Story of country: our beginning

We welcome you home.

When visiting Sydney Living Museums it can be difficult to see beyond the European colonial narrative of our past and picture these sites before the bricks and mortar were laid. But peeling back the layers of time we find ourselves immersed in a truly different landscape.

As Indigenous people, we look through a very different lens, which tells quite a different story. Through an unbroken connection, we look past the bricks and mortar to see our country, our home.


Let us speak about our home and start from the beginning, before life as we know it began and when the universe was dark. Mirrigal, the creator, gathered his Dhulumarh (magic) and from the dust of Dhalingie (the stars) created a new place amid the darkness. He formed from Dhalingie a universe, and at its core he focused all his Dhulumarh and created a fire to light up the darkness and shine across his creation.

Realising that this was marvellous, Mirrigal once again summoned his Dhulumarh to create life. But this life was not what we know today; it was known as Murumbungutta, a transformable energy that took shape to form the heavens, animals, plants, rocks, waters and winds we know today.

Mirrigal saw that shadow cast darkness on many parts of his creations, so he spun all of his new creations and carved their songlines through the universe around the fire so that every part of his creation could benefit from the light.

In our Galamban (home country), Murumbungutta (first spirits) formed in Narrawan (the sea), and then rose from Narrawan to live on the land. As time went on, these landscapes and seascapes became full of life. Each place and life form created a unique connection with people known as Moodgingal, and became our clan totems. Within Eora, Darug and Dharawal, many clans emerged. Trade, technology and economy flourished as country was cared for harmoniously.

Strangers from across the sea

In 1788, after eight months at sea, a stranger from England, Captain Arthur Phillip, reached the shores of Eora, a place no other European person had previously settled. He came with specific instructions to establish and manage a convict settlement for the British Crown. Phillip sailed with a convoy of 11 vessels containing some 1500 foreign people, of whom more than half were convicts, with marines, crewmen and a few free settlers. The newcomers brought a foreign culture and ideology that disrupted the ancient cultural landscape and the lives of its peoples.

Throughout this settlement period, as the seed of a foreign colonial government grew, many of the existing Eora and surrounding Aboriginal nations were decimated. As a result of their displacement and isolation from Galamban, starvation crept in and disease took hold.

With the creation of the new colony, many foreigners came to call Eora, Darug and Dharawal home, and the area became known as Sydney. A new concept of ownership was placed on these lands, and homes and industrial buildings sprang up. Eleven of these houses and buildings today form what is known as Sydney Living Museums.

A new dawn

For many years, Eora, Darug and Dharawal cultures were systematically isolated from the historic houses narrative. This was reinforced by the Historic Houses Act 1980 (NSW) focus on preserving and representing the growth and establishment of the colonial government and its assumed power separate from its foundation on a strong and continuing Aboriginal cultural landscape.

This separation will soon be a thing of the past. In 2014, after many years of building a respectful relationship with Eora, Darug and Dharawal communities, SLM created a new position within the organisation to reflect the idea of inclusive governance and to represent an ongoing and focused Aboriginal culture and heritage framework.

My position as Coordinator Aboriginal Interpretation Programs was originally designed to develop and implement cultural experiences. However, the lack of Indigenous presence created a major challenge, as developing these experiences requires us as Indigenous people to determine our own cultural and social destiny. The history of isolation from our SLM sites has left many of us distanced from ownership and custodianship.

This institutional gap triggered the development in 2015 of the Aboriginal Action Plan, which calls for the organisation to enhance the historic values of our properties and speak directly of the Eora, Darug and Dharawal cultures and landscape they are built from and on. At its core is the cultural calendar and the Aboriginal Advisory Committee, which engages Indigenous advocates who hold the power and voice of their people. This new approach aims to foster a true and current representation to better articulate and represent Eora, Darug and Dharawal in a way that creates a new sense of ownership and belonging for us as descendants and pays respect to our country and our culture.

Clive Freeman, Coordinator Aboriginal Interpretation Programs

Wooden posts with carved words in indigenous languages.
'Edge of the trees' (detail) sculpture on the forecourt of the Museum of Sydney, Janet Laurence and Fiona Foley, 1995. Photo © Brett Boardman for Sydney Living Museums
Man with kids weaving on lawn with house in background.
Clive Freeman weaving with children during the Eel Festival at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Older indigenous woman with face paint and feather hair adornments.
Aunty Vivian Mason at NAIDOC Week at Rouse Hill House & Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Kids in uniform trying on kangaroo skin cloak in exhibition space.
Schoolchildren in the Gadigal Place gallery at the Museum of Sydney. Photo © Stuart Miller for Sydney Living Museums
Boy holding large woven object.
Eel Festival at Elizabeth Farm. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

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This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our Members’ magazine.

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