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.
We advise that there are some confronting topics addressed in this exhibition content, including massacres and genocide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be advised that there may be images of people who have passed away.
Yaama gurra (hello with respect).
In 2018, I was approached to curate the Australian Museum’s Indigenous-led exhibition about Captain James Cook, as a response to the 250th anniversary in 2020 of the HMB Endeavour’s East Coast voyage during 1770. I knew this would be a challenging task. Cook is often celebrated as the founding father of Australia, with hero-like status to non-Indigenous Australians. But he represents the opposite to First Nations peoples: a symbol of destruction and death, pain and suffering. Curating a show about why these differences exist that meets the needs of both these audiences would not be straightforward, especially in Australia’s oldest museum.
To undertake this exhibition in a culturally appropriate way and ensure we accurately represented the views of First Nations peoples on the Cook anniversary, community consultation was undertaken to define what themes and topics would be covered. Most significantly, the consultations illustrated that First Nations peoples did not want another show about Cook; he was but a small footnote in a more expansive history. Instead, we were asked to take the opportunity for long overdue truth-telling about our shared past.
The consultation had three highest-ranking categories for possible exhibition topics: (1) colonisation and its effects; (2) Australia’s origins and foundation; and (3) addressing the false, constructed history that is pervasively shared in society. The most common specific responses were: truth, truth-telling, invasions, wars, massacres, genocide, assimilation, dispossession, resistance, resilience, and survival.
We had our content set by communities, but we needed to name this important exhibition. The First Nations staff, in partnership with independent media, consultancy, and training organisation IndigenousX, spent time brainstorming a title that could capture the importance, meaning and content being covered. We decided on the name “Unsettled”. This term has many connotations and in the context of this exhibition they are everywhere: Australia was not peacefully settled; our history is unresolved; relationships between First Nations peoples and Australians are uneasy; and after 250 years, newcomers still have a turbulent and unbalanced relationship with the natural environment in which they now live.
Truth-telling about Australia’s past is an incredibly 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. Until historic inequities are addressed, the gap between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous Australians will only continue to widen.
Museums and other cultural institutions have the opportunity to be at the centre of this process given they are publicly trusted sources of information and knowledge. This requires a spirit of inclusiveness and a commitment to build strong relationships between First Nations peoples and collecting institutions which promote principles of Indigenous agency and self-determination. I applaud the leadership shown by the Australian Museum’s executive leadership team and Trustees for providing First Nations peoples with a platform to be heard and rebalance the narrative.
As sites of public influence and authority, it is important that First Nations peoples control how our cultures, experiences and world views are interpreted in museums. We worked with over 130 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to interpret the topics set out by the consultation data. Every one of these First Nations community members understood the enormity of our task and we have been thanked many times for sharing the stories of individuals or their Ancestors. They had been waiting a long time for this story to be told. I would like to thank every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person who contributed to the exhibition, guided us, and supported us. I hope we have made your Ancestors, families, communities, and you, proud.
It has been an absolute honour and privilege to develop, curate, and now present Unsettled to the public. It has been my most challenging, yet most rewarding professional project. I thank the visitors to the exhibition and readers of the catalogue for embarking on this journey with us. This is how we will build a better shared future – together.
I thank the Australian Museum’s Unsettled team for the hard work, perseverance, and patience on the development of the exhibition. I would also like to thank our First Nations colleagues who assisted us and gave valuable feedback and critical insight.
Lastly, I acknowledge the hard work and dedication of my Yuin colleague and assistant curator, Dr Mariko Smith, maarubaa bawaa (thank you sister).
Unsettled features over 190 objects and images throughout eight thematic sections: Introduction, Signal Fires, Recognising Invasions, Fighting Wars, Remembering Massacres, Surviving Genocide, Continued Resistance, and Healing Nations. These objects and images include Australian Museum collection items, commissions, acquisitions, and loans.
Many of the 53 objects from the Australian Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural collection have never been seen by the public. There is a 30,000-year-old Wailwan grindstone fragment from Cuddie Springs which demonstrates the longevity of food preparation by Aboriginal people, and Yam Island print-maker Glen Mackie’s Storyboat installation which shares a personal cross-cultural family history from the Torres Strait.
90-plus digital acquisitions have been made, including the Dark Days photographic series by photographer Brendan Beirne that feature massacre sites as they look today, and important artworks that illustrate First Nations lived experiences by First Nations artists Nyree Reynolds and Charlotte Allingham (Coffin Birth).
We are proud to welcome over 30 new object acquisitions to the Australian Museum, including works by Aboriginal artists Tony Albert, Karla Dickens, and Aunty Fay Moseley – including Aunty Fay’s One Way Ticket To Hell which took her eight years to complete due to the deeply personal and painful childhood memory of being removed from her parents. She decided to allow the Museum to purchase this work because of its important work in truth-telling.
Significant historical documents attributed to Governor Lachlan Macquarie and others have been loaned from the NSW State Archives and Records, and the State Library of New South Wales. Significant cultural objects have also been loaned from First Nations communities and peoples, such as a killer boomerang made by Kabi Kabi Goori Elder Uncle Dennis Embrey and lent to the Museum for Unsettled by his grandson Uncle Alex Bond.
Our untold history revealed
Australia’s foundation story is more than the voyage of James Cook or the arrival of the First Fleet. It is a story about the seizure of land from First Nations peoples, denial of Indigenous sovereignty, devastating frontier wars, and separation from families and homelands.
We live in the legacy of this history. This has privileged many but has left others disadvantaged. Recognising and understanding this shared past is an important step of our journey towards a better shared future.
This can only be done if we discuss this nation’s history truthfully and listen to First Nations voices which have been absent from Australia’s foundation narratives.
Unsettled uncovers the untold histories behind this nation’s foundation story. In this powerful exhibition, First Nations voices reveal the hidden stories of devastation, survival and the fight for recognition. These first-hand accounts are presented through long hidden historical documents, large-scale artworks, immersive experiences and never-before-seen objects from the Australian Museum collections and beyond.
First Nations Elders including Uncle Waubin Richard Aken (Kaurareg), Aunty Fay Moseley (Wiradjuri) and Uncle Noel Butler (Budawang), share their lived experiences.
Featuring the work of contemporary artists including Ryan Presley, Tony Albert, Charlotte Allingham (Coffin Birth), Jai Darby Walker and Danie Mellor, this free exhibition interrogates the lasting impacts of colonisation and the denial of Indigenous sovereignty.
With more than 80 significant cultural objects and over 100 contributions by First Nations peoples across the country, Unsettled illuminates the power of truth-telling to realise change. Understanding our shared past is an important step towards healing for a shared future.
The exhibition's thematic sections
Knowing the difference between smoking ceremonies, campfires, cultural burning and signal fires is primary knowledge. When Lieutenant Cook sailed the HMB Endeavour up the East Coast in 1770, Aboriginal peoples lit carefully managed signal fires on headlands as a warning. While the ship’s crew noted smoke and fires, they lacked the cultural knowledge to see that an emergency response system was in action.
During the 250th anniversary of the HMB Endeavour voyage, Australia experienced unprecedented bushfires. Many First Nations peoples read this bushfire as another emergency warning – the intensity signalling the seriousness of the danger for all peoples and species due to human-created climate change. Elders continue to teach the importance of knowing our past and acting now for future generations.
Image: marayung wumara-warra (Sky Emu Travels) by Amanda Jane Reynolds.
First Nations peoples have been here since time immemorial.* Aboriginal peoples’ homelands were taken by force; it was not a peaceful settlement. The colonists did not make agreements or treaties with any of the sovereign Nations, making the colonial seizure of land in Australia a process that could be described as a series of invasions.
The lack of recognition of dispossession goes to the very heart of a wound in the nation. It has informed the political, social, and economic systems in Australia, resulting in the racial inequity we see today.
For First Nations peoples, it is not merely an opinion that Australia was invaded – it is historical fact.
* For First Nations peoples, this means time so long in the past that it is indefinite in history or tradition.
Image: Storyboat Installation by Glen Mackie.
Australia was not peacefully settled; it was taken by force through strategic, political and military campaigns. The early colony was militarised to protect it from foreign attacks, to maintain civil order over the convict population, and to suppress Aboriginal resistance against colonial interests.
Defining the decades of armed, violent conflicts between sovereign First Nations and the colonists as “wars”, is often contested. However, the historical records from this period included this specific term to describe events on the frontier.
The ongoing refusal to recognise this history of First Nations warriors and their adversaries denies them the memory, and the respect, they deserve.
Image: Gymea Lily by Anna Jahjah.
Killing became a defining colonial tactic used by government troops, police officers, and even ordinary Australians, to retaliate against the resistance efforts of First Nations peoples defending their homelands, families, and resources.
These were not spontaneous acts of violence on the fringes of “civilisation” – rather these were typically planned and calculated reprisals.
In archival records, “dispersal” is a recognised codeword throughout frontier Australia for the deliberate and indiscriminate killing of Aboriginal people in systemic and widespread attacks across Australia. Massacres exist in the memories of all First Nations communities today.
Photo: Poison Waterholes Creek, Narrandera NSW by Brendan Beirne.
The term “genocide” has been seen as controversial when used to describe the treatment of First Nations peoples as part of the colonisation of Australia, but what happened fits the definition. Massacres, dispossession, dispersals, sterilisation of Aboriginal women, forced child removals and assimilation policies – all acts of genocide, have been committed against First Nations peoples.
These acts were justified by asserting that Aboriginal peoples were a dying race, their cultures and practices backward and primitive, and that it would be better to kill them off or breed them out of existence.
It is important to remember that the experience of these different forms of genocide is in living memory and the effects are still felt in First Nations communities.
Image: Brungle Wooden Chain, Spinner and Hook c 1900, made by Ancestor.
First Nations resistance to British colonisation was immediate and has endured for over 230 years.
First Nations peoples have fought for their survival, lands, and livelihoods through physical and psychological resistance campaigns. Since the frontier wars and dispersals, they have continued to fight against genocidal practices and discriminatory policies.
Modern resistance seeks to challenge racism and structural inequalities, revitalise cultures and re-establish agency for Aboriginal people, their communities, and the environment. Resistance to British colonisation has ensured the survival of Aboriginal peoples, their knowledges, and cultures. For First Nations peoples, existence is resistance.
Artwork: Always Was, Always Will Be Aboriginal Land by Charlotte Allingham (Coffin Birth).
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. Truth-telling can shift perceptions and can help us develop a national narrative of unity and respect.
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 for the good of this nation. All Australians can help support First Nations peoples to reach this goal.
Artwork: Weaving Woman by Genevieve Stewart.
This land was not peacefully settled - Unsettled uncovers the untold histories behind this nation’s foundation story. In this powerful exhibition, First Nations voices reveal the hidden stories of devastation, survival and the fight for recognition. These first-hand accounts are presented through long hidden historical documents, large-scale artworks, immersive experiences and never-before-seen objects from the Australian Museum collections and beyond.Plan your visit
The acquisition of cultural materials for Signal Fires was funded by a grant from: