Victoria in Melbourne for an exhibition in 2004, the group’s leaders initially obtained an administrative declaration that the barks should not leave Australia until their status had been negotiated with the relevant Aboriginal communities. Controversy ensued and eventually the declaration was set aside by the Australian Federal Court; the barks then returned safely to the British Museum.

One of these barks has since come back to Australia. It formed part of the Encounters exhibition that finished last month. This angered some, who saw the temporary reappearance on Australian soil as an instigation. Australian law had changed in the interim: there is now a piece of legislation in place, the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Act 2013, which effectively prevents legal seizure or lawsuits relating to cultural pieces brought into Australia for exhibition purposes (with some exceptions, for secret-sacred items and the like). The existence of this law prevented another debacle like the one in 2004.

There are of course two sides to this law – and others like it around the world, known colloquially as “anti-seizure” statutes (which have nothing to do with preventing strokes or epileptic fits!). For one, the law acts as a block against any potential claimant who sees an artwork displayed within easy reach in their home country – no matter how strong their claim may be. In some ways, it contradicts the movement towards restitution witnessed around the world with increasing numbers of museums and collectors becoming sensitive to the needs and interests of original owners or their descendents.

But there is another side. And from this other perspective, the best way for cultural property disputes to be resolved is for objects themselves to be brought out into the open, rather than being kept locked away either in a storage facility or behind the impenetrable display cases of the British Museum. It is not unlike solving a moth problem. If things are hidden away, the passage of time (like the existence of moths) will only make things worse. Rather than seeing Encounters at the National Museum of Australia as an example of the British Museum flaunting its impressive holdings, it can perhaps be seen as the first step in a debate. Or a discussion. Like the one that seems to have opened up between the Dja Dja Wurrung people and the British Museum itself.

This isn’t meant as an apologia for the recent loan or for the existence of anti-seizure statutes. Only to show that there are two ways of looking at things. And if parties are able to engage with one another in a peaceful and civil manner, then there is no telling what good can come of it. And if laws like the 2013 Australian Act can serve as a catalyst for bringing parties to the table, then so much the better.