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Gallery launch: Landmarks: People and Places across Australia

Dr Kirsten Wehner, National Museum of Australia, 3 June 2011

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Hello everybody. It’s absolutely a pleasure and a privilege for me to be able to stand up here tonight and talk a little built about Landmarks and what we have been doing for the past six years developing it. I would like to begin by thanking Matilda [House] very much for the welcome and also acknowledging the traditional owners of this country. It’s a particularly important thing, given we are talking about an object that is about place, to remember that we are standing in a very specific place with a long and complex history.

I want to begin with a little story from the exhibition. In 1878 a veteran overlander Alfred Giles, together with 40 men, 12,000 sheep and 2,500 cattle, set out from Adelaide for the north of what is now the Northern Territory. Fifteen months later he arrived on the Katherine River where he found springs - as he wrote – ‘of beautiful fresh water, rich black soil and a ready supply of building materials’. In this promising country Giles constructed a substantial house and food store and established Springvale station. Around a year later Giles married a young woman called Mary Sprigg, took her home to Springvale where they set up home. They evidently planned to settle in and create a civilised life for themselves in the remote region, for when Mary left Adelaide she took with her silver tableware, her silver thimble and, most surprisingly to me, a pair of opera glasses. I’m not too sure how much use she got from the latter.

In Landmarks these small domestic items feature in an exhibit exploring the history of Springvale and nearby Elsey station. They are displayed alongside much less glamorous items: a pile of seeds from the annual black spear grasses which are common in the region; a Springvale fence post, eaten hollow by termites and recovered by George Main from the river; and from nearby Elsey Aboriginal weapons made from salvaged metal. These objects, when you put them together, suggest much of the complex character of the Giles’ experiences at Springvale and indeed the longer history of pastoralism in the region. I think the silverware evokes Alfred and Mary’s aspirations and hopes for the new pastoral enterprise, but the other objects embody the harsh realities of life at Springvale. For after sticking it out for 15 years the Giles abandoned Springvale defeated by attacks by local Jawoyn and Dagoman people defending their country, by ticks that caused fever in the cattle, by grass seeds and poisonous plants that killed sheep, and by termites that destroyed timber structures and ruined their food stores.

Springvale is one of 34 places from across Australia that are featured in the new gallery. Springvale sits together with exhibits focussing on Springfield station near Goulburn, New South Wales; Bowen Downs in central Queensland; and Derby in the west Kimberley in north Western Australia. Together these exhibits explore how pastoralism has unfolded and developed in different localities around Australia, telling histories of settlers moving their stock into Australia’s diverse grasslands, of fighting and negotiating with Aboriginal people for access to country, of shaping and responding to varying climates and ecologies, and developing vast pastoral enterprises that have contributed centrally to Australia’s economy.

As you will know if you read your invitation to tonight carefully, Landmarks presents a very broad history of Australia beginning in the late eighteenth century at Sydney Cove. It addresses ten themes in Australia’s past, with each theme exploring an idea, an ambition or a challenge for life in Australia. It begins with the founding of the first British colonies on Australian shores, then traces journeys of exploration around and across the continent. It then follows the growth of pastoral enterprises, the discovery of gold and the development of democracy; themes of social justice and the quest for scientific understanding; the expansion of agriculture, mining and manufacturing; and finishing with the emergence of the highly urbanised nation that we know today.

As Danny [Gilbert] mentioned, the gallery doesn’t try to tell the whole story on each of these themes but investigates how each is played out in particular locales as people have responded to the challenges of living in this continent and as a result developed distinctive kinds of communities. In developing the gallery we were concerned to move away from any abstract national history, any assertion that Australia is a singular entity or that Australians are all the same. We have aimed, instead, to look at how Australians live in particular places, engaging with local landscapes, ecologies and technologies as they build lives and societies. Landmarks explores the diversity of our lives across the continent while also drawing out connections and similarities between Australian lives in different places.

Someone recently commented to me, when I took them on a preview tour of a not-yet finished Landmarks, that the gallery has a lot to say about work - I thought she was just talking about my life but apparently not. It is true that the gallery has a lot to say about the generations of Australians who have laboured to build the places that shape our lives today. One of our central curatorial aims - and one we talked about a lot during the process of developing the gallery - was the way in which we could create in Landmarks an account of the past that treats the actions and undertakings of our ancestors with understanding and respect and, indeed, which allows to cherish their efforts to transform the world around them.

When you look at Australian history with open eyes and an open heart, it is not always easy to embrace the past. At the heart of Landmarks is the truth that European settlement of Australia has been everywhere an act of colonisation, that the building of new communities has always involved acts through which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were alienated from and dispossessed of their country. Similarly, Landmarks is centrally concerned with the difficult history of settler interactions with Australian environments, with disquieting stories of how people, as they have sought to bend the continent to their use, have transformed often beyond recognition or recovery Australia’s long-established and unique environments.

While Landmarks engages centrally with these difficult histories, the gallery’s focus on place has also enabled us to draw out how these histories are complex and nuanced, shaped by the decisions and actions of individuals finding their way at particular times and places. There are many histories of violence between Indigenous and settler peoples, but there are also stories of generosity, accommodation and friendship. There are many histories of often unwitting destruction of ecologies and species but also stories of people learning about their country, of restoring soils and lands to health, and of developing new ways to work as part of larger ecosystems.

Our aim in Landmarks is to generate historical understanding, to invite visitors to look at Australia’s past in all its complexity and to understand how and why people acted to create the world we now inhabit. At the gallery entrance a quote from former Governor-General Sir William Deane sits on the wall. It’s been a bit of a motto for me in developing the gallery. It reads:

The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do.

As visitors move around Landmarks and discover the histories of places from around Australia, I hope that they will begin to understand how the actions of those have gone before us have shaped the world we now live in. I also hope that they will be encouraged to see that this process of making the world is ongoing, that we are all actors in never-ending processes of making places and we have a responsibility and the opportunity to do so. I do hope that Landmarks will empower visitors to recognise and create such opportunities to shape and reshape their own places.

Landmarks emerges from the premise that one of the Museum’s key roles is to create connections between past and present, between people from around Australia, and between and through objects and collections. As Danny and Andrew [Sayers] have mentioned, the gallery brings together a huge range of objects, about 1500 of all shapes, sizes and materials to tell its history of Australia. It includes both iconic and lesser-known items that have long been part of the Museum’s National Historical Collection. These have been brought together along with generous new donations and other collections acquired during the course of developing the gallery, and of course objects kindly lent for the exhibition by both institutions and by many individuals and families.

Over the past six years that it has taken us to develop the gallery, members of the curatorial team have journeyed to many of the places that we feature in it - and indeed to quite a few that we couldn’t fit into the first iteration of the exhibition. I have one curator in mind who told me a story about how when she finished her art history degree she hoped that she would be going to Paris and London, but instead I sent her off to Cape River in northern Queensland. At each place that the curators have visited, they have been privileged to meet with members of the local communities, to talk with them about the project, to learn about the character of life in their place, and to identify collections that might evoke their stories.

I know there were quite a few Australians, some of whom are here tonight, who I think were quite surprised to find a National Museum curator turning up on their doorstep to ask them how they might like to be represented in Landmarks. Quite a few didn’t know even know the Museum existed when we first talked to them. But so many of those people that we have talked to over the past years have responded with incredible generosity, sharing memories and stories, digging out family heirlooms and old photograph albums, driving curators around to look at places on their properties, opening local museums when they should have been at home on a Sunday, and contributing in many other ways. I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you very much to all those people in the many different places who have supported Landmarks with their collections, their hospitality, their experience and their enthusiasm. I hope that the gallery stands as a fitting tribute to this long and I hope ongoing collaboration. [applause]

Late one afternoon about six years ago, then senior curator and now assistant director Mat Trinca and I sat in his office putting the finishing touches on the exhibition brief for the gallery that we are opening tonight. It’s been a long road since that afternoon, and I would like to acknowledge Mat’s role particularly in shepherding this project from its inception to its opening. [applause]

I would like to thank our director Andrew [Sayers] for his embrace of the project since joining the Museum and also Danny Gilbert since becoming our council chair. I would also say thank you and congratulations to my colleagues across the institution and from the many design, production, fabrication, construction, et cetera companies who have worked on the project. I know you have often worked well above and beyond the call of duty, and I have found your enthusiasm and expertise continuously inspiring. [applause]

However, since I get the pleasure of standing up here, I do have to say a special thank you to my fellow Landmarks curators, who over many years have displayed incredible intelligence, creativity and patience, and an inspiring passion for the project and for the Museum. It’s been a pleasure to share this adventure with you all. I also need to thank their families and friends, who are often unsung but who have helped this project in so many tangible ways. Someone’s father went and collected mud and water from the Yarra River. Somebody’s friend offered to stand as a racegoer at the Melbourne Cup for an interactive. Someone has gone and found some Mitchell grasses that managed to survive the Queensland floods and put them in a box to send down to us. And others have kept the house and minded the children while I have sent their parents to all sorts of places. Thank you. [applause]

It simply remains for me to welcome you to the exhibition. Landmarks is one of the Museum’s signature statements about Australian history: an exhibition gallery that will remain at the heart of the institution for many years to come. Tonight marks the end of one phase of its life, its coming out - or as I sometimes feel like we are sending a child off to high school - but of course our gathering tonight also marks the beginning of the next phase of the gallery’s life. Landmarks will continue to grow and develop over the coming years - as I like to think, coming alive as visitors engage with its places, its collections and its stories, and begin to add their own to its history of Australia. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 23 June 2011