AHOTW Symposium - Dr Mathew Trinca - The Politics of Things

Video | Updated 1 years ago

The politics of things: relational meaning of collections to communities


Trinca: It’s a great pleasure to be here and not least because I think it’s the first time that I’ve stood in this hall since — well I suppose last night typically is the truth of when I was last in this hall — but preceding that I haven’t been here for 13 years, which seems a terribly long time, so it’s a great delight. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Noongar people of this place, their elders past and present, and indeed all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are with us today. And as I said, I’m really honoured to be part of this symposium obviously because of my connection to this place but also the strength of connection that I feel to the British Museum, and I really thank the Western Australian Museum led by my great friend and colleague the Director here Alec Coles, all his staff, and the staff of the British Museum, who I have been lucky enough to meet in the last few days, JD Hill, Belinda Crerar, Nadja Race and Jenny Parker, thank you for all the joint efforts that you’ve made to bring this terrific show to audiences here in the west and of course with the delight in my mind of knowing that it’s coming to Canberra as well and will be there later this year. An absorbing premise underwrites A History of the World which, while clearly it has so many hands in it, was really instigated by the renowned director of the BM, Neil MacGregor. And writing in the book of the same name, which itself sprang as we’ve heard from the BBC radio series that gave life to this idea, Neil set out why we should turn to objects to detail a grand sweep of human history, and this is what he said: “if you want to tell the history of the whole world, a history that does not unduly privilege one part of humanity, you cannot do it through texts alone”. In the book he goes on to describe the, and I’m quoting here, “a symmetry between literate and non-literate history”, and you heard JD and others speak about this today, particularly about the way that objects can help us re-balance our historical view. Now that’s an argument I think for the study and contemplation of object collections as an expressly political act, a political act that can reveal aspects of social relations that might otherwise remain opaque. We’ve been talking a lot about object meanings today. I suppose in this discussion I’d like to introduce a consideration of how political, how this is enmeshed in deep politics. All objects I think in a museum are in a sense deeply political. In their selection, their documentation, in their exhibition, they invoke associations and understandings and often assert values that are proffered as normative and collective. And MacGregor’s example when he makes this statement about the capacity of objects to re-balance our understanding of the past, in particular re-balances a symmetry, if you like, in the power between literate and non-literate cultures, is particularly apposite for all of us in this country. In fact it’s extraordinary that from all the objects in the collection of the British Museum he turns to a remarkable wooden shield, a shield of the Gweagle people of the Botany Bay area, that was taken by Captain James Cook back to England in 1770–71. When he does that he invokes a time and a place that goes right to the epicentre of our history in this country. The shield was collected in the aftermath of that fateful first encounter between Cook’s landing party and the two warriors in April I think of 1770, in Gweagle country, at the place we now call Botany Bay. The event on the British side is well documented. Cook himself, others, and his crew, wrote about the fact that these two proud men came down to the beach and confronted them on the sands of Botany Bay as the landing boat from the Endeavour came to the shore. At first he directed his men to fire warning shots above their heads but then when they continued to advance the landing party fired directly at them. One man was wounded and fled, and both left behind the shield and the spears on that beach. This meeting of two worlds 245 years ago was really characterised I think by the essential failure of dialogue at that moment, and the descent into violence. In many ways it stands as a potent emblem of so much that has come after. We know exactly these sorts of events were repeated in other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands as the frontier rolled across the continent in the late 18th, 19th and into the 20th Centuries. Moreover we know that such encounters between first and settler peoples have been a feature not just of the human history of this place, of Australia, but right across the world. Now as it happens the Gweagle shield is presently in this country. It’s here for the first time since 1770. Many of you know that it’s among the 151 early Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects that are in the Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. That exhibition represents the first time that the shield — that almost all of those objects — have returned to this country since they the time of their collection. It’s a deeply affecting moment for all, certainly for the members of the 27 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities right across the nation from whence these objects originate. For more than four years they’ve worked collaboratively with the NMA and the BM to see these objects come here, and now it’s happened. In particular, in respect of the one object that I’ve spoken about so far, that wooden shield, the community at La Perouse in Sydney are the inheritors of that narrative, that story, of the histories that have been transacted on the shores of Botany Bay and elsewhere in their country. One of the elders, Dr Shane Williams, has been closely involved in the project, and this is what he says, and it’s a long quote so I’m going to read it and I hope you’ll bear with me: That shield represents a whole history of this country. This country was annexed by the British and there’s questions as to whether it was rightful or not at the time. So it brings up all those sorts of discussions and areas to be explored, and I think the shield too represents all Aboriginal people because that very place where the shield was taken from is where the rest of Australia was annexed to the British. Aboriginal dispossession started there in that very place... What it reminds me of is Aboriginal resistance and not just resistance back then but resistance to the destruction of our culture up until now…that we’re continuing to resist the infringements and impacts and the decimation of our cultures and our identities…it is going to be a great source of pride for a lot of Aboriginal people.

There’s a lot of emotions involved in this. We feel spiritual about it, we feel proud about it. I’m sort of grateful that they were taken and preserved because not much has been preserved of any artefacts within the Sydney basin. Now thanks for bearing with me through that quote, it’s a long quote I know. But I’ve asked you to do that because I think there’s so many things, so many powerful statements, and so much subtlety in what Shane says, that it merits us having a closer look at it. Shane Williams tells us that the shield represents a history of Indigenous dispossession, the history of Aboriginal resistance to colonial settlement of the continent, not just at Sydney but by extension symbolically right across the country. But it’s also true that it’s deeply implicated in the lives of those Indigenous Australians today of that place, and it manifests the diversity and vitality of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It’s a tangible reminder of culture continuing and resonating in our present, it’s not simply a trace of the past. Shane Williams, rightly I think, regards the shield as a national treasure, and while he would like to see it in this country in the longer term he says openly and willingly that he’s grateful it’s been well preserved and cared for over the centuries by the British Museum. These are complex matters and people have very different views on these sorts of conditions but it is fascinating to track the subtlety and complexity of his statement. For non-Indigenous Australians, the shield resonates in other senses too. It’s a material emblem of that first encounter which led to the creation of modern Australia. So it exists in relation to us as well as part of a foundational narrative. It’s associated with an historical figure who has an almost mythological status in this country. It’s also more broadly a reminder of imperial power at a time when we imagine ourselves to be almost wholly post-colonial if not republican. Even today, it ties our history to Britain and it connects us to the continuing significance of British forms and styles in our national life. On this evidence, and it’s only a part of all that we might marshal around the story of the Gweagle shield, we start to see that it has a complicated relational meaning or series of meanings in the sense that its myriad identities seem to be invoked almost dynamically by the very perspectives of the different parties interested in the life of the object. It’s deeply enmeshed in truth in a kind of political assembly, a kind of ‘dingpolitik’ assembly of objects that Bruno Latour speaks of. It’s surrounded by politics. Now all the objects it Encounters complicate our understanding of this nation’s past. From this part of Australia for instance, or more precisely from the southern coast at Albany, come the taap knives and the kodj that you’ve just seen, collected by the government resident of the early garrison there, Alexander Colley. Most likely these objects were given to Colley by his great friend Mokare. A Menang leader who guided the government resident on several journeys and made him aware of the impact of colonisation on his people. Tiffany Shellam’s book, if you don’t know it Shaking Hands on the Fringe is a terrific work that really looks at those early encounters at Albany. Colley later nursed Mokare when he was dying, looking after him in his own home, and then when he died helping to bury him according to Aboriginal custom. In turn when Colley died just a few years later in 1836 he asked to be buried alongside his friend at Albany. The taap knives and kodj are embedded in this narrative of friendship that confounds our sense of what happened on the Australian frontier, and reminds us that there are other possibilities for human action on both sides, rather than those that so often descended into violence in those moments. But you know at another remove this historical view of the knives and also the kodj may be less important than their continuing power and their meaning for local Indigenous People today. This is what Harley Coyne, a Nyoongar leader of the area, says about the knives: “I’ve got a nephew”, he recounts, “he’s making stone axes and using resins. There’s a very similar piece that’s in the exhibition and we’re quite happy about that piece coming back, comparing it with the stuff we do today.” So here’s an object, at one level a deeply affecting history, that speaks about friendship on the Australian frontier. At another level it transcends that past and it asserts a cultural relevance to community practice today. And arguably I think it’s this second meaning, its substantiation and correspondence to continuing cultural practices in the country, today, that makes it actually live in the present. The hope in Albany is that the taap knives and the kodj objects will all visit their own country in time, and it’s our hope too, and indeed a hope that’s shared by this museum and I know by many of the staff at the British Museum as well. That means that the exhibition of these treasures in Canberra is therefore not an end point in itself but it’s a staging post on a journey, one that’ll add another chapter to its own biography, and hence the exhibition is clearly embedded in a complex cultural politics and we can be only hopeful but not certain about what its dividends might be. Indeed all objects are embedded in a web of relations that make them political and in fact Xavier this morning spoke about the way that we need to see objects in a more rounded social fashion. It’s also true of the artefacts here, included in the exhibition A History of the World. They’re presented as emblems of moments in time and space that ask us to consider the breadth of human experience over two million years, and that’s a fairly firmly described narrative, and it can mean sometimes, or feel as though, objects are meant only to amplify that particular narrative. For example, these are the Lewis Chessmen, shown here as symbols of a medieval world in which status was displayed in dress and accoutrements. In the exhibition the explanatory narrative for their display focuses on their design, the ways in which they exhibit elements of the society from which they’re drawn. But from another perspective we know that the Lewis Chessmen in recent years also stand implicated in the attenuated relations between Scotland and England. A few years ago an argument broke out about whether the chessmen or at least some of the pieces should go back to Scotland where they’d been found. So here we see objects that have both symbolic and material values swirling and combined. They’re really implicated at another level in political action that is about the relationship of Scotland to the United Kingdom and we’re confronted by the fact that these object biographies are so deeply inscribed by their relational meanings, how they relate to us whatever our perspective or our position might be. Some years ago when I was a curator here I wrote about the way that objects in collections are so often framed pedagogically, in ways that seemingly attempt to fix their meanings, and sometimes they almost resist attempts to place other meanings around them. Such is the strength of an original or foundational narrative within which they might have been placed. I think back now to how I started my talk today with the story of the wooden shield of the Gweagle people, and I’ve come to see that it’s actually my relation to that object in this shared present that we all share in this country, that is, of a nation that’s still questing to find a new way to sustain a shared reconciled vision between its first and settler peoples, and that’s ultimately for me what gives the shield a particular potency and makes it deeply political, if you like. For me, the shield actually moves beyond the historical circumstances of the Botany Bay encounter and has this extraordinary relevance as part of the continuing culture of the peoples of La Perouse today. And if it can transcend that moment in 1770 and acts so powerfully upon us now in the present. I think there’s also a sense in which it reaches far back in time beyond 1770, and internalises the cultural logic of the first peoples that have lived on this continent for millennia. That shield is both in the present but it’s also the consequence of countless generations past who’ve called the shores of Botany Bay home and for whom it is still a home. And I for one am moved by it, to think how remarkably fortunate I am to live in this country, and to be mixing my story, however recently described that is in terms of this nation’s history, with the long and the remarkably diverse human history of this continent. I was thinking about this when I was reading recently Tim Winton’s recent book Island Home, and this is what he’s written: Since people first walked out of Africa and made their way down to this old chunk of Gondwana, when it was not yet so distant from Asia and the rest of the world, it’s been explored and inhabited, modified and mythologised, walked and sung. People were chanting and dancing and painting here tens and tens and tens of thousands of years before the advent of the toga and the sandal. This is true antiquity. Now I think really for all of us that are interested in objects this is actually a remarkable moment in this country, and we have to thank the spirit of collaboration both between the British Museum and the National Museum of Australia in respect of the Encounters exhibition, between the British Museum and the Western Australian Museum, and ourselves in respect of A History of the World, for these two exhibitions to be current in the country on opposite coasts. I also thank all the people in the 27 communities with whom we’ve worked around the country, us and the British Museum and indeed the Western Australian Museum now, in the realisation of this project, who gave of themselves and their stories to this broader story, this broader narrative. So in Canberra now at our National Museum we have an exhibition of these remarkable early Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects that connect to communities in the present but which also testify to the long Indigenous history of this continent. And here at the Western Australian Museum A History of the World shows us a selection of astonishing objects that invoke past lives and cultures over millions of years, and it does this in ways that are intellectually fascinating and visceral, emotional and deeply affecting. I think it’s extraordinary to be in the company of these things, the early tools from the Olduvai Gorge, the Meroë bronze of Augustus, the inner coffin of Shepenmehyt from North Africa, the Lewis Chessmen and so many others. And especially to see among them the twined pandanus basket from Milingimbi, from the North of Australia, reminding us that the long human history of this place is a compelling part of a global history of humanity, of which we should all be proud. Thank you. [audience applause]

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