By Yasmin Hales

As emphasized by the Chair Tim Radford, the seminal question “Who Owns Culture?” is a highly complex and loaded inquiry and was unpacked with critical scrutiny from three different perspectives: Gaye Sculthorpe, curator of the current exhibition “Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation exhibition at the British Museum”, the Aboriginal writer Melissa Lukashenko and an anthropological perspective from Haidy Geismar at University College London.

Referring to the Indigenous Australian exhibition, Melissa claimed Aboriginal communities that created the cultural artefacts have undisputable ownership. The artefacts should be rightfully returned. “So much has been taken from Aboriginal people… that where there is any doubt about provenance… because of the colonial relationships that have existed and still exist in some ways in Australia today, it’s important to err on the side of Aboriginal ownership.”

Speaking as an Aboriginal writer from an outsiders, non-curatorial perspective, Melissa feels the British Museum is incredibly backward, arguably in contrast to smaller Australian museums which have a stronger policy of repatriation. The British Museums’ attitude is “we’ve got this stuff, we like this stuff and we’ll keep it until we are forced to do something else”

From a curatorial perspective, however, Gaye stressed how the British Museum now has legal ownership of these indigenous objects which are highly protected. “What the British Museum is doing is more than just an exhibition…It has bought attention to the issues of Aboriginal and Torres Straight islanders.”

Previously the museum was burdened by an image from the past but now she argued a dialogue has begun in partnership with the Australian National University and National Museum University of Australia. Consequently, the objects on display contribute towards that shared heritage where the material artefacts can answer back.

Referring to the exhibition Shield from Captain Cook, Melissa argued “why is this treasure of Australian history, not only Aboriginal history…why is it on the other side of the world? To me it’s ridiculous. That’s like the crown jewels being in Bangladesh or the Magna Carta being lodged in Siberia”

As an anthropologist, whose very definition of the discipline is based on the cross cultural study of human behavior, Haidy Geismar argued how the definition of “Who Owns Culture?” is highly polemic question and various from place to place. There is no mutual position, as she argued “the debate quickly moves away from artefacts and more towards conflicting politics, colonial histories and issues of sovereignty which still remain unsolved”.  

The audience further learnt how the British Museum act of repatriation is guided under current UK legislation which dictates how, when and in which way objects can be returned, but regrettably provides limited opportunities to do so. Gail raised an example of the lengthy procedure in a special case of British Museum repatriation of human remains, requested by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre government in 1985/6, but under our current legislation the British Museum couldn’t return them. Finally after conversations at British and Australian government level during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and under the Human Tissue Act 2004, in 2006, 20 years after the initial request the museum repatriated the goods.

In defiant response understandably Melissa reiterated her argument “The thing that concerns me is an attitude that says that the world has a right to Aboriginal objects or in the past Aboriginal human remains, that exceeds the right of Aboriginal people to own their own artefacts, our own languages, our own law stories and essentially the right to represent ourselves”

In an opposing view, the Chair, maybe playing devil’s advocate argued that these material objects now belong to the culture that absorbed them. “The British Museum exists because we went round the world collecting, and in some cases we are all extraordinarily grateful…as the value to the world has been considerable…it’s very different when you get two artefacts that speak to an identity”

Melissa’s shared a further interesting discussion point experienced during her current UK visit to the Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford. Having arrived with trepidation she was unaware of how much stolen Aboriginal material was collected, as pre 1900 people were still being shot in the head due to white peoples demand for land and water. So the idea of a free and fair trade between whites and Aboriginals was ludicrous.

“I don’t whether I am going to come across my great-grandmother in one of these cases… I don’t know what I am going to see when I go to a museum…Often the provenance is not clear. How did that shield get there and was it taken from one of my ancestors in a colonial situation?…So it is not a simple thing to walk into a museum”

Haidy and Gail both raised an important point in relation to guardianship and ownership of material culture and the way museums need to be responsible for the histories of colonialism. Today they agreed UK museum attitudes are changing such as the Cambridge museum that clearly worked in partnership, collaboration and respect for local Pacific communities.

Thus, in relation to the question “Who benefits?” Melissa noted during her observation of British museum audiences visiting the Aboriginal exhibition, is it worth a 6 second baffled observation of our art when people don’t understand it? However, in absence of these objects amongst Aboriginal communities, Haidy argued how the debate was equally about the importance of intangible cultural heritage, intergenerational knowledge and the transmission of tradition from one Aboriginal generation to the next amongst today’s communities.

In addition to complex discussions around Native Land rights, overall this enriching talk provided new insights into the debate of “Who Owns Culture?” that will alter the way indigenous artefacts are perceived and experienced in all ethnographic museum displays globally.

I know I will never view Australian aboriginal culture in the same way again.

Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation is on at the British Museum until August 2015.

Yasmin Hales is an independent lecturer and researcher in Social Anthropology and Indian tribal art and architecture. Visit her blog at

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