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A Territory Story

There are stories about the Northern Territory that most people know – the devastation of Cyclone Tracy, Sweetheart the five metre crocodile, and the reason the skies explode with fireworks on July 1. But the new semi-permanent exhibition at the Northern Territory Library, A Territory Story, takes a closer look at the region’s 60,000-year history and the personal stories of those who have called the NT home.

By Tamara Howie

As you enter, a powerful statue of a figure in chains accompanies the story of Ayaiga – an Aboriginal man who saved the life of a police constable who had arrested him in 1911.

Historian and co-curator Samantha Wells says the story illustrates the complexity of the history between Aboriginal people and the pastoral settlement in the early 1900s.

“Ayaiga was a man from Roper River – he and three other men had been caught by Constable Johns and arrested for stealing food from Hodgson Downs Station,” she says.

The three men were locked up in neck chains and forced to swim across the flooded Wilton River in the height of the Wet season.

“The men in chains got across fine,” Wells explains.

“But Johns was holding on to the saddle of his horse and his horse rolled in the current and kicked him in the head.”

Ayaiga jumped in the river, pulled the unconscious officer to safety and the men took him to the Roper River police station to make sure he was okay.

Constable Johns went on to become the South Australian police commissioner, and also fathered two daughters in the Territory – including Darwin icon Charlie King’s mother.

Ayaiga was awarded the Albert Medal, the British Empire’s highest award for saving a life, by King George V in 1912, a replica of which can be seen in the exhibition.

“We chose to tell this story because of its complexity – it’s not about the success of pastoralism or the resistance of Aboriginal people – it tells a much more complicated story,” Wells says.

The deceivingly large exhibition captures a diverse snapshot of the Northern Territory’s history and provides a glimpse into the vast collection held at the library.

The development of tourism, housing, music and life in the NT are told through audio-visual displays and listening stations where visitors can hear first hand stories from Territorians, including members of the Stolen Generation and icons from the past.

Wells says the exhibition isn’t just a tourist site – it’s been designed specifically with locals in mind.

“We wanted to create a place for locals to come and feel like they’ve come home,” Wells says.

“Exhibitions work well if you can tell people something they already know, and give them something extra, so they can identify with something and then go ‘wow’.

“The tourists learn something about the Territory, and many locals comment that the exhibition makes them feel proud to be a Territorian”.

The exhibition was a huge collaborative process, and will remain in place for a number of years – but it’s worth a look on every visit, as there are developments and additions to come.


Thumbnail: Tour bus, Central Australia, c. 1965; Northern Territory Library, Bill Kennewell Manuscript Collection.

Header: Motor cars in the high grass, Central Mt Stuart, 1927, Northern Territory Library, Resonians Automobile Tour Collection.

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