Whose heritage?

Many countries have laws to protect any heritage objects in private hands from being sold out of the country.  Recently the issue arose in Britain regarding a ring once owned by Jane Austen.  Last year it was bought at a London auction by the American pop singer Kelly Clarkson, who naturally planned to take it home with her to America.  The private owners have a right to sell their own property, but the British government stepped in to put a temporary export ban on the ring so that the British public would have time to raise the same amount of money (£152,450) to buy it for the Jane Austen Museum.

Now Austen is British to her bootstraps.  So British, in fact, that she has just become the new female face on the £10 note.

But what about a kangaroo?


At the beginning of April this year, the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra announced that it had agreed to buy 2 paintings by the 18th century British artist George Stubbs for its Australian collection.  A Portrait of a Kangouro [sic] from New Holland and A Portrait of a Large Dog [i.e. a dingo] from New Holland were commissioned by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, when he returned to England after the voyage of the Endeavour, with Lieutenant James Cook, that ‘discovered’ the east coast of Australia.


Stubbs was a fashionable British painter of the day, particularly well known for his animal ‘portraits’.  Gentlemen commissioned paintings from him of their prize possessions, especially dogs and horses, and he also painted more exotic animals, such a zebra.  He painted the kangaroo and dingo using skeletons and pelts of the animals brought back from Australia, as well as sketches and probably verbal descriptions.  The 2 paintings were first displayed in London in 1773, and have been privately owned by the descendants of Joseph Banks’ sister for over 200 years.

The image of the kangaroo became particularly famous.  It was reproduced in John Hawkesworth’s Account of the Voyages undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere (1773) and in Thomas Berwick’s General History of Quadrupeds (1790).  It was used in artists’ pattern books, and appears in many forms, such as on the lid of a snuffbox commissioned by the early settler Walter Davidson in 1808, now in the Powerhouse Museum.

In other words, it has a good deal of heritage significance here in Australia, an iconic image of early New South Wales.

According to its April announcement, the National Gallery of Australia spent 3 years negotiating with the paintings’ owners, before they agreed to a price of £5.5m, but in February the British government slapped a temporary export ban on the paintings, to give the National Maritime Museum time to match the sale price.  The Heritage Lottery Fund has given £3.2m towards the purchase, with another £200,000 coming from the Arts fund, and the National Maritime Museum has just launched an appeal to raise £1.5m. from the British public.

But what about us, the Australian public? Where exactly does the greater heritage significance of these 2 paintings lie?

It goes without saying that the Endeavour voyage was a watershed event in Australian history – both for those who lived there already, and those who came later as a result of Australia becoming known to the rest of the world. Cook’s exploration of eastern Australia was also a watershed moment in the wider history of the British Empire.

The discovery of the kangaroo, and Australian marsupials generally, was also a watershed moment in the development of 18th century natural history.  The sheer weirdness of kangaroos and other Australian native animals led to new developments in comparative anatomy, and paved the way for the work of Charles Darwin (another scientist to visit our shores) and his theory of evolution in the 19th century.

With all due respect to Kelly Clarkson, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for Jane Austen’s ring to stay in England where it belongs.  All else being equal, I also think it’s preferable for heritage objects to be in public, rather than private, ownership, where they can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

In the same way, if Stubbs’ Kangouro was being sold to a private collector, I’d much prefer to see it go to the National Maritime Museum.  I also realise that a British artist created it for a British patron, and its provenance since 1773 has been entirely British. But in terms of its relative heritage value to the British or the Australian publics, I’m not so sure.

Update, 25 September: The BBC reports here that the British public have raised the money to keep Jane Austen’s ring in Britain.

5 responses to “Whose heritage?

  1. Judy Powell

    The relevant legislation in Australia talks in general about banning export of items of significance. Only two specific items are named – ALL Victoria Crosses (we do love our military past) and Ned Kelly’s armour. Very odd.

  2. Thanks for this post, I have been thinking about the Stubbs paintings for a while. I agree about Jane Austin’s ring, and would prefer it came into public ownership in England rather than be exported for private pleasure to America. But I think the Stubbs paintings involve much more complex issues. As you noted, the presentation of Australian fauna to the European public, especially the scientific establishment, was of global significance. I think that significance transcends national borders or identities. The provenance of the paintings is British, and I think that whether they reside in Britain or Australia only becomes a problem if we see Britain and Australia as binaries, as opposites. That may be true geographically speaking, but binary also means pair, and I think that cultural objects like these paintings are important in both countries – and probably more. I worry that the nationalism in so much history writing since WW2, while ostensibly promoting a sense of national identity, also has the effect of foreclosing much historical questioning. I think it is much more interesting to ask of the Stubbs paintings, not whether they are British or Australian, but what can we learn from them about a shared history and cultural heritage. The physical location of the paintings then becomes secondary, and we can focus on on the stories we can tell with them. Not sure if that helps with your thinking?

  3. Pingback: Whose Heritage (continued)? | Historians are Past Caring

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