Baskets of belonging
Indigenous Australian histories

26 May – 11 September 2011

Exhibition Closed

Room 91

Part of the Australian season

This display features a selection of around 60 Indigenous Australian containers from the British Museum’s unparalleled collection, including unique objects, not replicated anywhere else in the world.

Indigenous Australian communities were primarily mobile, and they made beautiful containers – baskets, bags and dishes – using the materials from the landscape to which they belong. Indigenous Australians are not a single group, but rather many interconnecting groups, each belonging to different territory.

At the time of European settlement they had been living on the continent for at least 60,000 years, and spoke more than 200 languages. Baskets belong to individuals or family groups; they may be decorated with family designs or designs that belong to and indicate that group’s history and spiritual connections.

The objects in the display are from across the whole continent, and the earliest date from the beginning of European contact with Australia. Famous for their simplicity and economy, the painted containers are an important part of the history of the development of Indigenous Australian art.

They also reflect the significant cultural diversity within Indigenous Australia with the selection of different baskets and bags from different parts of the country. The baskets may have been used for anything – from holding the personal possessions of an individual man to use in food gathering or even to carry babies.

The exhibition includes baskets collected from the mid-19th century, some of which are the earliest or only examples of specific regional types. It also includes contemporary baskets, drawing new materials into old traditions to make new kinds of objects.

Bicornial basket of woven cane

Bicornial basket of woven cane, from Queensland, early 1900s. Baskets with this distinctive crescent shape are made by men and women in northern Queensland, and can be used for fishing as well as carrying.

Related publication

Baskets and Belonging

By Lissant Bolton, British Museum