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Hacktreks Travel 2

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September 02

Touring Melbourne Museum
Journey Through Bunjilaka
Brian R Wood
'face to face with hundreds of Aboriginal faces and voices '

Spirit of Arnhem Land
Photograph: Penny Tweedie.
Source: Museum Victoria
Museums have been in my mind lately.
A major reason for this is one of my classes at Melbourne University is entitled "Memory and Contemporary Culture". A day was spent in discussion 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 information plaques.

If 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 museum’s raison d’etre and try to see how it is in some ways that traditional
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 today’s 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?

Today, 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, 60’s style sedan’s 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.

I 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 rather 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

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