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20 June 2024

Exhibition showcases ordinary Australians with extraordinary stories

A vintage ute, a novelty cheque, an elite boxing trophy and an unforgettable letter from then Prime Minister Bob Hawke are among the seemingly ordinary objects showcased in an exhibition based on the ABC’s television series Tony Armstrong’s Extra-Ordinary Things, which has opened at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

The National Museum will display a selection of objects discovered by ABC personality Tony Armstrong as seen in his five-part series. The exhibition is a collaboration between the National Museum and Fremantle Australia. It is based on the ABC TV series supported by Screen Australia.

National Museum director Katherine McMahon said she was excited by the collaboration which has uncovered wonderful new stories that talk to Australia’s rich and diverse past.

'We are delighted to be involved in this fantastic project to explore the untold history of Australia and uncover the objects Australians cherish,' Ms McMahon said.

‘Three of the Museum’s curators, Dr Sophie Jensen, Dr Martha Sear and Craig Middleton, showed our guest curator, Tony Armstrong the ropes, as he embarked on his first exhibition. The project was a joy to be part of.'

The National Museum has included an object from its own collection in the exhibition, to complement an object uncovered by Tony in the television series, both of which relate to the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

'A profound pairing is a pin presented in 1932 to rigger George Killen who leapt from a gantry hanging below the Sydney Harbour Bridge to save his co-worker Vincent Kelly who fell into the water during construction in 1930,' Ms McMahon said.

'The pin, loaned by his great-granddaughter Liz Killen, sits alongside the medal presented to Vincent Kelly which is in the National Museum’s collection,’ Ms McMahon said.

Tony Armstrong said he was proud of the TV series and the resulting exhibition.

'I mean, what a thrill this whole project has been. From start to finish, meeting amazing people and having them share their extraordinary things. Then to have it all culminate at the Museum is wild. I’m so honoured to be involved and I hope everyone who took part in it is as proud as I am!'

Acting Assistant Director, Discovery and Collections, Dr Sophie Jensen, said, ‘As seen on ABC TV and iView, Tony Armstrong’s Extra-Ordinary Things brings together 25 personal experiences and reveals how seemingly ordinary things can have extraordinary stories.

'Tony has travelled around Australia and found that even the simplest of things can tell a powerful personal story, connect a community, and illuminate our history,’ Dr Jensen said.

Tony Armstrong’s Extra-Ordinary Things is at the National Museum of Australia’s lower gallery in Canberra until 13 October 2024. Admission is free.

Media contact: Diana Streak, 02 6208 5091, 0409 888 976 or

Exhibition objects include:

Sydney Harbour Bridge commemorative pin 1932
In October 1930, construction worker Vincent Kelly fell from the Sydney Harbour Bridge into the water below. Rigger George Killen was being lowered on a gantry when he saw Vincent fall. George jumped in after him, keeping Vincent afloat until a rescue boat arrived.

George Killen, and the other men who helped build the Sydney Harbour Bridge, received a commemorative pin when the bridge opened in 1932.

Sydney Harbour Bridge medal 1930

This medal was awarded to construction worker Vincent Kelly after he survived a fall from the Sydney Harbour Bridge in October 1930. Vincent was using a heavy riveting gun when he slipped and fell, plunging 55 metres to the water below. Rigger George Killen saw Vincent fall and jumped in after him, keeping him afloat until help arrived. To mark Vincent’s miraculous survival, the Minister for Public Works, MA Davidson, presented him with a watch. Lawrence Ennis, Director of Construction for Dorman, Long and Co., the British company contracted to build the bridge, presented Vincent with this medal.

Arthur Tunstall Trophy 2023

Marissa Williamson Pohlman became the first woman to win the trophy for the best boxer at the Australian Elite Boxing Championships. Aged only 22, Marissa is already a three-time Australian champion in her weight division. She has just become the first Indigenous Australian woman to qualify for boxing at the Olympic Games and will compete in Paris in 2024.

Novelty cheque 2021

Professional longboarder Lucy Small received this novelty cheque when she won the Curly MalJam Pro in 2021. Her prize was $1,500 but the winner of the men’s division received $4,000. Lucy thanked the sponsors but declared, ‘this has been a bittersweet victory, knowing that our surfing is worth less than half of the men’s prize money’. Lucy then launched the Equal Pay for Equal Play campaign, which resulted in a bill being passed in New South Wales parliament ensuring government-funded sporting bodies offer equal prize money to men and women.

Gumleaves 2024

Herb Patten was 5 years old when he saw his great-uncle Lindsay Thomas leaning against a tree playing a gumleaf. Herb picked up a leaf and made his first sound. He began performing when he was 9 years old and made his national radio debut on Australia’s Amateur Hour in the 1950s. Now aged 85, he still performs, continuing the traditions of First Nations bush music.

Chrysler VE Wayfarer Valiant ute 1967

Winston Chivell bought this car in 1967. It was used for town visits, farm work and cross-country travels, and has clocked up more than 1.6 million kilometres. Winston’s son Rustin restored this family favourite and entered it in the Best Classic Ute category at the 2023 Deniliquin Ute Muster. Of course it won!

Betoota Hotel sign probably 1950s

Open 1880–1997, reopened in 2020 by Robert ‘Robbo’ Haken

Betoota, in outback Queensland, has a population of three and is officially Australia’s smallest town. The Betoota Hotel is the only pub for hundreds of kilometres. Rob Haken was on a road trip when he saw the hotel being vandalised. Outraged, he thought the pub should be restored and became its proud owner in 2017. After years of restoration work, the Betoota Hotel is again open for business.

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