Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Burke and Wills remembered

To-day a memorial plaque will be officially launched to commemorate the departure, 150 years ago, of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills on a journey of exploration.  The Burke and Wills saga is well embedded in the Australian consciousness - not least because it was an unmitigated disaster and an example of how not to conduct exploration in Australia.

I live in Melbourne and Burke and Wills are big here.  I sort of knew that before I came to live here.  However, I am frequently confronted by the mass adulation of the B&W pre-expedition and their memorialisation post-disaster.  There are statues here and there but I was really gobsmacked by a very, very large artwork at the State Library of Victoria which portrayed the adulation of the crowds of Melbourne as they farewelled these yet to be heroic men.

I hate to be a party-pooper but I am a North Australian living in exile in Melbourne and where I come from Burke and Wills are regarded as prize dills.  We don't think they knew very much.  We don't think they needed to perish.  We think they were amazingly arrogant and ignorant.  While they were doing a perish not too far away Aboriginal groups were thriving.

If any memorials are being built to Burke and Wills to-day they should be done in the context of the ignorance and arrogance of the post-1788 white settlers.

The State Library of Victoria is entering into the commemorations with an ongoing exhibition which began in  May and will run through to October this year under the title of Burke and Wills: Terra Incognita.  To-morrow and Friday there are workshops related to the exhibition from the Curator's viewpoint. Gerard Hayes will discuss items on display including contemporary portraits of Burke and Wills, their last notes and firearms used on the expedition.  Bookings for the workshops are essential.

And for everything you ever wanted to know on the B&W 150th, please go here.

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