Professor Gaye Sculthorpe is a Palawa woman from Tasmania who has become an international steward of Australia’s Indigenous cultural heritage. As curator and Head of Oceania at The British Museum in London for the past nine years, Professor Sculthorpe has collaborated internationally on a series of key research projects tracking down Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural materials held in British, Irish and French museums. Between 2016 and 2019, Sculthorpe visited over 45 museums in the UK and Ireland to look at their collections, identifying more than 39,000 artefacts, from all states and territories of Australia. From boomerangs to baskets, fishing hooks to decorative shellwork, as well as contemporary art, the artefacts represent the diversity of Australia’s Indigenous cultural heritage and the legacy of colonialism.
Professor Sculthorpe’s 2015 exhibition at the British Museum, titled Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, brought to light international attention these untold stories of Australia’s colonial past and its impact on First Nations people. It was the biggest and most significant exhibition of its kind to be held outside Australia, educating British and international visitors about the complexity of Indigenous Australian culture and the impacts of British colonisation on the world’s oldest living culture. Most recently, Professor Sculthorpe co-edited the book Ancestors, artefacts, empire: Indigenous Australia in British and Irish Museums along with Maria Nugent and Howard Morphy of the Australian National University, which was published by British Museum Press in 2021. With contributions by many leading Australian Indigenous and other scholars, it is generating further awareness regarding the vast collections of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander materials still held in museums around the world.
Professor Sculthorpe’s deep interest in Australia’s, and particularly Tasmania’s Aboriginal history stems from her own ancestry, as a descendant of famous Aboriginal singer Fanny Smith (1834-1905). Her curiosity regarding Aboriginal history led her to first study Anthropology and History at the Australian National University, followed by a Diploma in Museum Studies and later, a PhD in Aboriginal Studies at La Trobe University.
Professor Sculthorpe spent many years working in curatorial positions at Museums Victoria. As head of the Department of Indigenous Cultures, she played a critical role in the development of Bunjilaka, the Aboriginal Centre that opened at Melbourne Museum in 2000. In 2006, after almost 20 years as a curator at the museum, she was appointed as a member of the Board of Museums Victoria and Chair of its Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee.
Professor Sculthorpe has worked extensively with Indigenous communities. Before moving to London, she worked as a Member of the National Native Title Tribunal in Australia for nine years, mediating native title applications and facilitating Indigenous land use agreements throughout Australia. Over the course of her career, Professor Sculthorpe has contributed her knowledge and experience to various organisations including as Independent Chair of the Woodside Rock Art Foundation Committee, the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council, the Council of La Trobe University, the Australian Heritage Council and the Council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. In 2018 she was invited to join the Board of the International Cultural Property Society, and in 2021, she was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.
Having made a significant global impact generating international understanding of Australian Aboriginal material culture and the impacts of colonialism, this world-leading expert has recently returned home, to take up the new position as Professor of Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, ready to share her rich, real-world insights with the next generation of curators, researchers and historians.
Listen to the full interview with Professor Sculthorpe on our #BornGlobal podcast. Available on your favourite podcast platforms or here on our website.
See Professor Sculthorpe’s response here to being named the Awardee of the Global Impact Award for 2022.