Museums refuse to meet request from Indigenous Australian campaigner - Museums Association

Museums refuse to meet request from Indigenous Australian campaigner

Rodney Kelly seeks repatriation of four spears and a shield dating from 1770
Patrick Steel
Rodney Kelly, from New South Wales, Australia, has spent the last two weeks in the UK campaigning for the return of four spears from the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and a shield from the British Museum.

The spears and shield were taken by Captain Cook in a battle with the Gweagal people, who Kelly claims are his ancestors, after Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770. Both museums are refusing Kelly’s request to repatriate the objects.

A spokeswoman for the Cambridge museum, which is part of the University of Cambridge, said: “The university recognises the great significance of the spears, not only to the Gweagal people, but to all Australian citizens, and indeed anyone who is interested in Australian culture and history.

“It considers it very important to continue developing strong cultural links and exchanges with indigenous Australians, particularly members of the Gweagal people and to take steps to continue to increase the accessibility of the spears to everyone for whom the artefacts are culturally, historical and educationally significant.”

The museum argued that Kelly’s request contains no clear proposal for housing and conserving the spears if they were to be returned, and that the removal of parts of the collection, which is of great historical, scientific and educational importance nationally and internationally, would deprive the collection of its integrity.

Kelly said the Australian Museum in Sydney has told him it is willing to take the objects should his campaign be successful, but said this was not in his request as he does not have a formal agreement in writing with the museum.

A spokeswoman for the Australian Museum said: "The Australian Museum is aware of conversations but it is, in the first instance, a matter between the UK museums and the communities here in Australia. Obviously, our first Australians would like to have their materials back in the country."

A spokeswoman for the British Museum said Kelly had met with Gaye Scunthorpe, the museum’s curator and section head, Oceania, this week, and on a previous occasion in October 2016, to discuss the shield.

The spokeswoman said: “The museum has also been in contact with representatives from the La Perouse community in Sydney who have requested that the museum undertake further research into the shield.

“This was communicated by the museum to Kelly in January 2017. The museum is undertaking this research and will be in touch with the La Perouse community, Kelly, and other interested parties when this is complete.”

Kelly, who crowdfunded his visit to the UK, said he was hopeful that the objects might be repatriated in time for 2020, the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing at Botany Bay.

His long-term goal is for the objects to be the foundation of a new indigenous museum in Sydney, with “our culture on show, with our stories told in the way we want them to be told”.

“These objects have a lot of educational value,” he said. “Australia is still very racist to indigenous people. We want to show the non-indigenous people of Australia what happened in 1770, and open the door to the true history being told in Australia.”

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