Book Review

Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums. Gaye Sculthorpe, Maria Nugent, and Howard Morphy, eds. London: British Museum Press, 2021. 256 pp. 9780714124902

  • Joanna Sassoon

…more information

  • Joanna Sassoon
    Curtin University, Perth, Australia

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Cover of Toward Person-Centred Archival Theory and Praxis, Number 94, Fall–Winter 2022, pp. 5-299, Archivaria

At first sight, this book appears irrelevant to Canadian archivists, focusing as it does on objects created by Australian Indigenous people and now held in British and Irish museums. Yet in its ways of thinking about collectors as agents of imperial ideologies and about the nature of cross-cultural engagement over the lives of materials and objects, this book provides an opportunity to reflect on potential relationships between the archival collecting mind and museum studies. This book, one product from a large international research project funded by the Australian Research Council, starts with the idea that the dispersal of objects has its own history and is a conduit to larger histories. It is based on the understanding that museum collections are products of encounters and entanglements between imperial and Indigenous Peoples and intellectual traditions. It is inspired by the power of objects to prompt renewed engagements with scholars and source communities. The editors’ aims are threefold: to share knowledge about dispersed objects, to offer interpretations that draw those scattered objects together, and to contribute to reconnection and relation building between Australia and the British Isles. One key purpose is to re-engage Indigenous Peoples with their cultural heritage held in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Of particular interest to archivists is the way this brings a “double vision” (p. 18) to objects and collections, with perspectives from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and scholars based in Australia and the British Isles. This approach acknowledges the many world views that authors bring to these objects, harnesses a range of imaginative ways to use them to highlight big themes of colonial history and identity, and reveals a wide gamut of social and imperial relations that surround objects and museum collections. Objects and collections now held in a wide range of local, county, and national museums were located during foundational surveys, and the results are listed in detailed and valuable appendices. In 23 chapters, the 22 authors discuss around 160 objects from all over Australia, which are held in more than 30 museums in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Supporting research is based on archives held in Australia and the British Isles and the book explains that these each have their own characteristics and periodicities, which are the products and reflections of their own histories. The introductory section refers to objects held in national, regional, and local museums as a single “collection” to facilitate analysis of broader trends and patterns that have emerged over 220 years. These include the reasons for collecting, the nature of collectors and cross-cultural engagements, the kinds of objects collected, the gender of makers, and the journeys into and at times between collections. The subsequent four sections are structured thematically, by functions the authors see performed by small assemblages of objects: moving (engaging in mobility, movement, and travel circulation); telling (conveying and preserving purposes, meanings, and knowledge); unsettling (speaking to colonial frontiers); and performing (participating in exhibitions and performances). The chapters are self-contained, concise micro-histories based on these assemblages of objects drawn together by particular criteria – including date, collector, material, place, or community – which are juxtaposed or speak to each other in ways that allow larger themes to be drawn out. The authors range from early career scholars to esteemed academics and curators with disciplinary knowledge in archaeology, anthropology, and history. They include people from Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds and curators of significant collections, who are based either in the British Isles or Australia. In writing style, the authors use a range of narrative forms ranging from more traditional prose to elegiac and poetic …