A history of Brisbane

  • Until Aug 2016
  • Exhibition now closed

As the defining symbol of our city, the wayward and beautiful Brisbane River has bought us opportunity, sanctuary and at times, heartbreak.

The River: A history of Brisbane


The River: A history of Brisbane explores our ever-changing relationship with the river. From its importance to the land‚™’s traditional owners, its discovery that decided our capital’‚™s location, and the industry that was born along its shores, the river has played a critical role in the growth of our city.

Revealing how the river is intertwined in the lives of Brisbane’‚™s inhabitants, the exhibition is also a stunning showcase of artworks and objects from the City of Brisbane collection. It will connect you to the stories of the city as it charts a compelling journey from Brisbane’s earliest settlement through to the modern city we call home.


An excerpt from Beauty: a journey down Brisbane River


The exhibition is comprised of six themes.


Appreciation of the river’s beauty begins with acts of exploration. It encompasses trekking through forest in the river’s upper reaches or watching the peaceful glide of rowers on the water before dawn when walking to work in the city. It is reflective, inspiring daydreams and art, and it is transformative, giving identity to its inhabitants. For centuries Brisbane writers, poets, photographers and artists have endeavoured to capture the river’s beauty.


River crossings are the most evocative city journeys made in Brisbane. Their history is the connecting of the river’s northern and southern banks; but in their significance, river crossings are traced by human aspirations. They are undertaken from needs to explore, meet, trade and work. From a simple canoe or rowboat, to multi-lane bridges and a tunnel, development and technology has defined where and how the river could be crossed.

Within Reach

The river was central to the aspirations of a growing city. Wharves constructed on Brisbane’s reaches connected the city to its hinterland and Queensland to the world; it became Brisbane’s central artery of settlement, trade and defence. Over time, reaches have marked the boundaries of Brisbane’s industries and inhabitants: sugar refining at New Farm, wool at Teneriffe, meat at Pinkenba. Immigrants were inducted at Kangaroo Point and, at South Brisbane, African American servicemen challenged Australian racial stereotypes.


By the 1970s, development threatened to overwhelm the Brisbane River. Since then, the city renewed its efforts to reconcile urban growth with the river’s natural beauty. In part the effort was remedial. Toxic industries were removed, factories recast as theatres and bars, and parks and walkways set along the river’s banks. Recreation changed from bathing and fishing, to appreciating the river from a restaurant or a riverside park. In part the effort was romantic. The river was to be at the heart of defining the city’s identity and lifestyle.

Shaping Forces

The course of the Brisbane River can change the fortunes of the people who live in its catchment. In one sense, we have shaped the river and its surroundings, from Aboriginal firestick farming to dredging, damming and reclaiming land along the river mouth. In another sense, the river has shaped us through severe floods, drought, and the wild sub-tropical bushland surrounding the river that constantly intrudes on any attempt at a manicured garden.


The Brisbane River is an ancient highway. Its length has been explored for thousands of years and the local Indigenous people have long hosted visitors from neighbouring and distant regions. The river has always been common ground, a territory of first contact. The Brisbane River was host to many watershed moments, from first contact between European settlers and Aborigines to the arrival of free settlers, converting the penal settlement to a land of prosperity and development.


Museum of Brisbane’s education program, Engage, aims to open minds, entertain and excite students. As with all our exhibitions, The River: A History of Brisbane  facilitates learning in an educational, fun and memorable way. To learn more about curriculum links and available education tours visit the education page.


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