Art doll

The tragic story of this Aboriginal doll and the girl who owned it, Mithina | SBS News

A precious doll finally returned this week to Lutruwita (Tasmania) after being lost for decades in England.
With it comes the story of its owner – believed to be a Tasmanian Aboriginal girl named Mithina (also spelled Mathinna), whose short life was marred by tragedy.
Mithina was born on Flinders Island, Tasmania in 1835. Her father Towgerer (also spelled as Towtrer) was the chief of the Lowreenne tribe – where the modern ports of Strahan and Macquarie are located.
Towgerer – and Mithina’s mother, Wongerneep – were captured by George Augustus Robinson, who was the protector of the Aborigines (using the offensively abusive term), in 1833. They were taken to Flinders Island to an Aboriginal settlement called Wybalenna.

From the early 1820s to around the mid-1830s, the Black War raged in Tasmania. The exact numbers are unknown, but it is estimated that at least 900 Tasmanian Aborigines and 200 British settlers were killed.

A portrait of Mithina by Thomas Bock. Source: Provided / TMAG

Robinson had begun traveling the state in 1830, rounding up surviving Tasmanian natives and sending them to the settlement of Flinders Island.

Julie Gough is a Trawlwoolway woman and Curator of the Indigenous Peoples Art and Culture Team at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG).

“It was like an offshore detention for almost 20 years,” Julie says of Wybalenna.

It was like an offshore detention for almost 20 years.

Julie Gough

“From 1830 to 1847, Aboriginal people were continually taken there after being captured or surrendered.

“It was misinterpreted to them [Tasmanian Aboriginal people] about what was happening, where they were going and how long they would stay there.

A woman standing in front of a wall display

Julie Gough, wife of Trawlwoolway and curator. Source: Provided / TMAG

Sir John Franklin was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (the old colonial name for Tasmania) in 1837, for a four-year term. Julie says he and his wife, Lady Jane, have asked for an Aboriginal boy and girl.

“Mithina was sent to Hobart [from Flinders Island] even though she wasn’t an orphan,” says Julie.
A rural locality in modern northeast Tasmania is named after Mithina, and a plaque states that it was “kindly adopted” by the Franklins.
“But it seems more like she was meant to be a servant to the family,” Julie says.

Eleanor Franklin – the daughter of Governor Franklin and his first wife Eleanor Porden – was 11 years older than Mithina and wrote in her diary as Mithina received a doll with a petticoat.

Mithina's doll

The doll would have belonged to Mithina. Source: Provided / Gell Trustees via Derbyshire Record Office, UK / TMAG

Mithina lived with the Franklins for four years, but four months before the end of his term as governor, Mithina was abandoned by the Franklins and left in the Hobart Orphan Asylum.

“The fact that they sent her to the orphanage much earlier before they left for England is painful to consider,” Julie says.
It also appears that the doll did not stay with Mithina but instead went to England with the Franklins.
Mithina was only 17 or 18 when she died in an Aboriginal settlement at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart.
“She died under mysterious circumstances,” says Julie.

“Part of the terminology is that she drowned in a puddle or stream at Oyster Cove, after such a horrible young life.”

A chance discovery

In 2017, the Derbyshire Record Office in Matlock, England received around 100 boxes from the famous local Gell family.
The doll was found in one of these boxes, along with a pincushion.

The pincushion bore a tag identifying it as being made by “Tasmanian girl, Methinna [sic].”

A brown circular object

The pincushion found with the doll. Source: Provided / Gell Trustees via Derbyshire Record Office, UK

The Derbyshire Record Office contacted TMAG, who contacted the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre.

Dr Gaye Sculthorpe, an indigenous Tasmanian woman who until recently was head of the British Museum’s Oceania section, traveled to Matlock to see the doll.

“Fortunately, the historical label on the pillow identified Mithina. Without this, [finding the doll] might never have happened,” says Julie.

Artifacts go home

The doll and pincushion will now feature in a new exhibit opening this week at TMAG, called taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country.
The exhibition “features the creative work of 20 Tasmanian Aboriginal artists responding to community relationships with ancestral objects, particularly those held in institutions outside Lutruwita/Tasmania”.

It sees a number of ancestral objects from around the world returned to Tasmania through long-term loans from museums and institutions. The objects will be displayed alongside works by Tasmanian Aboriginal artists.

A painting of a doll

An artwork depicting the doll by Janice Ross. Source: Provided / TMAG

Three of the artists – Janice Ross, Cheryl Rose and Lillian Wheatley – have created contemporary pieces influenced by Mithina, her pincushion and doll.

Janice Ross says Mithina’s story was very similar to hers.
Born in 1969, she was adopted by a non-Aboriginal family when she was one year old. It took him 23 years to reconnect with his native community.

“As the Aunties would always say to me, ‘oh you never left, you were always with us, it’s just that sometimes the spirits of our young native children, they sleep for a while until they wake up’,” Ross said.

For her installation in the exhibition, Ross painted the doll, the pincushion and the native lands of Mithina in south-west Tasmania, imagined as they were before settlement.
She also incorporated stringy bark collected on her sister’s property, to help visitors to the exhibit have a deeper connection to Indigenous stories.

“Having a natural resource within an institutional framework [a museum] can create a story that people can connect with,” she says.

The exhibition is the result of years of hard work by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community and TMAG. Much of the preparatory work began in the 1970s, with the community researching the remains of ancestors that were taken from Tasmania to museums around the world during settlement.
“Our ancestors were held in many institutions around the world – human remains – so how our artifacts and our ancestors ended up overseas, sometimes you can know the details, but other times it’s less clear,” says Julie.
“Ancestors are tied to the objects they made, and many of our ancestors have been slowly returning since the 1970s to rest in their homelands.

“But the cultural objects, I guess, waited their turn, because bringing back the ancestors was the primary responsibility of the community.”

The cultural objects … awaited their turn.

Julia

Returned objects are loaned for a limited period of approximately two years.
Julie says that dealings with institutions, archives and museums around the world have been a careful and respectful task of conversation and diplomacy.
“It’s a step towards repatriation,” she said.
Zoe Rimmer is a Pakana woman and artist whose work is also on display.
“Unfortunately, we are only loaned the items. We have a long-term loan, but our ultimate dream is for these items to come home permanently,” she says.
“To have our own space where we can care for them culturally, appropriately and share them with the public when and how we feel appropriate.”
taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country runs at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) in Hobart until February 12, 2023.
Palawa Kani, an Aboriginal language from Tasmania, does not use capital letters.

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