Current exhibition

Awakening objects and cultures

The Awaken exhibition includes almost 200 items from the extensive Donald Thomson Collection during the Melbourne University anthropologist’s 50-year career.

The exhibition explores a collection of objects, animals and plants that emerged out of the relationship between Donald Thomson and many Aboriginal people from three main source communities: the Pintupi in the Western Desert, and the diverse cultural regions of Arnhem Land and Cape York.

Awaken is curated by Worimi Nation film-maker, curator, storyteller and Head of First Peoples at the Melbourne Museum, Genevieve Grieves, with Rosemary Wrench and Shonae Hobson (Kaantju).

The exhibition aims to foster a greater understanding of the cultures, knowledge and values of several Australian Indigenous communities and language groups and reaffirms the University’s commitment to Reconciliation with its focus on a holistic, inclusive and two-way relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

‘Awaken’ highlights the deep and abiding relationships that exist between communities of origin and objects held in museums. Objects are a rich source of knowledge and understanding, but they truly awaken when connected to their communities.


The Awaken exhibition has been curated in consultation with communities, using local knowledge alongside Donald Thomson’s fieldwork notes to awaken the stories of these objects and explore community’s deep and abiding connections with them.

Watch the video to find out more.


Awaken has a focus on community participation and cross-cultural exchange, highlighted by several displays within the exhibition

Installation view of the 'Awaken' exhibition in the Arts West Gallery. Photo: Christo Crocker, 2019.
Installation view of the 'Awaken' exhibition in the Arts West Gallery. Photo: Christo Crocker, 2019.

Stories of connection

This area of the Awaken exhibition features objects, images, and archival footage from the Donald Thomson collection, as well as three short films, commissioned to highlight the deep connections between people, place and cultural material.

These films share the spiritual, cultural and social significance of collection material, bringing objects to life through their relationship with their source communities.

Each story presents a young person from the three main source communities Donald Thomson worked with: Western Desert, Cape York and Arnhem Land.

To view the films please click on the images below

Awaken exhibition installation image of material objects.
Installation view of the 'Awaken' exhibition in the Arts West Gallery. Photo: Christo Crocker, 2019.

Massed object display

This section of Awaken features objects that came to the collection through Thomson’s relationship with the Pintupi and diverse communities of Arnhem Land and Cape York.

Many of these objects do not yet have stories associated with them and this journey of discovery will facilitate teaching and learning and encourage a deeper connection to community.

This section of the exhibition features innovative digital labels, including 3D images and virtual reality of the objects, to unlock the objects from their display cases and 're-place' them into the contexts from which they came.

These digital labels have been loaded onto digital devices that are available at the exhibition.

Find out more about this on the Faculty of Arts Digital Studio website.

The University of Melbourne respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which the University stands, the elders of the Wurundjeri-wilam people of the Kulin Nation, past, present and future. The University seeks to follow in their traditions of welcoming others to this place and of treating the land and its peoples with respect. The University acknowledges these lands have been part of knowledge passed on to new generations for thousands of years, and it continues that tradition.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors are advised that the Awaken exhibition may contain images and voices of people who have died.