The Last Days of Burke & Wills

‘We can now say that we are in No Man’s Land…’ Robert O'Hara Burke

Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861 Arrival of Burke, Wills and King at the deserted camp at Cooper's Creek, Sunday evening, 21st April 1861, John Longstaff, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria Map of Australia c.1840s Map of Australia c. 1840s, James Wyld, courtesy National Library of Australia.In an era of exploration, the Burke and Wills Expedition set out from Melbourne to chart an inland route to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The land the party crossed was, for them, an empty void; unknown, unchartered and unoccupied. It was a journey of discovery and desperation.

But, this territory was not empty.  Every part was home to Aboriginal people. These first Australians had spent countless generations living, learning and mapping their country. For them, it was anything but unknown.

In 2009 Queensland Museum archaeologists and a team of specialists set out to find the missing ‘Plant Camp’. Using Wills’ original navigational plots, they found evidence of a cache of buried material and unearthed pieces of our pioneering history.

The artefacts recovered – including fragments of weapons, writing equipment and navigational tools – provide insight into Burke and Will’s attitude to their journey and to their sense of isolation and alienation.

Also explored in the exhibition is the perspective of the Mithaka people, the traditional owners of the land where the ‘Plant Camp’ was located.

Objects on display include trade items such as axes from Mt Isa and shell ornaments from the Gulf, as well as ceremonial objects such as a rabbit-tail head-dress.

Together these objects demonstrate a sense of belonging and connectedness which stands in contrast to the attitudes of the explorers.

The Last Days of Burke and Wills exhibition marks the 150th anniversary of this infamous expedition.

Things to see and do

  • Trace the journey of Burke and Wills
  • Learn the story of one of Australia’s iconic pioneering journeys
  • Discover the people who lived on the land Burke and Wills explored
  • Discover how Queensland Museum archaeologists uncovered the artefacts
  • Learn about desert foods, animals and life on the land

Learning resources

The Last Days of Burke & Wills is complemented with Learning Resources that highlight curriculum links and suggest activities for before, during and after a visit to the exhibition.