National Archaeology Week: A review of the Shields Exhibition at the SAM

imageHi Clara Rose here! So busy with National Archaeology Week but its International Museum’s Day on Wednesday. So for me this is a very short review on Lonely Archaeologist, because I went to see the Shields: Power and Protection in Aboriginal Australia at the SAM earlier this week. I was amazed at the exhibit because I was taught at my NSW country schools that very few indigenous people had used shields at all apart from primative guerrilla style warfare and it was a sign of inferiority to the early white settlers (yeah teachers, you got that wrong!).  The thing is, the exhibit taught me there were many many shields and they had a multitude of known and probably more unknown uses. A very wise archaeologist said to me in my second year of university, Dr Claire Smith, how does one define a culture that builds a larger intangible culture than a material culture that archaeology and anthropology hasn’t quiet figured out how to measure yet? 

For me that changed my perspective on how I saw belief and ownership of ideas as archaeologists and how it is different as a person. As a specialist working for a tribe, we are entrusted custodians of those stories, the lives of the old people, the songlines, the old ways. But we don’t own the image or have the right to use it, it’s privelged information held with confidentiality like a doctor or lawyer or counsellor. A guy had a problem with that when I pointed out a sacred image being passed around the internet was cultural appropriation and benefitted the owners in no way and I could not tell him more than it shouldn’t be spread as an internet meme no matter how well intentioned. I tried to explain that while I held this information, I was caring for it but I never owned it and it wasn’t my decision on how it should be properly used. 

I’m not an elder, but Shields did teach me that no matter who we are or what land we come from, if we call this land home and respect it, we can all build and own our own stories in the end. Stories – they are how we connect people to people, people to places and us to country. My country strangely seems to be SA though I’m not a local, it’s become so much a part of my own story. 

The very last chance to see into Shields exhibition was before the 22nd May 2016. It was brilliantly designed, aesthetically engaging with the clever spear and shadows scene, the playful Phantom shield and movingly curated 360 degree showcase of shields with the glass casing allowing you to see all aspects of the work. 

Our guide was telling some school kids (whose tour I happened upon) explained that the inside of a particular shield was decorated so the shield bearer’s beliefs were protecting him from inside the shield as well as an external defence.  The SA museum gratefully acknowledged the generous support of the Shields Leadership Council and curator Philip Jones. Dr Jones will be gave a curatorial lecture on 6pm on Wednesday 18th May 2016 at the SA Museum. 

I grew up around the NSW/QLD border, New England and the Northern Tablelands and later Coffs Harbour. In all that time and geography, I honestly had not known about Indigenous Australians using shields (as wooden artefacts do not always survive all that well in the harsh Australia environments). 

I was surprised to learn that shields were not just for obvious cases like protection in warfare or powerful status symbols by tribal leader but also demonstrated the the immense relationship that a shield can convey between individual and country. I have a few personal symbols I identify with, not shields;  but journals for me, that tell the tales of my life, of the inner life I own, of my connections to life. It’s empowering to own your create your own history and own your stories, it’s like the power of a name or a flag. It’s your identity. And it’s bigger than that, you tap into this powerful beautiful mighty land who sings out for those listeners. The Kaurna teach their children to listen and observe their elders and I don’t feel that’s a coincidence. 

There’s actually shields in the exhibit that illustrate first settlement phase of Australia that were painted to please the invaders that I found sad but stories do change and I think we need to learn this one on Museum’s Day every year. Please  see how the art of shield making is being revived as Indigenous Australians reclaim their traditions in modern times and rediscover old and new stories of the land. 

My favourite part of the exhibit was actually a recording of Jack Buckskin of the Kaurna and Narrunga nations explaining shield making with young people as a form of cultural continuity and that they owned the story that comes crafted with the shield, that their shield becomes a physical, tangible manifestation of their story and connection. 

A second recording of Darren Wanganeen explained that shield identity and places showed how old some of the scarred trees used to make shields are, outdating Adelaide as we know by hundreds of years. I really hope the SAM make those videos both available as a learning resource on their social media accounts and webpage because even if you don’t see the shield collection curated first hand, I do believe that they are important in understanding culture and country in Aboriginal Australia. ~ Clara Rose Santilli.

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Author: lonelyarchaeologist

I'm an archaeology grad student with an interest in gothic archaeology, tragedy tourism and dark sites. Most of my friends don't appreciate my interests so I've taken it into my own hands and I'm going I've established this blog to chronicle my solo adventures and hopefully give you a look behind the scenes at cultural heritage and the local arts.

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