April 02, 2020
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The Objets D' Desire

A 19th cebtury missionary's hoard of artefacts returns to Tamil Nadu

The Objets D' Desire

A 19th century missionary’s hoard of artefacts returns to Tamil Nadu On February 28, the Sydney-based Australian Museum returned 33 priceless objects to the Government Museum in Chennai. It’s part of a policy to return socially and religiously significant objects.

The objects, many of which have never been publicly displayed, have been with the Australian Museum since 1973. Sacrificial swords, a bronze scorpion spoon and an exquisite gold-woven garland are among the objects to be returned. These artefacts are part of the unique collection of Rev A.W. Brough, an Australian Protestant missionary who worked in Erode and Coimbatore between 1894 and 1934. Most of what he collected were from this area.

It was in 1973 that his collection was donated to the Australian Museum by the missionary’s niece M.R. Mckenzie. These artefacts are invaluable because they document both Australian missionary activities in India and the types of traditional items used by Indian people in this region.

According to Vinod Daniel, head of the Research Centre for Materials Conservation at the Australian Museum, the idea of repatriation was born after the 1970 unesco convention on illegal trafficking of arts and artefacts. Recollects Daniel: "In 1973, the Australian Museum took a decision to sympathetically consider requests for repatriation. But it threw up a lot of questions." The authenticity of a request and the items to be returned had to be dealt with care.

The Australian Museum evolved a formula to address these questions. First, request for repatriation of items which don’t have proper papers and documentations will be treated more carefully. Explains Daniel: "This move was aimed at curbing the international illegal trade of artefacts. The second policy gives priority to items of social and religious significance."

However, the museum insists that the items repatriated should not become a part of any private collection. Adds Daniel: "We consider requests for repatriation from public organisations like museums which don’t stop people from viewing the objects."

Only in July 1995, V.S. Verma, Indian deputy high commissioner to Australia, made the formal request for repatriation to Australia. More than 95 letters were exchanged in what appears to have been a tough negotiation. Finally, the Australian Museum trust approved the repatriation request in October 1999.

Avers Daniel: "Having grown up in Chennai (then Madras), I have always appreciated the collection in the city museum. I am delighted that we could complement it with this missing link from Erode." Australian Museum’s director Michael Archer commented, "The Australian Museum is supportive of the need to repatriate some of the A.W. Brough collection. It will enable the people of the region to access an important part of their history."

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