Once again I am blogging this live, so I apologise in advance for typos, errors of omission or misinterpretation, and for the American spelling imposed by the software I’m using.
Genevieve Grieves, curator at the Melbourne Museum began with the story of a forthcoming Melbourne Museum exhibition called First Peoples, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre. (I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the name of her country). The other presenters were Amanda Reynolds and Rosemary Wrench from Melbourne Museum.
The presentation focussed on how the exhibition was created i.e. the process. Curators’ job was to listen to Aboriginal communities across Victoria.
- Using Aboriginal voices and languages
- A collaborative voice
The exhibition includes the ‘harder stories’ i.e. frontier violence.
The entrance includes welcoming message sticks: if you touch them you hear indigenous people from different parts of Victoria saying welcome in different languages.
Victorian iconography – less familiar to most than iconography from desert areas e.g. dot point paintings – includes
- cloaks – including rare examples
- baskets and shields – people can touch them and learn how they were made.
- an immersive experience using Bunjil the eagle
Aboriginal history and culture involves 2000 generations of stories, which are tracks back through time to when Aboriginal people lived with mega-fauna, and which explores knowledge coming from science and from storytelling by Aboriginal elders. Elders used observation and ingenuity the way that scientists do, and visitors are encouraged to look at images of tracks, signs, rock art etc. to interpret it. Some artifacts were made especially for the exhibition using traditional methods, and the modules are set up to be immersive. Community narrators explain the complex concepts involved in reading country and knowing the interconnected nature of knowledge. Visitors can also explore how knowledge is passed on, because Aboriginal lore isn’t passed on by specialists, everyone is a teacher.
Much of this presentation involved images, video and sound from the exhibition so I’m not doing a very good job of sharing how interesting it was. I’ll try to give a sense of the different modules:
- The exhibition covers old ways, and early encounters with ‘Strangers from the Ccean’ (and the sadness that befell people at that time) which includes artifacts of explorers such as George Bass. There is a memorial to people who lost their lives too, and there are stories from oral history about what happened, e.g. kidnapping by sealers. Some of this will be confronting but it is felt that people are ready for this now.
- Then there is Our Shared History with modules called e.g. Treaty and Tanderum, i.e. two laws side by side,comparing Batman’s infamous treaty with laws as represented by message sticks.
- There is Call to Fight which includes massacres and battles but also indigenous service. The key concept here is that Australia has many battlefields.
- Burdens to Bear covers oral history stories sharing personal stories about how their lives were affected by various pieces of legislation controlling Aboriginal lives.
- Standing Strong is another model about protest movements, land rights struggles and so on.
- Working Hard explores Aboriginal contributions to the modern economy as well as the traditional work ethic.
- Coming Together explores NAIDOC Week and other modern ways of celebrating culture, continuing stories, celebrations and knowledge.
The Many Nations component of the exhibition includes showcases of objects from the 19th century and contemporary objects from all over Victoria. This covers
- Keeping places – beautiful handmade pieces
- Animal creations – creation stories, animals that bring good luck, items never displayed before
- Marking identity – timbers, shields etc
- Working Country – tools and so on
- Celebrating Culture – body ornamentation, musical instruments, clothing including fibres, feathers and bones etc.
These showcases also include objects that show ways in which children are included:
- mother and daughter digging sticks
- child-sized shields
and there’s an activity table for 4-9 year-olds, with games and puzzles etc. for children to engage with. There’s also a showcase called Toy Stories, with toys to look at. (Do check out my review of Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen, I hope there’s an exhibition catalogue for First Peoples too?)
Perhaps there will be a virtual exhibition as well, I hope so, because not all children can visit the museum, for one reason or another.
The final part of this presentation was about the Generations part of the exhibition, with stories from indigenous people from all over Victoria, of all age groups. Every time you walk into the Deep Listening Space you get a different multimedia experience, where you are invited to ‘listen with your head and your heart’.
This is the kind of exhibition that teachers really need to attend because it will give us lots of ideas about how to introduce Aboriginal perspectives across all kinds of history topics. Learning about Aboriginal culture and history is a core responsibility for all teachers of history and although it’s a long journey with no endpoint, we have an obligation to keep learning. I’ll be visiting this exhibition during school holidays as part of my own professional development.