Tasmania’s Stories

QVMAG retells our oldest story

Edition 186_Patsy Cameron and Greg Lehman with QVMAGs Aboriginal clan map

It has taken 1,000 generations, but the story of Tasmania's first people is now being told in unprecedented style through a permanent exhibition at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston.

Dr Patsy Cameron, AO, widely known as Aunty Patsy, said at the July opening: “We were once placed alongside the museum’s curiosities. Look at us now – it is an amazing legacy.”

The First Tasmanians: Our Story, opened during NAIDOC Week (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) celebrations.

A centre piece is a wall map of Tasmania depicting the territories occupied by 57 known clans over more than 30,000 years of pre-colonial history.

The Mercury's Hilary Burden wrote: "It is mesmerising. I want the doona cover version.

"Shades of ochre, as opposed to lines, represent porous boundaries belonging to 57 known groups: the Toogee around Macquarie Harbour, Hobart’s Mouheneenner peoples, and the Leterremairrener in the north.

"In a side key, swan rookeries are identified, along with hunting and marine harvesting grounds."

Consultant Curator, Greg Lehman, said the aim of The First Tasmanians was to jolt people out of their comfort zones – to enable them to see there were Tasmanian families, related to modern Tasmanians, living here over immense periods of time.

“This is not 200 years. This is deep time. Time that is almost impossible to imagine.

“It’s 10 times older than the pyramids – what does that even mean? The stars aren’t where they should be. Tasmania as an island doesn’t exist. The sea level is 150m lower, not 2cm higher.

"The coastline was way out to the continental shelf.

"We are challenging your point of view, trying to make the mind-boggling accessible.”

Mr Lehman has spent 15 years working with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and the National Museum of Australia.

He said the QVMAG curatorial strategy was to complement not duplicate TMAG's impressive Aboriginal collection in Hobart.

Mr Lehman is also consulting to MONA as it develops its concept for a proposed Truth and Reconciliation Art Park as the centrepiece of Hobart’s Macquarie Point site redevelopment.

QVMAG has introduced a MONA-style phone app for visiting teachers and students, while 3D gaming technology has been used to demonstrate sea level changes (you can watch the Bass Strait land bridge emerge and sink).

Mr Lehman said the QVMAG team didn’t want a comfortable, old-fashioned exhibition based on European records derived from archaeological and anthropological research.

“There had to be another narrative,” he said.

An elite curatorial team headed by Jon Addison and David Maynard did make extensive use of the voluminous writing of former QVMAG Director, N.J.B. (Brian) Plomley, author of the seminal Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-1834.

Plomley donated his collection of books, maps and papers from the 1950s to the 1980s to the museum.

But instead of a primary focus on The Black War – the 30-year period of bloody conflict between settlers and Aborigines that culminated in Robinson’s exile of 135 survivors to Wybalenna on Flinders Island – the QVMAG focus is on the pre-colonial way of life.

A projection of stars shows how the southern sky looked 50,000 years ago when Aboriginal people were entering the northern parts of the super-continent Sahul, but still had thousands of kilometres to travel before seeing Tasmanian territory, at the south-eastern extremity of the ancient landmass.

The exhibition had its beginnings in the 1990s with a modest installation at the top of a stairway put together by Dr Cameron, a descendant of legendary north-east warrior Mannalargenna.

Dr Cameron was recruited to the new project.

She co-chaired QVMAG’s Aboriginal Reference Group along with cultural practitioner Dave Mangenner Gough from the Tiagarra Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Devonport.

Artists Vicki West and Lola Greeno and Arts Tasmania Program Officer, Denise Robertson, were also drawn in.

Members of the Aboriginal Elders Council and Clyde Mansell from the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania contributed advice, as well as necklaces, baskets, kelp water carriers and other objects.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC) was invited to information sessions, but did not attend.

Mr Lehman, who was appointed Consultant Curator for the new exhibition, told The Mercury that Tasmania had been relatively slow off the mark in celebrating the culture of its first people.

"Not least because Tasmania has an uneasy relationship with its past: a history of genocide,” he said.

“You could say there’s been an attitude of ‘least said, soonest mended’, or ‘let sleeping dogs lie’, or ‘too hard, let’s not go there’.”

Professor Lyndall Ryan, a noted contributor to the uncovering of Tasmania's colonial Aboriginal history, published an on-line map in July showing the locations of 150 massacres in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

The head of the University of Newcastle's Centre for the History of Violence said in a statement online: “Most massacres took place in secret and were designed to not be discovered, so finding evidence of them is a major challenge.

"This digital tool brings significant historical information out of the depths of archives, bringing it to life in an accessible and visual format."

The map has taken four years to develop, but only covers Australia's east coast.

"With this map we've developed a template to identify massacres and a process to corroborate disparate sources," Professor Ryan said.

"They include settler diaries, newspaper reports, Aboriginal evidence and archives from State and Federal repositories."

Her research team hopes to have the rest of the country mapped within two years.

There is no escaping this grim history, but there is an increasingly positive and collaborative feeling in contemporary Tasmania.

The Government is interested in engagement and the Aboriginal story is being recognised as essential to the wider Tasmanian story and to the State's brand.

The Federal Hotel’s new MACq 01 tells a story to tourists through objects of the Mouheneenner people who “fished and forged dreams in the Derwent shallows”.

MONA’s Truth and Reconciliation Art Park is in the pipeline while a new not-for-profit body, the Reconciliation Council of Tasmania, will be launched on 9 August (UN Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples).

The First Tasmanians: Our Story is on show daily, from 10am-4pm in Gallery 3 of QVMAG, 2 Wellington Street, Launceston. Entry is free.

Picture by Chris Kidd courtesy of The Mercury

1 August 2017, Edition 186

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Facts about Tasmania


Tasmania is the southernmost state of Australia, located at latitude 40° south and longitude 144° east and separated from the continent by Bass Strait. It is a group of 334 islands, with the main island being 315 km (180 miles) from west to east and 286 km (175 miles) north to south.


Tasmanians are resourceful and innovative people, committed to a continually expanding export sector. In 2012-13, international exports from the state totalled $3.04 billion. USA, China, Taiwan, India, Japan and other Asian countries account for the bulk of exports, with goods and services also exported to Europe and many other regions.


Tasmania is similar in size to the Republic of Ireland or Sri Lanka. The Tasmanian islands have a combined coastline of more than 3,000 km.


The main island has a land area of 62,409 sq km (24,096 sq miles) and the minor islands, taken together, total only 6 per cent of the main island's land area. The biggest islands are Flinders (1,374 sq km/539 sq miles), King, Cape Barren, Bruny and Macquarie Islands.


About 250km (150 miles) separates Tasmania’s main island from continental Australia. The Kent Group of Islands, one of the most northerly parts of the state, is only 55km (34 miles) from the coast of the Australian continent.


Twice named 'Best Temperate Island in the World' by international travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Tasmania has a mild, temperate maritime climate, with four distinct seasons.


In summer (December to February) the average maximum temperature is 21° Celsius (70° Fahrenheit). In winter (June to August) the average maximum is 12° C (52° F) and the average minimum is 4° C (40° F). Snow often falls in the highlands, but is rarely experienced in more settled areas.

Annual Rainfall

Tasmania’s west coast is one of the wettest places in the world, but the eastern part of the State lives in a rain-shadow. Hobart, the second-driest capital city in Australia, receives about half as much rain as Sydney.

Annual Rainfall

Annual rainfall in the west is 2,400 mm (95 inches), but hardy locals insist there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. If you travel 120 km east to Hobart, you experience a much drier average of 626 mm (24 inches) a year.


The 512,875-strong community spreads itself across the land; less urbanised than the population of any other Australian state. Hobart, the capital city, is home to more than 212,000 people.

Capital City

Hobart nestles at the foot of Mt Wellington (1,270 m / 4,000 ft) and overlooks the Derwent Estuary, where pods of dolphins and migrating whales are sometimes seen from nearby beaches. Surrounded by thickly forested rolling hills, the city is home to the state parliament and the main campus of the University of Tasmania.

Capital City

Its historic centre features Georgian and Regency buildings from colonial times. Hobart is home port for coastal fishing boats, Antarctic expeditions and vessels that fish the Southern Ocean.

Land Formation

Mountain ranges in the south-west date back 1,000 million years. Ancient sediments were deeply buried, folded and heated under enormous pressure to form schists and glistening white quartzites.

Land Formation

In the south-west and central highlands, dolerite caps many mountains, including Precipitous Bluff and Tasmania's highest peak, Mt Ossa (1617 m / 5300 ft). More than 42 per cent of Tasmania is World Heritage Area, national park and marine or forest reserves.


Vegetation is diverse, from alpine heathlands and tall open eucalypt forests to areas of temperate rainforests and moorlands, known as buttongrass plains. Many plants are unique to Tasmania and the ancestors of some species grew on the ancient super-continent, Gondwana, before it broke up 50 million years ago.


Unique native conifers include slow-growing Huon pines, with one specimen on Mt Read estimated to be up to 10,000 years old. Lomatia tasmanica, commonly known as King's holly, is a self-cloning shrub that may well be the oldest living organism on earth. It was discovered in 1937.


Tasmania is the last refuge of several mammals that once roamed the Australian continent. It is the only place to see a Tasmanian devil or eastern quoll (native cat) in the wild and is the best place to see the spotted-tailed quoll (tiger cat), all carnivorous marsupials.


The eastern bettong and the Tasmanian pademelon, both now extinct on the Australian continent, may also be observed.


The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, was Australia's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial and is a modern day mystery. The last documented thylacine died in captivity in 1936 and although the animal is considered extinct, unsubstantiated sightings persist.

History and Heritage

Aboriginal people have lived in Tasmania for about 35,000 years, since well before the last Ice Age. They were isolated from the Australian continent about 12,000 years ago, when the seas rose to flood low coastal plains and form Bass Strait.

History and Heritage

Descendants of the original people are part of modern Tasmania's predominantly Anglo-Celtic population.

History and Heritage

Tasmania was originally named Van Dieman’s Land by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman in 1642. The island was settled by the British as a penal colony in 1803 and the original name was associated with the convict era. It was changed to Tasmania when convict transportation stopped in 1853.


A resourceful island culture has generated leading-edge niche industries, from production of high-speed catamaran ferries and marine equipment to lightning-protection technology.


Tasmanians produce winches and windlasses for some of the world's biggest ocean-going pleasure craft; large-scale inflatable evacuation systems and provide specialist outfit-accommodation services to the marine industry.


The Wooden Boat Centre at Shipwrights Point has re-established the skills and traditions of another age and attracts students from around the world.


Tasmania is a world leader in natural turf systems for major sporting arenas and in areas of mining technology and environmental management. Its aquaculture industry has developed ground-breaking fish-feeding technology and new packaging.


Tasmanians sell communications equipment to many navies and their world-class fine timber designers and craftsmen take orders internationally for furniture made from distinctive local timber.


The state is a natural larder with clean air, unpolluted water and rich soils inviting the production of 100 varieties of specialty cheeses, as well as other dairy products, mouth-watering rock lobsters, oysters, scallops and abalone, Atlantic salmon, beef, premium beers, leatherwood honey, mineral waters, fine chocolates, fresh berry fruits, apples and crisp vegetables.


Tasmania is a producer of award-winning cool-climate wines, beers, ciders and whiskies. Other export products include essential oils such as lavender, pharmaceutical products and premium wool sought after in Europe and Asia. Hobart is a vital gateway to the Antarctic and a centre for Southern Ocean and polar research.


The industries in Tasmania which made the greatest contribution to the state's gross product in 2010-11 in volume terms were: Manufacturing (9.4%), Health care and social assistance (8.2%), Financial and insurance services (7.2%), Ownership of dwellings and Agriculture, forestry and fishing (each 7.1%).

Getting to Tasmania

Travel is easy, whether by air from Sydney or Melbourne, or by sea, with daily sailings of the twin ferries Spirit of Tasmania 1 and 2 each way between Melbourne and Devonport throughout the year.

This site has been produced by the Brand Tasmania Council © 2014

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