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.
The First Nations curators of the Australian Museum’s Unsettled exhibition were inspired by the below quotes which help communicate the key aims of the exhibition, highlighting how what we may have been taught about Australian history at school can be very different to what many First Nations peoples know from their families and communities’ experiences.
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, from BUNJI, December 1971
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, Biripi), 2020.
Our contact history cannot be sanitised. It has to be told with a high degree of integrity, and as confronting as it might be, teaching about it has nothing to do with provoking a sense of guilt; it is largely about shared responsibility and transparency in order to move forward as a modern nation Uncle Shayne Williams (Dharawal Elder), 2020.
Please also read The 2020 Project’s First Nations community consultation report for further information about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities helped the curators to decide on the Unsettled exhibition’s objectives of truth-telling and prioritising First Nations perspectives in order to help balance the accounts of Australian history and promote accurate representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in places like museums.
The First Nations curators and the CEO of the Australian Museum have provided important statements to be read upon entering the Unsettled exhibition in the Museum’s basement touring hall:
“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, including massacres and genocide. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be advised that there may be images of people who have passed away.”
Laura McBride and Dr Mariko Smith, 2021.
“The Australian Museum presents Unsettled from a First Nations perspective. Why should we speak for others when they can speak for themselves? Throughout the exhibition, our curators have sourced historical records to reinforce the First Nations stories told. This includes referencing colonial records and acknowledging that history is told from multiple perspectives. Some of the stories may be unsettling, as they present another view of history. But it is only through education and considering different perspectives that we will all move towards greater understanding. The reference and source materials are available online and are throughout the exhibition.”
Australian Museum CEO Kim McKay AO, 2021.
The Curators’ Acknowledgement and the Director’s Statement can be read in line with the Australian Museum’s statement of reflection, which is based on national museum best practice policy. When the Australian Museum reopened in late 2020, the Museum’s statement of reflection was printed on a wall leading into the new Hintze Hall on the Ground Level:
As the first Museum in the nation, established in 1827, the Australian Museum is part of Australia’s colonial history and we acknowledge the wrongs done to the First Nations people, the continued custodians of the land on which we stand today. This was and always will be Aboriginal land.
As a trusted source in the community, the Australian Museum is committed to presenting scientific evidence and cultural truths derived through our research and collections and First Nations peoples’ traditional knowledge.
Read more about the background to the Australian Museum’s statement of reflection here.
Learn more about First Nations objects
The acquisition of cultural materials for Unsettled was funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.