A space for memorising and dreaming

Linda Marie Walker at the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery

Play module - The Kukuru game. A survey of playsticks from across Australia

Play module – The Kukuru game. A survey of playsticks from across Australia

Play module – The Kukuru game. A survey of playsticks from across Australia

…objects are not dumb but inexhaustible, capable of an infinite range of readings and re-readings.
K Moore, Museums and Popular Culture, Leicester Uni Press, London & New York 1997

Usually I don’t like visiting museums. I never know quite what to look at, I never seem to ‘see’ very much, and I’m acutely (and depressingly) aware that I’ve missed ‘seeing’ more than I’ve seen, and to top it off I become weary almost instantly. I have the same experience in department stores. All in all I feel defeated by museums (and department stores).

However, I finally (and with hesitation) visited the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery at the South Australian Museum which opened in early March 2000, along with an overall museum refurbishment. I’d anticipated being, once more, overcome by my own inability-to-absorb. It didn’t happen, I enjoyed being there. I felt like staying, wandering around, reading, listening, looking; I felt calm, instead of choked, and puzzled, curious…happy even. It was a strange response (for me). (I spent as much time watching the children as watching the displays—I’ll return to this.)

A couple of weeks after this initial visit a friend from Cardiff went to see the gallery. He was impressed; he said he didn’t feel “beaten over the head” by the politics of Aboriginal issues. He said he’d gained some understanding of a complex and elegant culture, and that even though the gallery was of a traditional museum design (in many respects), it had somehow subverted the common, and over-arching, intention of the museum—a heavy didacticism, a sort of grim inertness.

There are around 3000 objects on display, which is 10 per cent of the museum’s Aboriginal collection, as well as many archival photographs. At several locations, and in relation to particular Australian regions, there are video-screens with head-and-shoulder footage of Aboriginal people telling stories. They speak directly to ‘you.’ These screens are placed in such a way as to be discrete and at the same time clear and compelling. One simply comes across them. The voices do not interfere sound-wise with each other. The stories told are everyday, personal, and insightful (about relatives, cooking, singing, hunting, art, pain).

There is no directed way to view the gallery. One can follow the walls, or move through the curved passages, coming to ‘themes’ by chance (like ‘food and water’ or ‘aesthetics’), as well as ‘regions’ (like ‘South East’, ‘MacDonnell Ranges’, ‘Western Cape York’) and ‘technologies’ (like ‘spears’, ‘drugs’, ‘watercraft’, ‘string’). It’s tempting to move back and forward, criss-cross, or linger; things and ideas link up gradually; correspondences, relationships, and surprises slowly seep in. And by the time one sits down in front of the double screen in the second floor theatrette, where a series of anthropological films have been recut into shorts, and are shown with contemporary footage, and with relevant objects—illuminated in a sequenced way—in 2 cases (one between the screens)—one/I/you is a (potentially) slightly different person. Not because one has been given a lesson, or been overwhelmed by masses of artefacts and difficult (sad) matters, but because one has been touched quietly/softly and decisively by the beauty, innovation, richness and subtlety of objects, materials, rituals, and knowledges. The displays manage to give information both matter-of-factly and expressively, not tying down, or stitching, the exhibits into single or determined narratives.

Sometimes I wished for slightly brighter lighting, just to see in more detail what was there, to see the contours of small containers, or the exact marks on a fire-stick, or the colour of seed pods, and sometimes I wanted a little more text about particular exhibits—pieces of jewellery for instance. I was told by David Kerr, Head of Public Programs at the Museum, that there will be slight changes to the lighting over time, and more wall texts and labelling will be added.

As well as the individual video-screens and the theatrette, there are a number of larger monitors which run programs of archival film and video “providing contextual imagery for the objects on display. Significantly this is not explicitly the Museum voice of authority, but an independent witness, with the visitor making the connections between the film and the display” (David Kerr, Artlink, Vol. 20, No 3). And on both floors there is bench-seating along which are positioned touch-screen monitors on articulated arms. These contain multi-media data-bases of story-lines; they are simple to use, and the stories are well-organised and accessible. When I was there many family groups were gathered around, and discussion was animated, with children making associations between displays and stories.

Food Gathering module - gathering tools and food survey

Food Gathering module – gathering tools and food survey

Food Gathering module – gathering tools and food survey

The gallery also has an Indigenous Information Centre on the second floor, where Indigenous museum staff deal with inquiries about the collection, using CD-ROMs, databases, books and videos as well as providing Indigenous people with details from the museum’s genealogical archive. The Centre shows Aboriginal artists’ work—presently there are paintings by Ian Abdulla. Downstairs there’s a small dedicated exhibition space which can be used as an art gallery or for the temporary display of more pieces from the collection.

On entering the gallery one comes face-to-face with a layered display of black and white archival portraits, among which are two video screens with the animated faces of Aboriginal people. They look out at us, alive, nervous, waiting, and warm (we meet these people later as they talk to us from the video-screens inside). We are reminded from the start that we are in the presence of people, of a culture made, and being made, by people. A soundscape of voices, birds (and I’m not sure what else) plays above and around. It is unintrusive, and comes and goes in one’s consciousness. Upstairs there’s another soundscape, and at one point the laughter of children drew me to a display case where a silent video-screen shows children playing, as well as a number of toys.

So far I have several favourite displays: the string bags and nets, the shell jewellery, the medicines, the masks made from kerosene tins, and the exquisite carved glass spear heads (and the football segment in the theatrette).

Over the last decade there’s been an enormous amount of research and writing about ‘the museum’ and ‘museum-display’; about what ‘the museum’ was, is, and can be, and about its cultural-display role (and consequently, amongst other issues, about history, community, interpretation, ownership). This is due, in some measure, to recent theoretical and philosophical thinking regarding interdisciplinary and non-linear practices of meaning, working, creating and teaching. Especially important in displaying a culture (or in the display of history, science, art, and so on) is the seemingly ordinary concept of sense. How is sense made? What sense do we make, and why? How do we keep sense open, available?

The museum, the exhibition, is about seeing, reading, listening. The type of order the museum creates/imposes, the way in which its curators, researchers, archivists see, read, and listen, affects the memory of individuals, and of cultures themselves—the cultures which it displays and the cultures which come to visit, to view. The museum is a type of memory and dream; a space for memorising and dreaming. The care of memory and dream is the care of remembering, forgetting, and imagining, and it’s the care too of detail, possibility, and infinity. There are countless ways to make sense of every single thing; every single being brings themselves to bear upon the seen, heard, read event. The interaction, the potential for conversation, inner and outer, is where the moments of becoming ‘a slightly different person’ could be. “In dream space, many things might tumble through our minds: bits of songs, half-written shopping lists, things left unsaid. The shape or shadow of something, its texture or colour, the operation of space and the people moving through it can be triggers to an endless range of personal associations. Therefore, in accepting…[the] idea of the dream space, we have to accept more fully the imagination, emotions, senses and memories as vital components of the experience of museums.” (G Kavanagh, Dream Spaces, Memory and the Museum, Leicester Uni Press, London & New York, 2000)

Which brings me back to children. I watched the way children in the Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery went about making sense. It was haphazard, unruly, restless. They stopped, wondered, pointed, or moved on, swiftly, careless; they saw one thing and returned to another. They used the touch-screens like video games, a bit brutal, expecting the equipment to work fast. They read here and there, not from start to finish. The gallery tolerated all of this. It seemed to give them a chance to play, or at least to remain in the mode of play. I thought, as a result, that in time, this gallery will make a big ‘difference.’

The Australian Aboriginal Cultures Gallery Project Team were: Philip Clarke (principal curator), Philip Jones (preliminary brief), David Kerr (content coordinator), Franchesca Cubillo, Chris Nobbs, Root Projects Australia (project management), Freeman Ryan Design in association with X Squared Design (exhibition design), CDP Media (multimedia consultant), Clinic Design (Speaking Land interactive), Bollman and Bietz (Contemporary Voice films).

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 6

© Linda Marie Walker; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001