Museum on mission to share Indigenous culture with the world

The last place you would expect to find a priceless collection of Indigenous Australian art is a college town in the United States — but head to Charlottesville and that's exactly what you will find.

The University of Virginia's Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection includes hundreds of pieces from generations of Indigenous artists.

The museum's curator Henry Skerritt said it was his mission to share the stories and culture of Australia's first people with the world.

"The last time the planet saw this many extraordinary artists emerge in a 100-year period must have been Florence in the 15th century," he said.

"There really aren't moments in human history where the concentration of genius emerges like it has in Aboriginal Australian art in the last 100 years."

More artworks than wall space

Kluge-Ruhe is the only public institution that focuses specifically on Indigenous art outside of Australia.

They have amassed a collection so vast, they don't have the wall space to display it all.

"What we're trying to achieve here is not about stealing away the treasures of an ancient civilisation," Dr Skerritt said.

"It's about providing a space where Aboriginal and Indigenous civilisations can present themselves to the United States."

Travelling exhibition will bring a bit of Australia to America

Dr Margo Smith, director of the Kluge-Ruhe collection, has been working with the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre in north-east Arnhem Land to organise an exhibition to travel around the United States in 2020.

"We do very special work with Indigenous artists in that we can offer an international experience for them," she said.

"And we bring many artists and curators to our town to work within the University of Virginia.

"They are in many ways setting the tone, setting the parameters, for the knowledge that we're sharing about their artwork with the world."

In 2015, Dr Smith was recognised with an honorary Order of Australia for her efforts to promote Indigenous art and culture in the United States.

"We see that we have a special role to play, because most American's will never get to Australia," Dr Smith said.

"Whenever we're thinking about our collection we're really trying to connect to the source communities — the artists, the people who are knowledgeable.

"Not only about the past, but about the present production they're doing."

Breaking down stereotypes

The museum recently opened its doors to five American undergraduate students who curated one of the current exhibitions, 'Songs of a Secret Country'.

For these undergraduate students, it was their first exposure to Indigenous Australian art — but already they are working to break down stereotypes.

India Ferguson, a student from Miami, said she felt closer to the artists through the curatorial process.

"They're really different from how people originally think of what Aboriginal art would look like," she said.

"Our main ambition in this exhibition is to show that these artists are really bold in their innovations.

"This is a community that I've never been exposed to.

"So the more I learn about her [an artist] and where she grew up, I get to learn more about what the community looks like, what kind of plants are growing there and what kind of lives the people live there."