Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.

An art installation in the heart of the City of Hobart is transforming a statue of a former Premier of Tasmania into a vehicle for truth-telling.

Dr William Crowther was Premier of Tasmania for just under a year in 1879 but his achievements in medicine and politics are stained by his role in the mutilation of the corpse of William Lanne, known as “King Billy” for his marriage to Truganini.

Concerns raised by the Tasmanian Aboriginal community prompted the City of Hobart to investigate alternative options for a statue of Dr Crowther situated in Hobart’s Franklin Square.  

Four temporary art projects by Tasmanian Aboriginal artists will be installed on the statue over the next year, aiming to encourage a public conversation about Dr Crowther’s legacy and celebrate the life of Lanne, a trailblazer for Aboriginal people.

“This project is an action in the City of Hobart’s Aboriginal Commitment and Action Plan and is part of a broader commitment to telling a more complete and truthful history of our city,” said City of Hobart Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds.

“We look forward to seeing the impacts of these artworks in promoting awareness, discussion and empathy for others within our community.”

Tasmanian Aboriginal artist Uncle Allan Mansell’s work Truth Telling is currently installed at the statue, the first of four artworks to be featured.

The work transforms the contested statue of Dr Crowther to one of William Lanne while drawing attention to the mutilation of Lanne’s corpse. The installation paints the statue’s hands and head red, and it carries an Aboriginal flag and hacksaw.

In 1869 Dr Crowther, then a surgeon and naturalist, was suspended from his role as an honorary medical office at the Hobart General Hospital for the removal of Lanne’s skull after the his death.

Dr Crowther sent Lanne’s skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, and his body was later desecrated again, exhumed on the night of its burial.

Uncle Allan Mansell in front of his work. Photo supplied.

Uncle Allan said he wanted to reinterpret the statue in line with the “butchery” of Dr Crowther’s actions.

“As I started researching the whole project I realised this guy was a butcher, so I went with the idea of changing the perspective of the statue to being William Lanne, and his statue having blood on his hands and on his head,” he said.

For Uncle Allan the installation is, as the name says, about bringing to light forgotten parts of history.

“Nobody knew,” he said.

“Everyone knows that statue sits there and everyone knows he was the Premier of Tasmania, but not many people know his background.”

A collaboration between Tasmanian filmmaker Roger Scholes and Professor Greg Lehman’s interpretation is the second to be applied to the statue and is due to be installed in the next month.

The work, titled The Lanney Pillar 2021, is a sculptural and audiovisual work which will present a series of stacked wooden blocks showing archival images and artefacts of early Tasmanian history, film stills and text.

The Lanney Pillar 2021 includes an LED screen presenting a short, four-minute montage of film and archival material presenting a portrait of Lanne’s life.

Scholes, who comes from a mixed heritage family, said he hoped through the installation to draw attention to Lanne’s life, rather than just his death and the desecration of his corpse.

“His life is extraordinary, he was the supreme survivor. All of the exile and disenfranchisement that he went through … but he had a complete life as an adult,” he said.

“He was known and respected around Hobart as an individual and an independent man … he met Queen Victoria in London and advocated for his people and met with the Duke of Edinburgh to advocate for the last of his people.

“And yet, here’s this bloke up on the statue who stole his head, and he’s the hero as far as the people of the late 19th century go.”

Scholes said there are mixed feelings in the wider Hobart community, with some opposing the installations and possible ultimate removal of the statue.

“Some think, ‘No, no [Dr Crowther] was a remarkable man, a surgeon, and did a lot of work for people’,” he said.

But Scholes said the surgeon’s achievements cannot be viewed in isolation from his grave robbing and beliefs about Aboriginal people.

“But [his medical and political achievements don’t] take away from his view of Aboriginal people as the lowest tier of evolved human beings, thus allowing him to steal bones.”

By Sarah Smit