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Objects behind the stories: The Australian of the Year Exhibition

Emma de Kiefte

“…when you open up your heart and your lives to others that you grow as a person, and others grow by listening to your story”

On Thursday, freelance journalist and 2017 Canberra Citizen of the Year Alex Sloan opened the fourth annual Australian of the Year Exhibition for 2018 at the National Museum of Australia (NMA).

The exhibition showcases a selection of personal objects that represent the life and experiences of the 2018 State and Territory candidates for the Australian of the Year awards.

Director of the NMA, Dr Mathew Trinca said that through the eight recipients sharing their personal objects that reflect who they are as people, the public is not only able to learn about the individuals, but also about themselves.

“It is wonderful to get to the end of the year with all its challenges and difficulties and be able to celebrate achievement, excellence and the contribution to our country exhibited by these eight Australians,” he said. “When we ask [people] to choose a couple of objects, not only do we learn about [them] but we also learn about ourselves.”

Queenslander Australian of the Year Johnathan Thurston’s objects.

Craniofacial surgeon Professor David David AC, selected the skulls of two children reflecting his lifetime work with craniofacial conditions, the progress that has been made in that area and the work that is still needed to be done.

“Those skulls are representative of what needs to be done both administratively, scientifically and culturally,” he said. ACT Australian of the Year, entrepreneur and community leader Dion Devow, chose his University of Canberra graduation sash that combines both his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and Rosary Beads to reflect his faith (pictured above). All are things he said are deeply important to who he is.

Dion created a business purposefully using “Darkies Design” as its name. He chose this name in the hopes of changing Indigenous and non-Indigenous views towards the racist connotations behind the term, encouraging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to be proud of their heritage.

“Growing up in Darwin there are a lot more Aboriginal people [than Canberra], it’s very multicultural and diverse. I was always one of the darkest kids up there. As a result, I would often get teased from non-Indigenous and Indigenous people,” he explained.

“I knew how the word had been used historically and I thought that if I could use it as a way of describing who I am and how proud I am of having dark skin, [I would be able to] encourage other Indigenous people to wear the ‘black’ and be proud of their heritage.”

Other objects in the exhibition include headgear from Johnathon Thurston adorned with Aboriginal artwork and a handwritten letter from a fan; bottled sand taken from Dr Tracy Westerman’s hometown in Western Australia; a chessboard and award given to Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons in the 1970s; a painting of a heart given to Dr Bo Remenyi by one of her patients; and a miniature ‘Junk’ boat that represents the boat Tasmanian Australian of the Year Scott Rankin lived on as a child.

Tasmanian Australian of the Year Scott Rankin’s objects.

One of the most moving items is Samuel Johnson’s unicycle trophy, given to him by his late sister, advocate Connie Johnson.

In 2003, Samuel rode from Sydney to Melbourne on a unicycle in order to raise money for Canteen. Canteen played a large role in Samuel’s life as Connie was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma as a teenager. After finishing the gruelling challenge his sister gifted him with a handcrafted, humble, wire unicycle to show her appreciation. The trophy is described by the museum as a ‘poignant and timely reminder of sisterly pride’.

“The objects are always very personal, and it seems to me that is a gift that you give us…It’s when you open up your heart and your lives to others that you grow as a person, and others grow by listening to your story,” said Dr Trinca.


  • Professor David David AC: Craniofacial surgeon (South Australia)
  • Mr Dion Devow: Entrepreneur and community leader (ACT)
  • Mr Scott Rankin: Theatre director, writer and arts charity leader (Tasmania)
  • Dr Bo Remenyi: Paediatric cardiologist (Northern Territory)
  • Mr Samuel Johnson OAM: Actor and fundraiser for cancer research (Victoria)
  • Professor Michelle Yvonne Simmons: Professor in quantum physics (New South Wales)
  • Mr Johnathan Thurston: NRL player and Indigenous mentor (Queensland)
  • Dr Tracy Westerman: Psychologist (Western Australia)

The exhibition will be on display in the foyer of the National Museum of Australia until 18 February 2018. Free entry.

Find more information here.

Images are the author’s own. 

Emma de Kiefte

Emma is a fourth-year University of Canberra student studying International Studies and Communications in Journalism interning with HerCanberra. She loves being active and spending lots of time outside. Her hobbies include hiking, hockey, handball and alliteration. In 2018 she hopes to complete her degree in Rome or Belgium, focusing on international relations. Emma's interests include animal well-fare, international affairs and David Attenborough. More about the Author