South Australia’s True History On Show

A new exhibition close to the site of South Australia’s original proclamation tells Aboriginal people’s stories about the state’s foundations alongside those of European settlers.

Tiati Wangkanthi Kumangka – Truth Telling Together will be launched at the Bay Discovery Centre in the Glenelg Town Hall on Monday 9th December.

The exhibit traces settler history in parallel with the historical experiences of Aboriginal people to create a compelling and comprehensive view of our state’s early years.

According to Local History Coordinator for the City of Holdfast Bay Julia Garnaut, the display grew out of a recognition of a gap in the story being told by the museum.

“The museum we felt really lacked a space where we were telling the story of Aboriginal culture. And as we started having discussions with Kaurna about what we might put in here, the theme of truth telling came to the forefront of what we were doing” she said.

“We realised that instead of telling one side of the story or the other side of the story, we could actually do that together. So we saw an opportunity to bring the narrative together and give people a strong understanding of South Australia’s true history” 

In bringing those narratives together, Ms Garnaut worked in partnership with Kaurna elders.

“I primarily worked with senior Kaurna, Elder Lynette Crocker. Lynette has for a very long time been tied into particularly topics around the Letters Patent and advocating for change. So Lynette and I primarily wrote this together and then Merle Simpson also came in” she said.

“Kaurna have had a strong influence the entire way through. And you’ll see that their words are also on the wall. So this is by no means my voice or the City of Holdfast Bay’s voice. It’s our voice” she said.

Ms Simpson said that the new exhibition offers a valuable opportunity for people to learn about the the reality of South Australia’s origins.

“It’s about education and learning the true history of their state. Hopefully from there we can begin to move forward” Ms Simpson said. 

“Whether people’s feelings about South Australia’s true history are positive or negative, it still needs to be discussed” 

For Ms Garnaut, nothing tells the truth about the state’s formation more clearly than the Letters Patent, a crucial founding legal document that will be on display at the Gallery on opening day. The document was signed by King William in 1836 to establish the state according to British law and outline various aspects of its management.

“There is a section in the Letters Patent, it’s a paragraph that says that ‘Provided always Aboriginal people in South Australia have a right to occupy and use the land.

“Basically it’s a paragraph that says that when we settled, Europeans were meant to consider the rights of Aboriginal people and their rights to occupy their land. So it acknowledged that Aboriginal people were living in South Australia at the time” 

This document and the recognition it gave Aboriginal people was forgotten for many years in the face of “terra nullius” a belief that the country was not owned or legally occupied prior to settlement according to Ms Garnaut.

“We all had this understanding that Australia was terra nullius when we settled, when Cook arrived. But the history books and the facts will show you that that is not true. So this exhibition works to tell you what we think we know, and then what is also there hidden in the history books” she said.

The story of the state’s origins is illustrated with a wide range of historical materials, many of which have been held in storage by the Council.

“The City of Holdfast Bay has quite a large collection of works, which date to around European settlement, 1836” said Ms Garnaut.

“We worked with Kaurna to choose a range of those paintings that are now on display, including some by John Michael Skipper, a well known artist from the colonial period” she said.

The first copy of the Proclamation, the statement read out by South Australia’s first Governor John Hindmarsh on arriving in the new colony in 1836 is also on display at the exhibition.

The exhibition also features a striking animation of a Kaurna emu dreaming story – Nganu and Tjilbruke: a tale of two heroes, which was produced by Monash University in partnership with Uncle Lewis O’Brien and other Kaurna community members. The video provides a significant glimpse of Kaurna culture prior to the arrival of the British.

Re-establishing a place for Kaurna and Aboriginal culture in this key location has been an important achievement and can be a source of pride, according to Ms Crocker.

“This has been about giving a platform to Aboriginal people to explore the stories of the past but also their aspirations for the future” 

Ms Garnaut hopes that the exhibition will influence visitors to reconsider their established ideas about the state’s history.

“As we were working through the exhibition, one of the strongest points we realised is that you can’t just tell people something, can assume that they are going to believe what you’re saying. People will always walk away from history with their own perceptions and their own understandings of what they’ve read or the main themes they’ve grasped onto.

“We realised that truth can mean a different thing to different people. And so I guess with this exhibition, in some ways what we’re saying is these are the facts, make up your mind. What do you think? What is your truth and how is that shaped for you?”

Tiati Wangkanthi Kumangka – Truth Telling Together opens at the Bay Discovery Centre in the Glenelg Town Hall on Moseley Square on Monday 9th December, with the Letters Patent available to view on opening day only.Read more about the Letters Patent here
By Lucy Kingston

SANTS acknowledges that the land on which our office is based is the traditional lands for the Kaurna people and we respect their spiritual and cultural relationship with their country.