Torres Strait Regional Authority chairman Joseph Elu studies a headdress by Ken Thaiday snr at the Lag/Meta/ Aus exhibition at the National Museum. Photo: Graham Tidy.When a group of British anthropologists travelled to the Torres Strait in 1898, they broke new ground in all sorts of ways.
And today, 116 years later, it is not just the footage – some of the earliest film ever taken in Australia – they took that continues to fascinate.
It is the islands themselves, that mysterious region at Australia’s northernmost tip, an area that most Australians know little about.
At the opening of a new exhibition on the unique culture and history of the Torres Strait Islands at the National Museum on Thursday, curator Jono Lineen said the region was among the most complex and diverse in the country.
pread across 48,000 square kilometres and five different island groups, with three official indigenous languages and several dialects, the area is made up not only of different physical materials – volcanic ash, silt, granite – but has a complicated parallel history that has little to do with how the rest of Australia sees it.
The exhibition – Lag/Meta/Aus, the word for ”home” in the region’s three indigenous languages – is made up of objects, stories and images, from traditional headdresses and the footage taken from the 1898 Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to contemporary artworks and modern-day accounts.
Alongside an account of the region’s best-known historical event, the native title battle fought all the way to the High Court by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo, there is also the story of the essential service of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion during World War II, when the area was the first line of defence against the Japanese.
And while the region’s first contact with European explorers was marked by violence between Captain Bligh and Tudu Island warriors, the people of the Torres Strait were enthusiastic converts to Christianity in the 1870s.
”What’s interesting about this for us is that the conversion of Torres Strait Islanders was one of the fastest conversions of an entire culture anywhere in the world – within a decade, almost the entire population,” Mr Lineen said.
The conversion came at a time when white entrepreneurs had arrived in the area to take advantage of the region’s fast-growing pearl shell industry, and locals were losing faith in their traditional religions.
Torres Strait Regional Authority chairman Joseph Elu, in town for the opening, said many parts of the exhibition would come as a surprise to most Australians.
”Most people in Australia know Torres Strait only because of Mabo – the cultural stuff they know very little about,” he said.
”And the amount and calibre of [historical material] we’ve got here is better than our cultural centre up there.”
He said he was proud that more people would be learning about the fighting spirit of Torres Strait Islanders – the local battalion went on strike during the war to receive pay equal to the white men who were fighting alongside them in New Guinea – as well as the spiritual side of the people.
The opening event also had its own share of drama, when Ngunnawal elder “Aunty Agnes” O’Shea fell while giving a traditional Welcome to Country address.
She fell backwards off the podium at the end of her remarks and appeared to injure her hip.
A family member confirmed she was undergoing tests at a Canberra hospital.
Museum director Mathew Trinca, who was stranding near Ms O’Shea at the time, expressed concern at the turn of events.
“Agnes O’Shea has a special place in the National Museum of Australia community,” he said.
“I’m very concerned for Aunty Agnes and we are in close contact with her and her family to support them in every way possible at this time”.Lag/Meta/Aus: Home in the Torres Strait is now showing at the National Museum of Australia.