QVMAG retells our oldest story
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