• The crew of a pearl lugger, Broome, c. 1900–20. (National Museum of Australia)Source: National Museum of Australia
A rare 2000-year-old natural pearl and luminous carved pearl shell shine amongst an array of beautiful items that tell the story of the nation's pearling industry in a new exhibition that also reveals the extent of First Australian involvement with the industry.
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23 Feb 2018 - 1:21 PM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2018 - 1:28 PM

"I carve shell for ceremony, for dancing, for our cultural rites," says Mayala elder Aubrey Tigan Galiwa.  

Aubrey, a respected lawman and renowned shell carver from the north of Broome, tells of the great significance pearl shells hold for his people. 

"The designs are our history, about our country, about our young people, about old people. If I drop that, we chuck it away, we are lost," he says on the Australian National Museum's audio tour. 

Aubrey descends from a long line of coastal Aboriginal groups from the northwest Kimberley coast, who were some of the first people to value the power and beauty of pearl shell. 

George Mosby, a Torres Strait Islander pearler, is the grandson of Edward 'Yankee Ned'  Mosby - an American whaler who arrived in the Torres Strait in late 1800s. 

"I can remember back from my grandfather, my great-grandfather, they call Yankee Ned," says George.  

Yankee Ned, a civi war veteran, learned about the local pearl and beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) trades and began working with locals harvesting pearls on Yorke Island. His pearling business flourished with the help of his four sons.

"He had two boats, his sons - two was on the boat, and the other two was on the other boat. That's the time when that tsunami, or cyclone hit Cape Melville and most of the boats sank, but that two survived," he said. 

"They had been away for few months, and they thought they were dead. But they came back home - all the way from Cape Melville to Yorke Island." 

Anthropologist Dr Kim Akerman has dedicated much of his working life to recording and documenting Kimberley material culture, with the Western Australian Museum housing a large collection of his collected items.  

Dr Akerman says pearlshell most likely covered more than two thirds of Australia. 

"One of the things about Kimberley pearl shell, particularly the engraved shell, because they are so distinctive - they were used by a number people to start to actually construct maps of some of these ancient trade routes," he said.

"These networks went across the continent." 

Today, pearl shell remains highly valued among many Aboriginal communities and has been a vital element in long distance trade across northern Australia and into the desert for thousands of years.

Now in a special collaboration, the Western Australian Museum and Broome's Yawuru Aboriginal Corporation Nyamba Buru Yawuru have partnered to capture the beauty, significance and intrigue of pearls and pear shell across time and cultures. 

Lustre: Pearling & Australia intertwines ancient Aboriginal trade stories with recent industry developments that have transformed Australia's north. 

"For all Broome people, this exhibition has a very strong sense of history and relationship. Telling our stories and the human side of forging relationships," says Yawuru leader and Nyamba Buru Yawuru Corporation CEO, Peter Yu. 

Mr Yu travelled from his home in Broome for the opening of the travelling exhibition at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. 

His father Yauhong Tai, a Hakka Chinese from Hong Kong, was one of the last hard-hat pearl divers in the Broome area and for Peter the new show is a special story from both a personal and cultural perspective.

"I grew up with the pearling industry and it's always played a special part in the story of my people," he told Fairfax Media. 

WA Museum CEO Alec Jones said the pearling exhibition is told largely from an Aboriginal perspective, paying tribute to the skills of Asian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander indentured workers - many of whom gave their lives to the industry. 

“Lustre also investigates the biology of the pearl oyster and its environment as well as the devastating impact of cyclones on the industry. It tells the unique Australian story of the pearl shell and the pearls that they produce. It also explores the relationships between the people of pearling and the industry that emerged in Australia,” Mr Coles said.

James Dexter, Director of Creative and Regional Development for WA Museum says the exhibition is about much more than pearls. 

"It is a gritty story about exploration, discrimination and economic forces," he said. 

"When you think about pearling in Australia it has a long association with the First Peoples of this country and those who came after," said Dr Mathew Trinca, National Museum of Australia Director. 

“Lustre is both beautiful and historically important, exploring how Aboriginal people have valued and collected pearl shell for at least 20,000 years, and examining the modern industry which has developed around this highly prized resource,” he said. 

Lustre: Pearling & Australia is open at the National Museum of Australia until 22 July 2018.