Last year, in volume 13 of this journal, Lyndel Prott published a Case Note entitled, “The Dja Dja Warrung Bark Etchings Case.”Prott, “The Dja Dja Warrung Bark Etchings Case.” In it she set out the background to a court case in Melbourne in 2004 to 2005 under the federal Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. The case related to three nineteenth-century bark items made by Aboriginal people in northern Victoria, items now held in the collections of two London museums. The items had been borrowed by Museum Victoria and brought to Australia for an exhibition in the Melbourne Museum. During the exhibition, an inspector under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 had imposed a series of successive emergency declarations. The effect of these declarations had been to prevent Museum Victoria from fulfilling its contracts to return the three items to the overseas museums who had lent them for exhibition. The case went to court after several months of unsuccessful negotiations when Museum Victoria successfully challenged the legality of continuous emergency declarations. The inspector then failed in a request to the Victorian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to make a permanent declaration to keep the objects in Australia, or to acquire the items compulsorily under the Heritage Protection Act. The objects were then returned to Britain.
I was the curator of the exhibition, Etched on Bark 1854: Kulin barks from Northern Victoria, which was held within the Aboriginal Gallery of Melbourne Museum between March and June 2004. This paper is a discussion of some of the issues raised by the exhibition and its aftermath, and it is written from the perspective of a curator and a historian.
The first part of the paper sets out the historical provenance of the three items, and discusses how the items came to be collected and sent overseas in the 1850s. I then describe how the debates at the time of the emergency declarations largely ignored this historical background, suggest some reasons why this occurred, and draw out some implications for the future. Last, I consider issues arising from the claims of ‘ownership’ that were made before and during the court case.This paper builds on two conference papers, one presented to the Museums Australia Conference in Brisbane in May 2006 and the second given to the Conference of the Australian Registrar's Committee in Hobart in November 2006. An expanded version of the first paper, “History, Strong Stories and New Traditions” appears in History Australia, June 2007.