Green sash at Benalla Costume Museum presented to Ned Kelly by the Sheltons and worn under his armour at Glenrowan during the famous shoot out.

Green sash at Benalla Costume Museum presented to Ned Kelly by the Sheltons and worn under his armour at Glenrowan during the famous shoot out. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

Sometimes it is the subtle remnants from our past, such as this Ned Kelly object, that tell us really intriguing things about the Australian experience. Lying in a darkened display case at the Costume and Pioneer Museum in Benalla, Victoria, there is a long band of cloth. Woven from silk, wool and linen, it is a fringed sash, almost three metres long. If you look closely, you can see blood stains.

This unlikely object from Australia's past seems a long way removed from one of the most venerated relics of Australian history housed nearly 200 kilometres to the south in Melbourne. Kelly's armour, held by the State Library of Victoria, is a national icon known to most Australians. Yet the sash in Benalla, and its story, is less well known. But it has just as intimate a connection with Australia's most famous bushranger.

In 1865, at the small village of Avenel in Victoria, young Dick Shelton was walking beside the local creek, which was flowing swiftly. Suddenly, he slipped and fell into the water. Luckily his quick-thinking, 10-year-old mate sprang to the rescue, and saved Shelton's life. Shelton's parents, who owned the local pub, were so grateful that they presented the pre-adolescent hero with a sash. That 10-year-old was a little boy called Ned Kelly.

Ned Kelly in chains.

Ned Kelly in chains.

Kelly proudly treasured the sash for the rest of his (short) life. In June 1880 when he and his gang fought their disastrous siege at Glenrowan, Ned's armour failed to protect him and eventually he was felled by police fire. When local Doctor Nicholson went to tend his wounds, Ned was found to be wearing the sash under his metal suit.

I think that is one of the most powerful stories of Australian history.

One thing that constantly teases my mind about the story and remains so elusive, is just why Ned wore the sash on that fateful winter day. Before pondering that, though, it is necessary to look briefly at some of the major factors in Ned's life of crime.

Kelly was a horse-stealer, a bank robber and, ultimately, a killer. Why? The stealing of horses was more than plain theft. It was ultimately a political action, part of the ongoing fight against wealthy pastoralists, who had locked up the land and against whom impoverished settlers such as the Kelly family had no power whatsoever.

This political theme to his activities underlies his famous Jerilderie Letter, in which he explained his actions and which is one of the key documents of the Kelly story. Pastoralists, too, saw the fight with the Kelly family as political - once Ned was on his way to the gallows, they presented a ceremonial sword to Sergeant Arthur Steele, the police officer who felled Kelly. (The sword is held by the National Museum of Australia.)

Then there was the relationship with the Victoria Police. Kelly had ongoing run-ins with the law and the police for years, as did family members including his mother, who was herself imprisoned, along with other relatives. The police saw the Kelly clan as criminal ratbags. Kelly saw the police as corrupt harassers. He felt persecuted by the police and by the law.

Finally, at Stringybark Creek in 1878, Kelly and the gang surrounded the camp of four heavily-armed police officers sent to get them. Despite Kelly's warning to the officers, they went for their arms and the resulting melee saw three of the police shot dead in one of the most decisive events of the whole Kelly saga. The State saw Kelly as a murderous criminal who was now declared outside the law and able to be shot at any time by anyone. Kelly viewed the Stringybark Creek shooting essentially as an act of self defence - the police had clearly come to kill him and he had no alternative but to shoot. So, why was Kelly wearing the sash at Glenrowan? Was it his way of saying to the world ''I may be a declared outlaw but I am still a good man'' - more sinned against than sinning? Or was it his show of defiance of the world around him? Or was it a more deeply psychological tonic, to give him fortitude during the hail of bullets he knew would engulf him in the dim light outside the Glenrowan pub?

Maybe it was a combination of all of these. Yet I like to think it is the first that may have had precedence, for therein lies the real power of the sash and its story: that a boy hero becomes Australia's most-wanted man in just 15 years, and yet is still the same person who was that boy hero.

So the sash opens up further insights into one of Australia's most intriguing historical actors. It gets beneath the armour which, sadly, has been turned into a visual cliche by many portrayers of the Kelly story. It bedevils the commercialisation of Ned Kelly that you might experience at today's Glenrowan or anywhere else where renditions of that trademark helmet might manifest themselves.

This is the real power of some of our more subtle historical objects, of those less likely pieces of material culture that have survived from the past to continue to enlighten - and haunt us - today. And this is why our collecting institutions, whether national, state or local, will always play such an important part in Australian cultural life.

Matthew Higgins is an associate of the Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia.