The Lie of the Land

05 October, 2008

Question: I visited the Melbourne Museum last week and was very interested in “The Lie of the Land” installation. Unfortunately it was raining so I wasn’t able to explore it in detail. Can you tell me more about it?

Lie of the Land installation at Melbourne Museum

Lie of the Land by Fiona Foley sandstone installation at Melbourne Museum.
Artist: Fiona Foley / Photographer: John Broomfield / Source: City of Melbourne

Answer: "The Lie of the Land" is a public artwork representing John Batman’s words in his journal about his purchase of the site of Melbourne from the local Indigenous people:

After a full explanation of what my object was, I purchased two large tracts of land from them – about 600,000 acres, more or less, and delivered over to them blankets, knives, looking glasses, tomahawks, beads, scissors, flour, etc. etc. as payment for the land, and also agreed to give them a tribute, or rent, yearly.

The installation consists of seven sandstone pillars positioned in a line. Each is inscribed with the names of the objects that were exchanged for the land: blankets, flour, knives, beads, scissors and tomahawks. The work was a collaboration between the artists, local Aboriginal groups and individuals, and members of the community from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Lie of the Land installation at Melbourne Museum. Detail: BLANKETS

Lie of the land by Fiona Foley detail: BLANKETS
Artist: Fiona Foley / Photographer: Rodney Start / Source: City of Melbourne

The work includes a sound component consisting of sound recordings of two totems of the Port Phillip Bay area: Waang the Crow and Bunjil the Eagle, as well as readings of the John Batman quotation in seven languages; English, Indonesian, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Chinese and Wurundjeri (translated and read by Joy Murphy).

“The Lie of the Land” was commissioned in 1997 by the City of Melbourne as a gift to the people of Melbourne to coincide with the National Aboriginal Reconciliation Conference in May 1997. It was created by artists Fiona Foley and Chris Knowles and initially stood in front of the Melbourne Town Hall.

How do we reconcile an exchange of functional and non-functional goods in return for 600,000 acres of land and a yearly rent that was not honoured? As the history has been written by the victors, it is only now that the silent history of the Indigenous populations are given a voice.
Fiona Foley (Artist), 1997
In the midst of the chaos that has overtaken the land of the Wurundjeri, this installation stands as a zone of reflection for contemplation and consideration.
Chris Knowles (Sound Artist), 1997

After two months “The Lie of the Land” was moved to its present position in what was then the new Museum. The move from a busy city intersection (for which the sound installation was designed) to a sunken courtyard within a major cultural institution presented acoustic, technological, cultural and artistic challenges. The work had to be re-executed and re-established in its new context

Lie of the Land installation at Melbourne Museum.

Lie of the Land by Fiona Foley sandstone installation at Melbourne Museum.
Artist: Fiona Foley / Photographer: John Broomfield / Source: City of Melbourne

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