New permanent exhibition at the Ration Shed Museum, Cherbourg

Receiving flour at Barambah Aboriginal Settlement, 1911. State Library of Queensland. Negative number: 130675

The Ration Shed Museum is part of the historical precinct in the Aboriginal community of Cherbourg, located in the South Burnett region of South-East Queensland. On Monday 2nd July, a new exhibition will be launched at the Ration Shed – it will be the museum’s first permanent exhibition and represents years of work by the museum and members of the Cherbourg community. The opening launches Cherbourg’s NAIDOC celebrations for 2012.

The exhibition traces the complex history of Cherbourg, from its beginnings as Barambah Aboriginal reserve in 1899 to the proud and resilient town of today. It takes the form of a timeline, placing the detailed history of Cherbourg in the wider context of the history of Aboriginal Australia. As the exhibition notes, at times Cherbourg has been in step with national developments, but at other times Cherbourg people have had to face their own distinct challenges. The exhibition shows the reality of “living under the Act” in Queensland: the restriction of freedoms, the breaking up of families and clans, the deliberate destruction of culture and language, the control of people’s wages and finances.  It is a story of strength and survival. For in the face of this repression and domination, Cherbourg people have created a vibrant community with a distinctive identity and the exhibition celebrates this as well.

The timeline is accompanied by many images, which capture this multi-faceted history. The historical shift is evident as these change from black and white to colour, from photographs taken by doctors and visiting officials for Annual  Reports to photographs taken by Cherbourg artists, honouring Elders and depicting contemporary life. The exhibition would not have this visual richness without the support of the State Library of Queensland who provided numerous photographs from their collection to feature in the exhibition.

Few Australians have a real knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal history. This sounds like a strong and bald statement but I speak here from my personal experience of someone who has worked for many years in the heritage and museum sector yet really knew so little. In working with members of the Cherbourg community on this exhibition, I have learned more than I could have imagined. It has made me reflect upon the power of history – the power of people being able to express their own history, in their own way. Sharing their story of survival and resilience with the broader community brings healing and pride for the Cherbourg community. But it is a powerful experience for visitors as well. When you visit the historical precinct, history is all around you. You will see the centre of control at the former Superintendent’s Office and the bureaucracy of permits and permissions; you walk through the former Boys’ Dormitory and feel the presence of the many children who lived there over time and visit the Ration Shed itself, where rations of flour, sugar and tea were handed out to the “inmates”. You can watch wonderful films about life in Cherbourg past and present and you will meet an Elder or member of the community who will bring this history alive for you. With this new exhibition, visitors will gain an even broader perspective.

The State Library of Queensland has provided 54 high resolution images of Cherbourg for this exhibition, some of which can be viewed through One Search.

Jo Besley – Principal Arts Development Officer, Creative Communities, Arts Queensland/Department of Science, IT, Innovation and the Arts