Australian of the Year 2020 finalists share personal items in exhibition at National Museum of Australia

Women's rugby league champion Katrina Fanning with her first Test jersey. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Women's rugby league champion Katrina Fanning with her first Test jersey. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Six months after Katrina Fanning took to the field in rugby league's first women's international Test match in 1995 she was still wearing her jersey to bed.

"I was just so excited and I had probably exceeded my expectations of myself," she said.

"It's just something that I had hung on to and I think it's probably a good symbol for me through football, that kick-started so many other things."

Now, the 2020 ACT Australian of Year's jersey will spend the next 12 months travelling around the country as part of the Australian of the Year exhibition.

The National Museum of Australia and National Australia Day Council exhibition, which opened on Thursday, features an item from each of the eight Australian of the Year finalists.

It includes a pair of boots that were worn by Tasmanian scientist Jess Melbourne-Thomas when she fell through the ice in Antarctica; the book Last Anatomy by RMH McMinn from New South Wales orthopaedic surgeon Munjed Al Muderis; and from Victorian singer Archie Roach, a book featuring the lyrics of his acclaimed song Took the children away, and a necklace.

"I think one of the wonderful things about this exhibition is that ... every year it is incredibly different because of course, we get incredibly different individuals each time," museum curator Laina Hall said.

"When I raised the question with our recipients about what object they would choose, asking them to choose just one object that sums up their life is impossible but we eventually get there. And people approach it really differently."

For Ms Fanning, the hardest part was answering the question "is it important enough to other people?"

"This a pretty important thing and it's going to go to people in other parts of the country who might not know much about rugby league," she said.

Panel discussion with Virginia Haussegger, Katrina Fanning, Rachel Downie, Dr James Muecke, Professor Munjed Al Muderis and curator Laina Hall. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Panel discussion with Virginia Haussegger, Katrina Fanning, Rachel Downie, Dr James Muecke, Professor Munjed Al Muderis and curator Laina Hall. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Queensland's Rachel Downie had a couple of options on the table to choose from. The educator and social entrepreneur developed Stymie, an online resource for students to anonymously report information about bullying or self-harm.

The item she chose for the exhibition was a ceramic bird made by one of her students who died by suicide, which set her on the path to developing the system.

"The bird was half-made. He died before I had finished firing it. The day that I had unpacked the kiln was a really big day," she said.

"I had forgotten in the flurry of the mess that had happened afterwards that it was in there. When I opened the kiln it was basically the only thing I could see.

"And it had broken during firing as well, which I thought was really symbolic. It took me a while to even unpack that and over the course of about three months afterwards, I glazed it."

National Australia Day Council chief executive Karlie Brand said the objects chosen for the exhibition had moved beyond their original purpose and now held extraordinary significance.

"It's so important to tell the stories of these incredible people in different ways and to be able to share that with the regions across the country," she said.

"Our reason for being is to inspire national pride and unity and to do that we tell that through the stories."

  • The exhibition is on display at the National Museum until February 16 before touring nationally.
This story The Australian of the Year finalists and the items that tell a thousand words first appeared on The Canberra Times.