Tasmanian museum apologises for ‘appalling hurt’ it inflicted on Aboriginal people

The Tasmanian Art Gallery and Museum has apologised for its past treatment of the island’s Aboriginal people. The admission of guilt was made at a ceremony in the Hobart institution’s courtyard. Brett Torossi, the museum’s chair, said that the removal of the Preminghana petroglyphs in the 1960s was a particularly acute example of exploitation.

The ancient rock carvings were taken from sacred indigenous land on the north-west coast six decades ago. The museum claimed at the time it was necessary for their preservation, but community leaders say extensive damage was done to the rock art.

The carvings depict the locations of lost villages and camping grounds, walking tracks and events spanning thousands of years. Dating back between 3,000 and 8,000 years, the rocks, some almost two metres in height, are believed to be the oldest written record of human history in Tasmania.

In November, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Roger Jaensch signed a Aboriginal heritage permit paving the way for their repatriation.

The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston said it will return the sacred rock art it has in its collection too.

The land from which the rocks were taken, that had been known as Mount Cameron West, but which has reverted to the original indigenous name of Preminghana, was part of a restitution project by the Tasmanian government in 1995. 

Aboriginal Heritage Officer Sharnie Everett views the petroglyph in storage.

Torossi noted: ‘Our apology is broader than just the petroglyphs and covers a range of past actions and practices that have resulted in immense hurt and suffering to Tasmanian Aboriginal people.’

‘We are here today on the lands of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land and waterways of lutruwita (Tasmania). We wish to pay our deepest respects to Tasmanian Aboriginal people, and Elders past and present. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery sits on the land of the Muwinina and Mumirimina people, who once lived in the Hobart region. We wish to pay our respects to all of these people, and acknowledge their sovereignties in land and sea, never ceded.’

Torossi went on to describe ‘practices of ethnography and anthropology which were racist, discriminatory, and have long been entirely discredited’, including the digging up and removal, the collection, and the trade of, ancestral remains.

‘These practices showed profound disrespect for Aboriginal people, their families and communities, and their vital spiritual and cultural practices. The remains of Aboriginal people were exploited as artefacts and objects of research, their burial sites were violated, and the importance of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and cultural heritage were ignored, trivialised and dismissed.’

Trukanini, seated right

Torossi singled out the case of Trukanini, a woman widely considered to have been the last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian, whose remains, after her death in 1875, were put on public display. Trukanini said she wished to be buried in the D’Entrecastreaux Channel, so her body could not be cut up.

‘If we imagine such a practise being enacted on our own grandmother, if we imagine the burial sites of our loved ones being dug up, and their bones being traded and used for scientific research, or put on show in museums and galleries across the world, we begin to understand the appalling hurt our predecessors caused the Aboriginal people.’

The chair also apologised for museum interpretation that suggested the Aboriginal people were made ‘extinct’ on Trukanini’s death.

The full apology, the institution says, will remain on the museum website and on display at the institution, permanently.

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