Sydney, 21 May 2021: The Australian Museum (AM) will present one of the most significant exhibitions in its history: Unsettled, opening FREE to the public on Saturday 22 May in the AM’s new touring exhibition hall. In this powerful exhibition, First Nations’ voices tell Australia's foundation story including First Nations resilience and survival. First-hand accounts are presented through historical documents, large-scale artworks, immersive experiences and never-before-seen objects from the Australian Museum collection.

Unsettled is an evidence-based exhibition which takes visitors on a journey from the signal fires lit by Aboriginal people as a warning when Lieutenant Cook sailed up the east coast in 1770, to the resistance and resilience of First Nations peoples since colonisation in 1788. With more than 190 objects and images in the show and over 100 contributions by First Nations peoples across the country, Unsettled illuminates the power of truth-telling.

Storyboat Installation from Unsettled exhibition
Storyboat Installation Glen Mackie, Yam Island man. Wood, glue, nails, ochre, wood, thin steel wire, bamboo, nylon, raw cotton muslin, vinyl cut. Australian Museum Collection. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt, a Eualayai and Gamillaroi woman and AM Trustee said that Unsettled challenges the traditional relationship between First Nations peoples and collecting institutions.

“By privileging of the perspective and views of First Nations peoples, Unsettled is redefining the conversations a museum can have with the people who walk into it. Not only can they look, listen, learn and deepen their understanding, they can do so knowing they are engaging in an authentic First Nations voice and vision,” Behrendt said.

Opening on the week prior to National Reconciliation Week, Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay AO said the Unsettled exhibition required the AM to reflect on its own history and emphasised the need to honour First Nations’ voices.

“As the first museum in the nation, the AM acknowledges our colonial past, which can be observed in the objects in the Museum’s collection, in the perpetuation of stereotypes in past exhibitions and in the alienation of First Nations peoples from telling First Nations stories. It is of crucial importance that the AM plays its part in correcting the record and ensuring a positive, scientifically rigorous and accurate representation of our nation’s history,” McKay said.

“This is why we believe Unsettled is one of the most important exhibitions in the Australian Museum’s history and one that everyone should see. And because of this, we’ve made entry free with the help of our partners and donors,” McKay said.

Red, White and Blue - Danie Mellor

Red, White and Blue by Danie Mellor, Mamu, Ngagen, Ngajan. In the colours of the British flag, three kangaroos are posed as figures who knew all, but professed no knowledge as to the impact of empire building, past or present: they see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. In another sense, these kangaroos stand also for the muted position of a culture that was dominated and undermined by the loss of language, displacement, and ultimately the deliberate attempt to curtail a way of life and exploit the natural resources – cultural, spiritual, social, and material – of the land.

Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

The development of Unsettled was led by AM First Nations Curator Laura McBride, a Wailwan and Kooma woman who is now Director, First Nations at the AM. McBride worked together with AM First Nations Curator Dr Mariko Smith, a Yuin woman with Japanese heritage, over the past two years to create Unsettled using a collaborative, community-centred approach and developing content through rigorous research.

To inform the themes and concepts within Unsettled, McBride and Dr Smith led one of the most significant First Nations-informed consultation efforts ever undertaken by the Australian Museum. The 2020 Project reached more than 2,500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and revealed these communities wanted to see an exhibition that committed to evidence-based truth-telling of Australia’s foundation story.

McBride discussed how the community consultation enabled the AM to explore how it could act as a conduit, utilising its resources, artifacts, and expertise to facilitate this important conversation through the Unsettled exhibition.

Wailwan Grindstone (fragment)

This fragment from the rim of a grindstone found in the Cuddie Springs archaeological site on Wailwan Country is scientifically and historically invaluable. Scientific analysis of the use-wear and evidence of starch residue proves that Aboriginal peoples have been using grindstones to make flour for cooking for over 30,000 years. Unsettled will be the first time this important object has ever been on public display.

Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

“Truth-telling about Australia’s past is an important process for understanding who we are now and how we came to be as a nation. Truth-telling can be confronting, but the process can be powerful: grief can make way for healing, and healing unites people who were once divided. It is time we stop pretending that meaningful change can happen in a system that is grounded in denial,” said McBride.

“Without truth, our histories, our lands, our peoples and our relationships will remain unhealed and unsettled. We hope the Unsettled exhibition will shift perceptions and help us develop a national narrative of equity and respect and I encourage everyone to come experience it for themselves,” said McBride.

Unsettled opens FREE at the Australian Museum on Saturday 22 May and will run through to Sunday 10 October. A full program of First Nations events will compliment this important exhibition, including tours, talks, films, workshops, meditation and weaving. Unsettled is made possible thanks to the support of The Balnaves Foundation, IAS Fine Art Logistics, Reconciliation Australia, Ashurst, DLA Piper, Gilbert + Tobin, and ABC Radio Sydney. The acquisition of cultural materials for Signal Fires was funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.


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