Dja Dja Wurring Men
Courtesy Gary Murray
Indigenous Dja Dja Wurrung men around the time of Australia colonialization.

Greatest Works of Dja Dja Wurrung Nation in Hands of British Museums

Terri Hansen

This powerful story of precious property taken and regained—only to be lost again—exemplifies the struggle between Indigenous Peoples and the dominant culture’s museums over the right to sacred ancestral works. It began in 1850.

The British Museum’s holdings of two historical bark etchings and a sacred ceremonial emu carved in bark by the Dja Dja Wurrung First Nations Peoples in Australia’s outback is opening at the National Museum of Australia this April. It’s reopening old wounds for the Dja Dja Wurrung First Nations people, as well.

“The show will present Indigenous Australia as a living culture, with a continuous history dating back over 60,000 years,” a press release issued by the museum states.

But these barks, created by and sacred to the Dja Dja Wurrung, were taken from their traditional homeland at Boort, Australia in 1850 by a Scottish settler during an era of violent European settlement. According to an email from British Museum spokeswoman Kate Morais, he then sent them to the Paris International Exhibition in 1855. They were subsequently donated to the British Museum by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in 1866 and 1880, respectively.

Sacred bark etching in the hands of the British Museum. (Courtesy Gary Murray)

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The bark etchings forever tie their people spiritually and physically to their ancestors, and to their country, traditional elder Gary Murray, spokesperson for the Yung Balug Clan at Boort told ICTMN. Murray’s involvement began in 2004 as the spokesperson for the Dja Dja Wurrung.

“They are unique to Yung Balug Country, as against the whole world, including the invaders from England,” Murray said. “The 160-year-old barks tell our story, not that of the Queen of England or the British Museum.”

The Dja Dja Wurrung retook the bark etchings in 2004, after British museums loaned them to Museum Victoria in Australia, and after an Aboriginal heritage inspector placed eight consecutive 30-day emergency declarations on the bark etchings to prevent them from going back to the museums in England.

The inspector based his decision on the fact that the pieces were produced by Dja Dja Wurrung people, and on their assertion that they had the right to their ancestor’s cultural works.

“Museum Victoria then challenged this in court in order to return the objects on loan,” Morais said. “There was much publicity. The court eventually found the declarations invalid and the objects were returned to London. There has been extensive writing about this case.”

The court ruled that the cultural heritage inspector lacked the power to make emergency declarations, and the Museum Victoria sent the bark etchings and emu ceremonial figure back to the British museums in recognition of their “ownership.”

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The move had a degrading impact on his people’s self-esteem, Murray said, “yet the cultural battle will continue. The Spirit of our Ancestors will not rest.”

Sacred bark etching in the hands of the British Museum. (Courtesy Gary Murray)

Nor will the British get any rest until the bark etchings are returned. Murray said that British standards of decency have been severely wounded in the ongoing battle in the eyes of First Nations peoples—a battle that will be handed down for generations.

Many Indigenous People once employed by or sitting on the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee at Museum Victoria “left in disgust,” Murray said. “Museum Victoria’s once good relationship with our people is demolished because of the court proceedings and departure of so many First Nations staff.”

According to Morais, the British Museum “has cordial contact with the Dja Dja Wurrung community.”

When Murray made his case in 2004 he likened museums to invading governments, acquiring artifacts just like “others acquired our country, lands and waters, our language, our arts and culture, and our dead and burial grounds.”

If the British seek to be a global partner in exhibitions and research they need to rethink their position, and scope a two-way dialogue for a resolution of the issues with all Indigenous Peoples around the globe who have inherited this negative cultural issue, Murray said.

“Return all cultural materials to where they come from and do a treaty or agreement that embraces mutual cooperation and cultural exchanges,” Murray said. “First Nations would be happy to showcase their cultural materials within an agreed strategy. Otherwise, the battles will continue right through to more litigation and possible UN intervention.”

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