Touring Melbourne Museum
Journey Through Bunjilaka
to face with hundreds of Aboriginal faces and voices
Museums have been
in my mind lately.
Spirit of Arnhem Land
Photograph: Penny Tweedie.
Source: Museum Victoria
A major reason for this is one of my classes at Melbourne University
is entitled "Memory and Contemporary Culture". A day was spent
of the role and effects of museums on cultural memory and memory of
trauma. After that class, I kept asking myself what
is the role of museums, and why do I like to go to them so much?
The answer may come by means of the term problematize.
Museums traditionally are for things to be exhibited; things that are
not usually of this time or place. These things are put behind glass cases
to stagnate without much context to what they were originally a part.
The exhibited are there just to be stared at and take us, the spectator,
on a little tour that lightly touches upon a time, place or people without
getting too deep into it; just like going to a tropical island resort
created specifically for the tip-toeing tourist. Going outside that resort
would be too dangerous just as veering off the well beaten and well marked
path of the exhibition would be leaving the comfort zone of glass and
museums are only a way of appropriating other times and places, then
why do I feel it important to go to museums? Is it to think of museums
as more of spaces to more critically think about (problematize) a particular
museums raison detre and try to see how it is in some ways
appropriating machine of glass cases and well marked paths and at the
same time as perhaps more innovative and less complete all knowing spaces?
Can todays museums be redeemed and put memory in a more problematic
and incomplete format allowing us spectators to be more involved and to
force us to leave those pathways and floor guides?
to try to come to terms with the positive and negative aspects of museums,
I went to the Melbourne Museum. It was a great day to go to a museum;
rainy, windy and bone-chillingly cold. Also the Grand Final of Australian
Rules Football (Footy) was underway in the city and the whole of Melbourne
was Footy crazy with a home team against faraway and sunny Brisbane.
So, to avoid the fans and the ensuing chaos, I decided to finally go
to the Mondrian-esque Melbourne Museum. I heard people talking about
it both positively and negatively. The negative part was mostly the
price of admission, but thankfully a student is well respected here
and I secured a concession.
Inside, glass cases were dotting the museum landscape, especially in the
natural history section, with masses of Australian and foreign fauna left
over from the original Victorian era Museum of Victoria. I do not want
to dwell on the way a museum was or in many ways still is, but rather
on the new roles the museum is creating for itself. This is very evident
in the Aboriginal centre of the museum called Bunjilaka. Bunjilaka, jointly
put together by indigenous and non-indigenous parties, challenges the
notions of traditional exhibits; not in totality but with new uses of
the glass case and with a more confrontational relationship with the spectator.
When I walked into Bunjilaka on the ground floor of the museum, I was
quickly disorientated. There were none of those sign-posted pathways holding
the hand of every entrant like a doting nanny. I welcomed this disorientation
and felt free to start anywhere I thought appropriate. I quickly came
across a black hearse with the Aboriginal flag painted on the front door.
The hearse was bought and used by the displaced indigenous population
to take their dead back to their respective sacred burial grounds sometimes
hundreds or even thousands of miles away. This black, 60s style
sedans meaning was supported by more traditional ways of burial
and treatment of the deceased in the traditional glass case or wall hanging
format. It was very helpful to have that conceptualization of the traditional
and modern side by side. This setting was able to tell a more rounded
story of an indigenous issue without relegating it to the exhibition style
of long gone cultures and societies. The latter style provides the false
redemptive feeling of the present time and situation and imprisons the
evils done to a time that is no more.
Another interesting area was about the collectors of Aboriginal artefacts
during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The centre re-appropriated
the glass case and put a statue of a well known collector and curator
named Spencer inside on display. There were several information plaques
of other collectors also inside this long glass case with some of their
collections. The artefacts and tools were then not objects of a past and
primitive society but collections of a past/present and powerful collecting
society. The glass case was not a display of an Aboriginal culture but
a display of what was taken by a colonizing culture. This was no subtle
manoeuvre on the part of the exhibitors. Anybody walking past would get
this idea because of a wonderful quote by a Tasmanian Aboriginal group
etched on the glass which basically stated the concern of cultural appropriation
into static glass cases (unfortunately I cannot remember the exact quote
and would not do it justice by trying to paraphrase it).
Another interesting twist to this particular piece of the exhibit is a
rather hidden plaque around and behind this glass case. It was a plaque
about the trading of culture; how collectors of one primitive society
traded with other collectors of another. It was not the plaque that was
the most interesting twist, but the fact that the spectator had to physically
go behind the huge glass case and virtually put him/herself on display
for the people walking on the other side partially dissected by the many
collected spears in the case.
left Bunjilaka feeling much more aware of the past and current issues
and even geography of Aboriginal life (I am not Australian and am lacking
certain insights on these issues). I was literally put face to face
with hundreds of Aboriginal faces and voices throughout my walk. I also
walked out of the museum feeling more comforted that I could still
learn something connecting the past to the present and being thrown
out of that comfort zone for about an hour. Bunjilaka problematizes
the museum into a self-criticizing exercise. James Clifford, a noted
ethnographer and cultural critic, said museums "are way stations
than final destinations." I believe this is a great way to look at
museums, not as a place displaying a collection out of context and as
long dead, but as something incomplete and challenging the spectator
and curators to reflect on the problems inherit in museums and the life
it attempts to represent.
© Brian Wood October 2002
Brian R Wood Australia email:firstname.lastname@example.org
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