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Community and Cook in 2020 at the Australian Museum

Mariko Smith

The Australian Museum is providing a platform for our First Nations communities to respond to Cook and the events of 1770

What words or thoughts come to mind when you hear or see the words “Captain James Cook”? This is a question that the Australian Museum has been asking Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in the lead-up to the upcoming 250 th anniversary in 2020 of Cook’s “discovery” of Australia in 1770, as Lieutenant in the British Royal Navy and captain of the HMB Endeavour during his first Pacific voyage.

First Nations’ views on Cook are more critical than celebratory, considering the negative impact of the colonial legacy associated with Cook once he raised the First Union Flag for the British Crown at Kamay (now known as Botany Bay) on 29 th April 1770, and more officially on Bedanug (now known as Possession Island in the Torres Strait) on 22 nd August 1770. These events led the way to the NSW colony some eighteen years later in 1788.

Historically, Aboriginal perspectives and opinions on the events of 1770 have been overshadowed by the accounts of the brave, pioneering explorers from the tall ships who helped build “modern Australia”.

Given this disproportionately one-sided view of history, the Australian Museum is looking to provide a platform for our First Nations communities to respond to Cook and the events of 1770 through The 2020 Project (current working title).

The 2020 Project is a First Nations-led response to the 250th anniversary. It will include an exhibition to be held at the Australian Museum in the second-half of 2020, with associated programming. To be a genuine right of reply, the AM’s First Nations curatorial team wanted to first ask Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples directly what they wanted to cover (and also not cover), in terms of exhibition objectives, themes, and topics.

The aim of the First Nations community consultation strategy was to inform communities about the exhibition as well as about the Museum, and the upcoming Cook anniversary itself. We also
wanted to understand mobs’ views on Cook and 1770.

Our “Have your say!” campaign between June and November 2018 involved a voluntary, short survey of three quantitative questions for demographic information and four open-ended qualitative questions to gather feedback and opinions. The survey was shared in printed form as well as electronically by email and social media.

Some 805 First Nations persons responded to the survey. When asked to specify their Indigenous identity, 94.5% of respondents identified as Aboriginal, 1.6% as Torres Strait Islander, and 3.9% as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

For the question asking respondents about their Mob (if known), 175 different Nations, cultural/language groups, and clans in total were identified from across Australia. 113 respondents identified as belonging to multiple Nations, groups, and clans. Large representation came from Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Gomeroi, Gamilaraay, Gamilaroi, Bundjalung, Yuin, Dhunghutti/Thunghutti, Gumbayinggir, Dharawal, Wailwan/Weilwan, Darug/Dharug, Wakka Wakka, and Noongar.

To map out the geographic reach of the survey, we also asked for respondents’ residential postcodes. Every State and major Territory was represented, covering urban, rural, and remote areas. The information showed a large concentration of respondents in Sydney and NSW – this correlates with Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2016 Census data that NSW is home to the highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in Australia.

We then asked a series of open-ended questions, starting with what respondents thought of the Australian Museum, to gauge First Nations Peoples’ personal reactions, opinions, and experiences with the Museum. Percentages given below are the number of respondents who identified a particular item, out of the 805 First Nations respondents.

The consultation data illustrated a trend of changing perceptions about the Museum, from seeing it, for example, as a colonial institution to becoming a shared space which is more welcoming to Indigenous perspectives. However, there is still progress to be made, since the breakdown is 21% positive, 32% negative, and 47% neutral in terms of being more descriptive and not having a specific view either way.

Coming back to the signature question about the man himself, the results are telling. We compiled the responses into grouped topics, and several respondents gave answers that fit into more than one category, producing a total of 1309 answers. 87.7% of the responses are negative opinions of Cook and his actions. 12% are mainly descriptions of who Cook was, his ship etc. Very few words or thoughts offered by respondents were positive, accounting for just 0.3% of responses.

When asked about what topics or issues that they would like addressed by the exhibition, many respondents gave multiple answers which were then categorised as objectives or topics. The top objective we identified related to wanting truth-telling about Australia’s history, the true story of Cook and the foundation of Australia told (40%). This was followed by wanting to privilege First Nations’ voices and perspectives (17%).

In terms of content topics, almost 60% of respondents identified colonisation and its effects (with examples given including massacres, dispossession, Stolen Generations, and ecological
disasters). Just over 56% respondents wanted to learn more about Australia’s origins, with regard to aspects such as frontier violence and Indigenous resistance, and answers to the question of why colonisation happened in Australia.

Nearly 38% of respondents wanted the exhibition to explore contemporary effects and experiences, including how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are represented in the media and education system, how such representations continue to impact on Indigenous lives, racism and discrimination. Around 25% were interested in looking at the pre-Cook and the First Fleet period.

The final question asked respondents to clearly state what they did not want to see in an exhibition regarding Cook and the 1770 events. A total of 1081 answers were recorded, and an overwhelming number requested no further praise or glorification of Cook, and not to present him as a hero. Some asserted that Cook should be omitted from the exhibition; others told us to tell everything, the good, bad, and the ugly – Cook included.

As the Australian Museum’s First Nations community consultation data indicates, the role that James Cook plays in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories is very different and contrasts with how he features in the Anglo-Australian master narrative.

Now that the initial consultation has taken place and the responses have been collated, the AM’s First Nations curatorial team is currently in the process of incorporating the findings into the exhibition development, looking towards opening an exhibition in the second half of 2020.

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