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The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation and 50 years of exhibiting Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum

British-Museum

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation and 50 years of exhibiting Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation provides an opportunity to reflect on some of the changes at the British Museum in the last 50 years. The Museum as a whole has undergone two major building projects (the redesign of the Great Court and the entirely new World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre.)

Less easy to instagram, but equally important are the changes in the Museum’s vision for its collection and audiences. The exhibition reveals the progression in the way that the Museum presents its African, Oceanic and American collections to visitors in London.

In the last 50 years the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AOA), formerly the Department of Ethnography, has moved out of the main British Museum site at Bloomsbury to 6 Burlington Gardens and then back again. The motion of the Department is matched by the energy of staff who continually strive to better present the collections, doing justice to the people, past and contemporary who made and used them. The initial move to the Museum of Mankind, as the building was named, provided space for large scale exhibitions. It departed from a style of ethnographic display which placed objects in cases with descriptions of their use, but provided very little information about the history and lives of the people who made and used them. Instead ambitious displays presented objects in context and focused on contemporary lives.

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​Reconstruction of a Wahgi bolyim house in the Museum of Mankind exhibition Paradise: change and continuity in the New Guinea Highlands 1993-1995. © The Trustees of the British Museum

As permanent galleries and temporary exhibitions returned to the main site (from the late 1990s) innovation in display of African, Oceanic and American collections continued. Currently the Sainsbury Africa Galleries display newly acquired pieces alongside historic collections, illustrating the vitality of the contemporary art scene in many African countries. Living and Dying, in the Wellcome Trust Gallery, takes a thematic approach concentrating on health and wellbeing to display collections from Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, the Department’s most recent exhibition continues the drive to provide a deeper understanding of the people and places the collection represents. It places objects firmly within the context of the complex, dynamic civilisation that created them and incorporates contemporary lives and works. It also goes a step further, presenting Australia’s history since British colonisation. It is this approach to both the history of Australia and the history of the Museum’s Indigenous Australian collection that has sparked so much interest from the media, the public and academic spheres.

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The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The painting on the right, Kungkarangkalpa, 2013 by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington is reproduced courtesy the artists and Spinifex Art Centre Photograph, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The ways in which the British Museum displays its collection may have changed in the last 50 years, but its interest in its local audiences has not. From 17 April – 6 May 2015 the Museum showcased an artwork, The London Walk, produced by London communities, including the longstanding Camden residents group, inspired by the Indigenous Australia exhibition. Drawing on the exhibition’s theme of connections to land and home, they based their designs on their experiences of living in London. The result was a wonderfully photogenic example of the wider impact of the exhibition and the Museum.

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The London walk, a community art installation led by the Mary Ward Centre and inspired by the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.

Many thanks to Dr Gaye Sculthorpe (Lead Curator and Head of Oceanic Section) and to Ben Burt (Curator, Africa, Oceania and the Americas) for sharing his knowledge and thoughts on AOA. Thanks also to all of the individuals and groups, Indigenous and non- Indigenous, who have given their time and knowledge to help with this exhibition.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo