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Defining Moments in Australian History

Defining Moments in Australian History

Starting with an initial list of 100 moments, we invite you to consider and debate these moments, and to suggest a defining moment of your own.

Join the conversation

The Australian story

Countless moments make up the Australian story – most pass unremarked and unremembered. But occasionally, something happens to change our story, to move us in a different direction, or to transform the way we think about ourselves.

Starting with a list of 100, the Museum invites Australians to consider and debate these moments, as well as suggest others they think significant. The list will grow and change over the life of the project.

What's new

26 January 2015
‘Save our Site’ poster, Brenda Saunders Poster Archive collection, National Museum of Australia.
‘Save our Site’ poster, Brenda Saunders Poster Archive collection, National Museum of Australia.

This moment commemorates the Aboriginal Day of Mourning – the Indigenous response to Australia’s sesquicentenary in 1938. It was the first national gathering of Indigenous people protesting against the prejudice and discrimination that was a daily part of their lives.

The protest took place at the Australian Hall in central Sydney. The poster reproduced below celebrates both the Day of Mourning and the battle to save the Hall from demolition. The building is now on the National Heritage List.

More on the sesquicentenary and Aboriginal Day of Mourning 

18 January 2015
Third Test, January 1933, Adelaide Oval. State Library of South Australia, B8660.
Third Test, January 1933, Adelaide Oval. State Library of South Australia, B8660.

On this day in 1933, Australian cricket administrators sent a telegram to the Marylebone Cricket Club in London accusing the touring English cricket team of unsportsmanlike conduct. The Australians were referring to the English bowling strategy known as ‘Bodyline’. This featured moment explores the most controversial summer of cricket Australia had yet seen.

More on the ‘Bodyline’ Ashes tour

9 January 2015
The Fremantle Arts Centre, formerly the lunatic asylum, which was built by convict labour. Photo: Stuart Sevastos.
The Fremantle Arts Centre, formerly the lunatic asylum, which was built by convict labour. Photo: Stuart Sevastos.

On this day in 1868 the convict transport Hougoumont arrived at the port of Fremantle. On board were 269 convicts, the last to be sent to Western Australia. The ship’s arrival marked the end of 80 years of continuous penal transportation to the Australian continent. 

More on the end of convict transportation to Australia 

9 January 2015
Mask made of tapa cloth collected from the Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, 1923. Official Papuan Collection, National Museum of Australia.
Mask made of tapa cloth collected from the Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea, 1923. Official Papuan Collection, National Museum of Australia.

On this day in 1906, the young nation of Australia became a colonial administrator when it assumed responsibility for the external territory of Papua – the southern half of what is now Papua New Guinea. Australia saw the administration of the territory as an opportunity to secure its borders, expand its commercial and colonial interests and prove itself as a mature and modern nation.

More on Australia taking over Papua

25 December 2014
A image of the Darwin suburb of Wagaman after being destroyed by Cyclone Tracy.
Darwin suburb of Wagaman. Photo: Shirley Gwynne.
 

To mark the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy, the National Museum of Australia has provided a ‘featured moment’ on the devastating storm.

Darwin, indeed the whole of Northern Australia, is no stranger to cyclones. However, Cyclone Tracy, which hit Darwin in the small hours of Christmas Day 1974, was among the most destructive ever recorded in Australia.

More on Cyclone Tracy

New ‘featured moment’ on Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth

Victoria Pass, Blue Mountains by Eliza Thurston, 1861.
Victoria Pass, Blue Mountains by Eliza Thurston, 1861. National Museum of Australia.

In 1813, Gregory Blaxland, William Charles Wentworth and William Lawson became the first European settlers to successfully navigate a path across the Blue Mountains.

Their feat opened the inland to pastoralism, and set in motion a pattern of land disputes that would result in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples across the continent.

More on the crossing

New ‘featured moment’ on the separation of Tasmania 12,000 years ago

Residence of the Aborigines, Flinders Island, by John Skinner Prout, 1846.
Residence of the Aborigines, Flinders Island by John Skinner Prout, 1846. Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.

It took rising sea levels 6000 years to separate the Australian mainland from Tasmania, or what the Aboriginal people who lived there called Trowunna. However, the impact of that event on this sometimes overlooked part of the country was enormous.

More on the separation of Tasmania

18 December 2014
Mary Lee
Women's Suffrage League secretary, Mary Lee. National Museum of Australia.

On this day in 1894, the South Australian Parliament passed the Constitutional Amendment (Adult Suffrage) Bill. The legislation not only granted women in the colony the right to vote, it also allowed them to stand for parliament, and so was the first in the world to give equal political rights to both men and women.

More on Women's suffrage

10 December 2014

The men receiving their awards. The second to the left is Fleming, Chain is in the middle, and the far right is Florey.
Nobel Prize Laureates, 1945. Sir Alexander Fleming (second from left); Ernst Chain (centre); Howard Florey (far right). Photographer unknown.

Penicillin was the wonder drug that changed the world. Discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, the drug was made medically useful in the 1940s by a team of Oxford scientists led by Australian Howard Florey and German refugee Ernst Chain. Penicillin has since saved countless lives.

On this day in 1945, Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.

More on Penicillin

4 November 2014

The horse Archer with jockey J Cutts.
Archer, with jockey J Cutts, by Frederick Woodhouse Snr.

In honour of the 2014 Melbourne Cup, the National Museum of Australia has provided a ‘featured moment’ on the first Melbourne Cup held in 1861.  

This picture shows Archer, a Sydney horse that shocked locals by streaking to the lead in the last straight of the race and winning by six lengths.  

The 1861 Melbourne Cup is listed among our Defining Moments in Australian History.

More on the first Melbourne Cup held in 1861

21 October 2014

Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam
Vincent Lingiari and Gough Whitlam, by Mervyn Bishop.

The National Museum of Australia pays tribute to former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam – a ground breaking politician and leader, who passed away today.

In this 1975 photo, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours a handful of soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hand, representing the transfer of Gurindji land to its traditional owners. It was a landmark event in Whitlam’s career and led to a defining moment in Australian history.

More on the Struggle for Indigenous land rights

More on the Wave Hill walk-off and handback, 1966-75

More on former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam

16 September 2014

The response to the launch of the Defining Moments project on 29 August has been very exciting. 

St Kilda's Nicky Winmar raising his jumper and pointing to his chest, 25 April 1993.
AFL player Nicky Winmar, 1993. Photo: Wayne Ludbey/Fairfax Syndication.

Many people have joined the conversation on our webpage and through social media – contributing their own defining moments and commenting on the Museum’s initial list of 100 moments.

A few suggested new moments have received considerable support – Australia’s first female Prime Minister has emerged as a key moment for many Australians, as has Cathy Freeman’s win in the 400-metres event at the Sydney Olympics.

Some new moments link to key objects held by the National Museum, such as the Nova Peris’s Olympic gold medal. Nova was a member of the Australian women's hockey team (the Hockeyroos) in 1996 and is the first Aboriginal Australian to have won an Olympic gold medal.

Another nominated moment recognises the impact of the arrival of Australia’s first Vietnamese refugees in 1976. The Museum explores the significance of this moment through our Tran Thi Nga collection, which features a Vietnamese refugee boat from 1978 – the Hong Hai.

Many conversations about the project have revolved around support for (and against!) moments on the Museum’s initial list. The strongest support has been voiced for the first moment on the list – that which recognises archaeological evidence of the first people on the Australian continent 52,000 years ago.

Other moments to have received popular support include: the 1966 Gurindji strike (or Wave Hill walk-off) led by Vincent Lingiari; the 1992 High Court decision in the Mabo case establishing native title; Nicky Winmar's stand against racism in 1993; and the 2008 National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

The Defining Moments project has also started some fascinating debates outside the Museum – stirring interest in the way particular moments have shaped our culture and society. For example, see The Conversation and The Australian.

Stay tuned

The list of moments will continue to grow. We hope you’ll have your say as we watch the list develop and change over the coming months.