Updated: Dec 9, 2021
Bay Discovery Centre | Tiati Wangkanthi Kumangka (Truth-Telling Together)
2020 Museums and Galleries National Awards (MAGNA) National Winner
A Lesson for Us All in Collaboration and Truth-Telling
Lynette Crocker (Senior Kaurna Elder)
Julia Garnaut (Curator, History & Exhibitions, Bay Discovery Centre)
Bay Discovery Centre
City of Holdfast Bay (Bay Discovery Centre)
PO BOX 19, Brighton
South Australia 5048
On 28 December 1836, South Australia was colonised by the British along the shore of the Gulf St Vincent at Glenelg (Pathawilyangga). The day was much like many South Australian summer days, the heat dry and unbearable, the flies thick. At the base of a crooked gum tree, the British celebrated, reading the Proclamation Document which reiterated the new law, proclaimed by King William IV in the months preceding. All were oblivious to the course of history they had willingly participated in. The lasting impacts of this day, and the choices they would make both prior and following, would create a long-lasting divide in South Australian history. A divide between the story generations of future South Australians would come to acknowledge as their history and the confrontational, violent and at times unbelievable truth (tiati).
Fast forward 183 years later to an Australia that is still struggling to comprehend and accept its roots, deeply set in racism and colonial practices. South Australia is a state grappling with the consequences 183 years of denial can cause a nation. Two women, one white, one Aboriginal, found themselves having a conversation about history, the importance of education and the role in which the museum could play in teaching new generations to understand our past. Both knew that true understanding fosters people’s abilities to move forward. Though from different sides of the narrative, as the conversation progressed, both realised the stories understood to shape South Australia’s history - taught in our schools, passed down by generations - were not necessarily wrong. Rather, it was just that in-between the ‘truths’, much of the story had been left out, misunderstood, forgotten to time. Winston Churchill said that ‘history is written by the victors’. This could not be truer in South Australia. The ‘truth’ of the past was written, told, and delivered by those on the side of power. In a museum context, it still is. South Australian history is little told from the Aboriginal perspective, written by them, written for them. It was time to leave all of this traditional way of story-telling behind. Tiati would be about multiple voices telling the whole truth of how South Australia came to be.
From that day forward it became pivotal to this exhibition that Kaurna, the traditional owners of the Adelaide Plains, be given the reigns to tell their story. It also became clear that to tell this history it was important to not ‘cancel out’ what had come before. To not replace one narrative with another. There was a lesson to be shared in acknowledging both sides of the story. If both narratives were bought together, perhaps it was possible, for the first time since 1836, to explore the full truth of South Australia’s colonial past in the museum context.
Why the Bay Discovery Centre museum? Located at Glenelg, a mere 500 metres from the first landing place of British colonisers, Glenelg became the first mainland settlement in South Australia and the location of the first encounters between Aboriginal people and colonisers. The Kaurna people continue to hold great cultural significance to the area. Today, Glenelg is a bustling seaside suburb attracting daily hundreds of local, interstate and, pre-Covid, international tourists. Like most museums, the Bay Discovery Centre was actively playing a role in perpetuating the colonial narrative. 183 years ago the story started here. It seemed only right that this be the place where the truth of the past begin to be addressed.
Tiati Main Floor exhibition space
The Bay Discovery Centre, an initiative of the City of Holdfast Bay Council, has a strong, ongoing working relationship with the Kaurna Nation. Together, we aim to educate the wider community on Kaurna history and culture, create future working relationships and drive economic possibility. Tiati Wangkanthi Kumangka is an extension of this relationship. Conceived mutually and co-curated, the project is pivotal to the national reconciliation movement, a goal that is shared on the global stage.
In 2020, Australia’s peak museum body, Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA) released the 10-Year Indigenous Roadmap, a commitment to decolonising museum spaces and improving Indigenous engagement and employment in Australian museums. Though a ten year roadmap, Tiati delivered on many of the principals outlined in this document. One judge commented that Tiati creates ‘a lesson for us all in how we can use the Indigenous Road Map’ and; ‘I think this project manages to do something incredibly important, to decolonise the museum by recognising the presence and interaction of multiple voices. While this seems obvious, the approach often taken with decolonising practice is to replace one narrative with another - and you rightfully acknowledge the limitations of this. There are many much larger organisations and institutions that are yet to do this’.
The multiple voices of Tiati, ensure that this exhibition is not just for white people. This is Kaurna’s chance to have their story, written as they choose, on museum walls. It is a chance for them to educate their community too. Kaurna man Jack Buckskin, said the exhibition is a ‘great way for Aboriginal people, especially Kaurna people, to have our voices heard. Very early on our people had lost their voice, lost the opportunity to share our knowledge, and our culture, so this exhibition is about understanding the history of this country from an Aboriginal perspective’.
School children visiting Tiati, 2019
Tiati opened at a time in the Australian museum world where large institutions are struggling to find the answers to how to tell these difficult stories, partly because they have historically played such a drastic role in perpetuating the myth; painting the story of colonists as ‘heroes’, pilfering cultural sites to form their collections and denying Aboriginal communities a voice. It is hard to swallow a pill when you yourself as a museum professional have to come to terms with having played a part in practices that today’s society largely deem as wrong. It can be a struggle to accept that the traditional methods of collection and display do not work in the modern context. Perhaps because of this, most still choose to lead without listening. The Bay Discovery Centre and City of Holdfast Bay was determined to listen. To recognise that so much of this story was not ours to tell alone. Beyond listening, the museum was also determined to not be part of ‘just another conversation’. It was time to take action and deliver. Because of this simple decision, Tiati will always be unique.
In an environment where many are struggling to come to terms with a colonial past, it was not easy to always bring everyone along for the journey. Tiati can be confrontational, sometimes opening heated discussion, sometimes evoking emotion and many times inducing the response ‘I didn’t know’. It is in this space however that Tiati triumphs. Despite the challenge, opportunity has been created for our community to begin to confront the past, to grow, to learn themselves and pass this knowledge to their peers, friends and family.
Given the chance to go back and alter anything, we would not change a thing. Our focus remains firmly on the future, the next steps and the continuous education of our communities. The museum world is too often inhibited by what they see as complications with working with Indigenous communities, challenges in overcoming historical issues and struggling with narratives that are deeply painful. Yes, these are all complex spider webs you may have to untangle. Listen all you can, form meaningful relationships, contemplate if you need to, but in the end, just like the advice Kaurna Elder Jeffrey Newchurch persistently hands out; ‘be like Nike and just do it’.