Whose Heritage (continued)?

I recently put up a blog post, Whose Heritage? discussing the decision by the British Arts Council to ban the export of George Stubbs’s paintings of a kangaroo and a dingo, which the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra planned to buy.

After I posted I was tweeted by Rebekah Higget, Curator of History of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Our subsequent correspondence is here (and available to anyone backtracking through our Twitter feeds):

Rebekah Higgitt twitter

Clearly a good sport, she ended: ‘Ha! Everyone loves the kangaroo (poor dingo!)’

And there it ended. Historians will never make good journalists.  We’re too equivocal, too ambivalent about what side of an argument to take. I can see both sides of this question.  I’m sure Rebekah is right, and the National Maritime Museum will do justice to Stubbs’s paintings, which will fit well into their pre-existing collection of Joseph Banks material.  The blogger ‘Mr Baskerville’  also raises some thoughtful points:

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?

And yet.

I’m troubled by the fact that nobody took into consideration the destination of these paintings, when deciding to bar their export.  I’m not the only one.  See Nicholas Forrest, ‘Why Australia Deserves Blocked Stubbs Kangaroo and Dingo Paintings’ in Blouin Artinfo here.

Rebekah Higgett’s link sent me to the British Arts Council’s website which lists the ‘Waverley criteria’ on which decisions are made to bar export of items from Britain.

Is it so closely connected with our [i.e. British] history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?
Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?
Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

The destination of the item – public or private – is irrelevant to the decision the Arts Council makes.  Someone I know who has been involved in similar decisions in the Australian context says the same is true here.  Perhaps this makes sense from the perspective of the exporting nation, but I think many people would see a difference, not least the British people who are being asked to raise money to keep these items in Britain.

The British Arts Council website lists a number of items currently under a temporary bar. Some, like Jane Austen’s ring, a Bentley car, and a collection of the photographs of an early English photographer Julia Cameron, are unquestionably appropriate, but there are other items that do raise questions. Is it a Canadian public institution that has offered £900,000 for a collection of items relating to General James Wolfe, who took Quebec from the French in 1759?

And what about a collection of works by Thomas Baines from the North Australian Expedition, 1855-1857?

Thomas Baines (1820-75), like George Stubbs, was an English-born artist, but he left England at the age of 22.  He worked as an artist for various scientists and explorers. In 1856, Baines was appointed official artist to the Royal Geographical Society’s North Australian Expedition, led by Augustus Gregory. They conducted a rigorous scientific expedition for the Society, travelling from the Victoria River, now in the Northern Territory, south to Gladstone. Maps from the expedition have been digitized by the National Library here.

Thomas Baines, Thomas Baines with Aborigines n...

Thomas Baines, Thomas Baines with Aborigines near the mouth of the Victoria River, N.T., 1857. National Library of Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baines returned to England after this expedition, and was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, but he was soon off again to Africa, as official artist to David Livingstone’s Zambezi expedition in 1858.  In 1864 Baines published Explorations in South-West Africa, and in 1869 he illustrated Alfred Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago.  He died in Durban in 1875.

I assume that the collection of Baines’ papers that are described in the Arts Council press release are paintings, sketches and diaries that he kept during the Gregory expedition, because this was the only occasion when he was in northern Australia.  Some at least of this material was deposited with the Royal Geographical Society, and was microfilmed, long ago, by the Australian Joint Copying Project, but presumably there is more in this collection. (And as far as I know, the Royal Geographical Society isn’t de-accessioning papers.)

The Arts Council doesn’t say, so there’s no way of knowing who either the purchaser or the vendor are. The papers relate to Northern Australia, but I doubt if any institution in Northern Australia could afford the £4,200,000 currently offered for them, so my hunch would be either the National Library of Australia in Canberra, or the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Stubbs painted his dingo and kangaroo in England, for an English patron.  Perhaps, as the British Arts Council’s press release puts it, ‘the first illustration of a Kangaroo’ in Britain should stay there.

Unlike Stubbs’ paintings, though, Baines’ papers and paintings were produced in Australia. They cannot have as much relevance for English readers as they do for Australians, not least because the Gregory expedition had many, mostly peaceable, encounters with Aboriginal peoples in northern Australia, and details of Aboriginal life, language and customary law from the 19th century are often relevant to current Native Title claims.

I doubt if these items meet the Waverley criteria to the same degree as Stubbs’s paintings. They are sketches done in the field, not paintings of outstanding aesthetic merit, and far from being an essential part of British history, Thomas Baines doesn’t even rate an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  To be fair, he’s not in the Australian Dictionary of Biography either, though he is in the New Dictionary of South African Biography (1995).

There’s probably no easy answer to any tug of war of this kind. In a digital world, perhaps the only answer lies in making records internationally accessible.  We can only hope that, after saving up 4.2 million quid to purchase this collection, the British public will feel equally enthusiastic about digitizing them as quickly as possible.  The ball is in their court.

Russell Braddon, Thomas Baines and the North Australian Expedition (1986)
Helen Luckett, ‘Thomas Baines: 1820-1875’ (Geographical Journal, vol. 141, no. 2, July 1975)

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4 responses to “Whose Heritage (continued)?

  1. Rebekah Higgitt

    I imagine that it is intentional that decisions under the Waverley criteria should not be taking into account who the potential buyer (whether a private individual or a public institution) is. The National Gallery of Australia must always have known that this was a potential risk if they tried to export the paintings.

    I presume that the image that actually had an impact, historically, in Australia was the print of the painting (http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/207227.htm), which had wide circulation, rather than the painting itself. Those images continue to circulate and, as you say, today there will be the possibility of high quality digital images of the original too. Part of the National Maritime Museum’s bid for National Lottery funding was about making the paintings as accessible as possible for fragile works on board, and to highlight the shared histories and cultural heritage that ‘Mr Baskerville’ mentions here.

    • For sure, Rebekah. As I say in the post, the situation in Australia is much the same, the buyer is irrelevant to the decision to purchase. But I’m not sure the public – British or Australian – would necessarily think the same. There’s a difference between giving your widow’s mite to save a ring from disappearing into a pop star’s wardrobe, and giving it to keep something in England that might be equally well cared for (and hopefully digitally accessible) in an Australian or Canadian institution.

      In any case, I’m not going to fight a losing battle over Stubbs – though I’d like to know how much the NGA spent, over 3 years, negotiating with the vendors. That’s money down the drain, and came out of my taxes. I’m sure the NMM will do an excellent job conserving the items – just as I’m equally sure the NGA would have done the same.

      I didn’t intend to revisit the issue of Stubbs – but the fact that export of BOTH the Wolfe and Baines materials have been stopped suggests there IS a problem with the Waverley rules, which were probably written long ago, before global sharing through digitisation became common. This is particularly important for papers rather than images – and it would be ironic if the acquisitiveness of the British Arts Council means that the British taxpayer has to pay the cost of digitizing collections that the Australians and Canadians would have been perfectly happy to pay for.

  2. While understanding the protocols used to block the sale of the Stubbs painting and accepting the decision, I find the slightly patronising tone of Rebekah Higgitt’s response disturbing. It seems that copies or digitized images of the painting are sufficient for the colonials in Australia.

    I have always argued that no-one ‘owns’ history. We are guardians of our shared history. In the case of the Stubbs painting Great Britain and Australia should have a shared guardianship of this painting.

    To me this painting is far more than an artefact , ownership of which is bound by a rigid set of protocols.

    As an early European representation of the unique fauna of Australia, this painting is a primary source in the colonial history of Australia. As such, it is of great value for all Australians.

    Beyond that the painting has a personal resonance with many Australians. As an descendant of convicts who arrived in Australia on the First Fleet in 1788, I know that their impressions of these unique fauna would have been identical to that of the artist. For me, the experience of looking at the painting would be like looking at the fauna through the eyes of Matthew and Elizabeth, as well as William and Rebecca.

    This painting belongs in the NGA. it is a great loss to every Australian who will never see it on display. A digital version of art can only be a poor relation to the original.

    • Thanks for this. I did find it rather ironic that the Guardian website included Stubbs’s Kangaroo in a slideshow of Australian art, to accompany the exhibition of Oz art at the Royal Academy at present!

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