Infamous Chamberlain Torana part of our 'lived history' at national museum

National Museum of Australia curator Sophie Jensen with Michael Chamberlain's Torana, which was torn apart by forensics in an effort to prove their case. The vehicle is going on display for the first time next week. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
National Museum of Australia curator Sophie Jensen with Michael Chamberlain's Torana, which was torn apart by forensics in an effort to prove their case. The vehicle is going on display for the first time next week. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

It looks, to all intents and purposes, like just another Holden Torana from the 1970s.

And so it was until one fateful night at Uluru 40 years ago.

In the annals of Australian stories, the yellow Torana is the centrepiece to an incredible national tale about love, death, prejudice, a grave miscarriage of justice, and how a conservative media whipped up public opinion to help derail and wreck two innocent people's lives.

The Torana was a key forensic exhibit in what became the alleged murder of nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain, at Uluru in 1980. The baby's body was never found.

Lindy Chamberlain with baby Azaria in 1980.

Lindy Chamberlain with baby Azaria in 1980.

Next week the car will go on public display at the National Museum of Australia for the first time.

Some who see it will be too young to recognise its significance. But they might instead have heard the pop culture reference to "a dingo ate my baby" from The Simpsons or Seinfeld and wondered what that was all about.

It's a story which deserves a wider telling, if only to better help Australians reflect on the importance of a society and its justice system to always be open to self-examination and independent critique.

"There are younger audiences now which don't know the significance and prominence of this story while for others of my age, it was something which played out over a very long time and was part of our lived history," said curator Sophie Jensen, who for over 20 years has played a key role in preserving the Chamberlain collection and its key exhibits.

Nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain, whose disappearance from an Uluru campsite in 1980 became the subject of international focus.

Nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain, whose disappearance from an Uluru campsite in 1980 became the subject of international focus.

"Even if people aren't aware of the complexity of the case, or aren't aware of the exact details or nature of the Chamberlain story, the story itself is so embedded into our culture and society, the little references will trigger some knowledge or some reaction, whether it's just a dingo joke or something they saw on The Simpsons.

"They will recognise elements without understanding the full tragedy, which is what the Chamberlain story really is all about."

We know now that Azaria Chamberlain was taken from an Uluru campsite by a dingo, proved by a later chance discovery of a clothing scrap at a dingo lair.

But the journey from sentencing to exoneration for the Chamberlains was a lengthy and harrowing one, involving four coronial inquests and a royal commission.

Lindy Chamberlain holding Azaria, with Aidan and Reagan Chamberlain, on the Stuart Highway, on August 16, 1980. Picture: National Museum of Australia

Lindy Chamberlain holding Azaria, with Aidan and Reagan Chamberlain, on the Stuart Highway, on August 16, 1980. Picture: National Museum of Australia

Forty years ago they, as practising Seventh Day Adventists, stood accused of becoming involved in some form of ritualised infanticide. Lindy Chamberlain was accused of murder, and her husband as an accessory after the fact.

Michael Chamberlain's V8 Torana was his pride and joy.

But when Azaria went missing from the campsite and the dingo involvement dismissed as far-fetched, the focus of the police case then shifted to the Chamberlains, and the car became the crucial key element to prosecuting the case against them.

"The car symbolises a lot of things about this case," Ms Jensen said. "Perhaps one of the case's key legacies is the way it exposed issues associated with forensic science as it developed in Australian courts."

Michael Chamberlain's Torana. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Michael Chamberlain's Torana. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Alleged by police to be where the baby was murdered, the car was torn apart, the doors, carpets and linings all removed. Police forensic teams went over every square centimetre.

They claimed to have found foetal haemoglobin in the car. But in an awful and very public failure of fledgling police forensic science this was later proved to be sound-deadening material, sprayed on when the car was built.

In September 1988, all convictions against the Chamberlains were overturned.

This story Infamous Chamberlain Torana part of our 'lived history' at national museum first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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