One of the many curious things about Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu is its dearth of references to Aboriginal pottery, evidence of which one might expect to be found in profusion. The firing of clay to produce rodent-proof containers for storing grain, as well as cooking pots and drinking vessels, is a hallmark of even the earliest agrarian settlements — settlements of exactly the sort Pascoe claims the explorers encountered.
Find pottery shards and, as archeological evidence everywhere in the world establishes, what the trowels and brushes will have uncovered is a site where former residents had progressed from paleolithic hunter-gatherers to the more settled neolithic lifestyle Pascoe insists Aborigines attained and, indeed, exceeded.
Peter O’Brien eviscerates Dark Emu in his Bitter Harvest.
Order your copy here
This absence of ceramics in the archeological record piqued the interest of a Quadrant reader who, no doubt sporting a mischievous grin, dashed off the note below the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Why, Sandy asked, was the museum hiding evidence of Aborigines’ mastery of the potter’s wheel and kiln?
Interestingly, a second Quadrant reader, Peter Campion, also wrote to the museum, posed the same question and received an entirely different answer. Why, it’s almost as if the curators of indigeneity and its relics tailor their scholarship and responses according to a correspondent’s perceived sympathies.
Below is the initial enquiry from “Sandy Composta”:
Dear Museum People,
Why won’t you display the pottery crafted by the various Indigenous nations before the First Fleet’s invasion?
Having heard Bruce Pascoe discuss how Aboriginal civilisation has been denigrated and buried by white colonisers, and having also read his equally wonderful book “Dark Emu”, my respect for your museum has shrunk.
On visits I have admired the emphasis your displays give to the Indigenous Holocaust and the culpability of European imperialism in perpetrating genocide.
So why won’t you put the Aboriginal pottery on display? Why have you consigned this proud legacy to the basement?
The suppression of true history continues, as Bruce Pascoe notes.
Please explain so I can pass the information to my mob, who are very angry about this censorship and suppression.
An initial response from the museum’s “complaints coordinator” was received in short order, our reader reports, with a longer and detailed email arriving within the week. It is reproduced below in its entirety (with emphasis addded):
Thank you for your feedback and thoughts on our permanent exhibition. Please see a response from one of our curators in the Museum’s Indigenous Knowledges centre below:
Over the years, the Museum has displayed shelves of various potteries from Indigenous nations. Collections are periodically rotated for a number of reasons (conservation and to accommodate featuring different stories within the limited spaces). The Open Collections that used to be on display included Aboriginal pottery and other ceramic objects, however, they have been taken off display while the Museum focuses on a complete redevelopment of the First Australians and Torres Straight Islands galleries. These galleries extend across two levels of the Museum and make up a third of the Museum’s permanent gallery space because of the significance of Aboriginal history.
We do hold several collections of Indigenous potteries with other collections coming into the Museum’s collection and display spaces soon.
The Museum has a working relationship with Bruce Pascoe and we collaborate from time to time for workshops. The Museum recognises his in-depth research has taken a long time to come together, and we intend to incorporate new research findings in the gallery redevelopment project.
The current Gallery of First Australians and Torres Strait Islands gallery have experienced a rotation of stories over the years and the Museum, as noted in your email, has never shied away from controversial stories or difficult histories. This practice will continue in the redevelopment project. Consultations have already begun with communities across Australia to showcase the deep and broad representations of Indigenous stories and voices. At the same time, major (and smaller) exhibitions continue to be developed by the Museum which explore specific themes, such as the recent Aboriginal-led exhibition: Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, a 1,000 square metre exhibition, which will begin its national and international tour in 2020, allowing a significant number of audiences to learn about this story.
Since not all of the Museums’ collections can be displayed at any one time, the Museum’s website has a Collection Explorer service, where members of the public can access this database using the internet. http://collectionsearch.nma.gov.au/
We welcome feedback from our visitors and very much appreciate the comments you have provided following your visit. We hope we have answered your questions, and please feel free to let us know if we can provide further information.
A couple of days later, Peter Campion posed the same question and received the very different response below:
Thank you for your email. There is no pre-1788 Indigenous pottery in the collections of The National Museum Of Australia.
As to whether there is any in existence collected by other public collecting institutions, or private collectors, you will need to inquire with them yourself.
The Museum is unable to conduct research on your behalf, and can only provide information about objects in our collections and research undertaken in relation to our own exhibitions.
National Museum of Australia
Just for the record, here are the current members of the museum’s Australia Indigenous Reference Group, whose “primary role” is to provide “expert Indigenous advice to the Council regarding the Museum’s activities that represent and serve the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the broader Australian community.”
They might wish to look into the museum’s “working relationship” with Pascoe.
Then again, they might not.