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

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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Continuing connections

One of the joys of working at a museum is the variety of stories you uncover when researching objects. Another is the pleasure of meeting people who can illuminate and elaborate on those stories and objects.

Recently, when developing a display for our Journeys gallery, I was fortunate enough to work with both a wonderful collection and an engaged and very connected individual. The story relates to the experiences of James Taylor, a farrier with the 9th Light Horse stationed in the Middle East during World War One. The collection of material includes Taylor’s ‘coming home’ tunic, slouch hat, kit bag and pay book. The individual is Fran Kirby, Taylor’s grand daughter.

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Eden and the Spring Winds


The Spring Winds – as they always do – trigger new beginnings.

My name is Jilda Andrews and I am the newly appointed ‘audience advocate’ for the National Museum’s new environmental history gallery, known so far as Life in Australia. My background is within the Museum’s Learning Services and Community Outreach team, developing and facilitating public programs that help non-traditional museum audiences gain access to the Museum. I am thrilled to join the Life in Australia team as an audience advocate, to be a part of the machinations of developing a brand new permanent gallery, and to work creatively with the team — the communities, organisations, families and individuals we meet along the way, not only as collaborators, but as core audiences themselves to the new gallery. Continue reading

A passionate pursuit: The Lady Helen Blackburn collection

“Since the earliest times, man has collected shells for food, for adornment, for domestic utensils and for their beauty.” Lady Helen Blackburn (1918–2005).[1]

As part of the background work for the development of a new environmental history gallery, we’ve been searching the Museum’s holdings for collections that will help illustrate some of the themes we hope to explore. The Lady Helen Blackburn collection features more than five hundred seashells from Australian beaches, reefs and islands, making it a perfect fit for a gallery on environmental history. The significance of this collection, however, resides not just in its breadth and the beauty of the shells themselves, but in the stories it tells of how, where and by whom they were collected, and the insights it offers into a truly remarkable Australian woman: Lady Helen Blackburn. Continue reading

Visitors to Ntaria

The landscape of Central Australia has attracted millions of visitors since the area was opened to tourism, most notably following the extension of the railway line to Alice Springs in 1929. Where the local Aboriginal communities were displaced and banned, they are now leading conversations about land management and tourism. The watercolour paintings of celebrated Western Arrarnta artist Albert Namatjira have transported generations of Australians into his country, west of Alice Springs across the West MacDonnell Ranges, and today Namatjira’s descendants and kin continue to use their art to create opportunities and keep their culture strong.

These stories are being remembered and shared in a new exhibit about Ntaria (Hermannsburg), as part of the Landmarks gallery at the National Museum of Australia, from 28 July 2016.

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Dinosaurs, whiteboards and curators: Making the ‘Life in Australia’ environmental history gallery

Museum and gallery curators have not been served well by popular representations of their craft. There are two primary archetypes. The first is an introverted, nerdy, lab coat-wearing boffin who prowls corridors of specimens, guarding them with singular and obsessive diligence. The second is a hyper-extrovert who petulantly and arrogantly pursues the realisation of their unimpeachable curatorial vision. Continue reading

Hunting Ground

The Museum acquired this triptych, Hunting Party (Barbeque Area), by Julie Gough in late 2014. The artwork was purchased along with an accompanying short film titled Hunting Ground incorporating Barbeque Area. Contemporary artworks like these challenge visitors to understand history from a different point of view, that of the artist’s perspective. Continue reading