Another ‘Australia Day’ will be celebrated by some on 26 January, and with it undoubtedly a polarising debate on Australia’s founding story.
Australia is home to one of the world’s oldest living cultures, and is one of the most advanced Nations on the planet, and yet our dominant national narrative does not accept the proven, interconnected, factual story about how we became a country. That’s some omission.
Of course, we aren’t alone among world nations that maintain false narratives. But given humankind’s communications skills developed over millennia, it seems remarkable that the critical origin story of any democracy allows itself to rumble on, unsettled.
Museums the world over – including the Australian Museum (AM) as Australia’s first museum – have traditionally magnified the perspectives of the dominant, colonial culture, the appropriation of artefacts, the holding of human remains, a pervading sense of entitlement to take, own, study and draw conclusions, often excluding First Nations Peoples’ perspectives, knowledge and experiences.
Over three years ago, in a long overdue response to both this and the then approaching 250th anniversary of James Cook's first voyage to Australia and the Pacific in 1769/1770, the First Nations team at the AM set out to create Unsettled. They began the development of the exhibition by reaching out to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to ask how to tell the history every Australian needs to know.
And what did the respondents want to include in an exhibition? Truth-telling. Wisdom. Consciousness. Interconnectedness. To provide a space in which all Australians could learn from the cultural knowledge, philosophies and value systems that First Nations Peoples have nurtured and been cultural caretakers of for over 60,000 years. They wanted to call to account the disremembering of colonial narratives, and to instead tell the truth about contemporary Australia’s formation and history. This is the story we didn’t learn in school.
There is an art to establishing truth-telling and good communication between unreconciled groups, starting with deep listening – which is hard and needs to happen in culturally safe spaces and intentionally created platforms. The process requires compassion, mutual respect, self-reflection and time. The AM’s drive to confront our own past and be accountable was a process that was three years in the making – developing, consulting and researching the content.
Unsettled Curator and the AM’s Director, First Nations, Laura McBride, together with Assistant Curator, Dr Mariko Smith, delivered a meta, truth-telling celebration of First Nations excellence from within the walls of the oldest museum in Australia. At the same time, this award-winning exhibition also addresses the role that collecting museums have played in historic injustices against First Nations Peoples. It is an important step in working towards decolonising the spaces that have in the past sought to define First Nations Peoples and cultures, asserting instead First Nations Peoples’ sovereignty and voices.
As Laura McBride says, Unsettled isn’t Aboriginal history, it’s Australian history.
What we knew ourselves when we first unveiled Unsettled in March 2021, has been borne out by the response received from visitors, critics and our peers in the sector alike, with Unsettled named Best Exhibition in NSW (IMAGinE Awards), and Laura McBride receiving the ACHAA Award for Excellence by a First Nations Curator at the 2021 IMAGinE Awards.
This has all happened in tandem with other behind-the-scenes transformations, as often academic conversations around representation and professional development were transformed into action, a cultural step-change in the AM’s operations and organisational self-awareness as we head towards our 200th anniversary in 2027.
It takes courage for all of us – creators, facilitators and museum-goers – to unpick horrible truths, to get past fear and take a second look at how we became the country now known as Australia.
We have so much to learn and benefit from First Nations Elders and cultural knowledge holders about respect, reciprocity and mutual obligation, about our shared journey as a community, including our mutual responsibility to care for Country. Moving on from our fear of the ‘other’ through critical self-reflection, examination of our own conscious and unconscious biases and privilege, means we can ground ourselves confidently in renewal, allowing us all to play a role in building a more equitable shared future.
Unsettled is free to the public and closes on 27 January 2022.
Ngalu Warrawi Marri (We Stand Strong) – an evening of cultural celebration held on Thursday 27 January as part of Nights at the Museum