Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Brian Oldman on SAM’s Aboriginal colln

SA Museum director Brian Oldman in the Aboriginal Cultures Gallery. Picture Matt Turner.

Penelope Debelle, Night(mare) at the Museum: SA Museum losing its crown jewels, Adelaide Now, 13 December 2019

The domino effect on North Tce of the new Aboriginal Art and Cultures Centre continues — with the SA Museum confronting the loss of its prized indigenous collection.

Something about South Australian Museum director Brian Oldman calls to mind the Eveready Bunny – bouncy, smiling and optimistic in the face of what might look like disaster.

Step back three years to Oldman’s ambitious $100 million plans for the SA Museum, which he spoke about in 2016 with SAWeekend.

The huge expanse at the front, an unfinished aspect of the original design, was to be transformed into a glass-covered display frontage with room underneath for a 1000 sq m display space; think the Louvre pyramid but a bit more modest.

“I think it would help us do more, bigger exhibitions,” Oldman said then. “We could get more things on show, we could offer more facilities on North Tce.”

But as with its neighbour, the Art Gallery of South Australia, the SA Museum’s future changed course after the election of the Marshall Liberal Government. Marshall who is Premier, Minister of the Arts and the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, has strong ideas about what he wants and his change of plans triggered a domino effect along North Tce.

At the AGSA, the stunning Adelaide Contemporary art gallery designed by New York-based Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Woods Bagot to be a charismatic, soft beacon on the old RAH site was abandoned. Instead, the site, Lot 14, will be dedicated to Marshall’s vision of a national and preeminent Aboriginal Art and Cultures Centre that will tell indigenous stories in new way. The question then is, what will go in it? The answer will be the SA Museum’s prized collection of indigenous cultural records and artefacts, currently a prime attraction for interstate and overseas tourists that accounts for a third of its exhibition space.

It won’t happen for five years or so but last month’s PwC report on the Aboriginal Art and Cultures Centre (AACC) left no room for doubt.

The Museum’s 30,000 artefacts and artworks, which span the arrival of humans in Australia from 65,000 years ago to today, will be held and managed further along North Tce, by the new AACC.

Not that the Museum minds; it wants the collection to be properly appreciated, cared for, and accessed, which is currently not the case. This vastly important national collection of indigenous culture and heritage that extends from a fossilised boomerang to collections of hair, to grinding stones, shields and weapons, ceremonial cloaks and family histories, is mostly not on display and is stored in conditions that are substandard. To hold it and to not care for it properly is seen within the Museum as morally wrong.

Which means Oldman, positive as ever, is not just losing the Aboriginal collection but he wants it to go.

“You really have to look at this in terms of the big picture and what is best for South Australia,” he says. “It is inconceivable that you could create a truly world-class indigenous centre in South Australia without the Museum’s collection, it simply wouldn’t happen, it’s the Crown Jewels.”

For reasons of history, including a commitment to anthropology, and a window when Adelaide was the outreach of civilisation, South Australia became the national custodian of the Aboriginal history of the whole country. That collection, the Museum says, needs a dedicated place that can be experienced by all and accessed by indigenous Australians .

“Part of the power of the Museum’s collection is that we can tell stories about things that have happened that inform culture today,” Oldman says. “Even with basket weaving – we have had Aboriginal communities come here to see baskets that were historically made to relearn that manufacturing technique.”

Of the indigenous collection, about 3-4 per cent is on show while the rest is stored, inadequately and inconveniently, without proper humidity and temperature control, in a leaky facility at Netley. This includes the 10-15 per cent of objects that can never be shown publicly because they are sacred and secret. Nothing is more important, Oldman says, than safeguarding the collection and securing its future.

Of course there is more to the SA Museum than its indigenous collection.

Its Pacific Cultures Gallery has bows and arrows, shields and spears, masks, head dresses, household and ornamental objects that together form the largest display of Pacific material in Australia.

The Museum is also built on biological and earth sciences and it played to these strengths in 2015 with a record-breaking exhibition on opals, and, in 2018, dinosaurs.

Last year, 760,000 visitors came through the North Tce doors, and another quarter of a million saw travelling exhibitions, which included Yidaki-Didjeridu, told by the Yolnu people from Arnhem Land whose instrument it is, and which travelled to Japan, Darwin and Brisbane with Canberra planned for next year.

The Museum took out of storage and slowly rehydrated old didjeridus which were played by Yolnu men, some for the first time in 100 years, with the recordings integrated into the touring exhibition.

“I think we are really out-punching our weight when you consider the scale of this museum compared with other Australian museums,” Oldman says.

The proposed $100 million redevelopment Oldman had talked about involved refurbished internal spaces that shifted away from the old style of glass cases with explanatory notes towards more vibrant storytelling. While that plan was stymied before it started, there has been an upgrade of the polar galleries with a narrative that extends beyond our ties with Sir Douglas Mawson to include other explorers such as Sir George Hubert Wilkins, also from South Australia.

“We are also looking at the idea of Antarctica as one of the great biospheres and its interaction with the rest of the globe, its importance as the last wilderness,” Oldman says. “And what is happening with Antarctica in terms of climate change.”

The world mammal gallery, with its array of stuffed animals, is a source of eternal fascination particularly for children – taxidermy has become quite hip, Oldman points out – and has been refurbished with new signage that focuses more on research.

Then there is the truly exciting fossils gallery, which spans 600 millions of Earth’s history and whose highlight is the Ediacaran biota, the organisms trapped in the fine silt of tidal flats that have fossilised into stone and whose discovery in South Australia defined a new geological period.

The Ediacaran fossil sites in the Flinders Ranges continue to provide exciting remains, and a fossil-rich dig on a pastoral lease at Emu Bay on Kangaroo Island is emerging as the most important site for Cambrian fossils in the world.

Long rumoured to be an area rich in fossils, a PhD student 25 years ago verified the site, which is today accessed with the agreement of the local farmer. The shale bed is so soft that instead of the usual shell and bone, fossilised soft tissue has been preserved as well as at least one decent-sized and detailed trilobite.

“Worms that are 90 per cent water are being preserved, the compound lenses of eyes are being preserved,” says Oldman. “We have now identified through fossil remains at that site that the compound eyes that insects have today developed 500 million years ago through the Cambrian period.”

The loss of the Aboriginal gallery will, of course, leave a giant hole but there will be plenty with which to fill it. It is well known that the SA Museum has about 5 million objects, only 1-2 per cent of which is on display at any one time.

The SA Museum can also rethink a future which will include more integrated Aboriginal stories.

“One of the interesting things is that this collection has always been seen as a separate Aboriginal cultures gallery and I think the way that the Museum’s thinking is going is that there should be more Aboriginal indigenous stories woven through different galleries,” Oldman says.

An example might be an overhaul of the South Australian biodiversity gallery, which currently looks at the fauna of SA in conventional taxonomic style, listing Latin names.

“It doesn’t at all relate to any of the Aboriginal names, or their importance to Aboriginal culture and society,” Oldman says. “So one of the ways in which we can rethink the museum for the future is to tell multiple stories so that Aboriginal culture becomes woven into the narrative of existing galleries, rather than having to be seen as separate and distinctive.”

Then there is space. Oldman is looking with interest at South Australia’s history with space, including Woomera, and its future role as the home of the National Space Agency. The concept is embryonic but conversations have started about allocating some of the freed up space to space itself, with the added benefit of fostering interest in young people about what a career in space engineering might mean.

“The fact is that South Australia is going to be the centre of a national space agency and you would want South Australians to grow up close to that,” he says. “It is very early days, there are no decisions, no drawings, but it is one of those things where you could say that could be a very exciting opportunity for the Museum.”

Oldman is taking an enlightened view of the new AACC as being part of an evolution in thinking about Aboriginal culture.

The Museum collection is presented as a discrete section of the institution, like fossils or mineralogy, which has an unpleasant colonial tinge He thinks that something once collected and studied in a colonial context should now, as the 2020s begin, be looked at with different eyes.

“It will be managed in a lot more culturally appropriate way,” he says. “So in some ways it is symbolic of how Australia is evolving as a nation. It’s a much wider point than just saying some collection objects are moving on.”

Another artist impressions of redeveloped Royal Adelaide Hospital site.

While it is clear that the AACC will exist as a completely new institution with its own bureaucracy and staff who will be responsible for managing and preserving the collection, it is also possible that much of the expertise that currently resides at the SA Museum – including people like senior anthropologist and author Dr Philip Jones – may well follow the collection to the AACC, either directly or in a collaborative role.

“It looks as though other cultural institutions will continue to work closely and in a supportive way with this new centre, as required, and I think the Museum could play a really important role in that,” Oldman says. “That’s what the PwC reports says. Look at ways to leverage cultural support in other institutions – well no one knows this collection better than we do.”

After six years in the job, which included the collapse of his $100 million grand plan but also coming off what he calls the most successful year in the Museum’s history, Oldman wants to be part of the new North Tce. “I’m very happy. I’m like a boy in charge of the sweets shop,” he says.

Some might think that competing for visitor numbers with an institution that holds what were once your Crown Jewels might be too much to ask, but not Oldman.

“That’s what makes life interesting; wouldn’t it be boring if there were no challenges?” he says. “I would say I have never been more optimistic about the Museum and about what we can achieve today than I have in all of my time here. I think it’s a tremendously exciting idea.”




Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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