Possum skin cloak - on display during Reconciliation Week
Take the opportunity to visit the University's magnificent possum skin cloak - on display at the Baillieu Library during National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June 2015)
Belonging to Country (extract from Billibellary's Walk)
Imagine it is deep winter (June–July), and you are standing outside on the land where the University now sits – on Wurundjeri Country. As the cold wind bites you might pull your possum skin cloak around your shoulders.
Your cloak, and the designs on its skin, represent the reciprocal relationship and engagement with Country that forms an integral part of Aboriginal culture, imbuing the wearer with Wurundjeri identity, one that was severely shattered once Victoria was colonized. The Wurundjeri people were dispossessed from their Country, their place of belonging, and provided with meagre food rations on government-controlled missions, where possum skin cloaks were replaced by inadequate blankets that harboured disease. Language, the key to sustaining an oral culture, was also forbidden.
A renewal of culture and identity
Today, the practice of possum skin cloak-making is alive once again and language is also being resurrected, renewing culture and identity. In 2012, as part of its Melbourne Medical School sesquicentenary celebrations, the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences bestowed the gift of this possum skin cloak to the University of Melbourne.
Fashioned by local Wurundjeri artist Mandy Thomas (nee Nicholson), the cloak was formally presented to the University in 2012 and first worn by Professor Ian Anderson for the academic procession leading to his conferral to the degree of Doctor of Medical Science (honoris causa).
In a gesture of respect to her ancestors, and in recognition of the fact that the University of Melbourne's Parkville campus lies within Wurundjeri Country, Mandy Thomas used traditional symbology to guide her design.
The symbols on the cloak pertain to Wurundjeri Country and depict symbols for students and learning. The intricate swirls throughout the design represent the smoke of a ceremonial fire to welcome students – from near and far – to the land, and portray their personal and academic journeys while at university and beyond. Interlocking and reaching out in multiple directions, the swirls also call on students to share the knowledge learned at university within their own communities and the wider world.
"The cloak is a rare and significant cultural gift," says Professor Anderson. "It is also a gift to the University of the Wurundjeri. It honours the Wurunderji tradition, their high formal culture and their countrymen, the Bunerorong, Waudawurrung, Dja Dja Wurrung, and Tungwurrung."
In collaboration with the artist and community elders, the safekeeping and use of the cloak is stringently governed by the University's conservators.
Since 2012, this cloak has been worn by distinguished members of the University's Indigenous staff at formal University occasions such as the annual Narrm Oration and the graduations of Indigenous students. In 2012, it was worn by the first Australian to deliver the Narrm Oration, Professor Megan Davis from the University of New South Wales.
This is the first time the cloak has been placed on public display and we do so now in National Reconciliation Week in the spirit of reconciliation and as purposeful way to honour the Traditional Custodians of the land on which the Parkville campus sits.