The art of an enduring civilisation

HOWARD MORPHY, PhD '78 looks at the growing role of Indigenous art and culture in mainstream exhibitions.

Museum collections are deeply entangled in the relationships between the UK and Australia and I've had the privilege of exploring the role these institutions play in cultural understanding.

A new exhibition I've been working on acknowledges the difficult parts of Australia's history and, at the same time, recognises the enduring richness of Indigenous Australian cultures and ways of life.

For the past four years, I have worked on an exciting project with curators at the British Museum and the National Museum of Australia on an exhibition of the British Museum's Australian Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander collection. 

The breadth and depth of the exhibition - Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation - is likely to generate powerful emotions and change people's understanding of the past and appreciation of the present.

It is curated by ANU alumna Gaye Sculthorpe, BA '77, head of the Oceania Department at the British Museum.

In my own case, the exhibition is very much part of the cycle of a life engaging with Indigenous Australians and their material worlds.

I studied anthropology at University College London in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I wrote my Master's thesis on the toas [small wooden sculptures made at the Killalpaninna Mission] of the Lake Eyre region.

At the time, categorised as direction signs, they were little known outside the South Australian Museum.

Today they are recognised for their remarkable sculptural properties.