The city of Sydney is home to the largest Aboriginal population, which have maintained a living, continuous, day-to-day connection with the place for over 60,000 years. While the European invasion aimed to destroy any remains of this race, their strong spiritual presence remains unbroken. A major reason for the ongoing nature of this connection is that Aboriginal Peoples regard Sydney as a lifeline to their self-identity and it’s rich culture provides a constant reminder of the lifestyles of past generations.
Even though traditions may not be widely practiced today due to increased urbanization and modernization, contemporary Aboriginal Peoples are still aware of the significance of their role in society as the First Natives of Sydney. Heiss (2001, p. 25) mentions that connections nowadays are bound through oral histories of familial lines to communicate the significance of places within Sydney rather than carrying out traditional practices. Museums act as a place’s collective memory, often reinforcing sense of place, being and community.
The Museum of Sydney is famous for its award winning ‘Edge of the Trees’ sculpture that was created to mark the first site of contact between the Aboriginal Peoples and those arriving on the First Fleet. Furthermore, it holds remains of the first Government House built for Governor Arthur Philip, as well as the Gadigal Place exhibition which celebrates the history, culture and survival of the Gadigal tribe, who were the original inhabitants of the land the museum is built upon.
Zeppels (1999, p.183) work mentions that the Museum of Sydney was built upon the site of the First Government House, where Bennelong was held as a mediator; and therefore it acts a symbol of the turning point in Aboriginal Sydney’s history. It is a representation of the conflict between two vastly different cultures that have influenced each other to create contemporary Aboriginals. Scorrano (2012, p344) believes that the major events that take place in history essentially mold our identity, therefore the meeting place between Indigenous inhabitants and the European colonizers brought about a strong sense of unity amongst the Aboriginal Peoples.
However this site and its installations, especially ‘The Edge of Trees’, is also criticized for being a disturbing reminder of the ‘stolen generation’ who were forced to break their connection at an early age. Scorrano (2012, p345) explains that because of this reason, it may be difficult for todays Aboriginal Peoples to experience an authentic attachment to the meaning of the Dreaming stories to their ancestors. The many paintings throughout the Gadigal exhibition represent the notion Aboriginal Peoples once owned Sydney, therefore every aspect of their lives was, and forever will be connected to it.
Coleman (2005, p. 2) emphasizes in his work that the sense of belonging to the city is depicted through artistic expression in the forms of paintings. The designs created are portrayals of the cultural settings, social structures and traditional practices that are aimed to create an existing link between the past, present and future generations of Aboriginal Peoples. Much of the content is linked to Dreaming stories, as it is Aboriginal responsibility to produce paintings that are a record of their creative powers and freedom.
Heiss (2001, p. 25) writes that this reminds Indigenous Peoples of their clan’s rights to occupy land and the ability to maintain connections with the ancestral forces that once roamed the landscape. One of the artworks exhibited is a tribute to the great warrior Pemulwuy, whose resistance to British invasion and invisible qualities captured the interest of many minds. His brave persona was widely respected within the Aboriginal community around Botany Bay.
Therefore, in order to commemorate his death, the artist Brenda Saunders from the Wiradjuri language group created a map of his incredible journey, on a possum-skin cloak, before he was shot dead in 1801. As Zeppel (1999, p. 185) explains in his article, the art piece is focused on his incredible resilience towards British invasion of his home, and in turn this mimics the united spiritual strength, respect and connection Eora People will forever hold with their land, country and people for many years to come.
The Museum of Sydney is one of the few museums in the area that tries to depict the impacts of British colonization on Eora Aboriginal cultures. One of its most grand exhibits is the ‘Edge of the Trees’, a sculptural displayof 29 pillars created of wood, sandstone and steel with intricate engravings, soft Aboriginal whispers and ancient artifacts. As stated in Emmetts (2001, p9. ) work, these materials were specifically chosen by the creators, Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley, as carriers of memory and reflection of the past and present site.
The change in these materials due to human interaction leads to continuous morphology of Sydney and reminds Aboriginal Peoples of the timeless phenomenon of the Dreamtime. This work of art has mass significance to the Aboriginal community as the site is charged with historical, cultural and emotional energy that is a rewarding reminder of their roots as well as a story struggling to be heard. The space is aimed at rekindling the sense of self and belonging to the city through tangible activities such as encouraging physical contact between materials and engravings as one moves through and amongst the poles.
It also evokes an intangible connection that is specific to Sydney as it reaches across hundreds of years of history to replicate the first forces of contact between vastly different cultures that coincide today. Scorrano (2012, p357) describes this sculpture to be extremely relatable to contemporary Aboriginal Peoples as it exhibits the interdependence of Eora and Europeans through a common, but different reliance on land. It speaks to adaption and cultural shifts within Aboriginal groups since it is modern but has a historically spiritual significance attached to it.
The dominating size of this structure is to resonate the meaning of landscape as a foundation for Aboriginal identity and provide a scale of empowerment and enchantment felt by all who aim to understand the Aboriginal Peoples connection with the city of Sydney. Emmett (2001, p. 23) portrays that memories of the original inhabitants and past kin are enlightened through cultural revival of music, language, foods, tools and sandstone rock carvings.
The site has a strong emphasis on nature as it resonates sounds of various insects and animals as well containing engravings of local plant species within poles. Emmett (2001, p73) explains how this idea of a concrete jungle, aims to remind Aboriginal Peoples that the health of the cities resources is central to their culture as many aspects of their ancestors lives revolved around Mother Nature. Furthermore, Aboriginal music and voices of soldiers are played in the background to emphasize the importance of oral stories in passing down information and keeping alive language to distinguish identities of clans.
Another noticeable feature is the floor of the place, which is created of pure earth that once contained the footprints of the First Nations. This sacred landmark in Sydney preserves expressions of stories, art forms and knowledge that provide associations with Aboriginal Peoples cultural identity and therefore their continuous power and presence can be felt in and today’s society. Alongside static exhibits, The Museum of Sydney also offers multimedia displays, one of the most famous being the film ‘Eora’ by the late filmmaker Michael Riley.
It explores the lives of pre-contact and modern Eora Peoples, portraying evident differences in lifestyle however continuously remaining united in their beliefs regarding their homeland. It follows the story of a modern family of Redfern retracing their ancestral steps to understand the spiritual connection to their specific tribes Dreaming from revisiting sites within Sydney and reliving memories. Djon (2004, p. 62) justifies Riley’s aim is to show that change will always occur, however the connections built to a place can remain constant or even felt through the memories of others.
Coleman (2005, p. 32) explains the psychological notion that when contemporary Aboriginal Peoples are familiar with the significance of their traditions, culture and history they are able to attach valuable meanings to the experience of others and create a connection with past generations. For instance, in his video the modern Aboriginal family was taking part in creating ochre hand stencils in the caves of Sydney to reignite their roots. Overall, it can be seen that the Aboriginal Sydney ‘s people, culture and places have evolved to adapt to the rapid changes faced in today’s world.
Growing use of technology and urbanized settings may deviate the youth from practicing traditions and embracing a tangible connection with their land. However, the strength of the unbroken and ongoing connection with the city of Sydney lies in the spiritual sense of belonging, often reiterated through significant events/exhibitions and artifacts. Due to this continuous notion of ‘oneness with nature’, a greater effort is now being placed into the revival of Aboriginal culture through local languages programs in school curriculums and a greater to push to equal land rights.
The Museum of Sydney is just one of the many places in the city which aims to regenerate the connection of self identity through reliving experiences and memories of those that have left behind a rich heritage to cherish for many future generations to come. (1524 words) Reference List Coleman, E (2005). Aboriginal Art, Identity and Appropriation. England: Ashgate. Djon, M (2004). Obituary – Michael Riley, Photofile, no. 73, Summer 2004. Emmett, P (c2000). Edge of the Trees : a sculptural installation by Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley : from the concept by Peter Emmett.
Sydney: Glebe NSW : Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales. Heiss, A (2001). Sydney’s Aboriginal Heritage – Alive and growing, National Trust of Australia, Feb-Apr. Scorrano, A (2012). Constructing national identity: national representations at the Museum of Sydney, Journal of Australian Studies, Vol. 36, Iss. 3. Zeppel, H (1999). Who were Bennelong and Pemulwuy? Museums in Sydney and interpretation of Eora Aboriginal culture, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 5:3-4.
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