Unsettled: Uncovering our nation's hidden history
First Nations curators Laura McBride and Dr Mariko Smith describe how Unsettled will be one of the Australian Museum’s most significant exhibitions in its almost 200-year history.
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Curators’ Acknowledgment: We pay our respects and dedicate the Unsettled exhibition to the people and other Beings who keep the law of this land; to the Elders and Traditional Owners of all the knowledges, places, and stories in this exhibition; and to the Ancestors and Old People for their resilience and guidance.
If we’re going to talk about what it means to be Australian then we need to understand what Australia is and how it came into existence. Steven Oliver, Kuku-Yalanji, Waanyi, Gangalidda, Woppaburra, Bundjalung and Biripi, 2020
For 233 years, the people of Australia – non-Indigenous and Indigenous – have been unsettled. Our history has been constructed and developed based on a justification of what happened here from 1788 onwards and we have all been left short-changed, ignorant, divided and unable to heal. In denying the Australian people the truth of both the destruction that occurred as well as the pride in First Nations cultures we might all share, colonisation is made complete: the winners take the spoils, the rest remain marginalised.
In the Australian Museum’s new exhibition Unsettled, we aim to address the gap in this knowledge. In providing a full education about Australia’s past, we take a leap towards the reconciliation of this country. We invite all visitors to bravely stare the past directly in the eye, find the sources of pride, and hope that we may hold up and to move into the future together – at last, to settle Australia.
Truth-telling and reconciliation
In recent years, the people of this nation have shown a desire to examine what it means to be “Australian.” Many are seeking a process of truth-telling about Australia’s history – a concept which a 2018 Federal Joint Select Committee report describes as, “the opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to record evidence about past actions and share their culture, heritage and history with the broader community.”
Reconciliation is also an increasing priority for the general community. In the 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer survey, 61 per cent of the non-Indigenous people surveyed said they want to do something to help improve reconciliation – up 7 points from the last survey in 2018.
However, discrimination against First Nations peoples and racial inequity in Australian society still stand in the way of meaningful positive change. A 2019 study by Australian National University researchers found that three out of four Australians hold a negative implicit or unconscious bias against First Nations peoples. This confirms the existence of a barrier that affects the lives and socio-economic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
What can museums do?
Until historic inequities are addressed, the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples will only continue to widen. The path towards a reconciled Australia must involve truth-telling. As publicly trusted sources of information, museums, galleries and other cultural institutions have the opportunity to be at the centre of this process.
Historically, museums have been the vehicles and beneficiaries of colonial and imperial agendas. Museums have never been neutral, although they have portrayed themselves as such and are accepted by the public as places of objective authority. The representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples within museums has had its roots in scientific racism, whereby non-Western peoples were depicted as being inferior in both intelligence and civilisation.
As First Nations museum professionals, we see ourselves as facilitators and amplifiers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices from the many Nations and communities across Australia. Having been silenced since 1788, it is incredibly significant that we have a say on how our histories and cultures are interpreted in these sites of public influence and authority.
As First Nations peoples, how we are represented is how we are perceived by the public, and every day our people mitigate false and negative stereotypes. Learning the truth in all its forms – the good and the bad – can be unsettling, but this is reconciliation in action.
Representation and balanced perspective matter
At the white man’s school, what are our children taught? Are they told of the battles our people fought, Are they told of how our people died? Are they told why our people cried? Australia’s true history is never read, But the blackman keeps it in his head. Bill Day, 1971
A selective perspective of history is not inclusive or balanced, and the harm of its perpetuation is intergenerational. The myth that Australia was peacefully settled, when, in fact, its foundations involved extraordinary violence perpetrated by colonisers upon First Nations peoples, still resonates in our families and communities today: the rates of First Nations child removal has increased since the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations, and we are the first generation in our families who were born off missions and reserves and legally allowed to attend school and university.
While more factual histories are slowly being added to school curricula, anniversaries of colonial events such as 26 January, celebrated as Australia’s national day each year, appear to be one-sided affairs that glorify colonisation at the expense of First Nations peoples. The commemorations of James Cook’s voyage on the HMB Endeavour along Australia’s East Coast overshadow the subsequent violation of First Nations sovereignty and the beginning of Indigenous dispossession.
There has been so much focus on Cook, not only in schoolbooks and the media but also in exhibitions at cultural institutions, that he has effectively been elevated to the status of Australia’s founding father. The irony is that many people can’t recall even the British-centric history of Australia. There is a pervasive myth that “Australia Day” marks Captain James Cook’s stepping ashore onto Australian soil. In actual fact, 26 January is the day the First Fleet formally marked its arrival in Warrane (Sydney Cove) in 1788 under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. James Cook had been dead for nearly nine years by the time Phillip arrived; he wasn’t alive when the formal government decision was made to establish the New South Wales colony.
The groundwork: The 2020 Project and First Nations community consultation
With all of this in mind, the Australian Museum decided to provide its platform to First Nations communities to respond to the events and consequences of 1770. The First Nations curatorial team, led by (now Director) Laura McBride, was tasked with preparing a special exhibition addressing the impacts of Cook’s arrival and his ongoing colonial legacy.
The first step was to gain an understanding of the topics and stories Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples wanted told in this exhibition. From 2018 to 2019, we undertook large-scale community consultation. Through a series of workshops, interviews, focus groups and surveys, we received 805 formal responses from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from all major states and territories; 175 different Nations, clans and community groups.
First Nations respondents identified truth-telling and prioritising First Nations voices as the key objectives for the exhibition. Forty per cent of First Nations respondents wanted the true story of the foundation of Australia told, based on the frequency of them using the word “truth” or “truth-telling”. The three highest-ranking categories for possible topics were (1) colonisation and its effects; (2) Australia’s origins and foundation; and (3) addressing the false, constructed history that is pervasively shared in society.
Unsettled and the missing narratives
The consultation showed us that Australia’s foundation story is much more than Cook and the First Fleet. By examining the responses, we determined several themes that the exhibition would encompass: the denial of Indigenous sovereignty; how the desire for wealth and influence also drove the British to establish the penal colony; the seizure of land and resources from First Nations peoples; the devastating frontier wars; the separation from families and homelands; the ongoing resistance; and the need to address this history to heal the nation.
We were inspired to name the exhibition Unsettled to emphasise that it was not a peaceful settlement as people were taught in school, and to reference the unsettled state of our history, relationships and the environment.
In Unsettled, visitors will encounter stories that will inspire and challenge them. These stories are factual, drawn from rigorous research into government documents, primary resources and oral histories that have been omitted from the official record.
There is the story of resistance against the British in the early years of the colony – it took 29 years for the British to take the whole Sydney Basin comfortably. Many visitors will learn about resistance fighter and Bidjigal man Pemulwuy, who defended his Country for twelve years before he was killed.
Another story explores what contemporaneous Aboriginal people were thinking, feeling and doing when the Endeavour was sailing up the East Coast. We went to speak to some descendants of those who held these stories and gave them space to share them in the exhibition. Elders and knowledge-holders from the South Coast to Sydney told us about the unfamiliar being which was the Endeavour, and despite not knowing exactly what the ship was or who was on it, there was an urgent need to warn others.
In order to do this, we were told that signal fires were lit all along the coast. These sites are now often used for antennae and lighthouses because of their high vantage points, and function as they did then – to warn fellow Countrymen and neighbouring Nations of danger. While the Endeavour’s crew noted smoke and fire, they lacked the cultural knowledge to see that, in fact, an emergency response system was in action.
It is unnerving to compare this event with the catastrophic bushfires that burnt through bush and headlands along the south-east coast in late 2019 and early 2020, following Cook’s route and the positions of signal fires. The phenomena of history repeating is a part of First Nations Lore, and Indigenous people have noted how the events of 2020 reflect several early colonial histories: the similarities between the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic to the impact of smallpox (galgala) on Sydney Aboriginal society; and how the increasing number of Black deaths in custody and rise of the resistance movement Black Lives Matter reflect the deaths and oppression of Aboriginal people in the early years of colonisation. These parallels, explored in Unsettled, draw a link between the past and present and elucidate the potential outcomes of the future.
Truth-telling means we can heal and grow stronger together
From the stories of historical and contemporary resistance, to the ongoing, living cultural practices that have survived and continue to thrive in the hands of descendants today, Unsettled engages in truth-telling by acknowledging the strength and resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures: something every Australian can celebrate.
It is possible to settle this land – to engage in and reconcile past wrongs and in doing so, set a course for right decision making in the future. First Nations peoples must be fully engaged in the process of structural reform to overcome the legacies of colonisation and reconstruct the fabric of our societies. And it’s the responsibility of all Australians to become informed, to educate themselves wherever possible, in order for us all to start again from the same page of history.
We look forward to you joining us at Unsettled.
Unsettled is showing in the Australian Museum’s touring exhibition hall from 22 May to 10 October 2021.
You can find out more about the topics discussed in this article on the First Nations site.
Read The 2020 Project First Nations Community Consultation Report online.
This article first appeared in Explore magazine, Winter 2021. View the whole issue here.