Demand for return of bark etchings as new exhibition set to open

Posted on: March 13, 2015 by

The British Museum has an upcoming exhibition of art and artefacts from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders entitled Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization set to open on 23 April 2015. However, as one recent Guardian article makes clear, all is not well in relations between the museum and representatives of certain indigenous groups, namely the Dja Dja Wurrung people of central Victoria.

This was the same group that instituted a court action in Australia in 2004-2005 under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 after the British Museum had loaned three sacred bark etchings to the Victoria Museum in Melbourne. The etchings had been bought by a Scottish settler in the 1850s, then later sold to the British Museum. The group had sought to keep the etchings in Australia. After obtaining emergency declarations in its favour, it lost out a year later when the initial injunctions were dissolved and the works were allowed to be sent back to the UK.

It doesn’t appear from the Guardian article that relations between the group and the British Museum have necessarily improved, although since 2005 the Museum has shown greater awareness and sensitivity towards some of the more general indigenous issues in regards to its Oceania and Australia section (the new curator of which is a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman). Not to mention the pride of place given to this new exhibition. The question is, what will happen when the show opens on 23 April? Will there be protests? Shows of support? Legal claims?