British Museum’s Controversial Australian Aboriginal Show Draws Fire

Harsh criticism and calls for repatriation.

Aboriginal Tent Embassy, 1972 placard. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

The British Museum’s highly contentious exhibition on Aboriginal Australian art, which opened yesterday was panned by critics, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

Curated by the Aboriginal Australian curator Gaye Sculthorpe, the British Museum’s head of Oceanic Art, the exhibition is the museum’s first major show of indigenous art in almost 50 years.

The museum aims to present the diversity of the continent’s indigenous tribes by showcasing artworks collected from as early as 1770 when the first western pioneers explored the continent down under, up to works by contemporary Aboriginal Australian artists.

In a press release British Museum Director Neil MacGregor explained: “The history of Australia and its people is an incredible, continuous story that spans over 60,000 years. This story is also an important part of more recent British history and so it is of great significance that audiences in London will see these unique and powerful objects exploring this narrative.”

However, the Daily Telegraph called the show “yet another injustice” against Australia’s Aboriginal population.” The British daily lamented the institution’s selection of works which reportedly focused excessively on criticizing Britain’s colonial rule at the expense of showcasing Australia’s rich indigenous culture. The newspaper concluded that the British Museum undervalued pre-colonial Australia’s “millennia of achievements,” in a misguided attempt to conform to political correctness.

Meanwhile, in the Independent, Zoe Pilger, the daughter of the Australian writer and filmmaker John Pilger, demanded the repatriation of several of the artifacts included in the exhibition. She even went so far as to accuse museum visitors of tacit involvement in the systematic plundering from Australia’s Aborigines.

The controversial inclusion of some rare Aboriginal cultural artifacts is expected to cause protests when the exhibition travels to the National Museum of Australia, Canberra in November for the institution’s Encounters show.

In 2005 the indigenous Dja Dja Warring tribe launched an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge to prevent several artifacts loaned by the British Museum for a similar exhibition from leaving Australia.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.
Article topics