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Every place has a past

The Landmarks Springvale and Elsey exhibit
The Landmarks Springvale and Elsey exhibit

In June 2011 the National Museum opened a new permanent exhibition gallery called Landmarks: People and Places across Australia. The gallery presents a history of Australia since 1788, bringing together approximately 1500 objects to explore how people have lived across the continent. Landmarks tells the stories of over 30 Australian places, inviting visitors to take an imaginative tour of the country. Through the exhibits, visitors can travel from Sydney to Derby, Wagga Wagga to Hobart, meet the people who have lived there and explore how they built the places in which we live today.

Developing a new permanent gallery is a big job. The Landmarks curatorial team worked on the project for close to seven years, starting with researching different themes in Australian history, investigating the Museum's collections and identifying the places to appear in the gallery. Curators then visited each of the selected locations, meeting with the locals, learning about the history and environment of the area, and identifying and collecting objects for display. This involved a lot of travel! Isa Menzies, for example, while developing a gallery 'module' exploring how new communication technologies connect Australians, visited Flemington race course on Melbourne Cup day to learn how the event is broadcast across the world, and she travelled to Gunnedah in New South Wales - which was once a hub for horsedrawn coach services - and rode across the continent on the Trans-Australian Railway.

Once the Landmarks team had decided on the places to feature in the gallery and met with the relevant communities, we began refining the stories we wanted to tell and deciding which collections to include in the exhibition and what to say about them. For some objects, like the 15.2-tonne rock shovel bucket from Mount Tom Price in the Kimberley, that was chosen to evoke the mining industry in Western Australia, the biggest challenge was figuring out how to get the object into the gallery. Other collections required long months of negotiation with overseas institutions. The Melbourne exhibit, for example, features a shield and clubs made by members of the Kulin people of Victoria. British surveyor John Helder Wedge collected these objects in 1835 while working around Port Phillip Bay and they form part of one of the earliest known collections of Aboriginal material from that area. Wedge donated the objects to the Saffron Walden Museum in England and we were thrilled when that institution agreed to loan the rare artefacts for display in Landmarks.

ANU exhibit in Landmarks gallery
The Landmarks exhibit on Canberra's Australian National University (ANU) features bark paintings by Murrinh-patha artists Albert Muta and Nym Bandak, among others. ANU anthropologist WEH Stanner collected the paintings to learn about their interpretation of the Dreaming.

Landmarks focuses on how, in each place around Australia, different groups of people have engaged with each other and with local plants, animals and landscapes as they have worked to build their communities. The intertwined stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and wider Australian communities are one of the central themes of the gallery. In some exhibits, these stories are very sad and they are marked by the dispossession and deaths of many Aboriginal people, but there are also stories of resilience and hope and friendship and the slow emergence of understanding and respect between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian communities. The Museum has tried to capture this complex and varied history in the gallery and make it a central part of the story of Australia's past and present.

Curator George Main, for example, worked on the history of the pastoral industry, tracing how it unfolded at Springvale and Elsey stations in the Northern Territory and how the stories of these two stations reveal the history of Aboriginal and settler relations in the region. The story begins with Jawoyn and Dagoman people actively resisting the building of Springvale station on their country, continues at Elsey with Mangarrayi and Yangman people becoming indispensable, if underpaid, station workers, and concludes with Mangarrayi people founding their own settlement at Jilkminggan on land carved off from Elsey, where they now own and operate the station.

Staff and students of Jilkminggan School, Northern Territory
Staff and students of Jilkminggan School, Northern Territory. The school sign in the background is new; a replacement for the one acquired by the National Museum for display in the Springvale and Elsey displays in Landmarks

In Landmarks, this story is told through a variety of collections, including a spearhead adapted from a metal tool, which is typical of the type used by Aboriginal people of the Roper River region to attack cattle in the first years of pastoral colonisation; a beaded necklace showing the Elsey station brand that was made by Amy Dirngayg, a Mangarrayi woman who worked at Elsey for many years as station cook; and a Jilkminggan school sign and Mangarrayilanguage school workbooks. The Museum hopes that this exhibit will help visitors understand the important role of pastoralism in Australia's economy and society, the impact of pastoral expansion on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lives and country and, also, some of the ways in which they have contributed and are contributing to the pastoral industry.

Bennelong had a point sculpture
In Bennelong had a Point, Adam Hill undermines conventional images of the Sydney Opera House. The usually hard-to-miss white sails of the building become a sun sinking behind the headland and Aboriginal connections with the site reappear. Shells evoke the Gadigal middens that would have once developed on Bennelong Point, wooden poles recall long-vanished trees and the kitsch figures of ‘Neville’ and ‘Noelene’ return Aboriginal bodies to the place

Landmarks will continue to develop and change over the coming years, with new stories and collections installed in the gallery in the future. One of the most striking new displays to be unveiled in 2013 will be an artwork called Bennelong had a Point by Sydney-based Indigenous artist Adam Hill. The Landmarks gallery begins and ends at Sydney Cove, starting with an exhibit focusing on the first British camp on the continent in January 1788 and finishing with the story of Bennelong Point, once an important fishing and gathering ground for Gadigal people and now the site of the Sydney Opera House. Hill's sculpture explores this long history and asks us to consider how every one of our places has a past that continues to shape our lives today.

Kirsten Wehner Head Curator, People and the Environment

Host Lee Burgess takes members of the Yirandali community on a tour of Landmarks
National Museum Host Lee Burgess takes members of the Yirandali community on a tour of Landmarks, introducing them to a multimedia installation that explores their history in the Bowen Downs region of Queensland