Vessels, weapons and fishing implements used by the natives of New South Wales.

Research projects

Ancestors, artefacts, empire – mobilising Aboriginal objects

Supported by

Australian Research Council

Key project information


2011 – 2023

Contact details

Email: [email protected]


Listed in 'About the project'

Supported by

Australian Research Council

Grant numbers

Engaging Objects: LP110100623
The Relational Museum: LP150100423
Collecting the West: LP160100078
Mobilising Aboriginal Objects: DP200102212

How can Indigenous people in Australia find and access their objects in international museums?

Museums across the UK and Ireland hold Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (collectively referred to as ‘Indigenous’) cultural heritage of exceptional value. Most of these objects are largely unknown, rarely seen and poorly understood. Gifted, sold, exchanged and bartered by Indigenous people, and accepted, bought, collected and taken by travellers, colonists, explorers, missionaries, officials and others, these rare objects date from the early days of the colony at Botany Bay in 1788 to the present day.

Working with university, museum and community partners in Australia since 2011, the British Museum has undertaken a series of projects to identify the whereabouts of Indigenous Australian objects in museums in the UK and Ireland. The projects hope to find and document where, how and why certain objects were made, used and collected while improving access to the objects through exhibitions, books and other dissemination activities. 

About the project

Many Indigenous Australian objects in collections in the UK and Ireland were acquired before museums were established in Australia. As a result, they contain objects of great historical and cultural importance but they can be difficult to find as only the larger museums make their collections available through online databases. This project is making essential visits to these museums to view the range of objects they hold and document information about them. 

Working closely with Aboriginal communities, research colleagues in Australia and curators in UK museums, the collection of projects listed below aims to identify, document and mobilise Indigenous Australian objects found across the UK and Ireland: 

  • Engaging Objects: Indigenous communities, museum collections and the representation of Indigenous histories, 2011–2015
    In partnership with the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia
  • The Relational Museum and its Objects, 2016–2020
    In partnership with the Australian National University, the National Museum of Australia and Wagga Wagga City Council
  • Collecting the West: how collections create Western Australia, 2016–2021
    In partnership with the University of Western Australia and Deakin University
  • Mobilising Aboriginal Objects in International Museums, 2020–2023
    In partnership with the Australian National University, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (University of Cambridge) and the La Perouse community in Sydney.


This stream of research continues to explore these questions:

  • What Aboriginal and Torres Strait objects are held in the United Kingdom and Ireland?
  • Why were they collected and how did they end up in these museums?
  • What stories can they tell about the people who made and collected them? 
  • What do these objects mean to the descendants of their makers today?
  • How can access to these objects for relevant communities be improved to support the production of knowledge and transmission of culture? 
  • How can information about these objects be improved to generate and disseminate knowledge more widely? 

A digital project on ResearchSpace is being used to facilitate access and engagement for community research partners in our projects. ResearchSpace is a digital tool that supports research investigation, interpretation and communication.

These interconnected projects have and continue to organise research visits, artists’ commissions, symposia, conferences, exhibitions, publications and stories for the web and media, all aimed at increasing understanding of these relatively unknown collections. 


To date, this group of projects has uncovered approximately 39,000 objects in the United Kingdom and Ireland, located in over 70 different museums. Through visits by British Museum curators, Indigenous Research Fellows and other Australian researchers, the extent of these collections and their historical significance has gradually been unveiled. 

As a result of this work and some engagement workshops in Australia, Aboriginal communities are suggesting new research areas based on the objects that have been uncovered. For example, British Museum scientists have undertaken wood analysis to identify what types of wood have been used in the making of certain objects. 

New stories revealed by the objects have been shared through international exhibitions and a number of books. A 2015 exhibition at the British Museum outlined the profound impact and legacy of colonialism on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A 2017 exhibition titled ‘Yurlmun’ at the Museum of the Great Southern in Albany, Western Australia, explored early encounters between Menang people and British colonists, using objects lent from the British Museum.

Meet the team

Headshot of Gaye Sculthorpe

Gaye Sculthorpe

Principal Investigator
School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Deakin University
Formerly at the British Museum

Headshot of Maria Nugent

Maria Nugent

Australian Centre for Indigenous History
Australian National University

Headshot of Howard Morphy

Howard Morphy

Research School of Humanities and the Arts
Australian National University

Headshot of Lissant Bolton

Lissant Bolton

Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas
British Museum

Project team

Project supporter

Project supporter

Supported by

Australian Research Council logo


Will my boomerang come back? New insights into Aboriginal material culture of early Sydney and affiliated coastal zone from British collections


Gaye Sculthorpe; Daniel Simpson

Australian Archaeology

Published in 2023

Collecting the West: How Collections make Western Australia


This book re-defines Western Australia's place in the world by mapping and analysing historical, cultural and other objects collected from the region.

Alistair Paterson; Tiffany Shellam; Andrea Witcomb; Gaye Sculthorpe; Baige Zylstra

Due to be published in 2022/23

Ancestors, artefacts, empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums


This book uses nearly 160 artefacts, selected from over 30 public museums to present a multi-stranded narrative that opens up vistas on Britain’s Australian history as much as Australia’s British history.

Gaye Sculthorpe; Maria Nugent; Howard Morphy

Published in 2021

Museums, Societies and the Creation of Value


This book examines the ways in which museums and the use of their collections have contributed to, and continue to be engaged with, value creation processes. It includes a chapter by Lissant Bolton. 

Howard Morphy; Robyn McKenzie

Published in 2021

The Royal Navy in Indigenous Australia, 1795–1855


This book offers the first in-depth enquiry into the origins of the 135 Indigenous Australian objects acquired by the Royal Navy between 1795 and 1855, and held now by the British Museum. 

Daniel Simpson

Published in 2020

Yurlmun: Mokare Mia Boodja (Returning to Mokare’s home country)


This exhibition (and accompanying book) at the Museum of the Great Southern in Albany, Western Australia, was organised with the support of the Western Australian Museum. It explores early encounters between Menang people and the British colonists and features the stories behind 14 rare, significant objects from the British Museum that originated from the Menang Noongar people, of the Albany area in Western Australia.

Book editors: Gaye Sculthorpe; Maria Nugent

Exhibition opened and book published in 2016 

Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation


The first major UK exhibition (and accompanying book) on Indigenous Australia. Showing at the British Museum in 2015, it explored the depth and richness of the cultures of Indigenous Australians and the profound impact and legacy of British colonialism, seen through the collection of the British Museum. 

Book authors: Gaye Sculthorpe; John Carty; Howard Morphy; Maria Nugent; Ian Coates; Lissant Bolton; Jonathan Jones

Exhibition opened and book published in 2015 

Encounters: Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum


This groundbreaking exhibition (and accompanying book) at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, revealed the voices, emotions and stories from 27 communities whose objects featured in the exhibition and book. 

Edited by: Therese Osborne; Julie Simpkin

Exhibition opened and book published in 2015

The Conversation – an independent source of news and views

Issues arising from these research projects have been discussed in the following articles. 

Essay 1: Tall ship tales: oral accounts illuminate past encounters and objects, but we need to get our story straight
Maria Nugent; Gaye Sculthorpe
Published in April 2020

Essay 2: 5 museum objects that tell a story of colonialism and its legacy
Alistair Paterson; Andrea Witcomb; Gaye Sculthorpe; Shino Konishi; Tiffany Shellam
Published in November 2020

Essay 3: 39,000 artefacts in UK museums: repatriation is one option but takes time to get right
Maria Nugent; Gaye Sculthorpe 
Published in December 2021

Essay 4: Indigenous afterlives in Britain 
Gaye Sculthorpe
Published in December 2021

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