Starting over: embedding First Nations principles in a new museum

1 July 2020
The Chau Chak Wing Museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander initiatives
How does a contemporary museum reconcile the colonial histories of its collections? For the Chau Chak Wing Museum, guidance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has been the key to creating a safe space for learning, healing, exchanging ideas and celebrating the heritage of Australia’s First Peoples.

The new Chau Chak Wing Museum was conceived to house and exhibit three collections with 19th century origins, when collecting was often conducted through the colonial lens of scientific or cultural discovery. Among the 450,000 objects and specimens within the University of Sydney’s Macleay, Nicholson and University Art collections are examples with fraught origins in this colonial past; an issue cultural institutions across the world are grappling with.

A new beginning

From the early planning stages of the new museum, a committee of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics and researchers at the University of Sydney were invited to guide decision-making around the building, exhibitions and community relationships. The exhibition program was shaped through consultative collaboration and a number of key initiatives were identified by the committee to ensure the new museum aligned with the University’s integrated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander strategies, Wingara Mura-Bunga Barrabugu and Unfinished Business. The vision for the Chau Chak Wing Museum has been to create a safe place for all to engage with Australia's complex cultural histories.

“We are not only transforming our museums physically but have sought also to transform our team through training, our exhibitions through continued collaboration and our place in Sydney through the physical recognition of Country”, Director David Ellis said.

It has been an invigorating journey learning from and celebrating the creative knowledge of Indigenous Australians from our foundation, and one which we cannot wait to share with the public
David Ellis, Director, Chau Chak Wing Museum

First Nations initiatives in the museum

Design features

Two wallabies engraved into rock.

Cast of an Aboriginal rock engraving at Westleigh, NSW.

When visitors first approach the museum, they are greeted by a large concrete etching in the museum forecourt showing two jumping wallabies. This design was developed in consultation with the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council and is a re-creation of an Aboriginal rock engraving at Westleigh that pre-dates colonial Sydney. The etching acknowledges the long Gadigal use of the land the museum now stands on as a hunting ground for wallaby and kangaroo.

As visitors enter the museum foyer, prominent signage welcomes them to Gadigal Country in the traditional Sydney language, another initiative produced in collaboration with the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. The text reads 'Ngyini ngalawangun mari budjari Gadinurada', or 'We meet together on the very beautiful Gadi Country'.

The design of the museum grounds also includes a private ceremonial space for community groups to use for healing, reflection and ceremonies.

 Gathering space outside Chau Chak Wing Museum

Ceremonial space 

Gardens outside museum

Landscaping begins outside the museum

Landscaping the ‘kangaroo grounds’

The gardens surrounding the museum will predominantly feature local Sydney basin plants, labelled with their Gadigal names where possible. The selected plants include species that can be used to teach traditional Aboriginal botanical knowledge. The plants will also feature on the Patyegarang Trail, part of the university’s teaching and visitor app ‘Campus Flora’. Patyegarang is a Gadigal word for kangaroo and was the also the name of one of the first teachers of Aboriginal knowledge to colonial settlers, a young woman who taught a British naval officer some of her language and cultural knowledge.


A permanent exhibition featuring some of Australia’s most ancient and precious cultural objects has been developed in collaboration with seven Aboriginal art centres from across Australia. This exhibition will incorporate language and stories from the many communities involved.

The recently announced major temporary exhibition Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations has evolved through a longterm collaboration with senior Yolŋu leaders both in Sydney, and in eastern Arnhem Land. Working through three participating art centres (Yirrkala, Ramingining, Yurrwi-Milingimbi) Yolŋu Elders have directed the way that Yolŋu philosophies and clan knowledge will be shared from the selection of objects through to the exhibition design, layout and texts.

Curator and artist discuss artwork

Curator Rebecca Conway speaking with senior artist Raymond Bulambula, Director of Milingimbi Art and Culture, in 2017 about collections at the University. Raymond also came to Sydney as part of the Yolngu project team in 2018. Chris Durkin, Art Centre Manager, talking to other artists and family in the background.

Other exhibitions have also involved community consultation and will incorporate traditional language and cultural warnings where appropriate.

To ensure the cultural safety of all who visit the museum, a smoking ceremony in keeping with our place on Gadigal land will be performed prior to the museum opening, to cleanse the building and ensure the Chau Chak Wing Museum operates in the spirit of reconciliation from the very beginning.

Many thanks all of our collaborators from Gadigal Country and across Australia. 


Featured image (top of page): Curator Rebecca Conway speaking with Matjarra Garrawurra, Director of Bula'bula Arts, Ramingining, in 2017. Her mother, master weaver Julie Djulibing Malibirr is working in the background. 

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