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Australia is an island continent with a diverse environment that includes desert, tropical rainforests, resource rich coastlines and inland rivers.
There are two groups of people indigenous to Australia: Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders who together number over 500,000 people within the Australian population of just over 23 million (in 2013).
The British Museum collection includes over 6,000 objects from indigenous Australia including artefacts, photographs and contemporary artwork created and acquired in the twenty-first century.
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Aboriginal Australians have occupied Australia for over 50,000 years and have a rich artistic tradition which can be seen in both ancient rock art and in contemporary works of art made for sale. At the time of European settlement in 1788, there were over 300 Aboriginal societies across the continent, each having their own language and distinctive beliefs and traditions. Some groups lived in arid areas and travelled widely to access animal and plant resources; others lived in resource rich environments and lived more sedentary lifestyles. Aboriginal societies have a complex belief system, closely linked to the land. Although many Aboriginal people now live in urban areas, important links with extended kin and area of origin remain strong.
Torres Strait Islanders live on or are linked to the islands of Torres Strait which lie to the north of the mainland of Australia between the tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea. They have cultural ties to Melanesia and traditional livelihoods were focused on using resources from the sea, hunting and gardening. Today, as well as living in communities on the islands, many Torres Strait Islanders live on the mainland of Australia, particularly in north Queensland.
Collections in the British Museum date from early contacts with European explorers such as Captain James Cook and are predominantly from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Since the 1980s, the Museum has been more active in collecting contemporary works including basketry, sculpture, paintings, prints and drawings.