Julie Gough

Challenging Histories conference, Cardiff, 29 June 2016 – joint paper

Julie Gough and Carol Cooper

Re-imagining Challenging History conference
Cardiff – 29 & 30 June 2016


In their rightful place: a case for the return of Australian Aboriginal Objects from overseas museums
The Aboriginal lands of south-eastern Australia, including the island now called Tasmania, were the first areas of the Great South Land to be overtaken by European explorers and colonists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As a direct result, hundreds, even thousands of objects belonging to Aboriginal people were also ‘overtaken’, removed from their homelands and sent to the northern hemisphere, where they can still be discovered in private and institutional collections. In this joint paper, National Museum of Australia (NMA) Curator Carol Cooper, will introduce her research on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections from South-eastern Australia held internationally, and discuss the potential role of academic and Museum research in re-imagining and re-enforcing the debate for the return or repatriation of significant cultural materials to Australia. She will also introduce the relevant linked exhibitions, Unsettled and Encounters currently on display at the NMA from early December 2015 to late March 2016.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Artist of Trawlwoolway descent, Julie Gough, will continue this presentation with details of her own research in European Museums to rediscover aspects of her family and people’s history. She will reveal how her recent art installation, Timekeeper and associated film Tomalah, combine in the National Museum of Australia’s Unsettled exhibition to evoke her ‘terrible longing’ for the repatriation of a significant cultural object. This is a tiny, precious kelp water carrier, made in the nineteenth century by an unnamed Tasmanian aboriginal woman, and the only known example of its age which appears to have survived in the world’s collections. It was originally displayed in London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 before being donated to the British Museum. The carrier has returned to Australia as a loan for display in the NMA’s Encounters exhibition, but seems destined to return to the British Museum in early April 2016.


Carol Cooper is a Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia (NMA). Her research interests include Australian Indigenous history and visual art. Prior to joining the NMA as Registrar in 1998, she was Archives Manager at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Carol moved to Curatorial at the Museum as Head Curator Collections Development in 2010, and in 2015 become the Senior Curator for Visible Collections. She has worked as a curator on indigenous related exhibitions including, Aboriginal Australia (Australian Galleries Director’s Council, 1981), Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century (NGA, 1994), ‘It’s about Friendship’ Rom : A ceremony from Arnhem Land (NLA and AIATSIS, 1995), Portraits of Oceania (AGNSW, 1997) the AC Haddon and Eternity Exhibitions (NMA, 2001), Stories from Australia (NMA Guangzhou, China, 2002), Remembering Barak, (NGV, 2003), Travelling through Australia (NMA, 2011) and recently assisted consultant curator Kelli Cole with some aspects of the Unsettled exhibition (2015).

Julie Gough is an artist, freelance curator and writer who lives in Tasmania. Gough’s research and art practice often involves uncovering and re-presenting often conflicting and subsumed histories, many referring to her own and her family’s experiences as Tasmanian Aboriginal people. Current work in installation, sound and video provides the means to explore ephemerality, absence and recurrence. Julie holds a PhD and BA Hons in Visual Arts from the University of Tasmania, a Masters degree from Goldsmiths College University of London, BA (Visual Arts) Curtin University and BA (Prehistory/ English Literature) from the University of Western Australia. She has exhibited widely in Australia since 1994 including: undisclosed, National Gallery of Australia, 2012; Clemenger Award, National Gallery of Victoria, 2010; Biennial of Sydney, 2006; Liverpool Biennial, UK, 2001; Perspecta, AGNSW, 1995. In 2013 Gough was one of 5 Australian Indigenous artists selected by the National Museum of Australia to view objects from their communities at the British Museum and comment on the Encounters Project and Exhibition. Julie’s installation Time Keeper and associated film Tomalah, were recently exhibited in Unsettled at the National Museum of Australia, which acted as a counterpart to the larger Encounters exhibition. Gough’s work is held in most Australian state and national gallery collections, and she is represented by Bett Gallery, Hobart.

In their Rightful Place

Part 1 : Mins 1-8

Carol Cooper (NMA) – paper/ slide notes



We heard news of the Re-imagining Challenging History conference towards the conclusion of a significant ‘set’ of collaborative exhibitions held at the British Museum(BM) and the National Museum of Australia(NMA). These were the Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation’ exhibition at the British Museum, London from April to September 2015, and the concomitant exhibitions, ‘Encounters’ and ‘Unsettled’, shown at the NMA, Canberra, from November 2015 to March 2016.

We felt that outcomes from these exhibitions spoke to several of the questions underlying this conference, ie, ‘the appropriateness of re-imagining the role of museums and museum professionals as activists’, and ‘the role of academic research in re-imagining well-known challenging topics’.

This joint paper is the result of considering both of these questions in relation to a re-consideration of the role played by museums and academic research in the possible repatriation of significant Aboriginal Cultural material.

One of us, Trawlwoolway artist and curator Julie Gough was involved in all three exhibitions as she was one of a small group of Indigenous Australian artists who, as part of the joint, NMA, BM and Australian National University (ANU) ‘Engaging Objects’ research project, was sent over to the BM to interrogate early collections from their own cultural areas. It was intended that the results of these explorations would inform the two major exhibitions, Indigenous Australia at the BM and Encounters at the NMA, with Unsettled emerging as a reaction to the two main exhibitions and the Engaging Objects research project, managed by the Australian National University.

Julie’s discoveries at the BM and her reactions, provided the inspiration for her Unsettled exhibition art piece Timekeeper, and associated film Tomalah, and help form the central argument of this paper. Carol Cooper’s ongoing research into the way collections of Aboriginal objects were formed and the history of the diverse and often obscure ‘ownership’ of these objects between leaving the possession of Aboriginal people and coming into museum collections, is by way of background to some of the details and arguments presented.


SLIDE 2The 1989 publication on overseas collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects vastly underestimated their magnitude.

Published by Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra in 1989, this survey was a six months study, funded by the National Museum of Australia and Department of Aboriginal Affairs, to investigate overseas collections from sources available within Australia, ie published records and interviews with (mainly) academics who had visited overseas collections and recorded information from these visits.

The focus of the investigation was cultural objects, not human remains, though these were recorded if information was available. The summary investigation revealed collections of various sizes and levels of documentation in 177 Museums in 30 countries throughout the world. Objects in the survey dated from 1770 (a few objects only from Captain Cook’s voyage) through to about 1970, most collections being made between 1850 and 1900. The largest collections were found to be in the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America. ‘Field’ Collector information, ie how objects were obtained from Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people was scant, but included named explorers and settlers, traders, Government officials, anthropologists and archaeologists

Today, almost thirty years since this publication the situation has changed radically, with digitisation of the holdings of large museums creating a revolution in access to these collections. An appropriate example is the British Museum, which has over 3,000 Australian Indigenous objects in its electronic catalogue, almost all of which are photographed by high resolution, multiple view images.

The 1989 Overseas Collection report captured very scant details of only 1,671 of these objects, and this same story is repeated for all of the collections from institutions that now have accessible electronic databases. These are in a state of continuous improvement, so that frequently rechecking collection databases for ongoing new information is fruitful.

The other huge difference over the last thirty years is the active participation of Indigenous communities, scholars, artists and curators in re-connecting with, researching and disseminating knowledge about these collections and other cultural information. Tasmanian Julie Gough, and Jonathan Jones from New South Wales, both highly respected Indigenous artists and curators, and both members of the Engaging Objects research project, typify a recent high caliber of Indigenous ‘scholar-artists’, who are forging new ways of thinking about and expressing their relationships to museum collections.





These two slides are illustrated by objects and documents from a current joint research project between Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist and curator, Jonathan Jones and Carol Cooper called Makers Marks: reconnecting to Country.

This project is documenting men’s weapons from mainland south-eastern Aboriginal groups, trying to identify individual master carvers and unique stylistic regional provenance, from museum collections. The project is drawing together all known available historic sources as well as community traditions and knowledge. Jones and Cooper have recorded as many objects as possible in Australia in person, but rely heavily on the internet for recording overseas collections.



Jonathan Jones is another Australian Indigenous artists who is part of the Engaging Objects research project and Jonathan had two works in the Encounters exhibition. These were Untitled (Fort) 2015 and mugugalurgarra (conceal), 2015.

The Fort installation is typical of Jones’s dazzling light installations, and was inspired by seeing a single spear in the BM’s collection that was provenanced to ‘Fort Bourke’. This is the same place on the Darling River that in 1835, Major Thomas Mitchell erected a stockade of rough logs, to protect his exploring party against possible attacks by the local Kurnu Paakantji people. The fort was never attacked, but Jones reveals it as a ‘marker of the frontier wars, the violence brought about by explorers and conditions by which south-eastern Aboriginal cultural material is held in museum collections’.

His other work mugugalurgarra meaning ‘conceal’ in his Wiradjuri language, has taken a selection of south-eastern objects from the NMA’s collection and wrapped them in pages from the 1878 seminal textbook ‘The Aborigines of Victoria’, by Robert Brough Smyth.

According to Jones,

‘This work looks at how all our objects have been bound within a Western anthropological construct to the point that we are blinded. It highlights the inadequacies of anthropology and attempts to deconstruct the contextual framework that defines museum collections.’


This slide speaks to another viewpoint by another south-eastern community, of the Encounters Exhibition.

These are line drawings of the three extant etchings on bark, from R to L, the Lake Tyrell bark (obtained before 1874 and now in Museum Victoria, Melbourne) and two earlier barks from the Loddon River, collected by pastoralist John Hunter Kerr and exhibited at Sandhurst (Bendigo) in 1854, before being forwarded to the International Exhibition held in Paris in 1855 and which are now in the collection of the British Museum.

The contemporary narrative art of bark drawings with its concern to record and relate specific notable events, was common in the southeast – including Tasmania, in early historical times. However the bark charcoal drawings were highly perishable, and like other bark art from the southeast, few actual examples have been preserved, and regretfully none are known to exist today from Tasmania.

Central Victoria’s Dja Dja Wurrong community whose ancestors created the surviving bark drawings were one of the communities whose objects were featured in Encounters. In conjunction with the display of one of these barks in Encounters, it was announced that they have secured a draft memorandum of understanding relating to Dja Dja Wurrong objects in the BM’s collection. Initially they are hoping to organise a temporary loan of objects to the Bendigo Regional Art Gallery (located in their country). They are also hopeful that the future may allow a permanent repatriation of these highly significant bark objects to a yet- to- be- built cultural, arts and environment centre at Boort, in the heart of the country where the barks originated.

Similarly there are currently ongoing discussions between the British Museum and descendants of the Gweagal people for return of the large bark shield that was supposedly taken by one of Captain Cook’s Endeavour crewmen in 1770.

A spokesman for that group, Rodney Kelly has said about the shield that

‘It means a lot of me and my people because it connects us to the warrior who was there on that day in 1770 and it just means so much for it to be brought back to us, and for the people of Australia.’

The British Museum and other museums in Europe and America have in the last 30 years returned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island skeletal remains to Australia for reburial in recognition of community rights over this material.

The National Museum of Australia has assisted with many of these returns. Hopefully Australian museums can continue to work closely, in active and creative ways with overseas museums who hold unique collections relating to Indigenous Australians.

END Part 1

START Part 2 : Mins 9 – 15

Dr Julie Gough – introduction and paper/slides :



Slide 7

ya tawatja – which is one way to say welcome in our language. I am a Tasmanian Aboriginal person, my maternal family’s traditional country is Tebrikunna in far north east Tasmania, and our people are traditionally known as Trawloolway. My mother, her mother and so forth back in time more than 40,000 years have lived on our island home now known as Tasmania, while my Scottish father, his parents and siblings migrated from Glasgow to Melbourne after ww2.

I will speak here, briefly, about the possibilities when confronted by (and for responding to) challenging histories. In my primary work as a visual artist – challenging, necessarily confronting, the given mainstream perception, and expected order of things is my default position. I question, revise, reorder, re-present, and return as part of an ongoing process of sharing, given exhibiting opportunities, how Aboriginal people in Tasmania, and more broadly in Australia were and continue to be colonial subjects.

I will focus here on my work Timekeeper/Tomalah plus a brief introduction about projects that relate to navigating complex cross cultural histories, that are often, museologically, avoided.



Slide 8  

Key dates:
BM:   Indigenous Australia – enduring civilisation  
23 April – 2 August 2015
NMA:   Encounters  and   Unsettled – Stories within    27 November 2015 – 28 March 2016
Bruny Island bull kelp (Durvillea potatorum), sand, twigs, Diplarenna Moraea, Lomandra longifolia, Oyster Cove, Dianella tasmanica Bruny Island
images by George Serras Exhibition: Unsettled – stories within, National Museum of Australia, 2 December 2015 – 28 March 2016

This work was an attempt to illustrate the distance in time/space of the object, a kelp water carrier, from its original purpose and people. The dilemma and paradox is that its suspended animation, its unnatural withheld state, has also ensured its survival since c.1850, when it was likely commissioned for and then shipped from Tasmania to the Great Exhibition in London, and hence to the BM.

It is uncanny and very important, the only one of its type known to survive made pre 1990s. I wanted to make a small work, a personal scale comment on this object and my relationship to it by making a form of sister carrier, the same made today, but different. I created another one, in its image, from kelp and plants and sand from where I could best guess the original, came, in southern Tasmania.

My kelp carrier, however, has a hole in it, so it works differently, as differently as the one in suspended museum animation does, I suppose, from those that came before it. My kelp carrier is in a form of hour glass, but the sand represents thousands of years rather than minutes, and its re-purposing could be seen as the deliberate disabling of my carrier so as not to presume it to be better, more able to carry water, or more able to return in any sense, any moreso, than its still-captive sister object held in London.

The film accompanying the object, TOMALAH, intersperses footage I made of myself unpacking the original kelp carrier in the BM in 2013, with scenes from the coast where the original kelp, plants, sand would have been sourced in c.1850. The sounds of these places emanate around the Time Keeper carrier. It was my original intent that this carrier and the video projection would have been exhibited near the original ‘historic’ kelp carrier in Australia, hence enabling it to know of our solidarity and recognition of its plight, as well as our cultural continuum, and changing knowledge of how to make these objects, and for me most importantly, that it would be able to hear, for the first time in 165 years, the place from where it came, some attempt to redress what I call the Impossible Return.

To view TOMALAH go to: https://youtu.be/iuKQLuKuGxk

Julie Gough
video projection, HDMI, mp4, 16:9, H264, 1080p, sound, 4:50 min:sec, edited by Mark Kuilenburg

The process of our, 5 “contemporary” Indigenous artists, response to the exhibitions in London and in Canberra differed between the venues. In the British Museum exhibition: Indigenous Australia – Enduring Civilisation we were integrated into the whole (except for Jonathan Jones’ work that wasn’t realized in the UK). As the NMA exhibition ENCOUNTERS developed it acquired and integrated more and more contemporary cultural work by Indigenous artists, not commissioned to critique or respond, but rather curatorial decisions were made to ensure current Aboriginal and Torres Strait island works were evident at every turn, generally displayed in “positive” relationship adjacent to similarly made historic objects loaned from the British Museum. This duality or triad between different Aboriginal makings and the museum’s own interpretations and installation became a dilemma for our small commissioned artist-response group, whose projects were in implicit dialogue and various levels of critique with the entire premise of museology meets the Other, and the histories and ongoing implications for Aboriginal objects held elsewhere, distant, in the name of Empire.

If we had continued, as planned, to exhibit within the NMA Encounters exhibition, we would be not only be critiquing the premise of the exhibition, but unavoidably also the other Aboriginal artists, our cultural compatriots whose work was displayed as (it appeared to me) as a form of cultural approbation of the concept that bringing long lost objects all the way to Australia, though then only to Canberra (political capital of the country), before ripping them back to the UK, was culturally appropriate.

Hence, in short, we absconded to the adjacent gallery space to offer our different understanding of, and relationship to, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects held in overseas museums, in particular the British Museum. This possibility, our self determined segregation, was for the best.

We also argued for an Indigenous curator, after we were automatically, without any discussion billeted to a non Indigenous curator. Our relocation and eventual understanding that we were competent to determine most exhibition factors ourselves, including who to professionally work with as our curator, evidenced that Museums, in this instance the NMA, were after initial confusion able to negotiate with us to a successful outcome. They did change through time, given rational arguments and some constant pressure to revisit from our perspective, changes necessary for us, in light of the institutional changes to the original exhibition proposition.

What was evident was little to no expectation or history in this (and in this, this institution is not alone) that living Indigenous artists with experience can at the least co-develop projects, to more satisfactory outcomes. Indigenous participants in museum projects, and institutions, need to be aware of default controlled/controlling positions, and that exhibition and other program outcomes can, and still usually are,   much lesser renditions of what they could and should be, often visible by the almost total lack of Indigenous conception and development of Indigenous exhibitions, with equally almost negligible projects co-curated, co-written with an Indigenous curator. Infact, usually, the only obvious Indigenous active participation in museum programs is often as an add on, commissioned to perform or as a workshop agent, temporarily within the museum, for a public or education program.

I research, write, make art to document, and put an alternative perspective on the record, in part about how our histories, cultural objects, and lands continue to be occupied, removed, held, studied and represented by – usually, the descendants of the original colonisers.   I aim to destablise the unquestioned continuation of a Colonialist presumption of control, of power over the non western Other, as normative.



Slide 9

In 2009, I was guest curator at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart of the exhibition Tayenebe – Tasmanian Aboriginal women’s fibrework.   Each exhibition curated by Aboriginal people, in league with institutions with histories of often complex, ambivalent relations with Aboriginal communities is a marker on the timeline of change.

The development, each step made by Aboriginal people with the departments and individuals in an institution, and artists and the broader community, is immensely important beyond the world of exhibition, art and museum. These projects are one means to face our difficult shared histories, and in working through immediate, identifiable, concrete and fixable matters, positive, unplanned, unexpected, outcomes are inevitably achieved.

The museum   is a microcosm of the broader world beyond and it stands as a zone where interaction and dialogue and cultural representations can occur, as a kind of litmus for the world beyond, a test case for what is possible in broader society.


Slide 10 – Contemporary Tasmanian Aboriginal kelp carriers based on illustrations by French explorers between  1792 -1802

During the development of tayenebe – the British Museum uploaded masses of objects from their collections online, and at that time the kelp water carrier made c.1850 was spotted from Tasmania, by chance. None of the more than 30 women and girls working on the project,  learning or sharing traditional weaving and kelp work skills, knew that a kelp carrier survived made earlier than the 1990s. Since the 1990s we had been making kelp carriers by copying the artworks depicting our cultural objects, made primarily by artists Piron,  Petit and Lesueur, during the expeditions of D’Entrecasteaux and Baudin to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) in the 1790s and early 1800s.


Slide 11  –  Another Tasmanian Aboriginal Kelp carrier modeled on a French artwork (etching)

As a response, two sisters, Verna and Leonie, and their families immediately switched from the former 2d style to make in the manner of that historic surviving kelp carrier held in the British museum, despite still having to work from 2d online photographs. They felt so strongly that they wrote an essay on the subject for the tayenebe catalogue. I wonder what would have happened if we didn’t come upon the image of the kelp carrier that year, or even by now, especially given that many Tasmanian Aboriginal people couldn’t afford to fly to Canberra to view the Kelp Carrier brought temporarily from London to the National Museum.

I am hopeful that  a long term loan with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery can be negotiated for the historic kelp carrier to reside back in Tasmania, where the Aboriginal community can  welcome it home, and make work in direct response to it, rather than have to continue to view it as  a 2 dimensional  image.


Slide 12 –  British Museum held kelp carrier c.1850, and a contemporary response kelp carrier

Since April I have been in France, and for the past 6 weeks on a residency at Quai Branly museum, commencing an inventory of Tasmanian Aboriginal objects presumed to have been sent to France, listing where and when last seen/recorded, and accounting for objects found there now.

As a kind of case study, it is fascinating and worrying to realize that in 2016 I am probably the first Tasmanian Aboriginal person to view many overseas held Tasmanian objects, in this instance in France, since they left Tasmania, and even though they may be on public display.

This knowledge is unsettling. There is a sense of responsibility when offered this honour, to quickly share, disseminate information back to Tasmania, and to other Aboriginal communities and cultural workers in Australia after also coming upon their objects.


Slide 13 – La Rochelle Museum of Natural History, France

As we speak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Elders are passing away, and opportunities for what should happen, dialogue, projects, etc, are dissipating.

Museums should pro-actively make contact with Aboriginal communities, despite there often being many organisations, many Elders. I believe it is imperative as museum policy to share information about what is held from/of their cultures, in these institutions, with Indigenous peoples, who are as much the museum’s constituency as the local people in geographic proximity to these collections, in my mind moreso….

The relationship between Aboriginal people and displaced aspects of Culture is worse than merely being tragically managed or mediated by institutions. These places are often filled by reasonable individuals who by inheriting valued, museological roles, support their continuation at the expense of the overdue redefinition of museum’s purpose and aspirations, and implementation of fresh cultural requirements (that would question all that had gone before).   Museums reflect their broader societies, they gate-keep to prevent change in structures of power, knowledge making and sharing, and hide aspects of histories that offer different, perceived as inherently dangerous, implicit criticism of the culture in power.



Slide 14 – re: the role model of Royal Albert Memorial Museum Exeter and repatriation

Rather than coming from a place or fear, anxiety and of quasi hiding Indigenous collections remarkable results can ensue for museums that reach out.

One, seemingly extreme example of this, infamous infact, occurred when in 1997 Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter returned to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community a shell necklace and bracelet made by Trucanini, a well known tribal Nuennone woman who passed away in 1876.

I was fortunate to be invited to the repatriation ceremony at RAMM, where the official Tasmanian contingent of three Aboriginal community members surprised the institution by unwrapping and presenting as a gift 3 Tasmanian purpose made woven baskets to the museum.

Many present were in tears, forward looking tears, for the joy and promise that was unpacked in this unexpected exchange. In instigating contact with Tasmanian Aboriginal community and returning these objects of little real significance to the story of the museum or Exeter, but of great importance to Tasmania, RAMM was given something much more, without any expectation, in return.

RAMM now holds a special place in Tasmanian history, a relationship with the Aboriginal community, and three objects with stories about what can ensue when new pathways are forged – real relationships, and ongoing possibilities for living exchange with Aboriginal people otherwise generally presented as static, historic figures, whose contemporary counterparts are still perceived often with anxiety, as impediments, or without relevance, or relevant knowledge, by many western institutions.

Looking closely together, with open minded museum colleagues, at how histories have unfolded, how objects have been collected, from and by whom, and under what often dire circumstances, enables us to recognize and openly navigate what, in Australia, was the near annihilation of many Aboriginal cultures.

This  journey, well worth taking, continues to be one I travel with curators such as Carol Cooper,   who realize how critical it is that Aboriginal people are provided all assistance to reconnect with cultural material, and be offered museum held knowledge/information and research about these object’s journeys, and the potential to contact, create   and forge new generative relationships with institutions still shadowed by dark histories.





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