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Unsettled – Ghosts linger at the edge

Australia’s oldest museum, The Australian Museum has long detailed Australia’s white-washed colonial past. But, in the most significant exhibition in the museum’s 194-year history, ‘Unsettled’ is a First Nations response to the ongoing legacy of colonisation.

Unsettled dismantles the history book version of Australia’s white settlement. No, it wasn’t brave explorers conquering a harsh unsettled land. It was a determined policy of stealing land in the name of settlement.

Gymea Lily 2021. Courtesy the artist Anna Jahjah. We remember the fallen First Nations warriors, and all those who fought in the Frontier Wars, through the Gymea Lily which stands tall and proud; a fiery reminder of resilience.
Image: Abram Powell © Anna Jahjah

Australia’s true history is told through First Nations voices. It is a story of Australia’s untold past, the truth about colonisation and First Nations resilience.


The exhibition’s title lends itself to so many interpretations. Indigenous sovereignty was never ceded; the British believed this landmass was unsettled and the exhibition is in parts unsettling.

Unsettled This Magnificent Life
One Way Ticket to Hell 2012-2020
Aunty Fay Moseley, Wiradjuri
Acrylic on canvas.
Australian Museum Collection Acquisition
Aboriginal children, like Aunty Fay and five of her siblings, were kidnapped and placed in institutional care or domestic training homes operated by the Aborigines Welfare/Protection Board. Siblings were often separated. Aunty Fay and her sisters were taken to Cootamundra Domestic Training Home, and her brothers were sent to Kinchela Boys Home. In these institutions, people recall being told to act white, be white and think white. Aunty Fay was an A Grade student before she was taken – but at the homes, the children’s education became D grade, “D for domestic servants”. It took eight years for Aunty Fay to paint this image of the day she was taken from her mother.
Photographed for the Unsettled exhibition 2021

The development of Unsettled was led by AM First Nations Curator Laura McBride, a Wailwan and Kooma woman who is now Director, First Nations at the AM. McBride worked together with AM First Nations Curator Dr Mariko Smith, a Yuin and Japanese woman, over the past two years to create Unsettled using a collaborative, community-centred approach and developing content through rigorous research.

Laura McBride Director First Nations the Australian Museum

“Truth-telling about Australia’s past is an important process for understanding who we are now and how we came to be as a nation. Without truth, our histories, our lands, our peoples and our relationships will remain unhealed and unsettled. I hope the Unsettled exhibition will shift perceptions and help us develop a national narrative of unity and respect and I encourage everyone to come experience it for themselves,” said McBride.

Through long-hidden documents, large scale artworks, never before seen objects and consultation with 805 Indigenous groups across Australia, the wrong-doings will be presented like never before.

The Australian Museum Unsettled This Magnificent Life
bugia naway gabun buridja (Learn Today from Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow) 2021 Uncle Noel Butler, Budawang, Yuin Carved spotted gum from bushfire ravaged country. Australian Museum Collection Commission
Image: Finton Mahony © Uncle Noel Butler

This exhibition was originally planned to open last year, to coincide with the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s landing.


Unsettled is also a reckoning for the Australian Museum. Atrocities and exploitation done in the name of ‘settlement’ are for the first time examined in detail. From the first ‘signal fires’ warning when Lieutenant Cook sailed up the East Coast in 1770 to today’s continued resistance and resilience, truth-telling to realise change is the exhibition’s aim.

From the outset, many anthropologists, sociologists and historians devalued Australia’s First Nations people and their culture. Beginning with the concept of Terra Nullius – deeming the land as uninhabited or settled. (A convenience no doubt to raise the flag in 1788).

Unsettled The Australian Museum This Magnificent Life
Death Spear 2021
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

Secondly, an assumption that Australia’s hunter-gatherers didn’t manage the land and simply lived amongst it is challenged. Historians now detail how first peoples built dams, planted seed, harvested crops, built enormous fish traps and manipulated the land through fire and cultivation. This under-valuing the impact of Australia’s First Nations People gave Governments and settlers ‘unwritten’ permission to steal land.

Unsettled The Australian Museum This Magnificent Life
Fanny Balbuk (1840-1907) Blood Money – Fifty Dollar Note – Fanny Balbuk Commemorative 2011 Dr Ryan Presley, Marri Ngarr
Reproduction of the artwork. Australian Museum Collection Digital Acquisition

Unsettled doesn’t shy away from the worst instincts of man but more importantly celebrates this rich, diverse and ancient culture.  Included in the exhibition are 30 new acquisitions, as well as objects, historical documents from the museum’s collection that have never been seen before.

The exhibition

This exhibition not only tells a story White Australians don’t want to hear, but Unsettled also rejoices in and celebrates First Nations culture. Understanding the land and taking only what is needed and nothing more is implicit throughout the exhibits.

Unsettled is in parts harrowing, emotional and almost too big to take in all at once; but that is indeed the fundamental reason why it needs to be told now.

Unsettled opened FREE at the Australian Museum on Saturday 22 May and will run through to Sunday 10 October. A full program of First Nations events will complement this important exhibition, including tours, Lunchtime Conversation Series, Breakfast with a Curator, and weaving workshops.

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Liz Bond

Liz Bond comes from a PR background and loves fine wine, great food and rewarding travel - all the magnificent things in life. She prides herself in meeting famous celebrities at baggage carousels.

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We acknowledge the Turrbal people, as well as the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, as the Traditional Owners of the land on which we live and work. We respectfully recognise Elders, past, present, and emerging, and that Indigenous Sovereignty was never ceded.

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