2020 marks 250 years since the British explorer Lieutenant James Cook first landed on the shores of what we now call Australia and went on to map and claim the entire east coast for King George III. The event formed the beginning of a terrible and profound change for the more than 250 nations of Indigenous peoples that lived on the continent, who became dispossessed of their lands, exposed to a deadly wave of new diseases, and encountered sweeping violence, conflict and massacre. An estimated 90% of the Indigenous population died in just a few decades. The lives of their ancestors continue to be shaped by this still-unfolding legacy.
In response to the anniversary of Cook’s arrival, The Portico Library in Manchester presents an online version of its new exhibition, What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance. The show explores the early encounters and ongoing negotiations between First Nations Australians and Britain, drawing upon the voices of past and present-day Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders; historic documents, including first editions of Cook’s journals held within the library’s collections; videos, photographs, artworks, interactive maps and tools; and further reading suggestions, with a focus on Indigenous Australian writers.
The exhibition also highlights the expropriation of cultural heritage from First Nations people, including a number of sacred and ceremonial objects that had long been held within the Manchester Museum collection. In 2019, the Museum became the first UK institution to unconditionally return these sacred artefacts to their traditional custodians in Australia. Head to the ‘What it is to be here’ section to see photos and watch a short video of when representatives of the Gangalidda Garawa Nation travelled from the Queensland Gulf area of northern Australia in 2019 to reclaim the objects from the Manchester Museum and take them home.