Interview with Auntie Veronica Barnett

Auntie Veronica Barnett hand feeding eels, Milarri Garden, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, 2011.
Auntie Veronica Barnett hand feeding eels, Milarri Garden, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, 2011.

"Eels migrate from the Coral Sea. They float on the current until they reach the coast of Australia. They turn into glass eels and eventually elvers as they make their way to estuaries along the coast. Indigenous people have long understood sustainable hunting and harvesting, seasonal changes in flora and fauna, and seasonal fire management. Indigenous people make eel traps from lamandra leaves. Eels are one of our main sources of food."

Auntie Veronica Barnett and new-born Chappell Island tiger snakes, 1968. WARNING: do not handle snakes, they may be venomous and do bite.
Auntie Veronica Barnett and new-born Chappell Island tiger snakes, 1968. WARNING: do not handle snakes, they may be venomous and do bite.

Sustainability, conservation and cultural knowledge is important to Auntie Veronica. Last year Auntie Veronica ran a number of workshops in the Milarri Garden teaching students about the flora and fauna in the garden, and basket weaving in Kalaya. These workshops were for the Sustainable School Awards program, which included workshops across Melbourne Museum in sciences, education and various curatorial areas. Auntie Veronica and I had a chat over a cuppa. We managed to find a quiet place to talk at Melbourne Museum. Auntie Veronica shared her story with me.

Melbourne Museum opened at Carlton Gardens on 21 October 2000. Auntie Veronica applied for a Customer Service Officer position at the Museum before it opened, and began her work in the Milarri Garden at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre giving guided tours of the plants and animals, imparting her knowledge to the next generation. Also working in the Forest Gallery, 'touching the early, and being close to nature, always'. "I tell my grandson - knowledge is power - learn as much as you can".

"Sharing Indigenous knowledge is important to me, I feel the need to pass on knowledge so it’s never lost. For me, NAIDOC Week brings this into focus. NAIDOC Week gives me an opportunity to honour the people of the Kulin Nation - the traditional custodians of the land we live and work on, where the Museum now stands".

Growing up in far North Queensland, Auntie Veronica and cousins would jump into the Mossman River to swim. "There were no croc's in there then, but with heavy rain and floods, croc's are there now. You can't swim there anymore". Making a shape with her hands of a crocodile's mouth open - a big smile - waiting for swimmers to dive in. "I was always by the river or the sea and in the rainforest up north".

"I am of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent. I was born in Babinda, North Queensland. My family was evacuated from Thursday Island during the war. My grandmother - a strong Indigenous woman - on my father's side was from Bamaga on the Cape York Peninsula. My mother was a Thursday Islander from the Torres Strait. I lived a traditional life until I was 20 years old, when I moved down south".

L-R: Auntie Veronica Barnett on the cover of a magazine wearing a pareu, a kind of sarong worn in Hawaii, the text translates as roughly ‘The best choice of pareu is always at the store Hawaii shirts Hawaiiennes Maches long or short drawings unpublished, Rue Paul Gauguin’, 1960s; Auntie Veronica performing in Tahiti, 1960s; Auntie Veronica dancing at the University of Queensland, c. 1965 / Courtesy of Auntie Veronica Barnett’s personal collection
Auntie Veronica Barnett and new-born Chappell Island tiger snakes, 1968. WARNING: do not handle snakes, they may be venomous and do bite.Newspaper article of Auntie Veronica with ex-husband holding a 16 foot snake.
Newspaper article of Auntie Veronica with ex-husband holding a 16 foot snake.

Auntie Veronica moved south, to Sydney, where she began dancing with fire. Moving two burning sticks along her arms, Auntie Veronica would dance with the fire, eat the fire to extinquish the flame. It wasn’t until moving to Melbourne that Auntie Veronica acquired a Amethystine snake and carpet snake to dance with, she would bring out one snake at a time to dance with, and would put the snake down while dancing with fire. Auntie Veronica went to Tahiti to perform. "I ended up staying in Tahiti for six weeks to work". Returning to Melbourne, Auntie Veronica took dance lessons at the Grovener Academy on Flinders Street in the city with dance teachers Jenny Liddel and Christine Bead, including ballet and other dance styles.

When Auntie Veronica was about 30 years old she took up painting. "I'm also an artist, my work has been selected for inclusion in major exhibitions, including Respect for Elders, an exhibition at RMIT University, Once is Too Often, and other exhibitions at Daley Art Gallery, Trinity Grammar, Hunts Club Exhibition, Deer Park and Footscray Community Art Club, and recently at Monica College, Epping, for NAIDOC Week".

Auntie Veronica Barnett basket weaving and Indigenous traditional woven baskets made by Auntie Veronica, Milarri Garden, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Melbourne Museum, 2018 / Photographer: Rodney Start / Source: Museums Victoria

During International Women’s Day this year, Auntie Veronica did a series of basket weaving workshops at Melbourne Museum, teaching staff how to make string and bracelets. "It's about respecting the Elders past, present and future. Respecting our culture and sharing it with others. It’s also important to remember that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can work together and do so every day. My role as a Customer Service Officer gives me the opportunity to impart my knowledge to those from all walks of life".

Artist Celia Moriarty painted Auntie Veronica’s portrait in the Milarri Garden for her series, Keys to Our Country: Leading Through Action, a series celebrating Indigenous Australians. The artist wrote a statement on her website: "The purpose of this project is to celebrate individuals who are leading the way to a stronger Australian future through teaching about Indigenous culture. Through education we can see and build a more collaborative future". To view the portrait and to find out more about this series, visit www.keystoourcountry.com.au.

Because of her, we can! is this year's theme for NAIDOC Week. Auntie Veronica's mother passed after her brother was born. "I used to spend holidays in Mossman at the beach where Granny Anne lived with my Aunt (my mother's sister). All were strong women". These are strong women in Auntie Veronica's life. Thank you for sharing your story and personal photographs Auntie Veronica, it was a great honour for me.

Written by Nik McGrath, Archivist at Museums Victoria.

This article was originally published in the Australian Society of Archivist's July 2018 newsletter.

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