In 2014, pakana woman Zoe Rimmer left the British Museum in tears after viewing a 170-year-old kelp water carrier taken from lutruwita/Tasmania in their collection. As she cried, the seed of a big idea was planted: how could she get the rikawa, and other Tasmanian Aboriginal cultural artefacts sitting in institutions across the world, home?
“Seeing our ancestral belongings in a storage facility in the British Museum was quite emotional,” says Rimmer, who until recently was senior curator of First Peoples art and culture at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG).
“I actually cried when I left. I said, ‘I feel like I’m leaving family behind, I just want to take them with me. I feel like I’ve finally made this connection and I’m going to leave.’”
Eight years later, that rikawa is one of 12 cultural artefacts once taken from Tasmania that have returned, temporarily, from overseas museums and private collections for the taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country exhibition at TMAG. Ancestral objects held in other museums in Australia are also on show.
Leaving aside the ethics of loaning a community’s own ancestral items back to them, the exhibition is unique in that it returns those items to Tasmania rather than the mainland. Here they’re accessible, albeit behind glass, to the Aboriginal community for two years – an “unheard of” length of time, says Rimmer.
Julie Gough, a Trawlwoolway artist and a curator from TMAG’s First Peoples art and culture team, says the process of securing the items started valuable conversations with overseas institutions.
“We’ve had previous loans of objects for six weeks or two months, but we’ve loaned these for two years, which generates interest and the understanding of ‘Why not longer?’ more than usual,” she says. “We hope that taypani milaythina-tu contributes to the pathway of future unconditional, permanent returns.”
The returned treasures are displayed in a series of small galleries with low lighting and hushed volumes on the first floor of the museum. There are beautiful necklaces made out of strung maireener (tiny, iridescent conical shells) from the 1870s, twined plant fibre necklaces from the 1830s, as well as tools and baskets.
The only known model reed canoe, collected by the then-lieutenant governor of Van Diemen’s Land, John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane, from Flinders Island in 1840, has returned from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
The exhibition includes a doll believed to have once belonged to Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl who, at the age of four, was sent away from her family (who were exiled to Flinders Island) to live with the Franklins upon their request for “an Aboriginal boy or girl”.
When the Franklins left for England, Mathinna was abandoned to the notoriously harsh Orphan Asylum in Hobart; by 18, she was dead. Her childhood doll, with black skin and a handmade dress, as well as a pincushion made by Mathinna, have come from a private collection in the UK.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” says Rimmer, who comes from a large extended family from Flinders and Cape Barren islands and has ancestral connections to the north-east coast. “Seeing an object so far away from country and community, over there it’s just an object. To have them home means so much more. They become something more.”
Tasmanian Aboriginal artists have also contributed to the exhibition with modern works. Rimmer is one of them, having collaborated with her aunt, Theresa Sainty, to create a ghostly clear resin rikawa suspended among long, thick strands of local kelp as a placeholder for pieces that can’t yet come home.
It’s accompanied by a soundtrack in palawa kani – the restored Tasmanian Aboriginal language – about the kelp carriers holding knowledge, stories and voice. “It’s a cry for them to come home,” says Rimmer.
Rimmer had a copy of her rikawa made using a 3D printer, which conjures another idea: with today’s technology available to recreate artefacts in microscopically accurate detail, why must the original items stay overseas?
“Our community has been able to revive making kelp water carriers and we can revive other things,” says Rimmer. “We have other cultural practices that continue – we could fill those museums with things that we want them to have, in exchange for the things that they’ve taken without permission.”
In February 2021, the Royal Society of Tasmania and TMAG made a joint formal apology to Tasmanian Aboriginal people. “It is well documented that staff, and those associated with TMAG, solicited and paid for the removal of Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestral remains for collection and trade, and used [these] in museum and scientific exchanges across the nation and around the globe,” the apology read.
“I feel like I’m part of something historic,” says Jillian Mundy, a palawa journalist and photographer. She collaborated on a sound piece with her cousin, singer-songwriter Cheryl Mundy, which is broadcast in a welcome garden outside the museum, symbolically reclaiming culture from the institution.
“It’s been a horrendous, sour, awful relationship for a long, long time,” Mundy says. “It’s evolving. I’m hopeful and optimistic that [this exhibition will] point toward us having full control of our cultural treasures.”
International law complicates things, as does Australian legislation, which limits loans to just two years. “A lot of institutions overseas can’t legally repatriate cultural objects at the moment, but they can do long-term loans,” says Rimmer. “But they don’t necessarily want to do that with another museum. And cultural objects need to be repatriated to community, not to another colonial institution like a museum ... if we had our own cultural centre much of this material probably could come home for good.”
As the exhibition began, so too did the countdown to when the treasures, as Mundy calls them, will be due to leave Tasmanian shores again.
“I don’t think anyone wants to think about that,” she says quietly. “It’s a difficult thing to think about. I think people are hoping that in the next two years, something will change.”
taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country is on at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery until 12 February 2023, after which TMAG will enable private access for Tasmanian Aboriginal community members only.