Current Issue #488

Illuminating Gawler’s Place in History

Coinciding with the opening of Gawler’s redeveloped Civic Centre, Into the Light explores the forces that have shaped Gawler’s sense of place and identity, from Kaurna custodianship to European colonisation.

Into the Light is the work of cultural heritage consultant, exhibition designer and historian Denise Schumann. Created with input from senior representatives of the Kaurna Nation and members of the local Gawler community, the exhibition pays respect to the Kaurna Nation while celebrating the intellectual and artistic achievements of early colonists.

The Gawler Institute was home to South Australia’s first public natural science museum in 1859, including the first collection of Aboriginal and other ethnographic artefacts. This exhibition quietly but effectively contrasts Kaurna artefacts with archival treasures from the Gawler Heritage Collection.

Into the Light merges new and old understandings and insights,” says Schumann, adding “the title is partly a play on Colonel William Light’s association with the region.” While surveying the area around the North and South Para Rivers in 1837, “Colonel Light was the first European to paint what was then a pristine environment.”

“Each element in the exhibition from woven Kaurna dreaming mats to transparent colonial artworks on windows and exquisitely prepared scientific curios – embraces ‘light’ as it reflects on every aspect of Gawler’s history, reflecting changing cultural values and meanings.”

With the assistance of costume designer Nikki Fort, a beautiful emu cloak was recreated as a recognition of Kaurna cultural heritage and its renewal in the 21st century. The exhibition tells the intriguing story of a rare Kaurna emu net that was gifted to the Gawler Institute in the 1859 and later loaned to the South Australian Museum.

Also featured are two magnificent wall hangings of bird pictures from John Gould’s Birds of Australia. Gould recorded Major Mitchell’s cockatoos nesting in Gawler during his visit in 1839, while glossy black cockatoos were also present in the Mount Lofty Ranges in the 19th century and featured strongly in Kaurna ceremonial dress.

The Treasures Wall demonstrates how the North and South Para Rivers informed the design and layout of Gawler township. A large 19th century map is overlaid with early photographs chronicling the rapidly changing landscape.  From the 1850s, the population was expanding and mining activity in Kapunda, Burra and other areas contributed to the region’s growing wealth. With roads, trains, Victorian buildings and the newly established Institute and Museum, Gawler emerged as an urban centre rivalling Adelaide. In this period of growth, the town laid claim to the mantle of South Australia’s “colonial Athens”.

Australian nascent nationalism got a boost when the Gawler Institute organised a competition for a “‘national patriotic song” in October 1859, offering a prize of ten guineas each for the best words and music. German émigré Carl Linger was chosen to set the lyrics of English-born poet Caroline Carleton to music. Published by the Gawler Institute, The Song of Australia became one of the most performed works in 19th and 20th century Australia.

Other highlights of the exhibition include a magnificent Kaurna possum cloak on loan from Kaurna elders, the original Colonel Light painting of the 1811 Battle of Barrosa (after which the Barossa Valley was named) and Light’s own pen and ink Gawler town plan.

In a world where museology has been captured by digital technology, this intelligently and beautifully crafted exhibition provides an actual “experience” that demands engagement and historical reflection.

Into the Light seeks to challenge perceptions of South Australia’s colonial history and broaden our understanding of Country. Many of the objects, artworks and artefacts are drawn from the Gawler Institute Collection and from the Gawler community. They bring to light hidden stories and help us to interpret history from a different angle, throwing new light upon the past.

Make time after your visit to look at the award-winning Civic Centre and visit the social enterprise cafe Niina Marni Kadlitiya.

Into the Light
Town of Gawler Civic Centre, 89 Murray Street, Gawler
until 26 March

Alexis Buxton-Collins

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