The BP exhibition
Indigenous Australia:
enduring civilisation

23 April – 2 August 2015
Room 35

Patron: HRH The Prince of Wales

Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
Public programme supported by the Australian High Commission

  • The first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia, both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, through objects
  • Explores the special relationship that Indigenous Australians have with land and sea that extends back over 60,000 years
  • A unique narrative exploring the complex history of Indigenous Australia from Captain Cook’s landing in 1770 up to the present day
  • Includes major works of contemporary art, some created for the exhibition in response to objects in the collection

In April 2015 the British Museum will open a major exhibition presenting a history of Indigenous Australia, supported by BP. This exhibition will be the first in the UK devoted to the history and culture of Indigenous Australians: both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders. Drawing on objects from the British Museum’s collection, accompanied by important loans from British and Australian collections, the show will present Indigenous Australia as a living culture, with a continuous history dating back over 60,000 years.

The objects in the exhibition will range from a shield believed to have been collected at Botany Bay in 1770 by Captain Cook or one of his men, a protest placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy established in 1972, contemporary paintings and specially commissioned artworks from leading Indigenous artists. Many of the objects in the exhibition have never been on public display before.

The objects displayed in this exhibition are immensely important. The British Museum’s collection contains some of the earliest objects collected from Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders through early naval voyages, colonists, and missionaries dating as far back as 1770. Many were collected at a time before museums were established in Australia and they represent tangible evidence of some of the earliest moments of contact between Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and the British. Many of these encounters occurred in or near places that are now major Australian cities such as Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth. As a result of collecting made in the early 1800s, many objects originate from coastal locations rather than the arid inland areas that are often associated with Indigenous Australia in the popular imagination.

The exhibition will not only present Indigenous ways of understanding the land and sea but also the significant challenges faced by Indigenous Australians from the colonial period until to the present day. In 1770 Captain Cook landed on the east coast of Australia, a continent larger than Europe. In this land there were hundreds of different Aboriginal groups, each inhabiting a particular area, and each having its own languages, laws and traditions. This land became a part of the British Empire and remained so until the various colonies joined together in 1901 to become the nation of Australia we know today. In this respect, the social history of 19th century Australia and the place of Indigenous people within this is very much a British story. This history continues into the twenty first century. With changing policies towards Indigenous Australians and their struggle for recognition of civil rights, this exhibition shows why issues about Indigenous Australians are still often so highly debated in Australia today.

The exhibition brings together loans of special works from institutions in the United Kingdom, including the British Library, the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A number of works from the collection of the National Museum of Australia will be shown, including the masterpiece ‘Yumari’ by Uta Uta Tjangala. Tjangala was one of the artists who initiated the translation of traditions of sand sculptures and body painting onto canvas in 1971 at Papunya, a government settlement 240km northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Tjangala was also an inspirational leader who developed a plan for the Pintupi community to return to their homelands after decades of living at Papunya. A design from ‘Yumari’ forms a watermark on current Australian passports.

This exhibition has been developed in consultation with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals, Indigenous art and cultural centres across Australia, and has been organised with the National Museum of Australia. The broader project is a collaboration with the National Museum of Australia. It draws on a joint research project, funded by the Australian Research Council, undertaken by the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. Titled ‘Engaging Objects: Indigenous communities, museum collections and the representation of Indigenous histories’, the research project began in 2011 and involved staff from the National Museum of Australia and the British Museum visiting communities to discuss objects from the British Museum’s collections. The research undertaken revealed information about the circumstances of collecting and significance of the objects, many of which previously lacked good documentation. The project also brought contemporary Indigenous artists to London to view and respond to the Australian collections at the British Museum.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said, “The history of Australia and its people is an incredible, continuous story that spans over 60,000 years. This story is also an important part of more recent British history and so it is of great significance that audiences in London will see these unique and powerful objects exploring this narrative. Temporary exhibitions of this nature are only possible thanks to external support so I am hugely grateful to BP for their longstanding and on-going commitment to the British Museum. I would also like to express my gratitude to our logistics partner IAG Cargo and the Australian High Commission who are supporting the exhibition’s public programme.”

Peter J Mather, Group Regional Vice President, Europe and Head of Country, UK, BP.

“BP is extremely pleased to support The BP Exhibition ‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation’, part of our five year commitment to the museum’s special exhibitions programme. BP has had a presence in Australia for almost 100 years and our support for this exhibition is part of BP’s wider contribution to the societies where we operate, enabling audiences to connect with a variety of different cultures. We are delighted to continue our long-standing relationship with the British Museum by supporting this exhibition which we hope will inspire interest in Australia’s indigenous people and culture for many thousands of visitors.”

Dr Mathew Trinca, National Museum of Australia Director, welcomed the British Museum exhibition.

“We are delighted to support this major exhibition in London with the loan of some key objects from our collection. We look forward to continuing our work together to realise our ambition for an exhibition of these artefacts in Canberra in late 2015.”

Supported by BP
Logistics partner IAG Cargo
Public programme supported by the Australian High Commission

Notes to Editors:

Admission charge £10 plus a range of concessions. Tickets can be booked online at or or 020 7323 8181.

Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.

A full public programme accompanies the exhibition. More information is available from the press office.

Follow updates on the exhibition via Twitter with #IndigenousAustralia and follow the Museum on Twitter @britishmuseum

An accompanying publication from British Museum Press is available from March 2015: The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, authored by Gaye Sculthorpe, John Carty, Howard Morphy, Maria Nugent, Ian Coates, Lissant Bolton and Jonathan Jones. This ground-breaking publication explores the unique and ongoing relationship that Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders have to place and country. It also explores the profound impact and legacy of colonialism, the nature of collecting and the changing meaning of objects now in the collection of the British Museum.

In late 2015, many of the objects in this exhibition are expected to travel to Canberra for a related exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. This will be the first time that these objects have been exhibited there since they were collected. The British Museum acknowledges that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, this return will be of high cultural and symbolic significance.

BP support for UK Arts & Culture

As a major international company based in the UK, BP is delighted to support the British Museum, an institution with global reputation for excellence. We are a major supporter of UK arts with a programme that spans over 35 years, during which time millions of people have engaged with BP-sponsored activities.

BP’s investment of almost £10 million in extending its long term partnerships with the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate Britain until 2017, represents one of the most significant long-term corporate investments in UK arts and culture.

BP’s support for the British Museum began in 1996. Since then the company has partnered with the museum on a diverse range of initiatives including the creation of the BP Lecture Theatre in the Great Court and international adventures such as the incredibly successful Mummy Exhibition in Mumbai, which attracted an audience of over 300,000 including over 65,000 school children. Today BP’s support is focused on the museum’s special exhibitions programme.

About IAG Cargo

IAG Cargo, the single business created following the merger of British Airways World Cargo and Iberia Cargo in 2011, operates one of the world’s most extensive cargo networks and has a longstanding relationship flying freight from Australia to the rest of the world. With a specialist team dedicated to the careful handling of valuable goods, IAG Cargo is a proud logistics partner of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia, enduring civilisation.

For further information, please visit the IAG Cargo YouTube channel

The Australian High Commission

The Australian High Commission is delighted to support the public programme associated with the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation at the British Museum. Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture are an important part of Australia’s national identity. With over 60,000 years of continuous culture and history, we are proud that Australia is home to one of the world’s oldest living cultures. This exhibition and public programme will reveal to new audiences how diverse and strong Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is today and its important place in contemporary Australian cultural life. We are pleased that this exhibition is organised with the National Museum of Australia and that it has been developed in close consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

For further information

Please contact the British Museum Press Office
on +44 20 7323 8394 / 8522 or

For public information please print or 020 7323 8181

High resolution images and caption sheet available at

Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington, Kungkarangkalpa (detail). Acrylic on canvas, 2013. © the artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.