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 in 2020, 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.

Cultural objects and immersive experiences

The acquisition of cultural materials for “Signal Fires” was funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.