I arrived at the press view of the British Museum’s new show to meet a small group of friendly protestors. We were on the stairs on the west side of the Reading Room. As I looked at the banners I could see the gateway behind them into the passage that leads to the Parthenon Galleries, and for a moment I thought they must be demanding repatriation of the marbles. Doh. I was about to see Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The protesters wanted artefacts returned to Australia. And – this being The BP Exhibition, Indigenous Australia – the BM to drop BP sponsorship.
It was all a bit confusing, I thought, clutching my rival press releases as I went into the gallery. But very soon I was overtaken by the glorious show.
Bark painting of a barramundi, Western Arnhem Land, c 1961. © The Trustees of the British Museum
I first learnt about Aboriginal culture when I came to London as an undergraduate in the early 70s, and discovered UCL’s anthropology library. The stories! The art! The landscapes! The tragedies! And the politics. Gough Whitlam had just become prime minister, and the prospect became real that Aboriginal peoples would gain exactly the same rights as all other Australians. Nonetheless, it took until 1992 for the High Court to dismiss the colonial deceit that Australia was terra nullius – nobody’s land, an empty unloved continent waiting for the British to do something useful with it.
Here at last is a show that opens up those stories, “the first major UK exhibition”, we are told, “on Indigenous Australia”. The last time I remember seeing some of the exhibits was in the BM’s own then outpost in Burlington Gardens, the Ethnography Department in the Museum of Man, in the 1970s.
Now we can see some fabulous, rare things, including artefacts that specialist archaeologists will enjoy such as a lot of bifacial flaked stone and glass spear points. There are baskets and paintings, shields and spears. I was spellbound by an extraordinary crocodile mask, a hairy, toothy monster over 2m long made by Mabuiag people in the Torres Strait out of turtle shell, wood, metal and fabric.
The croc was given to the British Museum by Wollaston Franks, and was made before 1885. The BM clearly has a strong Australian collection, joined here by things from elsewhere in the UK and from the National Museum of Australia, Canberra and other collections in Australia and Europe. Exhibits range from the 18th century (a shield collected during Cook’s visit in 1770) to the 21st.
These objects tell stories. The first half of the gallery is about Aboriginal cultures and country. The second half is about their fate in the hands of the British, and the peoples’ fight for rights and identities.
The script is honest and open. It likes Aboriginal culture and artefacts. It thinks the objects are worth studying and conserving, and that they can be interesting and beautiful. And it thinks they can be interrogated so we can learn about the people who made them.
“Objects are our texts”, says Aboriginal artist Jonathan Jones on the audio guide, as I look at a case of decorated shields. “Learning to read these objects is becoming increasingly important.” The shields, says the display, tell you who you are, and others where you come from. “A lot of information has been lost”, says Jones.
The second half of the show is about the struggle for rights, the need to preserve things and traditions, and the success of building new ones. Powerful messages in a small space. Several people describe how they have learnt about their own histories and culture from museum collections and displays. I used to watch my old grandmother make baskets from lawyer cane, says Abe Muriata. “But I wasn’t actually taught by her. I taught myself by going to the museum… I’ve been taught by master craftsmen.” One of his baskets is the last thing you see in the show.
The exhibition does not “perpetuate… the British legacy of taking Aboriginal land, objects and resources without permission”, as the BP-or-not-BP release has it. That is simplistic, and wrong. The protestors’ arguments are developed at greater length elsewhere (eg Zoe Pilger in the Independent, or Paul Daley in the Guardian), but the exhibition shows that they are wrong too. By contrast, Alastair Smart in the Telegraph feels that “Far from celebrating indigenous Australian culture, this show does little more than slam British colonial rule.” That is also wrong. When British settlers arrived, he tells us, “There was, instead of ‘civilisation’, just a boundless landscape.” But Aboriginal Australia shows that “civilisation” does not have to mean “grand buildings, monuments or sculptures”. People can create vast, complex worlds in their imaginations and express these, materially, through small, portable artefacts and marks in the landscape. Humans do not need to be settled, farming and urbanised to be civilised – an important lesson for how we think about most of human history, spent as hunter-gatherers, not growers.
Perhaps this is the point when I should say you really should go to see this show, it’s great. The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones gets it, and awards it a full 5 stars.
The exhibition dignifies Aboriginal culture by asking us to respect it, learn from it and wonder at it. It sets out the horror of two centuries of colonial history, and what has been achieved in overthrowing prejudices and restrictions. And it allows contemporary Indigenous people a voice, an identity. You would expect no less from an exhibition created on Neil MacGregor’s watch, by Gaye Sculthorpe, a leading Australian researcher with Aboriginal peoples and herself an Indigenous Australian from Tasmania, and BM colleagues including Lissant Bolton. We are both Australian, said Lissant in her introductory speech. “This exhibition is close to our hearts”.
Inspired by this – how far things have come since the 1970s! – I wandered off into the Assyrian galleries.
Winged lions from the north-west Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, Room 7
Assyria was an ancient Mesopotamian kingdom centred on modern Iraq and Syria. The British Museum has an outstanding collection of Assyrian stone carvings and reliefs, mostly from Nimrud and Nineveh, dating from around 900–600BC and excavated by Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851. One of the BM’s most significant recent acquisitions was a group of Assyrian ivories excavated from Nimrud by Max Mallowan (with his wife Agatha Christie) for what is now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI) in 1949–63. A third of the complete collection remains with BISI; “It is hoped that in the future these can be returned to Iraq.”
Clip from This World: World’s Richest Terror Army, BBC
In recent weeks artefacts from Nineveh and Nimrud – both are world heritage sites – have been among antiquities targets that Islamic State claims to have damaged; Nimrud itself is said to have been bulldozed. There is debate about how much the attacks have been directed at replicas and how much at original artefacts, but there seems no doubt that real losses have occurred. The attacks are politically motivated, and have been described as war crimes. Some argue that they should be seen as genocidal, “part of a blatant attempt to erase an entire people’s history and identity”. IS apparently regulates and taxes antiquities looters who operate on a vastly destructive scale. It is difficult to know how to describe dealers and collectors who buy up the debris, funding destruction and murder.
This floor plan gives an idea of the scale of the BM’s Assyrian galleries (the rows of dots along the bottom represent the colonnade at the front of the building).
Ashurnasirpal II’s winged lions from Nimrud, Room 6
Some of the carvings are absolutely huge. They are breathtaking, among the most extraordinary things to be seen in the museum. Kings wrestle with lions, artful depictions of Putinesque games. People are slaughtered and tortured. Cities are destroyed. Huge, brutal-looking half-animal half-human gods follow you with piercing eyes. These are galleries of terror, a boast of extreme power and control, preserved safe in London from the bitter destruction of the “world’s richest terror army”.
This is what the British Museum is for. To curate and nurture memories and to tell stories, without political flight or favour, about peoples whose only voice is now in material remains, or whose histories can be illuminated with things they made.
Ironically (it actually made me laugh out loud at one point), these galleries are also a visit into a more recent past. I was reminded of travelling on the London underground in the 1970s.
Little background information is given about the geographical and cultural contexts of where these things came from. Some of the labels are missing. Light is a mix of natural and artificial, neither of them adequate. The carvings – thankfully uncased – are dusty.
This entertaining play on the style of the friezes by Alan Sorrell (1957) hangs on a wall in a frame. It shows, in 1950s-speak, a “tentative reconstruction of the assault and surrender of the city of Lachish”.
The label describes the scratched grid under the Perspex as “A newly discovered board for a game”. One suspects that doesn’t mean it was found earlier this year.
Woops, not this way.
Yet of course it’s still all worth seeing.
The BM is a huge place, with many rooms and memories of its own. Neil MacGregor has transformed it, and steered it through a golden age. His successor faces an enormous challenge, just to keep it going well. Yet they will be able to make their mark, to be creative and surprising as well as welcoming and supportive, without necessarily taking apart or re-inventing things recently done. There is plenty of scope for important new work.