One of the pleasures of my job is to discuss the works of Virginia Woolf with first-year undergraduate and MA English students. Woolf herself attended the (excruciatingly named) Ladies’ Department of King’s College London in Kensington Square between 1897 and 1902; and my office is located in a College building honoured with her name.
In the first-year module ‘Writing London’, which I used to convene and have taught on for several years, we focus on two essays of Woolf’s, ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1930) and a piece originally published in Good Housekeeping in 1931: ‘The Docks of London’.
In the first Woolf gives an extraordinary description of leaving home on a winter’s evening to walk the streets of London—from Bloomsbury down to the Strand—on the pretext of needing to buy a pencil. The domestic interior that, for the walker is ‘a shell-like exterior which our souls have excreted’, melts away, and all that is left is ‘a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye’. This ‘eye’ is nothing like the ‘I’ whose memories are lodged in various knick-knacks about the house; instead it is the passive receptor of ‘myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel’ (‘Modern Fiction’, 1921) whose constant streaming is the stuff of life.
Not only do these amorphous impressions cause seemingly discrete entities and persons on the street to merge into one another, soon it is as if the street walker has become the things she senses, her self dissipating into the night. It is this evaporating ego which Woolf’s sought-after pencil will attempt to capture in words, so that later, scrawl converted to print, the reader’s eye succumbs to casting an impressionist vision of his self (or her self), one that haunts Woolf’s prose as she has done the street.
The locality of the London things Woolf’s walker encounters is also unfixed, as becomes readily apparent in ‘The Docks of London’. So many of the commodities on display have come on ‘the big ships and the little ships’ visible lower down the Thames: ‘the battered and splendid ships from India, from Russia, from South America, ships from Australia coming from silence and danger and loneliness past us, home to harbour’, into the arms of cranes and workers unloading them into warehouses for later distribution. But reversing the direction of this labour, Woolf pictures a tide of effervescent desires, consumer whims lighter than air that wash extraordinary economic and social changes around the globe.
It is we—our tastes, our fashions, our needs—that makes the cranes dip and swing, that call the ships from the sea. Our body is their master. […] Because one chooses to light a cigarette, all those barrels of Virginian tobacco are swung to shore. Flocks upon flocks of Australian sheep have submitted to the shears because we demand woollen overcoats in winter. As for the umbrella that we swing idly to and fro, a mammoth who roared through the swamps fifty thousand years ago has yielded up his tusk to make the handle.
Only Virginia Woolf’s extraordinary ability to de-familiarize one’s sense of place and self—while, with the same writerly gesture, authorising the veracity of her perception—comes close to the experience, for me, of hearing June Oscar’s lecture at King’s last Wednesday (29 April 2015). June Oscar AO is a Bunuba woman and Chief Executive Officer of the Marninwarntikura Fitzroy Women’s Resource Centre, whose visit to London to speak at the opening of the British Museum’s BP Exhibition: Indigenous Australia, Enduring Civilization was supported by the Menzies Centre.
June’s lecture, ‘Encountering Truth: The Real Life Stories of Objects from Empire’s Frontier and Beyond’, was filmed and will be shortly available for viewing on the MCAS website.
It is full of extraordinary moments: not least when her Bunuba language rang out in the College’s River Room, overlooking the Thames. June introduced us to her own country, but taught us as much about London, not just as seen through her eyes, but as it became in her presence. She paid homage to what has been achieved here, while reminding us of her own civilization’s much longer continuing presence on earth, and what it said of her culture’s endurance that Bunuba might be brought back here to the banks of this particular river. She paid tribute to Bunuba warrior Jandamarra, a resistance leader with many ‘present day incarnations’ (June’s grandfather was the custodian of his story). ‘My [undefeated] people are doing everything in their power to ensure that the greater meaning of Jandamarra’s name will live on. In telling this history we can see from convict times to this very moment, our nations existing across continents and oceans remain entwined.’
Yawuru man Peter Yu, Chair of the National Museum of Australia Indigenous Advisory Committee, in an excellent lecture shared with NMA Director Matt Trinca, also reminded audiences at the Museum that there is unfinished business between the Indigenous nations of Australia and those that make up the British Isles. But both speakers also emphasized the opportunity for educating international audiences about Indigenous Australia represented by the British Museum’s Australian collection.
On 1 May the Centre also co-hosted a panel of Indigenous artists and Australian academics (‘The Art of Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Today’). The artists were: Ishmael Marika (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala); Abe Muriata (Girringun Aboriginal Arts Centre); Judy Watson; and Wukun Wanambi (Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala), all of whom offered insights into their own art. We were also treated to illuminating introductions to Indigenous art practices by Dr John Carty (Australian National University) and Professor Howard Morphy (Australian National University and chair of the event). Gutsy but nuanced responses to the question of repatriating objects from the collection were expressed by all the speakers.
This is not to say the subject of repatriation—given an excoriating airing by Zoe Pilger in the Independent—is or can be easily dismissed. The history of these objects’ coming into the British Museum’s collection reveals moments when they were treated like other exotic commodities Woolf saw for sale in London. Nor is the injustice of holding such collections overseas simply a thing of the past. At the immensely stimulating British Museum/Menzies Centre conference on 2 May, ‘Challenging Colonial Legacies Today: Museums and Communities in Australia and East Africa’, the Australian National University’s Jilda Andrews told a devastating story about the effects curatorial misunderstanding of Indigenous collections can have today.
Even so it is hard to imagine a better negotiation of the challenges of representing the history, contemporary experiences, and cultures of such diverse peoples to London audiences than has been achieved with this exhibition, led by Gaye Sculthorpe, Lissant Bolton, Rachael Murphy and their team at the British Museum in collaboration with so many communities, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian Research Council. These objects’ subjection to an imperialist past is not and should not be concealed; but their meaning and value are re-drawn by this exhibition, and by the ways in which they have been discussed by Indigenous artists and speakers in the exhibition’s events programme.
The superb content I will leave you to discover. (It is also beautifully described and contextualised by Maria Nugent in a recent article in Inside Story.) But let me just note the symbolic power of putting this exhibition on in this space and in this time. Britons are often new to the concept of the plurality of Australian and Torres Strait Island Indigenous peoples and cultures existing in our country; and to the complexities of their various social, intellectual, spiritual and material cultural practices. These points are unmissable in the exhibition; and their power and presence are further in evidence when, around London, Indigenous Australia’s banners and posters are juxtaposed with the Museum’s other current exhibition (about a much younger civilization): Defining Beauty: the Body in Ancient Greek Art.
Thinking about the ways in which authority is expressed through and in the body helps me consider the differences between Woolf’s and Oscar’s Londons, and it relates to the nature of their authorization. One can only imagine the authority Virginia Woolf exuded when she spoke in public. I’m thinking here of the lectures she gave at Newnham and Girton Colleges which became A Room of One’s Own. (I caught something of what hearing her might have been like during Pamela Rabe’s extraordinary performance of that text at Belvoir Street in the 1990s.)
Oscar’s presence is equally powerful, and it was intrinsic to her message. But any loss of the self—as articulated in ‘Street Haunting’—seemed rather about, in my view anyway, the augmentation of the individual as June drew authority (before our very eyes) from the presence of her ancestors. It was like a series of tracking shots resolving into a singular power (and person).
This might explain something of the affect of June’s lecture, certainly the most extraordinary I have witnessed. It joined the Thames and made London Bunuba country. It built like a slow tide, making a case not so much for repatriating artefacts, as for the making of an Australia where their being so out-of-place is inconceivable.
A number of events focused on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are coming up at the British Museum and/or at King’s College London. See information below for links.