Garrigarrang: Sea Country - The little known story of Indigenous Australian coastal communities explores the complex ecological knowledge and deep spiritual connections to the sea and land of Australia's First Peoples.

Revealing stories of Indigenous Coastal Communities

Sydney, Australia, Friday, 21 November, 2014: The little known story of Indigenous Australian coastal communities opens today at the Australian Museum. Officially opened by The Hon. Victor Dominello MP Minister for Citizenship and Communities, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Minister for Veterans Affairs, and Assistant Minister for Education, this new permanent exhibition, Garrigarrang: Sea Country, explores the complex ecological knowledge and deep spiritual connections to the sea and land of Australia's First Peoples.

Showcasing more than 300 rare and unique objects from the Australian Museum's significant Indigenous collection, many of which have not been publicly shown before, as well as films and contemporary artworks, Garrigarrang: Sea Country is the first exhibition of this scale to focus on Sea Country around Australia.

'Garrigarrang '(sea) and 'garrigarrang nura' (sea place or country) means the ocean, plants and animals; the beach, land and estuaries; and the seasons, weather and sky. People belong to their Sea Countries and their Sea Countries belong to them. In Garrigarrang, freshwater and saltwater are essentials of life.

"We are the museum of Australia and the Pacific, and this new permanent exhibition Garrigarrang: Sea Country adds significantly to the experience of Indigenous Australian history and culture," Kim McKay AO, director and CEO of the Australian Museum said.

"We have worked closely with local aboriginal people of the Sydney and NSW coastal communities, and will continue to deepen the connections and share their stories with the public," Ms McKay said.

Featuring the voices of NSW Indigenous communities through video and oral history, Garrigarrang>: Sea Country is the first exhibition at the Australian Museum to tell Indigenous stories in their own words, from their own perspectives using the Sydney language as the first language. The exhibition design is inspired by Sydney Harbour and recognises the Australian Museum's relationship to its site on Gadigal Land.

Through themes of continuity, resilience and sustainability, this multi-sensory exhibition will explore many Aboriginal cultural perspectives; from the creation stories and whale ceremonies of south coast NSW, the sustainability and conservation practices in the clear turquoise waters of the Torres Strait, to the contact history, reclaiming identity and ongoing conservation responsibilities.

Traditional objects, such as the Murray Island turtle shell ornament acquired in 1884, are juxtaposed with contemporary pieces such as commissioned films and artworks highlighting connections to 'Country' - a living entity which sustains all life.

Through ancestral law handed down through the generations - 'Look after Country and Country will look after you,' - visitors will hear stories from different communities about life before colonisation, and how they used their deep ecological knowledge to adapt to major environmental changes. This knowledge helped them not only survive, but thrive, in this fragile environment.

"Indigenous people invented sustainable, renewable, biodegradable technologies and tools that were flexible and adaptable. We aim to show, through this exhibition, the extensive knowledge and depth of Indigenous culture," Laura McBride, Creative Producer said.

Garrigarrang: Sea Country will open as part of the 10 day Corroboree Sydney festival.

There are five key themes reflecting the overall spirituality and ecological understanding and practices around Garrigarrang: Sea Country .

1: Introduction to concept of Sea Country - Aboriginal Nations have been managing Sea Countries for tens of thousands of years. The spirituality, cultural and ecological philosophy of 'walk lightly on Country' means estates, species and resources were kept in pristine condition.

2: Contact (Invasion and Ongoing contact history) - 'Strangers in boats' began invading Aboriginal Countries. Aboriginal peoples suffered as the colonisers took control.

3: Spirituality - Creator ancestors made Countries, water earth, animals, fish and humans, plants, sun, moon, stars, rain, wind, seasons, cyclones, fire, geological formations and sites. Creation ancestors made peoples, languages, knowledge, medicine, songs, dances and laws/ Lore that humans must follow. Aboriginal people preserve the teachings and renew connections through ceremonies, songs, stories, dance and arts. People have obligations to remember the Ancestors journeys, preserve their teachings and respect their presence always.

4: Indigenous knowledge systems - For centuries Indigenous peoples have maintained a sophisticated knowledge system embracing natural sciences, humanities and the arts. In Indigenous cultures, humans are not considered 'superior' species. Many living things are connected through the totem system which has a spiritual and conservation function.

5: Maintaining Sea Country into the future - Indigenous people are the First peoples and will always be here. Although they have survived and adapted to the changing social, cultural, political and environmental conditions for centuries, the pressures of the last few centuries have brought unprecedented challenges. Indigenous people have rights and responsibilities for Countries for future generations.

Key Australian Museum collection pieces include:

  • Cora Gooseberry breastplate: Made from hand-beaten brass, the breastplate was given to Cora Gooseberry, 'Queen of Sydney to South Head' in the early 1800s by the colonial authorities. The breastplates were given as a way of fostering cooperation, loyalty and as a reward for acting as an intermediary between colonists and Indigenous peoples. Cora was the daughter of Moorooboora - a well known Aboriginal leader whom the Sydney suburb of Maroubra is named. Like many of her Aboriginal sisters, including Truganini, Fanny Cochrane Smith, Gooseberry's story was sad, but full of resilience.
  • Tommy Bundle axe: Tommy Bundle was a well-known inhabitant of the Illawarra area. As a 10 year old orphan, he befriended Captain William Hill and sailed with him to Norfolk Island. This axe illustrates the earliest known implement issued by government to the local inhabitants.
  • Mer (Murray Island)Turle Shell Ornament acquired in 1884.
  • Triple hammerhead shark headdress. Made by Ken Thaiday Snr, the shark headdress is a totem of the Thaiday family. His 'dance machine' is a contemporary version of the traditional male headdresses from his native Darnley Island.
  • Ghost Nets: Sculptural installations constructed from discarded trawler nets which litter the waters of northern Australia. Depicting a famous Erub Island love story, between a crab, Dauma, and a fish, Garom, the artworks transform a mindless killer into works of beauty.
  • Patygerang: This projection by Bangarra Dance Company, portrays the relationship formed between the local aboriginal girl, Patyegarang, and Lieutenant William Dawes. By sharing her language with him she communicated the weight of pain, confusion, violence, pain, resilience as well as community and courage.