The tendency to conflate the quite distinct Aboriginal worlds of Australia’s south-east and its remote north is heroically resisted at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. It’s almost certainly the best place to go to get a sense of traditional Indigenous life as it was and as it’s often maintained – though, given the Museum’s internet address is ‘sea’, there’s inevitably a greater emphasis on saltwater stories than desert ones.

Currently, Deep Time showcases the Museum’s projects working with more than 17 language regions across Australia, seen in their new permanent exhibition spaces. It even extends to new literature commissions by Tony Birch, Kirli Saunders and Nicole Smede. But the core is ‘Shaped by the Sea’, an immersive exhibition that links science and First Nations knowledge to re-shape the Australia we’ve got to know over the past 11,000 years and remind us that Aborigines knew about a much larger continent existing before the last Ice Age ended.

So, just as the Wandjina people were developing their culture on the Arafura Plains, so the Fourmile clan from Gimuy, now Cairns, were hunting animals on what we call the Barrier Reef.

The ANMM has a particularly close relationship with the Yolngu peoples of north-east Arnhemland. There is a space where direct links can be made with Yirrkala’s famed Mulka digital creation centre which also shows images such as the same ceremony recorded over five different time periods from ‘Thompson Time’ (the 1930s) to the present.

There’s also a commissioned artwork from Buku Larrnggay – possibly the last work of the late Mr Wanambi, including, of course, his totemic wawurritjpal/sea mullet teeming in film up and down a larrakitj. This work – Dhangang Dhukarr/Many Pathways – also involved the young master, Ishmael Marika, and takes us through the Yolngu day following a story about sea rise through to the brilliant night sky where a fisherman is turned into the stars of the Milky Way.

On the other side of the continent, Bardi elder Roy Wiggan offers a selection of his cotton-strung dance artefacts which all relate to the stars and navigation – just as the Yolngu Red Flag Dance records the much-missed Macassan’s annual arrival as well as the winds that blew their praus southerly and the food sources that became available with that seasonal change.

Want to learn the Yolngu Matha names for many of their fish stocks? Guykuda Mununygurr has the answer with a room full of wonderfully characterful carved fish flying all around you. And the air is full of the cultural stories that go with their names.

Also flying, in a glass panel, are giant shark teeth that undoubtedly predated Indigenous arrival in Australia. For the Megalodon – named after those very big teeth – died out in the Pliocene era. Just as well as they may have grown to 20 metres long, weighing up to 100 tonnes! But Aborigines found uses for their teeth; as they do today for abalone shells, which may be formed into excellent fish-hooks.

Art-wise, we need to go inland to the rivers of the centre where Treahna Hamm has told the story of the Murrumbidgeree River on a splendid possum-skin cloak. And the women of the deserts around Warburton have mapped the water-holes that sustained their tribal lives on mighty slab-glass panels.

Occasionally explanations for the conjunction of objects goes missing. A fierce Torres Strait turtle-shell dance mask sits beside a medieval-looking Nansen water-sampling device, and manganese nodules from the sea-bed off Cape Leeuwin. I fear I failed to make the connections. I did however connect the warning-signs suggested by Lena Yarinkura’s woven pandanus figure of a Yawkyawk that might have been a foolish girl who wandered into swampland, sitting beside a tsunami buoy.

And I appreciated that the Yolngu quotation in ‘Shaped by the Sea’, “Art from the land, song from the water-hole” opens me up to the idea that the ripples of a stone thrown into water must suggest the notion of concentric circles representing water-holes in much Aboriginal art.