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Director's highlight

Museum Director Kevin Sumption PSM singles out Under Southern Skies as the highlight for 2019–20.

Under Southern Skies, the first permanent gallery experienced by most visitors to the museum, opened to the public on 22 June 2020. Designed, curated and installed by museum staff, on a very modest budget, this gallery offers the most comprehensive look at navigating the oceans that surround our island nation.

In a year that has focused on the milestone of 250 years since James Cook charted the east coast of Australia, it was timely to redevelop the longstanding Navigators Gallery to showcase Cook’s story alongside that of other important navigators.

Under Southern Skies brings our navigational history to life in a rich, immersive fashion. From the importance of the night sky in Torres Strait Islander navigation to Polynesian stick star charts, and from Cook’s observation of the transit of Venus to Flinders’ circumnavigation of the continent, the planets and stars of the southern skies unite the long history of all navigators around Australia.

Starting with the earliest celestial navigators, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we lay a foundation on navigation in this region. We then move to the Muslim Makassan sailors from Indonesia through to the European period of exploration. This approach puts the achievements of the European explorers who are so important to our country in a broader historical context.

Refreshing the permanent galleries is one of the joys of being a museum director. I am delighted to say that Under Southern Skies includes more than 500 objects from the National Maritime Collection, many of which have not been exhibited or exhibited recently.

The gallery includes a selection of important new material associated with James Cook and other European navigators, as well as new acquisitions and objects from Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Indigenous Pacific navigators.

We also feature more than 20 ship models, from Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander watercraft to European vessels; the important Bradley Log from HMS Sirius, featuring the first charts of Sydney Harbour; a range of historical navigational instruments; and a 13-metre dugout canoe from Papua New Guinea, showing voyaging histories connecting to Australia’s north. These objects are beautifully displayed alongside artworks from the collection, including Gail Mabo’s iconic Constellations and wonderful European maritime artworks.

We know our audiences treasure the National Maritime Collection and that they look forward to seeing how we use it to reveal our maritime history. Early feedback is that this new gallery and our approach are delighting visitors young and old as they see the timeline of our history come to life before their eyes.

Kevin Sumption PSM