School of Culture and Communication - Research Publications

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    Imperial legacy: the politics of display in Australia
    Somewhere among the countless rows of objects currently on display in the British Museum’s Enlightenment exhibition there rests a flaking bark shield. This battered, utilitarian object stands somewhat apart from the splendidly exotic artefacts that surround it. Yet beneath its unprepossessing appearance there lies an extraordinary provenance. It was taken in 1770 from the Eastern Australian seaboard by Captain Cook’s landing party during its initial encounter with the first inhabitants of the land incorporating what is now known as Sydney. The shield has been placed in a display of non-Western artefacts acquired during the period of Enlightenment discovery “through gift, trade or purchase”. In truth, however, none of these words could be used to describe its acquisition. It was hardly given, since it came into the party’s possession as a result of their shooting at a group of Eora people who left the cover of trees, apparently shouting at them to leave. Neither was it traded, unless one views a bullet fired in anger as a fair offer of exchange. Nor could it be called a purchase, unless one counts as a purchase price the blood shed by its original owner as he was hit trying to flee the invaders.
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    The apron-strings of empire
    Lee, Jenny (McPhee Gribble, 1988)
    Historical discussion of Australia's relationship with Britain has generally concentrated on asking who won out. Was Australia, as Humphrey McQueen and others have argued, a 'willing, often over-anxious partner' in the British imperial endeavour, or was it a victim of British exploitation, as radical-nationalist writers have long maintained? Clearly the answers to these questions depend on the questioner's own set of values. There is plenty of evidence to support either case. But we also have to query whether the question is worth asking in the first place.