Ancient traditions, new insights

Since 2015, a series of new events privileges Aboriginal voices and experiences at SLM sites.

The Fifties Fair, Colonial Gastronomy, Sydney Open – these are the events and public programs for which Sydney Living Museums is known. All our programs share a common goal: to connect people with our museums’ stories, sites and collections, be it through the conceit of rock’n’roll dancing at Rose Seidler House or the serious fun of experiencing the foodways of previous generations of cooks in our kitchens.

The new Aboriginal Action Plan was introduced to identify and develop Aboriginal relationships, presentation and opportunities, and to increase Aboriginal interpretation and community involvement in programs across the organisation. The plan called for SLM to work with Aboriginal partners to create an annual Aboriginal cultural calendar of signature events, reflecting the history of our sites and the cultural values of Aboriginal people today. These events privilege Aboriginal voices and experiences at our sites as we begin to understand them through the lens of the oldest living culture on earth. Starting with a whale ceremony performance at the centenary celebrations of the museum at Vaucluse House in October 2015, our Coordinator Aboriginal Interpretation Programs, Clive Freeman, has led the development of programs and partnerships with local Eora, Darug and Dharawal communities to create events that welcome Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal audiences alike to experience our places.

Seasonal programs

Taking our cues from the landscapes that our properties now shape, the first year of the program included the Eel Festival at Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta in April; Songlines, part of NAIDOC Week, at Rouse Hill House & Farm in July; and the Whale Festival at Vaucluse House in October. Each of these seasonal programs is informed by traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture. The eel is the namesake of Burramatta (‘Place of the Eels’ in Darug), and the program included a smoking ceremony and stories of country from Bigambul man Uncle Wes Marne, Dgila-Nung (‘eel trap’ in Dharawal) weaving, talks by the Georges River Aboriginal Riverkeeper Team and stalls curated by the Blak Markets. Visitors also had the chance to taste-test eel prepared bush tucker–style by Fred’s Bush Tucker alongside a dish of Collard Eel, based on an 1816 recipe, prepared by our colonial gastronomer, Jacqui Newling (the bush tucker version was by far the favourite).

Our NAIDOC Week and Whale Festival programs offered similar opportunities to experience the Rouse Hill and Vaucluse estates from an Aboriginal perspective. Critical to achieving this are partnerships that form part of our commitment to providing opportunities for Aboriginal businesses through the Aboriginal Action Plan. The Songlines program saw SLM work alongside the Muru Mittigar Aboriginal Cultural & Education Centre to develop and deliver a program that attracted four times as many people to Rouse Hill House & Farm as previous NAIDOC programs. For the Whale Festival, SLM worked closely with members of Djaadjawan Dancers, Galamban, Fred’s Bush Tucker, Ngaran Ngaran Culture Awareness and others to develop a site-specific ceremony that celebrates whale season at the Vaucluse estate, reinstating a cultural practice ‘lost’ to the site for over a century.

In its first year, this cultural calendar of events has seen new audiences engage with SLM for the first time and provided new opportunities for our existing audiences to ‘experience a whole other life’. In the process, it has also provided greater meaning for our own understanding of our sites and their significance.

Dr Sophie Lieberman, Head of Programs

Indigenous dancers in traditional costume dancing on beach with harbour in background.
Whale Festival at Vaucluse House. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums
Man n hat squatting down on haunches to wrap eel in leaves on lawn.
Fred from Fred’s Bush Tucker at the Eel Festival at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Woman and two children sitting on blanket on lawn outside house holding boomerangs.
Eel Festival at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Indigenous dancers with leaves, central figure in yellow dress.
Djaadjawan Dancers at NAIDOC Week at Rouse Hill House & Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Girl leaning on spear smiling into camera.
NAIDOC Week at Rouse Hill House & Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

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