Beyond A Museum Glass Case: One First Nations Woman’s Quest To Reclaim Her Ancestors’ Story

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this piece contains images and names of deceased persons.
Content Warning: This story may be distressing to First Nations people.
In 1925, Australia's census declared Aboriginal people a 'dying race'. In response, the Australian Museum commissioned three statues of 'full blood' Aboriginal people: a child, a man and a woman. No names were attached to them — they were displayed as nameless, naked objects among the flora and fauna.
But these statues did have names. They were: Uncle Harold Marsh, Uncle Jimmy Clements, and Nanny Nellie Bungil Walker, also known as Nanny Nellie — Irene Ridgeway's great-grandmother.
In the new SBS documentary, Her Name Is Nanny Nellie, Aunty Irene retraces Nanny Nellie's life as she journeys to discover who she was — and to reconnect other families with their ancestor's statues. Her aim? To restore these statues with the person's name, identity, and above all, their dignity.
Her Name Is Nanny Nellie is an emotional journey to say the least. In the documentary, Irene explains that in 1996, Irene's grandmother, Nanny Kempsey, visited the Australian Museum. As she walked through the museum and observed the animals behind glass cabinets, she saw something that made her break down in tears. It was a statue of her mother, Nanny Nellie — displayed naked in a clear glass cabinet like the animals in the museum.
Nanny Kempsey requested her mother's statue (who she hadn't seen since her death 62 years prior) be removed. Later, Irene's grandmother spoke to her and requested not just for her statue to be restored and put back onto display — but for her story to be told and for her life to be honoured.
Irene Ridgeway and the statue of Nanny Nellie, courtesy of SBS.
In the documentary, Irene sets out on a journey to understand who her great-grandmother Nanny Nellie was and ultimately, to reclaim her story. "It was about reclaiming her life," Irene tells Refinery29 Australia about the reasons for starting her journey. "Reclaiming her history and who she really was as a real person. She was not a naked and unnamed lady standing in a museum."
"It's giving them back their families," Irene says of her mission. "They weren't just there to be looked at as flora and fauna or as 'natives'."
Pictured alongside Nanny Nellie's statue were statues of Yangar man, Uncle Jimmy Clements and Yaegl boy Harold Marsh, who was only about nine years old at the time. Irene says her statue was put alongside these two other men as a way to "represent all Aboriginal people at that time".
When asked about the most confronting part of her journey, Irene said that it was the language in the museum and how they spoke about all three of the people depicted in the statues. "When we read some of the dialogue from the museum, they said they had 'detained' them, which means the museum had used the police to take them away."
The documentary especially draws light on the nature of scientific racism in not just the dehumanising display of Nanny Nellie, but also the specific words used to describe her. "Some of the dialogue that was used in the museum was very distressing to go through and to read," Irene says. "The language alone, the racism with that language, that was atrocious. It was the language they used back then: to say words like 'the blacks' or to put Aboriginal people in missions. It's almost human trafficking."
But while the documentary is incredibly confronting and emotional, it's also ultimately a triumphant story about First Nations people having the opportunity to tell their own stories and reclaim what 'truth' really is. "We put the key in the door, turned the lock and opened the door. Now we have people looking through that door that's open and finding out the truth," Irene says.
For Irene, who created the documentary alongside her filmmaking son, Daniel King, Her Name Is Nanny Nellie has offered her sons the opportunity to learn who they are. "For them, it was about finding out who they are. For me, it was about reassuring me that I know who I am," she says. "It's in my blood. Nanny Nellie is there in me. The rest of my family is all in me."
Through her journey, she's also helped tell some of the stories of the other men in the statues and prompted their respective families to reclaim their narrative, too. She explains that it was challenging to track down the nine-year-old Uncle Harold Marsh's family as he was forcibly taken from his family so young and never returned, but her hard work paid off when one of his family members came to her final exhibition of Nanny Nellie. "At the very end when we had the exhibition, one of Uncle Harold Marsh's family members was there — and that was the most amazing thing."
For Irene, she hopes that her — and Nanny Nellie's — story will empower others also to come forward and tell their truth. "It's about reclaiming the narratives of Indigenous lives from the past to now... It's all about truth-telling."
Irene emphasises that while this might be the first time many people have heard of a story like this, it is by no means rare, especially for those whose families have been impacted by forced dispossession. "Nanny Nellie's story doesn't stand alone. There are many Indigenous people who want to know where they come from and who their ancestors are," she says. "A lot of people identify with those stories because it's happened to their family, so it opens up a lot of dialogue."
"It's an honour to share Nanny Nellie's life with everyone and to show how an Aboriginal woman survived the trials and tribulations and the heartaches and how she came through them."
'Her Name Is Nanny Nellie' will premiere on Sunday, 21 January at 8:30pm on SBS and NITV.
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