What a great title for an exhibition intended to unsettle the Australian Museum’s visitors concerning the ‘settlement’ of Australia by its Anglo-Irish colonialists in 1788. And how unsettled would ‘The Australian‘s gentleman art critic, Christopher Allen be, I wonder, when, in his recent commentary on the online curatorial blurbs for a Sydney exhibition, he can opine: “These are the people who would much rather describe the arrival of European settlers as an invasion than do anything about providing work, education and an opportunity for Aboriginal Australians”.

Does it not cross his mind that providing Aboriginal Australians with recognition as the original inhabitants of land unceded in any meaningful way to its European invaders might do as much for them as a dose of capitalist work or European schooling?

And could Allen be one of the three in four Australians who, a 2019 survey referenced in the exhibition, discovered “they hold a negative implicit or unconscious bias against First Nations people”? For the importance of media reportage and commentary in confirming this bias justifies an ugly wall in ‘Unsettled‘ featuring local newspaper headlines of such delicacy as “A Cute Nigger” and “Hunting Down the Blacks” – coming up to date with coverage of the Adam Goodes imbroglio.

As you can see, ‘Unsettled‘ is nothing if not political. As guest editor of the AM’s magazine ‘Explore‘, Stan Grant puts it, “I defy you to look into this unsettled and then turn away from justice; from what is right”.

Oddly, what co-curator Dr Mariko Smith (working with Laura McBride) touts as “The Australian Museum’s most significant show in its almost 200 year history”, started out as an oblique way to recognise the Captain Cook 250th anniversary. And it took an 805 person Community Consultation of First Nations people from 175 different Nations or clans to take its final shape. But it’s only in its prominent position in the newly refurbished museum because Tutankhamen couldn’t get here. Serendipity perhaps.

It has certainly opened some eyes of my acquaintance to the negatives involved in the European arrival Downunder, in the resistance put up by the natives, in the massacres that followed colonial expansion, in the dubious relief provided by missionaries and the authorities on Native Reserves and the pain of associated Stolen Generations, and of the Healing possible once all these matters are taken onboard. A mini-Makarrata – in the Uluru Statement sense – you might say.

Several artistic commissions help to tell the stories. Anyamathanha man Jason Coulthard offers affirmative branding through heroically positive images of yurata and yura, Man and Woman. Amanda Jane Reynolds evocatively films the signal fires that warned everyone up the east coast to Possession Island (where it’s possible that Cook faked his landing) that trouble was coming. Yam Island man Glen Mackie has sailed a small fleet of pearling luggers into Sydney to remind us that his American ancestor, Ned Mosby, arrived “right way” and defended rather than obliterated local culture. Kuku Yalanji woman Genevieve Stewart has converted her ink drawing of a woman in the act of weaving herself into a witty animation. And Brendan Beirne has photographed the deceptive peacefulness of a number of massacre sites using an infrared camera to probe beneath the quiet surface.

Strangely, I was much taken by the more literary contributions to the story. A quiet library sensibility is created at one point to document the discussions that went on in Britain between Cook’s ‘discovery’ and Phillip’s arrival, involving the shockingly unknown proponent, James Matra, the man who claimed there’d be no opposition from ‘the natives’, Joseph Banks, and the UK Parliament. And a similarly comprehensive collection of documents chronicles Macquarie’s Appin Massacre powerfully.

While the two First Nations curators have undoubtedly achieved much in terms of overturning the Museum’s history as part of the colonial agenda’s tendency in Indigenous representation to promote what they call “scientific racism”, there are confusing cases of naming that a body with the Australian Museum’s authority needs to get right. Possession Island is in the news sufficiently often to be given its native name – or names. The AM calls it Tuined. Up the road in Newcastle, the major TSI show there calls it Bedhan Lag in the exhibition, but Punsand on a map in its catalogue. Too much!

So I approached Brian Robinson, Newcastle’s TSI curator and his explanation: “There are several names for the island, it depends on who you’re talking to. Bedanug or  Bedhan Lag is what the island is referred to by the Kaurareg (Aboriginal) people, but the island is also called Thunadha and Tuidin by the Yadhaykenu, Ankamuth people of Cape York. Punsand could be Gudang language”.

So where does the AM’s Tuined come from???

And film-maker Amanda Jane Reynolds is credited as a Guringai woman. Infuriatingly, I have been assured by numerous sources that Guringai (Kuring’gai) was a name imported by John Fraser, a white bloke in the 1890s from the Gringai/Gooringai people who lived north of Newcastle. I do wish there could be certainty in a matter which I know causes great hurt amongst those involved.

There’s far less hurt in the moving sight of the circa 20,000 year old footprints of an indubitably First Nations child amazingly preserved in the mud at Lake Mungo. It should make all Australians proud – especially the Barkandji who have proof that it always was, always will be their land. So that’s settled, at least – in a land that’s been ‘Unsettled‘ for 233 years.

BTW, most people walk right over casts of those very footprints as they walk up the ramp to the Australian Museum!