Rare Indigenous artefacts that were taken by Captain Cook during his 1770 expedition to Australia's east coast will be displayed at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, as part of the new Encounters exhibition.
By
Myles Morgan

26 Nov 2015 - 2:58 PM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2015 - 8:46 PM

Dozens of rare Aboriginal artefacts from the first British expedition to Australia will go on display at the National Museum of Australia from Friday.

Among them, a shield and two fishing spears, collected on Captain James Cook's 1770 expedition to Australia's east coast.

The Botany Bay landing marked the first contact between British settlers and Australia's Indigenous people and happened 18 years before the arrival of the First Fleet.

Dharawal elder Shayne Williams said the shield wasn't gifted, "because there was conflict when they tried to land".

"While the crews stayed on the boat, it wasn't a problem. But, as soon as they tried to land from one of their boats, they were resisted straight away."

There are conflicting versions of how the shield came into British possession. Some elders believe the owner dropped it when he was shot at by the landing party. There is a small, circular hole near the middle of the large shield.

"I think it's important for everyone in Australia that it's back here." 

In his 1770 journal, British botanist Sir Joseph Banks recorded an Aboriginal man who "attempted to oppose our landing" and left the shield behind when he ran away from the landing beach.

But elder Shayne Williams wants the Gweagal peoples' shield to inspire Australians and make them reflect on the rich history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

"I think it's important for everyone in Australia that it's back here," he said.

"It is one of the very first cultural artefacts to be taken from the mainland."

The Encounters exhibition will see 151 artefacts from all over Australia on display, including objects from the Kimberley, the Torres Strait and Tasmania. They include a wallaby tooth necklace, a feather skirt, knives, an axe, and ceremonial headdresses.

Also among the items is one of the world's oldest known didgeridoos, collected some time before 1855 at Port Essington in the Northern Territory.

"It is one of the very first cultural artefacts to be taken from the mainland."

Many of the items, on loan from the British Museum, have never been seen before in Australia.

Sketches depicting exiled Aboriginal men and women from Tasmania by renowned English artist John Skinner Prout will also be shown. The 1845 colour sketches include Aboriginal man Callerwarrerwer ('black beetle'), known as King Tippoo, and Roomthapana ('male wombat').

All of the items on loan from the British Museum will return to London next March.

The National Museum acknowledged uncomfortable questions of who has rightful ownership of the artefacts.

"It's a complex question and there's no simple answer," the chairman of the Museum’s Indigenous Reference Group Peter Yu said.

"But, I would think that you can't deny where it originated from and the traditional owners of that land where that tribal warrior was holding that shield at that time. Clearly, there are some ownership rights to that."

"You can't deny where it originated from and the traditional owners of that land where that tribal warrior was holding that shield at that time"

Dharawal elder Shayne Williamson says items like the 245-year old Botany Bay shield are probably safer in the hands of the British Museum.

"They're organic materials and they really do need to be in controlled environmental conditions, otherwise they will rapidly deteriorate," he said.

"People could have a problem with them being moved in the first place but the worst thing that could happen to it is for it to deteriorate."

RECOMMENDED STORY
'Catch of cultures': Special feature
The fish and the people of the Yuin nation met long before any government sold a fishing licence. Despite native title claims, today's cultural fishermen can face hefty fines and even jail for taking what's in the sea.
With dozens of culturally significant items spanning the first 200 years of Australia's colonial history, Peter Yu wants the items to inform Australians about their past and influence the future.

"What does that shield actually represent in terms of our shared history and our shared future?"

The Encounters exhibition opens at the National Museum of Australia on 27 November and runs until 28 March 2016.