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Canoe on the move

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Last year, thanks to the agreement of the University of Queensland Museum of Anthropology, a dugout canoe with two outriggers was weighed, packed and sent from its usual home in Brisbane to the National Museum's stores in Canberra to await its inclusion in a new exhibit, Lockart River due to be installed in November 2012. Weighing a hefty 150 kilograms, the object is rarely moved around the stores. So, seeing all sides of this substantial, eight-metre-long canoe was quite a treat, especially the marks of resin on the prow, and which had previously evaded my inquisitive eye.

Canoe on the move
Canoe on the move

The display representes the Lockhart River community which is well known for the vibrant and contemporary nature of its art production. They burst onto the art market in the late 1990s. A glimpses of life in the community accompanied the works in their titles and the statements by the artists. They talked about life in Lockhart, relating stories of old times - a period that they referred to as Before Time - about the rivers that abound in this monsoonal area of Cape York, about the season they call 'burn grass' time, about ceremonies remembered by the old ones, and about the strong links between the past and the present. So, this display takes what we know about the Lockhart River community one bit further.

People at Lockhart have embraced the idea of talking about themselves through the exhibit and recording personal stories to share with our visitors. The Museum has been fortunate to work with the Lockhart people and to see how such a remote community can manage when, for about four months of each year, high rainfall and flooding cuts road access to the area. They have shared lots with us and have been willing to give us words from their language to describe in their way, the objects that have, by many different routes, found their way into the National Historical Collection.

This canoe was the last of these to have been made in Lockhart using these particular craftsmanship skills. James Butcher finished making it in 1976. It was a huge task to carry out; he had to select the tree first and get it cut and transported, dig it out, cut the outriggers, carve the paddles, make the ropes from bark fibre and carve a harpoon.

Bag made by Maudie Sandy from reclaimed fibre
Bag made by Maudie Sandy from reclaimed fibre

The canoe is the centrepiece of the display, but, there are some other collections surrounding it that came to the Museum because of the goodwill of many people. High on the list is the group of things given by Athol Chase, who first began to work with the Lockhart community in 1970-71. He lived there with his family and became a trusted member of the community - he was entrusted with all aspects of knowledge of the country. While there, many things were given to him, often to help understand the ways of the people - for example, baskets, spears, and drawings done by the schoolchildren. In turn, he has trusted the Museum to care for these things. Earlier this year, his collection came to the Museum and many of the items in it will be included in the display, including some of the ceremonial things he wore when he was initiated into the community.

The exhibit will be on display for the next four years in the Gallery of First Australians.

Andy Greenslade Curator, ATSIP

Singer sewing machine table c1950s
Maria Butcher's Singer sewing machine table c1950s