Attachment to place

It is hard to believe that it has been a year since the Life in Australia team visited Eden for the annual Eden Whale Festival – now in its 21st year, but our return trip feels decidedly different. Still with the backdrop of the migrating baleen whales slapping their fins and making their presence known in Twofold Bay, and again with the colourful floats and banners in the festival’s street parade, our conversations feel like those between old friends – and very different to the hopeful introductions of 2016.

Returns to the Davidson Whaling Station and to Eden’s Killer Whale Museum were particularly joyful under the backdrop of some fine weather- and the passing humpbacks seemed to agree. It was wonderful to meet old friends again as well as make new ones, and I can happily remark on the direction of the ‘Eden module’ in the upcoming Life in Australia gallery as full of life and a luminous legacy of a place which has held unique and rewarding relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous whalers and a pod of Killer Whales – their legacy celebrated so visibly in the town.  Descendants bearing those familiar names from the whaling days still shape the town and the new generations are surrounded by opportunities to take on, take in and take up in the achievements of their forebears, and this element alone characterises the tone of this years’ experience for me.

Working with Uncle John Cruse to make a wooden handle for our newly acquired blubber spade, was a highlight. The blubber spade came in to the Museum’s collection last year alongside various instruments and equipment as part of the South-eastern Australia whaling collection, and up until now the spade has existed as a fragment of its useful self as only the metal end of the spade (pictured). With the arduous work of whaling now thankfully existing only within imaginations for most of us, it is perhaps understandable that the blubber spade’s handle became detached either through the arduous work of a whaling station, or through the (sometimes just as arduous) journey through trade, storage and collection. How the spade became detached from its handle is something that we may never know.

Uncle John’s production of a wooden handle for the spade from timber locally grown and available, echoes the kind of work which would have been often undertaken as a matter of routine maintenance as well-used tools such as these often saw many cycles of repair. Now, however, the making of this handle is far from a routine practice with the town now celebrating the life of passing baleen whales rather than a livelihood dependant on their death. Even as a collected object, adding handles to things in this way is not something routinely done by museums outside of their role to preserve and conserve. The decision to make and reattach a wooden handle was done with these kinds of details in mind, in addition to a new raft of conservation and handling conditions surrounding the metal end of the spade, as an item in the National Historical Collection.

The making and attaching of something as simple as a wooden handle reminds us of the life of this object as a hand-held tool, and it powerfully celebrates the continuity between Eden’s past and its present. It is much easier now to envisage the blubber spade as something held and directed to skilfully slice and peel blankets of blubber from the decaying carcases of baleen whales, during the course of shore-based whaling in Eden as practiced early last century.

The attaching of a new handle is one symbolic and significant way we can recognise the legacy of the whalers of Eden and their descendants- as well as the town’s collective capacity to value its unique whaling heritage while successfully renegotiating its relationship with passing baleen whales on one of nature’s grand migration pathways.

spade emu record

The blubber spade as it looks on the National Museum’s internal database.

The Black Swan: A Western Australian Icon

In developing a new environmental history gallery, the National Museum of Australia is keen to explore how human societies connect with the natural world, including other species, weather systems and the deep geological past. There are many non-human species that shape the way human societies are organised and function, but occasionally species capture a much larger space within the collective imagination. Continue reading

Mountain ash and bushfires

 Baroness Bertha, a giant mountain ash tree in Victoria’s Yarra Ranges, stands almost 60 metres tall, and 15 metres in girth. The tree is hollow at its base, with an arched opening to a cathedral-like space that could fit half a dozen people. Standing inside her towering form, I smell the rich mulch of the leaf litter underfoot, and touch its strangely spongy wood charred black by bushfire. How could such an old and imposing tree still stand firm on such apparently unsound foundations?


Baroness Bertha, near Powelltown, Victoria

I have come to the Yarra Ranges north-east of Melbourne with Senior Curator George Main, to meet with people who live amongst the mountain ash, and discuss our plans for the National Museum of Australia’s new environmental history gallery. Like many people before us, we have been drawn to the Yarra Ranges by the power of the landscape and the majesty of the mountain ash forests.


Mountain ash is the world’s tallest hardwood tree, found in the moist ranges of Victoria and Tasmania. In the Yarra Ranges it has been a source of timber, and a draw for tourists and settlers seeking the peace and beauty of the forest. Dependent on fire for its survival, mountain ash can also be a source of destruction.

We meet big-tree hunter Brett Mifsud, who has made a quest of climbing Victoria’s largest trees to measure them, document them, and campaign for their preservation. He directs us to Baroness Bertha and inspires us with his passion for these giant trees.

The Yarra Ranges Regional Museum in Lilydale is the venue for our meeting with staff from the Yarra Ranges Council working in arts, culture, heritage, emergency response and forest management. The Museum is a thriving hub for the local community and hosts a jewel of an exhibition about the history of the region.

These people know the reality of bushfire. Living in the lush beauty of the forest brings with it the risk of summer fires, last experienced in the region on Black Saturday, 7 February 2009. We hear moving stories of this catastrophic bushfire, and other smaller fires, no less devastating in their impact on communities affected.

How might we tell these stories in the National Museum’s gallery? Not only the terrifying experience of bushfire, but the varied responses of communities impacted and their resilience in preparing for the inevitable fires to come. How might we connect Museum visitors in Canberra with the dynamic relationships in the Yarra Ranges between forests and people, weather patterns and bushfires?

Uncle David Wandin, Wurundjeri elder, introduces us to another perspective on bushfire. Drawing on Indigenous knowledge of fire shared by elders in Cape York, Queensland, Uncle David is working with Emergency Management Victoria to trial fire practices that prepare forests for increasingly frequent and intense bushfires. His team tends forests using targeted, controlled ‘cold burns’, which reduce fuel load while maintaining biodiversity, limiting the intensity and impact of mega-fires and nurturing country back to health.

It is compelling stories like these, about people responding in hopeful and creative ways to the challenges of environmental change, that we hope to tell in the new environmental history gallery.


Uncle David Wandin




Catering for a crowd

Constructed and operating in a newly established capital city, Canberra’s Old Parliament House was designed to be a self-contained building, providing for the needs for members of parliament, staff and visitors. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Refreshment Rooms (CPRR), located in the building’s South Wing, were used to prepare and serve hundreds of meals each day when parliament was sitting, and to cater for grand balls and events for visiting dignitaries. Stories of the ‘silver service’ provided in the building for daily business and special events, are now part of the Old Parliament House exhibit in the National Museum’s Landmarks gallery.

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Seaweed projections at IlluminARTe

On Saturday 29th April, the village of Picton came alive with the annual IlluminARTe Wollondilly Festival. The festival had a family atmosphere and featured market stalls, street musicians, a lantern parade, fireworks and building projections. A number of artists were invited to create projections onto the buildings including Julie Ryder, our artist-in-residence from 2016. Julie chose to use images from our seaweed album and related collections to inform her artwork. Continue reading

Bunya Power

On Thursday morning, as my plane taxied across the tarmac of Canberra airport, thirsty jet engines warming themselves for the flight north, I began reading Ray Kerkhove’s extraordinary document, The Great Bunya Gathering: Early Accounts. This compilation of stories and memories of the bunya trees of southeast Queensland captures and conveys something of the power of these majestic rainforest beings, of their capacities to draw people towards their towering trunks and vast crowns, to feast regularly on their abundant offerings of nutritious and delicious nuts, to celebrate and Continue reading

Freewheeling spins into Canberra

The National Museum of Australia celebrated the history of cycling in Australia with the official launch on the 13th April of its exhibition Freewheeling: Cycling in Australia. The exhibition has been travelling around Australia since November 2014 and this is the final venue of the tour.

It was a privilege to host Michael Milton, paralympic cyclist, and Gillian Helyar from Pedal Power ACT as the guest speakers at the launch. Michael and Gillian enjoyed a preview of the exhibition, along with NMA Director Dr. Mathew Trinca and Curator Catriona Donnelly. Continue reading

A piece of the ‘goodwill rock’

Tonight, a lunar surface fragment from the National Museum’s collection will appear in the Stargazing Live series, hosted by Professor Brian Cox and Julia Zemiro. Broadcast on the ABC from the Siding Spring Observatory, near Coonabarabran, New South Wales, the moon rock fragment will offer stories from the Moon, NASA astronauts and international politics, as leading scientists and personalities tackle astronomy’s most intriguing questions and seek to inspire Australians to explore our solar system. Next week it will be on display in the Museum’s Hall, a chance to see a small piece of the moon that captures a small moment in history.

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Moth-Man prophecies: reflections from the field

On a mild evening in March, distinguished archaeologist Dr Josephine Flood spoke to a full house in the Museum’s Visions Theatre, at an event co-hosted by the Canberra Archaeological Society and the Museum Friends. Best known for her research regarding the region’s Moth Hunters and dating occupation in places like the Birrigai Rock Shelter to 25,000 years, Dr Flood’s work has bestowed significant scientific value on Aboriginal history in the region. Her work continues to influence contemporary archaeological understandings of Aboriginal occupation particularly of Australia’s High Country, triggered in part by annual feasting and ceremony relating to Bogong Moths. It has been this work in particular that has reconnected Dr Flood with the Museum and its collections; our new environmental history gallery will focus on the intersection between people and these magnificent pathways, such as the one forged and activated by the impressive Bogong Moth migration from southern Queensland into the rock crevices across the Australian High Country. The Museum holds an impressive collection of Dr Flood’s research materials, including archaeological samples associated with moth hunting and life in the High Country.

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A new chapter

On Friday, the Namatjira Legacy Trust was officially launched at the National Museum of Australia. The Museum was pleased to host granddaughters of Albert Namatjira and trustees, Lenie Namatjira and Gloria Pannka, Clara Inkamala, musician Shelli Morris, and Big hART’s Director Scott Rankin and Producer Sophia Marinos, with other special guests to celebrate the occasion. The event also marked the official launch of the Museum’s Ntaria (Hermannsburg) exhibit in the Landmarks gallery.

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