The Australian landscape is home to UNESCO World Heritage-listed natural and cultural treasures. See rock art at Nourlangie and Ubirr, or discover ancient Aboriginal villages in the Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape.

Recent reports suggest that the laws protecting Indigenous heritage at a national level need a comprehensive review. These include the EPBC Act and the ATSIHP Act, both of which allow ministerial declarations to protect sites that are threatened by mining or development.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Culture

Aboriginal Australians have a rich cultural heritage that dates back 50,000 years. It predates Stonehenge and the Pyramids and can be experienced all over Australia – from Sydney to the Daintree rainforest, Central Australia or the red dust of the Outback.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are vibrant, strong and diverse. They are an important part of Australia’s heritage and play a key role in our national identity.

Indigenous culture is recognised and protected through the National Heritage List, the World Heritage Convention and in Commonwealth Heritage Places. These include places with outstanding natural, cultural or historic values such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta and Jervis Bay Territory.

Students learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and their cultural expressions. In particular, they develop an understanding of the inseparable connection between language and land. They also examine the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures and progress towards recognition and equality.

British Colonialism

The Aboriginal peoples inhabited Sahul (the continent that extends from southern Tasmania to Papua New Guinea) for millennia, living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with a diverse food base. The archaeological record indicates that indigenous Australians’ ancestors were at the cutting edge of Pleistocene technology and had evolved a range of tools to manage the landscape.

With the arrival of British colonial settlers in the late 18th century, terror and genocide were perpetrated on indigenous peoples to expropriate their land and resources. This theft was justified in discourses of race, backwardness, civilization, and modernity.

In addition to looting land and killing indigenous peoples, colonial settlers stole invaluable cultural heritage objects. These are still held by Western institutions and, as the conversation around restitution grows, there is hope that these objects will be returned to their traditional owners. The restitution of these objects will reveal how important it is for museums to engage in this kind of work, which transcends disciplinary boundaries and raises important questions about the past, present, and future.

European Colonialism

The British cultural influence remained strong into the 20th century, but other influences broadened Australia’s vision of itself. Australians are proud that a nation of convicts and working-class people built a modern egalitarian society in an often rough and inhospitable land. They are also pleased with the achievements of a nation that can boast an Olympic team, the Sydney Opera House and the V8 Supercar racing series.

Aboriginal art has long been an important part of Australia’s cultural heritage, with works like the Gwion Gwion and Wondjina imagery in Kimberley and Sydney rock engravings demonstrating its prehistoric significance. Contemporary Aboriginal artists, such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye and the Hermannsburg School, use acrylic paints to depict dreamings set in a symbolic topography in what has become known as dot painting.

Theatre in Australia has long been a significant feature of its cultural heritage, with Melbourne’s Princess Theatre and Hobart’s Theatre Royal among the oldest theatres still operating. During the 1960s and 70s Australian classical music erupted with influences, with composers exploring both Aboriginal and Southeast Asian music and instruments, American jazz and blues, and belatedly discovering European atonality and the avant-garde.

Modern Australia

Australia is a country that has developed its own culture of independence and autonomy, partly due to its isolation. Its idiosyncratic lifestyle and ad hoc rules and laws have created a society that has a reputation for being laid-back, but this is offset by a string of practical regulations which Australians are required to adhere to.

Aboriginal art has a high profile in Australia and contemporary Indigenous artists have gained international renown.

Theatre and literature have a long history in Australia. The 19th Century saw the development of theatres such as Hobart’s Theatre Royal and Melbourne’s Queen’s Theatre. Billy tea (made by boiling water in a ‘billy’ and adding a piece of gum leaf for flavouring) is still a traditional drink, a favorite of those living in the bush, as depicted in the infamous folk song “Waltzing Matilda”. Australian novelists include Miles Franklin, Nevil Shute, Tim Winton and Helen Garner.