New to Canberra, I love exploring this city and the secrets that it holds with my family.
Published January 9th 2018
To be seen by all Australians
The Gallery of First Australians is a permanent exhibition inside the National Museum of Australia, which tells the story of thousands of years of indigenous history. It travels back into the lives of the indigenous people of Canberra and all around Australia, with stories from every corner of the country, handed down through the generations. It also explains how their lives changed forever with the arrival of the British onto the land - as well as the lives of indigenous people today.
When you first walk in to the exhibition, take a moment to watch the video and receive the official Welcome to Country from the local indigenous people, as you walk on their land. The respect you give here sets the tone for the whole exhibition, as you quietly and respectfully walk around and gain an insight into the long history of this country and its people.
The Gallery of First Australians - a combination of modern and traditional displays
After watching the video, turn left and walk up the stairs to learn more about the indigenous people of Canberra - the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri people. Learn about the areas of the region that are important to them and also look out the window to Lake Burley Griffin and read the panels along the window ledges, which tells the stories of how they remember the original Molonglo River, before it was dammed.
Learn about the history and indigenous people of Canberra
Back down the stairs is the Welcome Space, with a 5.8 metre digital artwork called "Leaving Your Mark on Country" at the back of the room. When you walk past it, the artwork changes with each movement and when you stop, Bogong moths enter the changing art display, which pays tribute to the favourite food source in the region for many hundreds of years. Just in front of the artwork is a vertical, changing light display called "Message Sticks", which shows the changing landscapes of Australia while traditional, indigenous stories are told over the speakers, above. For more details about the artists and artworks in the Welcome Space, see here.
Message Sticks (contributed by a wide range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and elders - see acknowledgements on website) and Leaving Your Mark On Country by Libby Harward (2016)
As you walk around the corner, you come into the main part of the Upper Gallery with a wide range of exhibits to look at, which could easily take a couple of hours to read. Learn about the different types of basket weaving from different regions, how traditional art has evolved, the fishing methods of different tribes, how animal skins were utilised, the pain-staking methods of making shell necklaces by indigenous Tasmanian women and much, much more. Take your time in reading each panel and learn about how each region had their own unique methods and traditions, passed down from their elders.
Traditional methods of fishing, basket weaving, art and crafts
At the far end of this room are hundreds of traditional stone spearheads from the Kimberley region. According to the panels, the National Museum of Australia has 100,000 stone artefacts from tribes all across the country. There is also a "touch and feel " area when you can feel the smooth bowls that were created to grind seeds and the pointed edges of stones that were used as hammers and heavy tools. This area is particularly impressive, with a wide range of artefacts to look through. For more details on the Upper Gallery, see here.
After exploring this section, walk downstairs to the Lower Gallery and learn about the history of the relationship between the indigenous people of Australia and Torres Strait Islands and the British, who arrived in 1778. This whole lower gallery follows the conflict, struggles and inequality over the years - with exhibitions about the stolen generation, land rights and the 1967 referendum. There are also stories of the reconciliation process and a display to mark the 10th anniversary of then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologising to the stolen generation, in February 2018. Also on this floor, there is also an impressive Open Collection that you can view at the start of every hour for 15 minutes. For more details on the Lower Gallery, see here.
Looking down to the Lower Gallery of the First Australians exhibition
Also on this floor is the story of the Torres Strait Islanders in the exhibition "Lag | Meta | Aus: Home in the Torres Strait". Today, 80% of people from Torres Strait Islands live in Australia, however, they have their own fascinating history dating back 9,000 years. They have a unique culture, belief system, language and traditional methods that are their own, but are also entwined with the history of Australia. Read about how both the dugong and turtle are an intrinsic part of their myths and legends - as well as their diet. They had developed sophisticated methods to "catch" dugongs in their waters, which would yield approximately 255 kilograms of meat! For more details of the "Lag | Meta | Aus: Home in the Torres Strait" exhibition, see here.
Take a walk around the Torres Strait Island exhibition and learn more about their unique culture
The National Museum of Australia attracts thousands of visitors every year and you could easily spend hours walking around the levels and learning about the Australian Story. In my opinion, everyone who visits should walk around the Gallery of First Australians first, to get the story from the very beginning. The whole exhibition is factual, interesting and most importantly respectful, with every display approved by each individual indigenous group. If you have kids, it is the ideal way to teach them about Australia's indigenous culture, so the stories of our generation are passed down to the next.
Just as it has been done before us, for thousands of years.