Finding Aboriginal Lives in United Kingdom Museum Collections: Artefacts from the 1868 Aboriginal Cricket Tour of England

By Sculthorpe, Gaye | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Finding Aboriginal Lives in United Kingdom Museum Collections: Artefacts from the 1868 Aboriginal Cricket Tour of England


Sculthorpe, Gaye, Australian Aboriginal Studies


The history and exhibition of ethnographic collections in museums are rich topics for debate and research. Yet despite an explosion of theorising and publications over the past 20 years, it remains the case that museum collections in Australia and overseas contain thousands of individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects that are surprisingly little researched or published on. Some decades ago, Australian researchers such as Plomley (1961), with his work on Tasmanian collections, and McBryde (1977, 1978), with her work on collections from Port Phillip and the Richmond River regions, highlighted the significance of United Kingdom (UK) and European collections. Later surveys such as Cooper's (1989) report on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections in overseas museums and Coates' (1995) unpublished report on archival sources in the British Museum highlighted strengths of other collections in Britain. Philip Jones (2001:18) suggested that there are perhaps up to 40,000 Australian Aboriginal objects in museums in Europe and flagged the potential for integrated databases to digitally reconnect such collections. More recently, as a follow up to Ian Coates' work, the British Museum, the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia jointly undertook more detailed work on the significant Australian collections in the British Museum. (1) Research from this project was included in exhibitions and associated publications of both museums in 2015 (NMA 2015; Sculthorpe et al. 2015).

A number of UK museums produced early catalogues of their Australian collections. These include the Manchester Museum (Lewis 1977), the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Straw 1982) and the Royal Ulster Museum (Glover 1987, 1988). Both the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have produced significant publications on aspects of their Australian collections (Herle and Rouse 1998; Morphy and Edwards 1988). In the digital age, museums have moved towards the production of online catalogues and this, together with the increased digitisation of newspapers and other library resources, has facilitated research on associated makers, collectors and object histories. Major museums in the UK with ethnographic collections online include the British Museum, the Horniman Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the National Museum of Scotland and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (economic botany). Some regional museums, such as the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) at Exeter, have online catalogues of most, if not all, of their collections.

This short report documents Aboriginal artefacts associated with the 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour of England--artefacts housed at the Marylebone Cricket Club Museum at Lord's and a small collection of weapons that I located within the collections of RAMM in 2015. It highlights the potential for using ethnographic collections for new historical research in Australian Indigenous studies and advocates the need for increased digitisation of collections, particularly within Australia, to facilitate comparative research.

The 1868 Aboriginal cricket tour and the Aboriginal club at Lord's

The history of the pioneering Aboriginal cricket team that toured England in 1868 is well researched and published (Mulvaney and Harcourt 1988; Sampson 2000, 2009). Between May and October 1868, 13 Aboriginal men, most from Victoria, played 47 matches of cricket at various venues in England, winning 14 matches, losing 14 and drawing 19. This tour has been included in a recent list of 100 defining moments in Australian history by the National Museum of Australia (NMA n.d.) and, in Harrow in western Victoria, the Johnny Mullagh Cricket Centre was established in the team's honour.

As well as playing cricket, the Aboriginal players put on displays of their traditional skills before or after the matches. …

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