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Dr Ragbir Bhathal. Photo: Supplied

Why not a museum of the First Peoples of Australia?

Unlike the African-Americans who have recently received their own museum at the gateway to the prestigious Smithsonian museums in Washington and the American Indians who have their own Museum of the American Indian, we have still to see a standalone Museum of Aboriginal History, Politics, Art, Music and Culture that tells the collective history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the history of Australia through Aboriginal eyes, and not the eyes of Anglo-Australians and others.

Even the convicts who arrived in Sydney with Arthur Phillip have a museum (the Barracks Museum) devoted exclusively to their history in the prime location near the NSW Parliament House in Macquarie Street. It would appear that Australia wants to forget the history, politics and culture of the First Peoples of Australia. We need a museum that gives us and future generations of Australians a holistic view of their triumphs, suffering, darkest episodes, freedom fighters, massacres, and the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the fauna and flora of this country, as Federal Member of Parliament Linda Burney1 put it a few years ago. One recalls how they were herded and had chains slung around their necks in their own country. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French 19th century philosopher, wrote, “man was born free but everywhere he is in chains”. This was amply exemplified in the case of the Aboriginal people.

They were not recognised and are still fighting to be recognised in the constitution of their own country. It is time the premier of New South Wales bit the bullet and built a Museum of the First Peoples in Campbelltown, close to the massacre site of the Aboriginal people at Appin or in the Botanic Gardens close by to the Opera House. This was a government sanctioned murder of innocent men, women and babies. The Aboriginal people were not troublesome blacks but freedom fighters who were fighting for their land and country that should have rightly belonged to them by international law.

Take a tour of Australia’s state and regional museums and you will be surprised at the way the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' story, which stretches back to over 60,000 years, is depicted in them. Most of the displays are just tokenism or sanitised or represented from a white historical and anthropological point of view. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices of dissent are not seen through black eyes but through the eyes of the descendants of the invaders. For example, in Sydney their story is displayed in a natural history museum devoted to the fauna and flora of Australia and not in a museum of Aboriginal history and culture. They are not the fauna and flora of Australia. In Canberra, the National Museum suffers from a selective display of their vibrant culture and history. Sydney prides itself as being a global city but its Museum of Sydney has an insignificant gallery devoted to the First Peoples of Australia.

What is even more disturbing is that the great leaders of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are hardly given prominence in the traditional museum displays. For example, while there may be a mention of Pemulwuy, Australia’s first patriot and a guerrilla fighter for his motherland, he is not given the prominence he deserves. He even suffered the indignity of being shot dead and having his head chopped off and placed in a bottle of spirits like a biological specimen and sent to Sir Joseph Banks2, the president of the Royal Society of London, the pre-eminent scientific society in the world. The story of Noongar woman Fanny Balbuk Yooreel, a 19th century resistance fighter from Perth, hardly gets a detailed mention. Few people are aware of the fact that Truganini spent 20 years of her life imprisoned on Flinders Island in her own country.

In both the National Museum of Australia and the Australian Museum in Sydney, Mabo, our great freedom fighter who overthrew the concept that Australia was terra nullis (no man's land), has less than a square metre of display space devoted to him. In fact, at the Australian Museum a small display space with about 100 words tells us about his great achievement. Unaipon, Australia’s Leonardo da Vinci, hardly gets enough space to tell us about his great works. We are not told that well known artist Albert Namatjira and his wife became one of the first Indigenous peoples to be granted full citizenship status of their own mother country. They were not citizens by birth in their own motherland!

One wonders why the NSW government is willing to spend over $200 million on the expansion of the Art Gallery of NSW without giving any consideration to building a modest $100 million state of the art Museum of the First Peoples of Australia in Campbelltown or Sydney. Did the Premier, her Arts Minister and the leader of the opposition forget that there is a group of people called Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have lived in Australia for over 60,000 years? Are they not deserving of a museum of their own like the American Indians and the African Americans who after lobbying for over a 100 years for a museum of their own have finally got their museum in a prime location in Washington3?

It is also time for museums in Europe and Britain to return the artefacts they stole from the Aboriginal people. The British Museum holds more than 6000 artefacts that belong to the Aboriginal peoples. Captain Cook himself entered the Gweagal camp and stole a number of spears. Joseph Banks wrote in his journal, “we thought it no improper measure to take away with us all the lances [spears] which we could find about the houses, amounting to forty or fifty4." Today, young Aboriginal children and their people are being deprived of their culture by the white invaders. According to Shayne Williams, a Dharawal Elder, “In a spiritual sense, it would be good to hold them again, just the way our ancestors held them, even in 1770… For us they feel like our national treasure5." It is not acceptable in the 21st century that the artefacts that were stolen or taken away from the Aboriginal people are still held in the museums in Europe and Britain. Any self respecting nation and their cultural institutions should return the artefacts to the First Peoples of Australia.

Museums are important institutions in any civilised and cultured society6. They can no longer be considered as just repositories of ancient artefacts. They have to be places for social change. They need to interpret the changes that have taken place and are taking place in 21st century societies, especially in societies that were once colonised by the European powers beginning from the 18th century. Australia is one of those countries. The voices of the Indigenous peoples need to be heard, interpreted and given centre stage in the history and culture of the nation through their eyes. Their history has shaped the Australia we have today. They can no longer be relegated to second rate status or silenced. For them to occupy centre stage and have their histories told we need a Museum of the First Peoples of Australia. Their cultural property can no longer be displayed as appendages in the cultural institutions of Australia. Will the premier of NSW, her Minister for the Arts and the leader of the opposition acknowledge the First Peoples of Australia by building a state of the art Museum of the First Peoples of Australia in the Botanic Gardens near the Opera House or at Appin to remind Australia of what actually took place at this location? The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are Australia.

Dr Ragbir Bhathal served as a UNESCO consultant on museums/science centres, was the director of the Singapore Science Centre, one of four science centres of influence in the 20th century, and is a distinguished teaching fellow at the Western Sydney University. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW and the Royal Astronomical Society London, and a visiting fellow at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at The Australian National University. Apart from his research in astrophysics, he also carries out research in Aboriginal astronomy and engineering education.


1. Pearlman,J. & Gibson, J. 2007. When I was fauna: citizen’s rallying call. Sydney Morning Herald. 23 May.
2. Horton, D. 1994. The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Austrralia. p854. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
3. Norris, M. 2016. I, too am America. October, p 116 – 139. National Geographic Magazine.
4. Banks, J. 1770. The Endeavour Journal of the HMS Endeavour, 1768-1771. (Entry for 30 April 1770).
5. British Museums. 2015.  Encounters: Revealing stories of Australian & Torres Strait Islander objects from the British Museum/National Museum of Australia. Canberra, ACT: National Museum of Australia Press.
6. Hudson, K. 1987. Museums of influence. Cambridge University Press.

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