First Peoples exhibition, Bunjilaka, Melbourne Museum

Melbourne Museum’s redesign of the major exhibition First Peoples in the Bunjilaka gallery opened on 7 September. Without knowing the curatorial, intellectual or political motivations for the new exhibition, it would appear at first impression to be a freshening-up on similar themes to the previous version, rather than a completely new approach, or even a logical evolution.

Twin themes of the deep and impressive age of spiritual, social and material culture; and positivism of a resilient and abiding contemporary culture; prevail as before – roughly divided by the initial choice of whether to turn left or right at on entering.

I suspect, (but do not have the supporting evidence) that the designers have worked on the sense of space to reinforce these themes: the ancient culture enclosed by a series of cave-like passages and nooks, enclosed with cleverly concealed carpentry; the contemporary culture with more open space, brighter illumination, more backlit transparencies and spilling outside into the natural environment of the Millari Garden; between the two is the ‘Creation Cinema’, the now almost obligatory multi-media, interactive, conceptual art, audio-visual, immersive experience.

The entrance orientation ‘Wominjeka’ includes a stylized map of Victoria studded with small prongs – possibly message sticks. Holding each produces an Aboriginal voice speaking the name of the language group for that area.

A wall of backlit transparency portraits fills the space and role of the previous exhibition’s ‘Koorie Voices’ previously comprising mostly black and white photographic prints of historical and contemporary Aboriginal people. Touch-tablet computers provide the labels for the images. Walls of typologically sorted artefacts – basket weaving, hunting tools, engraved and painted shields, etc, – in the ‘Many Nations’ section also get the iPad label treatment, although about a quarter of the devices had frozen.

The exhibition is intentionally presenting a community narrative rather than one from a museum or academic perspective. As such it focusses on the stories and interpretation of Victorian Aboriginal people in a first-hand account. This produces an immediacy and authenticity of emotion to many of the stories. There is also subdued input from the body of ethnographic, archaeological and scientific research that has helped build the story of great age and depth of aboriginal history and material culture.

First Peoples has been ‘entirely co-curated by the Victorian Koorie community and the Museum’ according to Caroline Martin, manager of the Bunjilaka Centre.[1] The First Peoples Yulendj (or knowledge)  group of elders, comprising a large group of Victorian Aboriginal people from diverse backgrounds, was facilitated by Melbourne Museum staff for this purpose. This is clearly a valuable step to reconciliation, sharing of expertise and healing some of the rifts from the past between the museum and academic professions and the people they have studied and interpreted.

While this approach is admirable, it risks compromise and conflict where contemporary community values and scientific theory and evidence give different interpretations; just as was the case when only the scientific side of the story was presented in the past. There is also an even greater conflict in reconciling belief and fact, which is the central problem of the ‘creation’ theme. But more of this later.

The approach of community co-curation has produced some problems in emphasis and detail in interpreting evidence of past economic and cultural behaviors. One example is the trade of greenstone axe blanks. The panel claims:

‘Mt William stone ended up being the only rock that was traded through South East Australia and into Central Australia….Aboriginal people believe it was traded throughout the whole of Australia …[which will be proven] …when axes are found in other countries… because it was blessed by Bunjil’ (my emphasis).

The problem here it that there is no evidence of Mt William greenstone being traded much beyond north west Victoria and western New South Wales, and there are other types of stone traded considerable distances, such as the similar Mt Camel greenstone and tektites, or ochre from the Yarrakina ochre mine in the Flinders Ranges.

Another display presents the complex and fascinating evidence for an aquaculture industry at Lake Condah, where a network of artificial channels, weirs and traps was used to control and harvest migrating eels. Recent archaeological research suggests the possibility that this was a year-round economic activity leading to permanent sedentary settlement, thanks to techniques for smoke preservation and storage. Separate research suggests the activity is as old as 6800 years.

All archaeological interpretation has some level of uncertainty, and these theories are yet to be tested or proven with further corroborative evidence, but both claims are presented as proven fact. It is a disappointed that some of the more established archeological discoveries are not features, for example, the Dry Creek and Mungo excavations that first provided the scientific proof (through radiocarbon dating) of the great age of Aboriginal presence. These are the source of the 2000 generations or 40,000 years now accepted as the minimum date for settlement of the continent.

A further display raises the megafauna issue in describing a time ‘…when our people lived with a giant animal we now call diprotodon’. The critical argument here (most prominently espoused by Tim Flannery), is whether or not the arrival of people in Australia led to the extinction of megafauna. There is no discussion of this idea and we are left only with the clichéd impression of ‘Aborigines living in harmony with the land’, rather than the more complex understanding of the interaction between people and their environment.

And finally, a quote claiming Australia was “the only Commonwealth country that doesn’t have a treaty” needs questioning. The speaker probably had in mind William Penn’s famous treaty with Naive Americans, the treaty of Waitangi and the more recent Canadian First Nations Treaty as examples that should have been replicated in Australia.  The native Arawak of British Guiana, Caribs of Trinidad and Tobago, or the Polynesians of Fiji, might want this statement reconsidered. The curios position of Batman’s ‘Treaty’ might also bring some qualification.

Here I will also raise my difficulty with the exhibition title ‘First Peoples’. I understand that there are probably intentional political overtones in the term, with it being used to convey primacy – native Canadians being one group to adopt it – I also understand the purpose of its plurality – recognising the diversity of the many Aboriginal cultures. What the term obfuscates, however, is the question of origins. Theories have come and gone over the last 60 years or more, to explain when, how and from where people first came to the Australian continent. Some, such as Birdsell and Tindale’s trihybrid migration theory of three separate origin groups spreading across the continent in sequence and leaving physiognomic trail in the different physical characteristics of modern day aboriginal people. Others proposed paleontological evidence of separate gracile and robust people from the Mungo and Kow Swamp. More recent DNA and genetic drift analysis further hints at the time and place of Aboriginal origins.

While each of these theories has been subject to debate and disputation (as should all theory) none of this polemic appears in the First Peoples exhibition.

We are left with the impression that the Aboriginal people depicted in the exhibition, as well as the broader Aboriginal culture, are unchanged from the distant past, or even, as the creation stories imply, are immutable from when the spirit ancestors mysteriously placed them on the earth in the dreamtime.

So coming back to the creation theme, this idea is given such prominence, that it must be seen as the main focus of the exhibition. The term is used on its own as a noun and title, and as an adjective for ‘creation story’, ‘creation cinema’, ‘creation ancestors’, etc. the publicity invites us to:

‘Be transported to the time of Creation through the story of Bunjil (the wedge-tailed eagle), Creator for many Victorian Aboriginal clans, inside the Creation Cinema’

and states that:

‘Our Story chronicles the histories and cultures of Victoria’s first peoples, from Creation to the present day, with stories of ceremony, customs, Law and resilience, before and after the arrival of Europeans. This section celebrates the flourishing of Aboriginal peoples and cultures in modern times and pays tribute to those who seek to learn and respect Aboriginal Law.’

The word ‘story’ might be considered a modifier to denote that these are not facts or interpretations. There is some hint of the cultural and ethnographic context in ‘…all cultures have their creations stories’, and ‘…in the beginning we all believe in a creation [whether] Bunjil, God, Allah…’, but mostly it is an unqualified statement.

Many quotes and statements have the tone of biblical proclamations:

‘Bunjil sent the ancestor spirits to create the world… they made the mountains and valleys…creeks and rivers,’ and ‘…our creation ancestor Badj Bim diverted our water, formed our wetland and gave us resources’.

In the use of a term ‘Creation’ (usually capitalised), the exhibition is presenting a religious interpretation of cultural meaning. The curators could hardly have overlooked the possibility that this might be the perception of the viewer. Creation depends on a Creator as an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient and unknowable force. Aboriginal people inhabit the land because of the intervention of a supreme being. Their survival is dependent on adhering to the doctrine. The Creator is not open to question and contradiction.

The quotes above are not dissimilar to those used in the ‘Creation Museum’ in Kentucky, ‘The state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum brings the pages of the Bible to life’, its motto: ‘prepare to believe’. They have their own ‘Six Days of Creation Theatre’.

 

 

Given that previous debates in museum presentations of indigenous people’s stories have revolved around the dehumanizing effect of treating them as  objects of curiosity and scientific enquiry, it is disturbing that the pendulum should swing so far the other way. The museum staff on the curation committee appear to have been too timid to regulate or modify some of the unscientific claims.

Google “creation museum”, and it is instantly evident (with about 649,000 results in 0.54 seconds) that the tools of enlightenment and science are being appropriated by religious fundamentalists for antiscientific proselytism under the guise of  ‘creation science’. The place of religious beliefs in a museum context need to be more carefully considered.

I wonder how developing children’s minds absorb these creation statements and the effect of sensual stimulation of the otherwise beautiful art of the Creation Cinema, which places the magic of Bunjil at the same or greater status as the cosmological, geological and evolutionary processes that are the real creators of the stars, the mountains, the rivers.

The Australian Museum[2] has taken a different path, with an objective third person voice describing Aboriginal beliefs, rather than implied authority of first person statements. We should expect both community relevance and scientific rigor from Melbourne Museum’s exhibitions and at least a disclaimer somewhere, that the creation elements (and some other statements) are personal views and religious beliefs, and should not be taken as fact. The problem then is how do you separate the fact from the belief in such an exhibition?

Gary Vines

29 September 2013

[1]              Sonia Harford. The Age, September 6, 2013

 

[2]    See http://australianmuseum.net.au/Indigenous-Australia-Spirituality

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