The Role of Australian Museums in Reconciliation

Originally designed to record and discuss history, museum spaces are now being used by First Nations curators to look forward to the future.

Article by Tristen Harwood

Visitors at Unsettled, a First Nations-led and informed exhibition at the Australian Museum, Sydney. Photography by Anna Kucera.

“Reconciliation can only start with truth-telling,” says Laura McBride, the director, First Nations, at the Australian Museum and Wailwan and Kooma woman. Along with Yuin woman Dr Mariko Smith, McBride recently curated the Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition “Unsettled”, which disrupts Australia’s prevailing historical narrative.

McBride, who grew up under the guidance of Elders in northwestern New South Wales and Sydney, isn’t alone in her opinions on reconciliation. She tells me about the esteemed June Oscar AO, a Bunuba woman. “She heads up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission and she’s said that essentially there cannot be reconciliation without first acknowledging the hard truths of this nation’s history.”

As trusted public sources of information, museums have a fundamental role in truth-telling. They determine how and which histories are told and play an important part in who does the telling. McBride says we need “full agency” over how First Nations peoples are represented in museums, the media and other large, authoritative institutions, such as universities.

Red, White and Blue 2008, by Danie Mellor, Mamu, Ngagen, Ngajan, Mixed media. Australian Museum Collection.

With museums, says McBride, one of the most hurtful actions has been the long, atrocious history of the theft of Indigenous artefacts and Ancestral remains. This is the kind of ill-guided representation that First Nations communities are up against and that museum workers including McBride are in the process of undoing.

Representation matters, and “Unsettled” addresses it in the foundational myths of the nation. “Unsettled” responds to or, rather, disrupts the predominant narrative of Lieutenant Cook and his HMB “Endeavour” expedition up the east coast of Australia in 1770. “Although Cook is seen as this hero founding father, he’s just a small footnote in the true Australian history — he would’ve never even heard the word ‘Australia’! ” McBride says.

To do the truth-telling work of reconciliation, McBride and the curatorial team went about engaging First Nations communities in the project from the outset. It was developed through large-scale consultation with First Nations peoples representing 175 nations, clans and communities. This engagement, McBride says “started from the very beginning; First Nations communities determined the themes, content and the entire structure for the show”.

The resulting exhibition prioritises Indigenous voices in all their diversity. It consists of artwork, cultural materials and stories that unveil the history of this nation as expressed by First Nations peoples. It spans dispossession, the frontier wars and massacres, but also Indigenous survival, continued resistance and healing. In McBride’s words, “These are Indigenous stories told by Indigenous people.”

Death Spear 2021, by Raymond Timbery, Bidjigal Dharrawal, and Joel Deaves, Gumea Dharrawal, Silcrete, resin, plant fibre, sinew, shell, mingo (grass tree). Australian Museum Collection Commission. Photographed for the Unsettled exhibition March 2021.

Reconciliation has to be much more than just another government policy. With “Unsettled”,Indigenous peoples control how they are represented and it puts money and agency back into First Nations communities. “It is what reconciliation in action looks like,” McBride tells me.

In 1770, signal fires lit by Indigenous peoples notched the sky as a message to fellow Countrymen and neighbouring Nations warning of a threatening ship on the coast. The catastrophic 2019–2020 bushfires, McBride says, can be seen as new signal fires, “an emergency warning system that says to Australians, ‘Change your behaviour or you will not have a habitable country to live in.’ ” It is only when people know the history of this country that they can become aware of crucial messages like these.

History is not over. To tell the truth as “Unsettled” does is to burn the light of the past in the present, bringing into relief historic and contemporary stories of injustice and resistance, art and ongoing cultural practices. From deaths in custody to child removal and dispossession, to the richness of Indigenous languages and knowledge, these are issues of the past and of today. “Unsettled” closes on October 10, but due to current Covid-19 restrictions a virtual tour of the exhibition will be online from mid-August so visitors from all over can confront history in its complexity.

Truth-telling doesn’t end with “Unsettled”. Moving forward, McBride hopes the exhibition will offer a framework for First Nations self-determination, “completely disrupting existing colonial museum systems”.


Unsettled is showing until October 10 at the Australian Museum, Sydney. During lockdown restrictions, the Museum encourages visitors to visit its First Nations digital galleries.