The Australian National Maritime Museum’s Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country has won International Project of the Year with a budget of less than £1m at the Museums + Heritage Awards in London overnight – one of the most prestigious international museum awards in the world.

The Museum would like to acknowledge and thank the Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land for allowing us to host their stories, inspired by the leadership of Traditional Yolngu custodian Djambawa Marawili AM.

The exhibition documents the Yolŋu people of northeast Arnhem Land’s fight for recognition of Indigenous Sea Rights and the Blue Mud Bay Legal Case, and was designed, curated, executed and even marketed by Indigenous people in an example of holistic community engagement. 

It is a display of up to 40 Yirrkala Bark Paintings of Sea Country (also known as the Saltwater Bark Collection) by 47 Yolŋu artists from fifteen clans and eighteen homeland communities in east Arnhem Land who petitioned for sea rights. The works were initiated by Madarrpa clan leader Djambawa Marawili in 1997 to document ownership of Sea Country, following the discovery of illegal fishing on a sacred site in his clan estate. As Djambawa says, the paintings are more than just beautiful artworks; they are spiritual and legal documents. 

Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country, Australian National Maritime Museum Collection
Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country, Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

Some of the paintings in the exhibition were used as evidence in a legal case in the High Court of Australia which confirmed, in July 2008, that traditional owners of the Blue Mud Bay region in north-east Arnhem Land, together with traditional owners of almost the entire Northern Territory coastline, have exclusive access rights to tidal waters overlying Aboriginal land.

The 2008 landmark ruling by the High Court gave traditional owners the rights to manage their oceans and waterways.

“We are really proud that the exhibition was completely led by Indigenous community – the curation, design, the marketing agency and video producers were all Indigenous,” comments Beau James, Co-curator, Manager Indigenous Programs, Australian National Maritime Museum.

“We are putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices first and foremost, when curating First Peoples stories,” adds Helen Anu, Co-curator, Curator First Peoples Projects, Australian National Maritime Museum. 

“I consider this to be one of the most important exhibitions in the Museum’s history…….” comments Kevin Sumption, Director, Australian National Maritime Museum.

“The essence of the show is that we are working with and for community, not just throughout every element of this exhibition, but throughout the Museum as a whole.” concludes Sumption.

2019 marks the 11th anniversary of the landmark Blue Mud Bay Sea Rights Case. The museum is the first place in Sydney to fly the Blue Mud Bay Flag, which is also on display in the exhibition. This flag recognises Aboriginal Sea Rights and its inclusion highlights the Museum’s strong commitment to reconciliation, acknowledgement and respect of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander maritime culture and heritage. 

36 carved wooden Mokuy (Spirits) by Nawurapu Wunuŋmurra, 2015. Australian National Maritime Museum Collection

Speaking on Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country, Diane Lees CBE, Director General of the Imperial War Museums and Chair of the 2019 judging panel, noted: “This impressive exhibition is brave, original, meaningful and political, it successfully reframes the way we value art and has helped generate better public understanding of the subject matter.”

The awards celebrate innovative and ground-breaking initiatives from museums, galleries and heritage visitor attractions across the UK and overseas.

Anna Preedy, Director of the annual Museums + Heritage Awards commented: “These awards recognise the amazing achievements, creativity, innovation, hard work and utter commitment evident throughout the museums and heritage sector. The awards have become the benchmark for excellence and the shortlistees and winners represent the very best of the best.”

While the exhibition has finished showing at the Australian National Maritime Museum, the Museum is exploring options to tour it around Australia and internationally. 

Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country has won the following awards: 
• 2019 Museums + Heritage Award prize for International Project of the Year with a budget of less than £1m
• 2018 Museums and Galleries National Award for Winner Indigenous Project or Keeping Place
• 2018 International Design & Communications Award prize for Best Scenography for a Temporary Exhibition

The paintings were purchased with the assistance of Stephen Grant of the GrantPirrie Gallery. Mr Grant’s generous support in acquiring this very significant collection has made this exhibition possible. The Museum would also like to thank Will Stubbs, Andrew Blake and Edwina Circuitt from the Buku-Larrŋgay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, Northern Territory, Joseph Brady from the The Mulka Project, Dave Preece from the Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation - Yirralka Rangers, Murray McLaughlin, Trish Rigby from the Northern Land Council, John Wilson from the The Gumurr Marthakal Rangers, Luke Playford from the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, Nicole Monks from blackandwhite creative and Robert Wirth, Wayne Denning Carbon Creative team.

Media contact:


Available for interview:

• Djambawa Marawili AM, Yolngu Traditional Owner and lead plaintiff in the sea rights case – organise through Will Stubbs below 
• Will Stubbs, Manager, Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, Yirrkala, North-East Arnhem Land, NT
• Beau James, Co-curator, Manager Indigenous Programs, Australian National Maritime Museum 
• Helen Anu, Co-curator, Curator First Peoples Projects, Australian National Maritime Museum

Visual assets:

• Website:
• Video – You are Invited to Sea Country: 
• Video – What People are Saying about Gapu-Monuk:
• Digital Story: Spirit Figures from Arnhem Land:
• Photos of the awards ceremony: 
• Photos of the exhibition: 

Notes to the editor: 

In addition, a Special Recognition Award was presented to Sir David Attenborough, who said: “I’m truly delighted by this award. Museums are among my favourite places. I don’t need to say to you how important they are to our own civilisation and culture and the trouble is that they are always under attack. I have been involved with them for most of my life, one way or another, and I have never known them actually not being under attack and under-funded. So, if I have contributed to one museum or any other museum in preserving those ideals that are so important to all of us, I’m very grateful indeed that you should think so, if this award is a sign of that thought. Thank you very much.” (the footage can be downloaded at

2019 Winners: 
Innovation of the Year - Sponsored by THE HUB

Winner: They Shall Not Grow Old (14-18 NOW and Imperial War Museum)
Highly commended: Inside Out - Scottish Submarine Centre (Scottish Submarine Trust)

Restoration or Conservation Project of the Year - Sponsored by ROCHESTER BRIDGE TRUST
Winner: Painted Hall Project (Old Royal Naval College)
Joint highly commended: Temperate House Precinct Project (Donald Insall Associates on behalf of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew)
Joint highly commended: Kew Gardens Great Pagoda (Austin-Smith:Lord on behalf of Historic Royal Palaces).

Educational Initiative of the Year
Winner: Leeds Curriculum (Leeds Museums & Galleries)
Joint highly commended: Battle Bus (London Transport Museum)
Joint highly commended: RAF Museum RAF Centenary Programme (RAF Museum)

Shop of the Year turnover less than £500k
Winner: Retail Transformation at the Florence Nightingale Museum (Florence Nightingale Museum)

Shop of the Year turnover more than £500k
Winner: BALTIC Shop Refurbishment (BALTIC Shop, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art)

Limited Budget Project of the Year
Winner: Wonder Women of Space Exhibition (Herschel Museum of Astronomy, Bath).
Highly commended: Chichester Roman Week 2018 (The Novium Museum)

Marketing Campaign of the Year - Sponsored by BVA BDRC
Winner: Look at this Absolute Unit (The Museum of English Rural Life)
Highly commended: Bash Street's Back at The McMenace (The McManus: Dundee's Art Gallery & Museum, Leisure & Culture Dundee).

Individual Volunteer of the Year - In partnership with AIM
Winner: John Jenkins (The D-Day Story)
Joint highly commended: Carl Clee 'Our Bee Man' (National Museums Liverpool)
Joint highly commended: Gordon Clitheroe (Pickering Beck Isle Museum)

Volunteer Team of the Year - In partnership with AIM
Winner: Multaka-Oxford Volunteer Team (History of Science Museum and Pitt Rivers Museums, University of Oxford Museums).
Highly commended: Liverpool Women’s History Group (National Museums Liverpool)

Temporary or Touring Exhibition of the Year - Sponsored by Displayways
Winner: Spanish Flu: Nursing During History's Deadliest Pandemic (Florence Nightingale Museum)
Joint highly commended: China's First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors (National Museums Liverpool)
Joint highly commended: Ladies of Quality & Distinction (The Foundling Museum)

Partnership of the Year - Supported by ACE
Winner: Dippy on Tour, a natural history adventure (Natural History Museum, Dorset County Museum and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Ulster Museum in Belfast)
Highly commended: Multaka-Oxford (Oxford University Gardens, Libraries & Museums)

International Project of the Year, less than £1m
Winner: Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country (Australian National Maritime Museum)
Highly commended: Escher Op Reis / Escher's Journey (Fries Museum /XPEX Experience Experts)

International Project of the Year, more than £1m
Winner: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination (The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Permanent Exhibition of the Year
Winner: Being Brunel (SS Great Britain Trust)
Highly Commended: Endeavour Galleries Project (National Maritime Museum)