Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Developing Bunjilaka

Creation, Bunjil’s wingers Image via Melbourne Museum. Source: ArtsHub

Genevieve Grieves ‘Working in partnership with Aboriginal culture’  ArtsHub 16 January 2015

The rich cultures of Indigenous Australia have long been a closed book to mainstream arts organisations. The lead curator of Bunjilaka, the First Peoples exhibition at Melbourne Museum, explains how traditional institutions can bridge the gap.

The challenge

The First Peoples exhibition was challenging to make in many, many ways, not just in terms of deadlines and pressures but also because staff had to engage in deep listening. They had to shift their working practices to create new and culturally appropriate ways of working which helped ultimately to create something beautiful. One of the key learnings that they needed to take was that they needed to take the time to allow things to be worked through and not everyone found this easy. But we had to allow community decision making and leadership to take place in order to build a space that had cultural integrity.

At the heart of this exhibition are the first peoples and communities in Victoria and across the nation. We as an exhibition team were given so many gifts from elders, artists, families and individuals of objects, art stories and knowledge. This working together and these many gifts underlined a wish for change and for understanding from boarder Australia of the beauty, sophistication and complexity of our cultures. All the communities we worked with welcomed the opportunity to create this social change through the sharing of culture and stories. This process was overseen and guided by our Yulendj group. Yulendj is a Kulin word for law and knowledge.

Museums are largely colonial institutions. Our Melbourne Museum was established in 1854, only 20 years after John Batman and other settlers arrived to Melbourne. Many of you would be aware of the past practices of museums. They were part and parcel of colonisation, collecting and classifying people, artefacts and cultures. Their acts of classification were tied up in the racial scientific thinking of the time that continues in different forms today and this legacy is still a difficult space for us to navigate.

Sometimes people talk about the post-colonial as if we are beyond these times and they are in the distant past. But theorists such as Eileen Morton-Robinson say that Australia is in a post-colonising state not a post-colonial state. By this she means that colonial structures are still in place and we are still attempting to move beyond them.

Many museums are attempting to decolonise, to change their processes. They’re supporting the aspirations of Indigenous people and communities, they’re employing Indigenous staff and they’re developing policies based on repairing the actions of the past. But this is an active, ongoing and challenging process. Decolonisation is not a simple task. It requires dominant cultures to deconstruct, to shift and emerge anew.

Understanding audiences

We thought about what had come before and had many learnings from within the museum. They put on a lot of large, permanent exhibitions so we also had previous exhibitions to look at and see what had worked and what hadn’t.

We started off with a consultation process with communities who had travelled around the Victorian state twice, sat down, listened to people about what were the most important things that needed to be shared and that developed our concept and beginnings to this exhibition. We did a lot of audience evaluation. I think audience evaluations are a very important tool for understanding, not what audiences want or don’t want but how to work with them and how to translate information to them in ways that they can take.

Our audiences, when we were developing this exhibition, were ready for the hard histories. Previously in other exhibitions they weren’t: they didn’t want to know about frontier violence, they didn’t want to know the hard stories. But there was a willingness and a readiness now to go there which was great for us because that’s where we wanted to go too.

Audiences were also very clear that they didn’t want to hear white scientific voices, they didn’t want to hear from the museum, they wanted to hear from Aboriginal people and that was perfect for us as well. Curriculum was very important for us and we made sure there were pathways all the way through the exhibition for each year group. And then we had to think about what narratives we were going to tell. We had thousands upon thousands of objects and images but we really had to work out what stories were ready to be told, what people were ready to tell and there were some stories that we couldn’t tell ‘cause it’s not the right time. And then we had to develop a process.

First Peoples opened in November 2013. It is 12000 square meters, cost six million dollars, it took more than four years. It has over a thousand objects and a thousand images. It’s got 50+ hours of multimedia content and thousands of people are represented in the space. After we opened visitation to the museum jumped by 30%. We don’t get those kind of figures for our blockbusters, so it was actually a really good lesson for the museum that people want to know their stories.

Acknowledging diversity

At the heart of this exhibition are three concepts. One of them is diversity. Our audiences have very little understanding of the diversity of Aboriginal people and cultures. Australian was a multicultural nation before invasion, it’s still one today. Views of Aboriginality are often very homogenising. We don’t speak with one voice, we don’t have one culture: we are very diverse nations and people. So as soon as people enter the exhibition they see a map of Victoria with grass message sticks that you can touch. It’s an interactive experience. And you can hear voices from across the state, you hear all the language groups and it’s kind of saying ‘We’re here’ as well as saying ‘We’re diverse’.  Next to that is a display with over 500 objects called ‘many nations’ which has objects from all different nations across the country and the key message in that section is diversity. That’s a little zoom-in to one of the cases. So there were a beautiful rich diverse range of objects, each with a digital leg.

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Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2021
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