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Murdoch-MacLeod museum gift sends lifeline to sinking island crafts

Samantha HutchinsonNational reporter

A metres-long Tokelauan canoe used in the 2014 Climate Change protest in Newcastle Harbour has gone on show inside Sydney’s Australian Museum, included in a new dedicated Pasifika Gallery funded in part by a $3 million gift from regenerative farmer Alasdair MacLeod and Prudence Murdoch.

The gallery, which opened this week and is named Wansolmoana – meaning “One Salt Ocean” – includes artefacts from more than 25 Pacific nations and territories and includes new acquisitions of contemporary art as well as newly commissioned works that revive lost creative traditions.

The gallery also represents a response to climate change and the threat of rising sea levels in some of the most threatened coastal communities on Earth, while telling the stories of its origins and ancestors including colonisation in the region, slave culture and “black-birding”.

Philanthropist and regenerative farmer Alasdair MacLeod inside the Australian Museum’s new Pasifika Gallery, which he supported with a $3 million donation. Louise Kennerley

Mr MacLeod, the British-born media executive who is now one of the country’s leading investors in regenerative and sustainable farming and emissions reduction through his Wilmot pastoral empire, said the gift – bestowed through his family’s Macdoch Foundation – and gallery was already helping regenerate precious art-making traditions in the region.

The gallery, which opened for the first time this week, includes a rare Rotuman Suru head-dress and a Turaga – a Fijian warlord’s ceremonial costume, commissioned and created specially for the gallery, by an artist who learnt the craft from his grandfather more than 50 years ago. It’s one of the items inside the gallery that Mr Macleod is most drawn to.


“He’s had this knowledge the whole time and had never exercised it … it was rather amazing for him to be able to make it, and to be put on display, and to make use of this knowledge he’s had for 40 or 50 years,” he said. “I love the aspect, it’s extraordinary.”

It also includes a metres-long Tokelauan canoe used in the 2014 climate change protests in Newcastle, brought in specially from the New Zealand territory of Tokelau which is just 12 square kilometres across three low-lying atolls and regarded as one of the region’s most at-risk locales as sea levels rise.

For Mr MacLeod, who also contributed separate seed funding to the museum’s Climate Solutions Centre, some of the most important work of the gallery is the outreach effort it underpins. The museum is using the gallery as a springboard for a community education effort bringing in students and families with Pacific Island heritage to teach and to help preserve some of the historic handicraft traditions and other cultural artistic practices of the region.

“The importance of this to the Pasifika community in Sydney shouldn’t be underestimated … a lot of kids have grown up in Sydney and Australia from Pacific heritage and these works are really important and meaningful to them,” he said.

Samantha Hutchinson is the AFR's National Reporter. Most recently, she was CBD columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Before that, she covered Victorian and NSW politics and business for The Australian, the AFR and BRW Magazine. Connect with Samantha on Twitter. Email Samantha at

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