You are in site section: Exhibitions

Kangaroo

Kangaroo

From curious symbol to official emblem

The kangaroo first appeared as a symbol of Australia in 1773 with the publication of an account of Captain Cook's first voyage to the Pacific. Emblematic of Australia's 'curious' nature, the kangaroo soon appeared in exhibitions, collections, art and printed works across Europe. By the 1880s this uniquely Australian marsupial was used to brand products ranging from bicycles to Billy Tea at home.

Hunted for meat and for sport, and used as a motif in the decorative arts, the kangaroo finally achieved official recognition with its inclusion on Australia's coat of arms in 1908.

Coloured illustration showing a British gentleman, wearing a top hat and joining hands across the sea with an Australian settler, who is wearing a bush hat. A bulldog stands behind the British man, a kangaroo behind the Australian.
'Hands across the sea' postcard. Joseph Lebovic collection, National Museum of Australia. Photo: Gerald Preiss.

Stubbs' kangaroo

Image of kangaroo standing on a mound or rocks with mountains and trees in the background. Text across the top reads 'An Animal of a new Species found on the Coast of NEW SOUTH WALES.'

An Animal of a New Species, 1773, after George Stubbs. National Museum of Australia.
Photo: Jason McCarthy.

When Cook's HMB Endeavour arrived back in England in 1771, it carried a vast number of specimens of plants and animals previously unknown to Europeans.

One of the strangest was a kangaroo, shot at Endeavour River for voyage naturalist Joseph Banks, who commissioned George Stubbs to paint its 'portrait'.

The official account of the Endeavour's voyage was published in 1773 and was illustrated with an engraving of Stubbs' kangaroo. The kangaroo quickly came to symbolise the Australian continent.

Since Federation in 1901, the kangaroo has appeared on currency and stamps, on Royal Australian Air Force planes and as a mascot at sporting events.

The kangaroo also appears as a logo for Qantas, Australian Made and Tourism Australia, and in the nicknames given to Australian sporting teams.

The boxing kangaroo

A flag with a cartoon of a yellow kangaroo wearing red boxing gloves.
Boxing kangaroo flag (detail). National Museum of Australia.
Photo: Lannon Harley.

The boxing kangaroo first appeared in a cartoon in 1891. It is an image inspired by travelling sideshows in which men and kangaroos fought with boxing gloves.

During the Second World War, members of the Australian air force painted boxing kangaroos on the sides of their aircraft to distinguish themselves from British troops.

More recently, the boxing kangaroo has become synonymous with Australian sport, firstly as the mascot of the America's Cup winning yacht, Australia II, and later as an official Olympic mascot.