Canoe Cultures – Nawi 2017 Travelling Our Waters

Nawi (Sydney tied-bark canoe) with fire at Nawi 2012. Photograph Andrew Frolows

On 9 November the museum will host the second national conference on Indigenous watercraft. Nawi 2017  – Travelling Our Waters brings together traditional watercraft builders, community members, historians, students and others to share knowledge and culture about canoes and all the other incredible and diverse watercraft made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The one day symposium will feature talks by people from the Kimberley, Torres Strait Islands, Arnhem Land and Tasmania. The presentations are diverse. Djambawa Marawili AM will present on the story of the Blue Mud Bay Sea Rights Case. Jimmy Thaiday and Lynette Griffiths will talk about Ghost Nets in art. There will be talks about the heroic Yarri and Jacky who rescued dozens of people from the 1852 Gundagai floods in bark canoes, and an important focus on youth and Indigenous watercraft.

Uncle Moogy in his yuki at Nawi 2012. Photograph Andrew Frolows

There will also be traditional bark canoes being constructed through the day and an opportunity to see the Gapu-Monuk Saltwater- Journey to Sea Country exhibition, as well as a host of other activities and displays about the maritime history and cultures of Indigenous Australia.

Registration details for this wonderful opportunity to learn about nawi tied-bark canoes, rolled bark ninghers, bardi rafts and more can be found here. You can view the full program here. Hurry – there are limited places and a special offer to attend the opening night of Gapu-Monuk on 8 November.

Detail from Mudhaw Warul (Sheltered Turtles Behind the Reef) © Billy Missi

Corroboree Sydney at the museum

The Corroboree Sydney festival kicked off yesterday and is running until 30 November. The festival celebrates Australia’s rich Indigenous culture, featuring leading artists, writers, dancers and musicians showcasing their creativity and sharing stories in over 100 free and ticketed events around Sydney’s iconic foreshore. For the first time, the museum will take part in the festival, with programs highlighting that for thousands of years prior to European settlement, coastal Aboriginal people fished and hunted in the waters and hinterlands, living a rich and spiritual life harmoniously with the land and environment. The museum will present four days of inspirational events including tours of our Indigenous Gallery, unique vessel tours from an Indigenous perspective and traditional canoe building demonstrations.

making Nawi canoes at the australian national maritime museum

Making bark canoes at the museum. Curator David Payne and Indigenous Programs Manager Donna Carstens constructing a nawi with the help of a student from Lawrence Hargrave School, July 2014.

The museum will showcase our ongoing NAWI project by presenting a fascinating demonstration of the construction of a full-size traditional NSW Aboriginal bark canoe. Traditional community canoe builders from around the country will join museum staff to build a NAWI using traditional methods from Saturday 29 to Sunday 30 November. The demonstration is free and all are welcome to watch.

The Australian National Maritime museum’s Eora and Saltwater gallery.

The museum’s Eora and Saltwater gallery.

Indigenous people have a deep spiritual connection to land and water. Take part in our discussion as canoe communities share their stories of past and current projects about Indigenous watercraft and connections in Canoe Conversations. This free, casual session of discussions and presentations is on the afternoon of the Saturday 29 November and is open to all.

Families inspired by the NAWI canoe building demonstrations can also try their hands at building their own mini versions to take home in free children’s paper canoe workshops for 5–12 year olds and their parents, also running from Saturday 29 to Sunday 30 November.

HMB Endeavour at the museum.

The HMB Endeavour replica at the museum.

We will also be providing special Indigenous interpretation of some of our permanent attractions during the festival. Jump on board the museum’s Endeavour replica and get a glimpse of what it was like for the traditional Aboriginal people living along the foreshores of the harbour. We’ll also host guided tours reflecting on our Indigenous history and encouraging visitors to look at the vessel through different eyes, taking on a dual perspective of the East Coast journey.

–Donna Carstens, Indigenous Programs Manager

Find out more about the museum’s Corroboree Sydney events.

National Science Week grant: Endeavouring Science

NSW 2013

2013 National Science Week on HMB Endeavour replica
Photo: A Frolows, ANMM

The museum is pleased to be a recipient of a 2014 National Science Week grant from the Federal Government’s Inspiring Australia program. Our program, Endeavouring Science, looks at how science has both evolved and remained the same from the 18th century to the 21st century, featuring a range of activities located aboard the iconic HMB Endeavour replica as well as activations across the whole museum site. It will cover themes of weather and navigation, biology and botany, signals and communication and the scientific principles that underlie these.

Continue reading

A place, a philosophy and a practical experience – a passage by water in Dharawal country

Model making in the foreground while passing through Dharawal country

Model making in the foreground while passing through Dharawal country.
Photo: David Payne, ANMM

On Saturday 15th March, an eco-tour organized by Mary Jacobs from Sutherland Shire Reconciliation on the waters inshore of of Djeebahn (Jibbon, the headland at Port Hacking) was the background for a rare opportunity to learn much more than just Indigenous names, locations and history. It was a journey into another people’s country and their connections to the land, to the sea and a way of life. Continue reading

Nawi canoe building workshop

Wednesday 26 February found the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Nawi canoe builders sharing their skills and knowledge with a group of young Koori boys at the Lawrence Hargrave School in Warwick Farm.

Curator David Payne with students Photograph, Donna Carstens, ANMM

Curator David Payne with students
Photograph, Donna Carstens, ANMM

The workshop was held outside on the outskirts of the school oval which was the perfect setting as we were surrounded by Australian Stringy barks and other eucalypts as well, the exact materials we were working with to make our smaller Nawi canoe model. The bush setting created a great starting point for conversation regarding the differences in the barks, the process of selecting the right bark, best times of year to collect bark, how the bark is removed from the tree and preparation of the bark so it is ready to work with. Continue reading

Boorun’s canoe at Melbourne Museum

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Uncle Albert Mullett, with daughters Doris Paton (Steaphan’s mum) and Christine Johnston at Bunjilaka

A few weeks ago I attended the opening of Boorun’s canoe, an exhibition at Melbourne Museum’s Bunjilaka Gallery, which we heard about at the Nawi conference.

This exhibition was born out of the canoe building project undertaken in Gippsland, Victoria, by senior Gunai/Kurnai Elder Uncle Albert Mullett, initiated by his grandson, artist Steaphan Paton and photographic artist Cam Cope, one of Steaphan’s acquaintances from school, to explore and strengthen culture from Steaphan’s Gunai perspective, and to understand and connect with it from Cam’s non-Indigenous perspective.

Steaphan and Cam spoke about the collaboration in the Canoe Communities session at the Nawi conference, yet Uncle Albert Mullett was unable to make it to Sydney because of ill health.  It was an honour to meet him at the opening and it was wonderful to see his bark canoe in the gallery space.

Uncle Albert Mullett is a leading figure who led the Gunai/Kurnai people to gain full native title over their traditional lands in 2010 and he is a respected master-craftsman of traditional wooden artefacts.

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Removing the bark for the canoe. Photographer: Cameron Cope

Uncle Albert built the canoe with Steaphan and other young men of his family over some months over the past year. The canoe was chosen as the perfect way to share and pass on knowledge and skills, in an intergenerational continuum. The canoe holds an important place in Uncle Albert’s Gunai/Kurnai culture – Boorun the pelican flew to Gunai/Kurnai traditional lands in Gippsland with a canoe on its head and canoe-building is something he in turn learnt from his Elders.

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Canoe on display in exhibition

The beautifully textured tied bark canoe with its fire hearth takes centre stage in the Bunjilaka gallery, encircled by Cam Cope’s magnificent photographs of the process unfolding and a film of the Boorun creation story.

At the Nawi conference we saw Cam’s photographic series on screen but in the flesh these large scale black and white photographs take your breath away – nuanced, sensitive and powerful, with fabulous captions. The scale of the photographs matches that of the canoe and they are in no way merely contextual. They show Uncle Albert Mullett guiding the process, peeling bark, stripping, shaping and firing it – the respect he holds central to each one – the photographer largely invisible in the entire series, except in one shot where his hands are shown caked in mud. They are sensitive respectful portraits of a family making their canoe led by their grandfather which conclude with Steaphan seated in the canoe, paddling on the local waters of Lake Tyers, like many before him for thousands of years.

“Lake Tyers was the perfect place to float the canoe; the country is picturesque with so many stories and so much history.” (Photo caption from exhibition)

The exhibition is on until 4 November at Melbourne Museum.

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Steaphan Paton seated in the canoe, paddling on the local waters of Lake Tyers. Photographer: Cameron Cope

Day Two: Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft

Bark canoe on water at Nawi opening ceremony.

It is very difficult to sum up in a short post all of the ideas, discussions and presentations that  we have seen today, the last day of the Nawi conference on Indigenous watercraft here at the museum. The second day of Nawi was kicked off with a presentation by Ian McNiven, Thomas Chandler and Michael Lim. Their project consists of virtual 3D modelling of Torres Strait canoes.

Australian National Maritime Museum curator, David Payne, displayed the painstaking work he has done to map canoe distribution across Australia. From rolled-bark canoes in Tasmania, to the sheet-bark yuki style used in the Murrumbidgee area, David demonstrated the breadth of his research and passion for nawi.

Bryce Barker spoke after morning tea and talked of early references in literature of Aboriginal watercraft that used words such as ‘crude’, ‘primitive’ and ‘simplicity’. David went on to disprove this however, with his talk on the complex ways in which watercraft was used along the tropical north Queensland coast. He also noted, importantly, that Aboriginal people were voyaging to the Percy Islands at least 2800 years ago making this is some of the earliest use of watercraft in human history.

Therese Chelepy-Roberts of the Queensland Museum presented on a project to build a traditional ‘walpa’ craft in conjunction with the community of Mornington Island. Therese noted at the conclusion of her talk that this conference, this gathering, was ‘bringing back the memories of the old people’ and helping to revive and thus preserve traditional practices.

Tony Brown of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery talked of this institution’s small collection of canoes and the problem of provenance. Tony posed an interesting question – how to classify a canoe that is the outcome of a community project. Is it an artefact? A replica? Or perhaps a prop?

These were questions that were also addressed by Moya Smith of the WA Museum. Moya noted through her experience working with Indigenous communities, that items generated during projects to revive cultural traditions are not considered replicas by their creators, as the knowledge and the significance are still part of an old but living and growing culture.

Key messages from today included: the importance of supporting community initiatives designed to display Indigenous culture and bringing Aboriginal art and traditions to communities to bridge cross-cultural divides. School student Georgette Rose provided inspiring words to which the audience erupted in cheers and applause: ‘My pop once told me, “Girls can do anything and don’t let anyone ever tell you they can’t”.’ Fred Kelly also noted the importance of educating Aboriginal boys about respect and instilling ‘knowledge and cultural protocols’ that will ensure the survival of Aboriginal culture for many years to come.

There has been almost too much to contain in a two-day conference – and certainly too much for a short blog post. Hopefully this event will be the catalyst for further collaborative research and a wider promotion of this important historical topic.

Penny Hyde and Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistants

Day One: Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft

Shoalhaven canoe project

Shoalhaven canoe project presentation with Steve Russell, Noel Lonesborough and Jim Wallis

At the close of a fantastic first day of the Nawi conference here at the Australian National Maritime Museum, we thought we would share some impressions and snippets from the event.

While there are a wide variety of people, ways of teaching, storytelling and of sharing information here at this event, there are some vital common threads emerging through the presentations of our speakers.

Alison Page, Executive Officer of the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance, opened today’s proceedings with a heartfelt speech about the importance of a revival of traditional cultural practices. She articulated that the passing on of knowledge and traditions to the next generation is what provides them with identity, strength, confidence and a sense of their place in the world.

During morning tea John Moriarty gave an inspiring talk, as photographs of his childhood were projected onto the wall behind him. John spoke of how he was taken from his family and his home as a child, but that he treasures the early years of his life spent in the bush, learning traditional practices such as canoe building that gave him a sense of identity as an Aboriginal person. He too reiterated the importance of passing this knowledge through the generations before it is lost.

Aboriginal artist, Jonathan Jones, discussed the centrality of traditional watercraft within his artwork and how it translates beyond two-dimensional works, and into the realm of sculpture. He plans to travel down the Murrumbidgee River to learn more about watercraft and the surrounding culture and lands.

Daryl Wesley’s presentation brought an archaeological perspective to the conference with his examination of maritime images in the rock art of Arnhem Land. He also provided some information on the different chronological frameworks used to assist in dating such as changes of style in the art and – of all things – beeswax!

As an example of intergenerational knowledge sharing in action, Cameron Cope and Steaphan Paton presented on their arts collaboration ‘Boorun’s Canoe’. This project followed Steaphan and his family as his grandfather taught them the traditional art of building a canoe. Steaphan stressed the importance of the canoe as transport, as a way of life and as an icon in the origin story of the Gunaikurnai people. The passing of this heritage from one generation to the next continues the past into the future, so that the story never ends. Revitalising, reawakening and renewing.

Some of the bark canoes used on the harbour on Wednesday night

Some of the bark canoes used on the harbour on Wednesday night

Canoe making presentations dominated the third session and the day closed off with a canoe making demonstration and a dinner on the rooftop terrace of Pyrmont Bridge Hotel.

For more information on these talks, and the many other fantastic speakers who attended the first day please see our website.

Nicole Cama and Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistants

Boorun’s Canoe

Who was Boorun?

Boorun was a pelican, the first of the Gunnai/Kurnai people who came to Gippsland. When Boorun first travelled to the area, he carried with him a bark canoe. As he walked, Boorun heard a tapping sound coming from his canoe. At the deep water inlets, Boorun stopped and turning over his canoe he discovered, much to his surprise, that there was a woman in it. She was Tuk, the musk duck and she became his wife and mother of the Gunnai/Kurnai people.

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Indigenous artist Steaphan Paton

Boorun’s Canoe is the title of an indigenous cultural arts collaboration by artist Steaphan Paton, his grandfather Uncle Albert Mullet and photographic artist Cameron Cope.

The project tells the story of Gunai/Kurnai elder Uncle Albert Mullet as he teaches his grandson Steaphan Paton and other young men in his family how to build a traditional bark canoe. The project captures the canoe’s creation through to its successful floating by Steaphan and his family, and in doing so highlights the importance of transferring intergenerational knowledge and the preservation of cultural traditions and pride.

Boorun the Pelican, our Gunai ancestor, came to Gippsland carrying a bark canoe on his head. Canoes are part of our story of who we are and where we come from. I want to respect my ancestors by continuing the tradition of canoe-making and safeguard it for future generations.  Aboriginal Artist Steaphan Paton.

Steaphan Paton, Uncle Albert Mullet and Cameron Cope will be among the speakers presenting at the conference Nawi : Exploring Australia’s Indigenous Watercraft which begins at the Australian National Maritime Museum during Reconciliation Week and runs from 30 May to 1 June. The conference will look at First Australians’ long and continued connections with watercraft. Some highlights will be artist talks and hands-on canoe making workshops.

The conference commences on Wednesday evening when a number of bark canoes from around the country, lit by traditional fires, will make their way from the museum’s wharves into Darling Harbour. You can still register to come along and participate in this conference, and hear the full story of Boorun’s Canoe.

Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistant

Building bark canoe models with Alexandria Park School

Models are a great way to engage people about a subject and we used them to explore Indigenous watercraft at Alexandria Park Community School on Wednesday 23 May with about ten primary school children. It was mixed group, mostly Indigenous boys, and they were a bundle of energy. Judithe Hall and I went from the museum. Auntie Deb and Thea were there to keep an eye on things. We started quietly with just a strip of coloured paper each and two paper clips.

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David Payne shows the students how to make canoe models from paper

A fold on the centreline and a clip at the first end held it secure. The corners of the other end are then folded in to the middle, then brought together as a fold on the centreline and clipped. After less than 5 minutes we had canoes, in fact more than 10 canoes! We had made miniature paper versions of the derrka or nardan featured in the well-known movie 10 Canoes.   I then showed the group a drawing of the canoe, the geese they hunted using the canoe and then the famous Donald Thomson image from the late 1930s of the 10 canoes in the Arafura Swamp. So we lined up our canoes on two bits of green cardboard and recreated that scene as a little diorama, complete with coloured canoes!

Plasticine was next, and everyone was rolling out mangrove logs in a variety of colours so we could form two kalwa rafts from the Kimberley region. One was made in red, yellow and black Aboriginal colours. Kids raced outside to get twigs to make spears, and things started moving quickly. The rest of the plasticine was rolled together in a vibrant mixture of colours to form a tree trunk, and then passed around as each person hollowed a bit out until we had a dugout formed. Another twig became the mast, and a square of coloured paper became the sail, sticky-taped on.

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Bark canoe models made by the students

Eager to do more, it was time to use natural materials. Small bits of stringy bark were used for the real nawi and soaked overnight to be more pliable. Deft fingers folded and squashed together ends, rubber bands secured them, then little twigs went in to hold the sides apart. String ties made from strips of bark were lashed around the ends to cover the rubber bands and another eight canoes were on the table!

Next- another raft- a walpo from Mornington Island and one boy took charge – arranging the twigs, using rubber bands to hold the ends and cutting paperbark for a seat.

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David shows the students how to build an outrigger model

Time for the big one, a double outrigger form Torres Strait!  I had pre-cut the hulls from cardboard tube and cross beams from dowel. Another boy could see the plan already and started to feed the dowels through the holes in the main hull as they were meant to go. The rest helped tape the outrigger hulls on and put feathers in the back for the decoration they carried. Then we were done!

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The group proudly display their models at the end of the workshop

With a few minutes to go the proud kids posed with their models for photos. They wrote a short sentence or two about the fun they had that morning and then off to lunch.

“Today we made canoes and spears and I thought it was a good experience and my favourite canoe was the outrigger.”

“It was very fun but the most fun of all was when outrigger and we want to make paint..”

“We had fun and made spears and boats. We had fun making them.”

“Today we had to make a canoe and a raft. It was so fun.”

“I love making canoes. The one I liked the most is outrigger. I learnt that aboriginals made different kinds of canoes.”

“I like making canoes out of bark off the tree.”

This joyful collection of models will be on display during the Nawi- exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft conference next week.

David Payne
Curator, Register of Historic Vessels

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Two students proudly display their model bark canoe

Saltwater Boatmen – Meet Keith Vincent Smith

Keith Vincent Smith

As the museum’s conference, Nawi – exploring Australia’s indigenous watercraft nears, we will be turning your attention to the fascinating array of speakers who will be presenting on the 31 May and 1 June. Previously, I wrote about the story of Gnung-a Gnung-a, the first Aboriginal to sail across the seas to America. I enjoyed delving into part of the history of first contact and early European settlement, and Dr Keith Vincent Smith’s talk in the first session will be a welcome addition to what is shaping up to be a diverse program of events.

Keith is an independent historian and curator, whose expertise includes ethnology and the history of the Eora, the Indigenous clans of the Sydney coastal area. His talk will feature the first illustrations produced of Aboriginal watercraft at Botany Bay and cover some of the earliest moments of contact between the British and Aboriginal peoples, who had greeted the foreigners on board their nawi or stringy bark canoes.

Keith curated the exhibition, Mari Nawi – Aboriginal Odysseys 1790-1850, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney in 2010. He described this exhibition as a ‘journey across time, place and cultures.’ Already, preparations for the conference have achieved exactly that, with nawi building being undertaken on the shores of Sydney Harbour. Next week, on 30 May, past and present will come together and canoes will light up Darling Harbour marking the beginning of the conference, but more importantly, it will symbolise an Indigenous cultural tradition that began thousands of years ago.

Have a look at the program of events and register online today.

Nicole Cama
Curatorial assistant

Canoe building in Sydney

Last Wednesday’s fine weather had everyone out enjoying it if they could. For me and 10 others, it was perfect for nawi construction. We were building more tied-bark canoes, probably the first ones to be built on the shores of Sydney Harbour in well over a century.

I was down at Blackwattle Bay, working with an all Indigenous group made up of  members from Tribal Warrior Association’s Youth Mentor Group, their CEO Shane Phillips, and from National Parks and Wildlife Service NSW, Dean Kelly, Aboriginal Cultural Liaison Officer, three of his team and Elder Uncle Keith from La Perouse.

This was another step in the museum’s commitment to working with and supporting Indigenous communities. For me, it was an opportunity to learn from the group and to share the knowledge of building nawis that I’ve built up over the past 12 months. There is still a lot that is not known about the craft and has to be discovered by practical experience.

The bark was already there – my previous blog about my Bateman’s Bay adventure tells that story – so we started with an introduction, just talking about the bark. The most important thing is to understand the life and spirit captured in the bark; it’s a living part of the tree. The capillaries that carry the nutrients, created by leaves, form the fibres and strength of the bark we were going to use. It has life that we can put into our nawi.

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A fire is lit to heat up the bark

We then got into the practical side. We cleaned off the loose bark, stripped the ends down to make them thinner for folding, pulled long strips off for ties, set up a fire, shaped some wooden pegs… there was something for everyone to work on.

We laid the first end of the bark over the fire within 40 minutes of starting, and 20 minutes later the heat was doing its job. So the folding team took their sides as the sheet was removed.

Hands on each side we grabbed the edges and folded it in and then back on itself. Another person at the front kept things aligned and got the middle ready to take its final crease, while the ‘lasso man’ tightened the rope to secure it all in place. On with the rope, then back off as we realigned the folds, then a final heave and we had an end in place, rising up as it should!

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We begin to tie the second end of the canoe.

Next, a blueberry ash peg was hammered through, holding the folds in place as strips of bark were lashed around to complete the process. We then turned the bark, heated it over the fire and did it all again, this time for the cameras. SBS and ABC had each sent a crew to capture the action.

Watching over the process was Redfern’s Police liaison officer, he had come down to see what the boys were up to, and staff from the museum had come across as well to see what these projects I have been doing actually involve.

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Tying the ends of the bark canoe

The final step was to fit a support structure, to push the sides out and give it a bit more shape and strength. Afterwards the TV crew interviewed us, keen to hear what everyone thought of the process.

We formed the ends on the second bark and called it a day. We were happy to have got this far, and in good shape to finish the second canoe in the coming days.  A big tidy up followed, nawi building seems to develop a lot of loose material – dead bark, strips off the inside of the bark, leaves and twigs off branches, firewood. All signs of productive activity and the restoration of a significant cultural activity – nawi building on Sydney Harbour.

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

The Nawi conference is only a few weeks away! Over two days 31 May – 1 June, people from all over Australia will gather to explore Australia’s indigenous watercraft though a series of talks, demonstrations and performance. You can register on our website.

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Complete bark canoe on top of car

Hidden gems rediscovered – Wharf 7 comes to life with stories of Australia’s maritime past

Concealed in the storage rooms of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Wharf 7 Maritime Heritage Centre in Pyrmont, are thousands of objects within the collection waiting to be unearthed for exhibition. Only a privileged few gain access to these areas and much of the collection has remained undiscovered by visitors to the museum…until now.

Bales of wool being loaded on board Magdalene Vinnen March 1933
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

The museum has developed this project, in association with Sydney Heritage Fleet, to exhibit an array of objects not available for viewing in the museum. Photographs depicting commercial shipping, sailing races and seaside workers adorn the walls. One example is an image of the visit of the German steel barque Magdalene Vinnen, highlighting the vibrant maritime scene of Woolloomooloo wharf in 1933.

Watercraft from the Australian Register of Historic Vessels (ARHV) seem to float on air, carefully poised in the foyer area. Social and cultural icons of Sydney Harbour such as skiffs, dinghies and rowing shells are featured. The 18-foot skiff Yendys, which was restored to its former glory between 1977 and 1982, appears majestic with its discernible anchor ensign emblazoned on its sails. Also displayed is a scale model of the hull and keel of Ben Lexcen’s ‘secret weapon’, Australia’s famous 1983 America’s Cup winner, Australia II.

Pyrmont and the waters surrounding it also contain a fascinating Indigenous cultural heritage, steeped in the traditions of the Gadigal people. Drawings from the early 1800s illustrate Aboriginal people using rock shelters under cliffs and cooking fish caught in bark canoes or nawi.

All these stories add to Australia’s diverse social and cultural history. They also allow more of the museum’s precious gems to be unveiled in a way that both captures the essence of our maritime past and inspires our imagination.

On 30 May, the museum is hosting the first conference on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watercraft, Nawi.

For more information on the museum’s development of the ARHV, in consultation with Sydney Heritage Fleet, click here.

Nicole Cama, curatorial assistant

Yendys, 1924
restored 1977-1982
Sydney Heritage Fleet
Photographer: Zoe McMahon ANMM

Tank-test model 5854B scale model of hull and keel of Australia II 1981
ANMM Collection
Photographer: Zoe McMahon ANMM

Wharf 7 redevelopment
Photographer: Zoe McMahon ANMM

Workshop on model watercraft

Flinders University, 29/30 March 2012

I am recently back from coastal Port Noarlunga on the Onkaparinga River south of Adelaide, where I held a two day workshop building models of Australian Indigenous watercraft.

Sponsored by Flinders University and coordinated by lecturer Jennifer McKinnon, I worked with 10 archaeology and maritime archaeology students, exploring the construction of different types of watercraft at scale and using this to discuss the background of the craft, plus the many aspects of indigenous  culture that are expressed through their diverse variety of canoes and rafts.

Participants of model building workshop in backyard

This was a workshop with a few differences; it was outside the classroom in a backyard, it was hands-on, it had fire, there were scones and Arnott’s assorted biscuits,  and there were no handouts or notes to take home.

One the key concepts of  Indigenous  watercraft construction was that the knowledge of their design and construction was handed on by word of mouth and demonstration, so I kept to that process, and the students took home the information in their heads and in their models.

We started sitting in a circle and talking about the background to the craft, the loss of the ‘canoe culture’ that once existed on many waterways, the diversity of craft around the country, and how I had got involved in all of this. Then we went to work using the samples of bark that Keryn Walshe, from South Australian Museum, had been able to source some days beforehand. Each model type began with me demonstrating the construction method then everyone had a go themselves.

Two workshop participants building model bark canoe

The process worked – watching, listening and questioning. The students took in the ideas and quickly produced models, sometimes taking them apart and improving them at a second go.   Throughout the two days we learnt about using materials in sympathy with what they could do, and we learnt about using and adapting what was around us too, seeking plants and parts of them from our backyard and kerbside surroundings to make ties, ropes, caulking and support structure.   We put them over a fire to dry them out and singe off the loose fibres,  used the spikes off Phoenix palm fronds as needles, saved twigs and branches form the fire wood pile to build rafts, all the time  sharing ideas and results.

Seven model bark canoes

As the workshop drew to a close we had five different types represented;   nawi or tied-bark canoes from south-east Australian coast, derrkas from Arnhem Land made famous by 10 Canoes, a walba raft from Mornington island, a rolled bark canoe from Tasmania, and a ‘shopping trolley’ type of towed raft based on an example I had seen in the National Museum of Australia’s collection.  We also had ideas forming for the next time- more model types, maybe larger ones too, and additional materials that could be useful.

Workshop participants with model bark canoes

To wrap up the two days I did a lecture in the city on Friday evening about the Australian Register of Historic Vessels ending with its focus on Indigenous watercraft and the forthcoming Nawi conference. Hope to see you all there!

David Payne
Curator, Australian Register of Historic Vessels

Nawi conference registrations now open

We are thrilled to announce that delegate registrations for the conference Nawi – Exploring Australia’s Indigenous watercraft are now open. If you register before 31 March, you will receive the early bird rate.

This first major conference exploring the watercraft of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples will bring together people from all over Australia to share their knowledge, skills and stories. Over two days, we will explore Australia’s Indigenous watercraft through talks, demonstrations, performances and workshops.

We’ve added a few of the conference highlights on our website, so head on over and check it out. More information will be added as the program is finalised – it’s sure to be a fantastic few days!

Group photo of canoe builders

Recent canoe building workshop in Ulladulla, NSW

Conference dates

Wednesday 30 May
Evening welcome function

Thursday 31 May – Friday 1 June
Conference program

Conference location

Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney

Delegate fees

Early bird (before 31 March) $220
Concession rate $165
Full rate $275

You can register for the conference online now.

We look forward to seeing you there!