Rethinking the Museum: ‘We are trying to be brave’

The South Australian Museum holds one of the most important – arguably the most
important – collections of Aboriginal material culture in the world. What we do with
such collections, and what we don’t, defines us. That’s why I moved to Adelaide a year
ago with my family; to be at the heart of a new era in Australian museums.

The museum will be charting new courses through this terrain in the years ahead. The first steps are evident for all to see in our current exhibition, Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia. We didn’t follow museum conventions on this project. We left out things normally used, like labels and wall-text (and walls!) and introduced things you’re not supposed to, including moisture, vibrations and lightning machines. In short, risk. The resulting collaboration with Yolngu custodians is not really an exhibition, but an experience: a forest of lightning and song.

Feedback indicates that the success of Yidaki is bound up in the fact that it isn’t just about Didjeridus. Yidaki is – in all its theatre – a questioning of what a museum is, what it can do and who it is for.

So what is a Museum? I don’t take for granted that the answer to that question is clear, or that it is set in stone. Even North Terrace sandstone.

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Museums, as we know them today, emerged over recent centuries in concert with developments in science and systems of classification. These categorical impulses dovetailed in the 19th century with Darwinian Theory and the fledgling discipline of anthropology. Museums became a place in which we catalogued not just other species, but other cultures, other people. And there are real problems with that equation for many Aboriginals today.

The South Australian Museum has, better than most, fulfilled the mandate of the classical museum in preserving the material heritage of Aboriginal people, and displaying the ingenuity, beauty and diversity of Aboriginal material culture.

But is that enough for the modern museum? Museums around the world are moving on from this model, and exploring their therapeutic role in increasing public awareness of historical and present iniquities, and helping to reimagine the future. In Australian terms I like to think of a museum as a site of reconciliation. Or, at least, a site with the greatest potential for reconciliation.

Any one of the 3000 people present at the emotional Yidaki opening concert on North Terrace will know that this isn’t rhetoric.

Yidaki was the first step in a much larger plan and vision. The South Australian Museum’s collections include around 100 Yidaki, which sit alongside another 28,000 pieces of Aboriginal creativity and ingenuity. These collections have a profound educational and corrective role to play in society.

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This is because the achievements of Aboriginal people have been radically under-appreciated in Australia. For so long, we did not know how to look. Where European visitors sought monuments carved in stone, or testaments written down, we found none. We failed to see, a continent forged by fire, mapped in song, and civilised many thousands of years before Captain Cook set foot on its shores. Australia itself is the monument, too vast to comprehend, an artefact of human intervention and home to the diverse but kindred cultural genius of Aboriginal people.

The small wooden, stone and fibre objects which constitute much of the South Australian Museum’s collection of Australian Aboriginal material are deceptively humble. Properly understood they are the keys to a continent. They speak of how it was made home, and the hands that made it so. Appreciated alongside the contemporary art of Aboriginal Australians, they speak of a story, unfolding still, about the most resilient, creative and enduring peoples our world has known. They are, therefore, the keys to reimagining Australia as a shared home.

Given the extraordinary collections we hold in trust, the South Australian Museum has a responsibility to be at the heart of that imagining. And not just for South Australia.

With a new generation of Aboriginal researchers and curators already on board, we are laying the foundations for telling some extraordinary Australian stories over the next decade. We are trying to be brave: to explore creative and complex forms of reconciliation.

A museum, as a concept, comes from further back in human history, and deeper down in the human psyche. Its origins are in the Ancient Greek Μουσεῖον (Mouseion), which references temples or sites dedicated to and animated by the Muses (in Greek Mythology, the patron divinities of the arts).

I like this deeper idea of a museum: a place where we come with our kids on the weekend, or at lunch in the middle of a stressful week, to be reminded of the bigger context of our lives. To be inspired. To be reminded that the work of reconciliation is ongoing. The museum – in this Grecian formulation – is perhaps where a society does its thinking out loud.

If that’s the case, then we have a lot of thinking to do… and North Terrace is about to get noisy with the voices of Aboriginal artists, custodians and a new generation of Aboriginal staff at the Museum. And that will be the sound of a new, truly Australian Museum emerging.

Professor John Carty, Head of Anthropology, South Australian Museum

Yidaki continues until Sunday, July 16
samuseum.sa.gov.au

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