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 and guidance.
"A powerful and important exhibition from the Australian Museum"
Such was the observation of the panel when judging the Australian Museum's temporary exhibition Unsettled (22 May 2021 – 27 January 2022) for the 2022 Australian Museums and Galleries National Awards (MAGNAs). Curated by Laura McBride (First Nations Curator; Wailwan and Kooma woman) and Dr Mariko Smith (First Nations Assistant Curator; Yuin and Japanese woman), Unsettled was Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' right of reply to the 250th anniversary of British Lieutenant James Cook's charting of the eastern coastline of the continent now known as Australia on the HMB Endeavour in 1770. This exhibition amplified First Nations perspectives and experiences, challenging the foundational narrative about Australia which has always had a disproportionate focus on the last 200 or so years of British colonisation rather than the more expansive tens of thousands of years of continued Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander existence and occupation on these lands and waterways.
The presence and resilience of First Nations peoples who refuse to quietly disappear unsettles the Eurocentric account of a "peaceful settlement" which conveniently allowed the newcomers to lay claim and take advantage of land and resources. Much has been commemorated and celebrated about the likes of Cook and those who arrived later, namely the First Fleet in 1788 which established the New South Wales colony in Warrane (Sydney Cove) eighteen years after Cook was said to have claimed the eastern coast for the British Crown. This had led to a construction of an Australian history designed to justify the invasion, dispossession, and discrimination of the First Nations. This exhibition could have easily been all about James Cook and his British Crown- and government-endorsed Pacific expedition, however the promotion of best practice cultural expression by the Australian Museum's First Nations staff inspired it to switch its focus towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives and use its influential platform as Australia's oldest public museum (established in 1827) for First Nations-led truth-telling. The act of unsettling the status quo was highly significant for the Australian Museum – itself a natural history museum modelled on the grand institutions of Europe.
Unsettled Opening Weekend_credit Anna Kucera ©Australian Museum
Unsettled as the means as well as the end
Informed by an extensive community consultation process during 2018-2019, involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the major Australian states and territories, the exhibition prioritised First Nations agency from the very beginning of the project, with responses analysed by the curators, genuinely accommodated as much as possible, and eventually crystallised into exhibition name Unsettled and its eight sections (Unsettled Introduction; Signal Fires; Recognising Invasions;Fighting Wars;Remembering Massacres; Surviving Genocide; Continued Resistance; and Healing Nations). The content spoke firsthand to the legacy of colonisation on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this day. Unsettled featured over 190 objects and images, and it was held in the Australian Museum's large basement touring hall space. Over 130 First Nations Elders and community members, particularly from south-eastern Australia, contributed stories, knowledge, cultural materials, artworks, and items throughout the exhibition.
The MAGNAs judges praised McBride and Smith "for seeing opportunity and going for it" and stating that Unsettled "sets the new standard for First Nations representation and participation in exhibitions". Underpinning the Unsettled exhibition, its associated public programs and online content was the principle of self-determination, and the right of Indigenous peoples who have long been subjected to others speaking about them or on their behalf to have the opportunity to represent themselves through their own voices. This forms a part of human rights, in the spirit of the United Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. At times, Aboriginal peoples+ viewpoints and opinions have been considered as dubious by others. Using the authoritative platform of the Australian Museum and applying the rigours of academic fact-based research on the presentation of colonial records and oral histories, the curators set best practice, including the embedding of Indigenous cultural and intellectual property protocols in the engagement of First Nations collaborators through informed consent, fair payment and licensing arrangements.
Remembering Massacres_credit_Anna Kucera ©Australian Museum
Unsettled as strategy
What McBride and Smith brought to the Unsettled project in terms of their knowledge and skills added the beating heart, credibility, and authenticity to the resulting exhibition. McBride's long-time employment at the Australian Museum in various roles across education, public programming, exhibitions, and now as the inaugural First Nations Director, has given her a keen insight into the role museums can play in cross-cultural communication and engagement with First Nations communities. Smith combined her community-centred, Indigenous ways of knowing-driven approach with the analytical research skills from her careers as a lawyer and academic. Together, the curators led a tight-knit team from across the Museum's exhibitions, conservation, communications, and design departments to create an exhibition which acknowledged its place on what also was, and always will be Aboriginal land and built a vision for a mutually beneficial, shared future for non-Indigenous Australians and First Nations peoples.
Some key lessons to be learned from Unsettled are to be brave and steadfast in telling the truth and providing appropriate and accurate representation, but balance this with understanding the conditions and parameters around truth-telling and what this really involves in terms of reach and impact. McBride and Smith ensured they had a clear mandate from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through conducting front-end targeted audience research which asked First Nations peoples directly what they did and did not wish to see in this exhibition. They then backed up the chosen themes and topics with evidence from a variety of sources, both Indigenous and colonial, and throughout the exhibition process sought feedback and peer-review of the content. This ensured a certain degree of risk and expectation management, both within the institution and externally with government stakeholders as well as for the ultimate beneficiaries of the exhibition: First Nations and Australia.
The Unsettled curators thank the generous donations were received from The Balnaves Foundation (Major Supporter); IAS Fine Art Logistics, Reconciliation Australia (Exhibition Partners); Ashurst, DLA Piper, Gilbert + Tobin (Supporting Partners); and ABC Radio Sydney (Media Partner). The acquisition of cultural materials for "Signal Fires" was funded by a grant from the Australian Museum Foundation.
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