Azaria Chamberlain case leaves lasting legacy

The iconic photograph of Lindy Chamberlain with baby Azaria at Ayres Rock. Pictures: National Museum of Australia
The iconic photograph of Lindy Chamberlain with baby Azaria at Ayres Rock. Pictures: National Museum of Australia

"You have not only suffered the loss of your beloved child in the most tragic circumstances, but you have all been subjected to months of innuendo, suspicion and probably the most malicious gossip issued in this country..."

August 17, 2020 marks 40 years since Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family's tent at Uluru, then Ayres Rock, in the Northern Territory. On February 20, 1981 at the first inquest into her death, Coroner Denis Barritt handed down his findings and concurred with the Chamberlain family that Azaria had died when attacked by a wild dingo.

The public interest in the case was so great that Barritt allowed his concluding remarks to be televised, the first time this had occurred in Australia.

The objects are a poignant reminder that the Chamberlain family are real people, not fictional characters.

His remarks and their broadcast are an indication of the unprecedented attention the case had attracted. Sadly, rather than marking the end of the Chamberlain saga, Barritt's findings proved just the beginning of a drama the nation watched play out over decades. The Chamberlain family endured an intense and invasive police investigation, a second inquest, a trial, conviction, imprisonment, unsuccessful appeals, release, a royal commission, exoneration as well as two further inquests. The events and their lives were explored and exposed on the big screen, in several mini-series, an opera, countless books and articles.

It is almost impossible to explain to those born after Azaria died why this case became so firmly embedded in the nation's psyche. A central reason for the ongoing fascination is that, despite the enormous changes in Australian culture since 1980, the Chamberlain case then and now evokes fierce emotions.

In 1994 the National Museum of Australia put together a small exhibition at Yarramundi Reach exploring the Chamberlain case with items borrowed from Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. These objects became the first Chamberlain collection brought into the National Historical Collection. The Museum faced intense criticism for both the exhibition and collection. Many argued that it was too soon, that the wounds were too raw. The Museum persisted and over the years the collection has grown and evolved as different material came to light and it continues to reflect the complexity and depth of this dark chapter in Australian history.

What we refer to as the Chamberlain collection is made up of different collections which have come together over 25 years. It now contains over 250 objects related to numerous aspects of this significant event in Australia's cultural history including items used on that fateful camping trip; torches, mattresses and clothing. It includes Azaria's matinee jacket found six years after her death, which proved crucial to Lindy's exoneration and release from prison. We hold tawdry souvenirs including t-shirts with dingo jokes sold outside the court. These items are brutal reminders of the callousness of many Australians.

There are objects which relate to the period Lindy spent wrongfully imprisoned such as her prison smock and cell door number. There are items relating to expert witnesses during the 14-month Morling Enquiry conducted in 1986-1987, whose findings cleared the Chamberlains of any guilt or responsibility for Azaria's death. The majority of items have come to the Museum from Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton. Other collections have come from members of Chamberlain support groups, courtroom artists and people involved in various aspects of the case over the years. In 2014 the family's distinctive bright yellow Torana was acquired from Michael Chamberlain.

The Museum bought the family's yellow Torano that they drove to the Northern Territory.

The Museum bought the family's yellow Torano that they drove to the Northern Territory.

Azaria Chamberlain's legacy is profound. The lessons that have been learned are crucial.

Above all, the objects are a poignant reminder that the Chamberlain family are real people, not fictional characters. They tell a story about a public that was quick to judge and even quicker to condemn, sometimes based on nothing more than a news headline or neighbourhood gossip.

They tell a story of forensic scientists who stepped outside their areas of expertise, who did not test their assumptions and allowed themselves to get caught up in the drama of the case, losing their detachment and ability to remain critical and impartial.

The death of Azaria Chamberlain serves as a reminder that new tests can be developed, methodologies can be revaluated, techniques refined, and knowledge improved. Regrettably, many of the errors that were made in this case will never change - because they are not about science. They are about people and human nature.

In June 2012 the fourth inquest into the Azaria's death agreed with the first - Azaria was found to have been killed by a dingo. As she handed down her findings, Coroner Elizabeth Morris addressed the Chamberlain family... ''Please accept my sincere sympathies on the death of your special and loved daughter and sister Azaria. I am so sorry for your loss. Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.''

As she spoke the emotion in Morris's voice was clear. Pain and sadness are strong emotions which can be triggered by many things - sights, smells, sound and, importantly for museums, things. Each time we view an object an opportunity is presented to understand the lives and experience of others. In such moments the true value of collections and of museums is realised.

  • Dr Sophie Jensen is a curator at the National Museum of Australia and is responsible for the extensive Chamberlain collection.
  • To contribute to this column, email history@canberratimes.com.au.
This story Azaria case leaves lasting legacy first appeared on The Canberra Times.