Cultural rebirth


THE revamped Rottnest Museum, now called the Wadjemup Museum, is a poignant reminder of the island’s fascinating and sometimes gruesome history.

Courtesy of a $1 million federal government grant, the museum interior and gardens have been transformed into a quiet place where tourists can take a moment to reflect on Rottnest’s turbulent past.

Some of the items on display are symbolic reminders of the horrendous conditions Aboriginal prisoners endured on the island, like the remnants of two mill stones used to ground grain in the 1800s. 

Up to eight Aboriginal prisoners performed the punishing task of rotating these stones, which was the only known mill in WA built to be powered by human hands.

But it’s not all doom and gloom with recent displays reflecting the process of reconciliation and some even raising a wry smile, like ‘The Corona Beer Bucket’.

In March last year, the island was used as a covid quarantine station for West Australians returning to Perth who were on the Vasco da Gama cruise ship. 

A few days before the passengers arrived on the island, a smoking ceremony was performed by Whadjuk Noongar monitors Brendan Moore and Ben Ugle. 

At the time, the only metal container that could be found to contain the embers of the smoking ceremony was a Corona beer bucket.  

Mr Moore is a member of the Wadjemup Aboriginal Reference Group, formed in 2017 to provide advice to the Rottnest Island Authority on culture, heritage and reconciliation.

The group was instrumental in the Wadjemup Museum renaming, and oversaw the content for displays and the custom smoking pit and ceremony area at the entrance.

The traditional owners of Rottnest Island are the Whadjuk Noongar people, and the island’s name in Noongar is Wadjemup, which means ‘place across the water where the spirits are’. 

Several long-term museum displays have been refurbished including those on pre-island Aboriginal heritage (which dates back at least 40,000 years), The Aboriginal Prison (1838 and 1931), internment during the World Wars, reconciliation and healing, and the 2020 covid quarantine station.

There’s also new displays and temporary exhibitions like Sculpture at Wadjemup: reflections on environment, history and heritage, featuring a series of artworks by contemporary WA artists, and a screening of films by emerging WA curators Vanessa Smart and Samara King from the online exhibition Wadjemup: Koora Wordel, Kalygool Wordel (Rottnest Island: Always Was/Always Will Be). 

Since opening on December 22, the Wadjemup Museum has been well received by visitors to the island, according to RIA cultural heritage manager Jane Skippington.

The Museum is located in the Old Mill and Hay Store, built in 1857 by Aboriginal prisoners. 

For a brief period in the early 1900s it was used as a prison reformatory before becoming staff living quarters for much of the 20th century.  

By Stephen Pollock

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s