Tag Archives: sydney

On Australia Day – how museums can use the power of interpretation? Bungaree -the exhibition in my head.

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Bungaree’s breastplate from http://budawagroup.com/history/

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blogpost may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.”

Before Australia Day, there is always discussion about the date, 26th January, what it means to every Australian and the conversations are quite thought provoking. I don’t believe that you can change history, but you can certainly change the way you look at the facts and think more critically about them. Australia was not the only country to be colonised by the British. I am certain that had it not been the British, it would have been the Dutch, French or Portuguese who were all active on our coastline at that time. I believe that the outcome for Indigenous Australians would have still been quite bleak.

We may not be able to change history but museums have the power to revisit and reinterpret the facts. Australians still have much to learn about our nation’s history and perhaps learning  new things can help all of us to build on our cultural heritage and celebrate the contribution of Indigenous Australians to our country and to resolve the issue of January 26th as a contested date for Australia Day.

A few years ago, I saw a great art exhibition of works on paper about Bungaree: First Australian at Mosman Art Gallery (in Sydney), which made me think about the man, his place in Australian history and the way that these artists created works that acknowledged and critically re-interpreted the story of Bungaree – an important Indigenous figure in the colonial Sydney era. Bungaree’s story would fit well into the vision and exhibition strategy of museums such as the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian Museum or the National Museum of Australia.

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Merve Bishop Bungaree: The showman 2012, digital photography, Giclee on archival pigment, 100 x 200 cm. From an exhibition curated by Djon Mundine at Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney          1 September – 25 November 2012

The man

King Bungaree (c1775-1830) was well respected by the Indigenous Australian community and developed a reputation as a negotiator between Aboriginal and European cultures during his lifetime. He accompanied Matthew Flinders on several journeys in 1798, 1799, 1801 and 1802-03 where he acted as interpreter and intermediary, a role which he undertook several times for European explorers in Australia.  Bungaree was the first Indigenous person to circumnavigate Australia and contribute to the mapping of the Australian coastline and yet more is known about “Trim”, Matthew Flinders’ “sea-faring” cat than the man Flinders described as having “a good disposition and open and manly conduct that attracted my esteem”[1]. I have often thought that the life of King Bungaree would make a wonderful museum exhibition – to rediscover the voyages undertaken by Bungaree with Matthew Flinders, and in particular the circumnavigation of Australia but with more emphasis on Bungaree – his character, his family and his exchanges with other indigenous people during those journeys.

A great deal is known about Australia’s maritime heritage but this would be an opportunity to engage with a different audience, reinterpret the existing historical record and to be more “inclusive”  of an indigenous audience with a more meaningful dialogue about the place of King Bungaree in Australian history[2]. This indigenous man was well respected by the Governors and officials in colonial Sydney. He was not only known in NSW but his fame spread to nineteenth century Europe both in artworks inspired by colonial Australia and in the journals of men that he sailed with. Considering that “Reconciliation” is an important theme for Australian museum projects recently, then public learning and collaboration with indigenous communities offers a museum the opportunity to become a driver for social change and inclusion[3]. It is a chance to research and communicate factual information to visitors about some of the relationships formed between the newly arrived colonial settlers and the indigenous population at that time.

The Exhibition

In the past, most exhibitions on the exploration of Australia tend to be Eurocentric, and yet here is a perfect opportunity to develop a more “inclusive” exhibition for the public with an opportunity to reinterpret Australian history so that more is known about the man who contributed much to the exploration and development of our nation. The following themes could be examined:

  • Bungaree the man – with paintings, prints and writings about Bungaree. Bungaree was a tribal chief who had the ability to straddle both the indigenous and colonial worlds. Bungaree spoke English well and his sense of humour was well noted[4]. There are several portraits and writings about Bungaree available to assist in developing a picture of his character, his family and his contribution to the circumnavigation and mapping of Australia with Matthew Flinders and Phillip King. He was the subject of at least 17 portraits during his life time and several more after his death – many by well known artists (The National Library of Australia[5] collection has portraits by Augustus Earle, Charles Pye, Charles Rodius, and W.H. Fernyhough).

The Journals of Flinders and King – There are original documents written about Bungaree and his family members. Matthew Flinders’[6] and Phillip King’s[7] comments on Bungaree in their daily journals. (National Library of Australia and State Library of NSW collections). A clever mimic, Bungaree could imitate the walk, gestures and expressions of past Governors of New South Wales. Like Shakespeare’s clown in Twelfth Night, he was ‘wise enough to play the fool’ and used his humorous talents to obtain clothes, tea, tobacco, bread, sugar and rum for himself and his people. As author and historian Geoffrey Dutton commented: ‘He mocked the white men by mocking himself[8]’. When in town, Bungaree was known to wear cast off uniforms and a tricorn hat given to him by the NSW Governors of the period and officers in the regiment. This period clothing should be researched and replica uniforms and hats produced as accurately as possible from illustrations and historical knowledge of the dress at that time. The breastplates of King Bungaree and Queen Gooseberry awarded by Governor Macquarie in 1815 are held in the Mitchell Library Collection, State Library NSW.

  • Bungaree’s Family Tree (This would be require significant research because he supported 5 wives and many descendants).The existing family tree for Bungaree and his wives is quite complex. His first wife was Matora, followed by three other women, Gooseberry (Cora), Charlotte Ashby and Biddy Salamander. There are many descendants of Bungaree and his wives identified in the literature which also details the places that they lived. Research may extract further evidence about the number of wives he had and about his known descendants which could be presented using an interactive display. This would assist existing and new descendants to find out more information about the family tree. Such a display could include some web links for searching Bungaree’s family history.
  • Indigenous Languages – A study of Indigenous dialects/lifestyles in the early 1800s. Bungaree was a Kuringgai man from the Broken Bay area along the Hawkesbury River and would have been quite unfamiliar with the languages and types of housing in other parts of Australia – contrary to the incorrect European view that all Indigenous Australians were the same and had no cultural heritage to speak of. In the early 1800s there were an estimated 300 distinct indigenous languages in Australia[9]. Currently there are 145 languages still spoken but of these 110 are critically endangered which is the largest and most rapid loss of languages in the world. In this display, show the spread of aboriginal dialects, comparing 1800s to today. Use audio examples of a couple of words to compare the different dialects. Bungaree was taken as a translator on these sea voyages which showed that early settlers had no idea that the culture and language of indigenous settlements was extremely variable in different parts of Australia. Discuss “terra nullius” presumption and note all the places that they anchored on the voyage.
  • Map making – Present a series of maps of Australia from Bungaree’s time including discussion about mapping instruments and techniques used to map the coastline – something which we take for granted in modern times. Demonstrate the navigational feat of the Matthew Flinders’ expeditions using audio visual support to show a map of Australia during Cook’s time and how that map changed after each of Flinders’ journeys with Bungaree and including the final circumnavigation aboard the HMS Investigator. Discuss the fact that it was Flinders who named Australia.
  • Indigenous Australia in Bungaree’s time – How did Indigenous people travel  Australia via the ocean and waterways? How did they use the stars to navigate? How did they use Songlines to travel and to pass information down through the generations? Compare the knowledge of  Indigenous Australians with the instruments used in early 1800s for navigation and mapping. Demonstrate how Australia would be mapped today -(showing modern photographic and satellite techniques. (Maps and instruments to be sourced from the ANMM collection and the National and State libraries).
  • HMS Investigator – Look at the history of HMS Investigator and the other vessels which Bungaree sailed on to Norfolk Island, Bribie Island and Hervey Bay before the circumnavigation of Australia with Flinders. The Investigator carried a crew of 88. He also made other expeditions with Philip Parker King.  Use diagrams and refer to the HMS Investigator using a scaled model such as the model – 1:48 inches with decking, rigging and fine detail (Object D 7835 sourced from State Library of SA). Also discuss the fact that there were nine different HMS Investigators in British naval history showing the lifespan of each ship on a historical timeline.
  • Trim and Bungaree. Finally the story of “Trim” and Bungaree and including the place of ship’s cats on these exploration vessels using a text panel discussing the role of ship’s cats in colonial times. There should be a reference to Bungaree and Trim. Bungaree first met when Trim was the rat catcher aboard HMS Norfolk in the 1790s. Trim and Bungaree are often mentioned in Flinders’ daily journal entries and both were present during the circumnavigation of Australia in the HMS Investigator in 1801-1803. Sadly Trim was killed in Mauritius in 1804. Sculptor John Cornwall created a statue of Trim which is located on the ledge of the Mitchell Library wing at the State Library of NSW.

The ideal Visitor Experience

Visitors will come to the exhibition with their own knowledge, thoughts and motivation – hopefully curious and asking “Who was King Bungaree?” The exhibition could be factual about the “first contact” between Indigenous Australians and colonial settlers through the eyes of Bungaree, a well-known Sydney character and identity. By wandering through the exhibition and interacting with its components, more could be understood about Bungaree’s place in history.

The audience will learn how little the British colonials knew about the Australian Aborigines, their culture and diversity of language and begin to understand how the divide between them came about. A point of interest is that the High Court’s Mabo judgment in 1992 overturned the terra nullius fiction. In the same judgment, however, the High Court accepted the British assertion of sovereignty in 1788, and held that from that time there was only one sovereign power and one system of law in Australia.

The exhibition content should fit within the context of the National curriculum particularly into the areas of Australian History, Geography, Civics and citizenship, Indigenous content and cross cultural perspectives as well as for Visual Arts and design.

Public programs could include storytelling, canoe building, dance and art workshops to explore aspects of country and culture (Bungaree used dance to communicate with other tribes when he did not know their language). Preparation should be carried out in consultation with members of Bungaree’s Kuringai (Guringai) clan from Broken Bay, Sydney.

Footnotes

[1] Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, W Nicol, London, 1814, p cxciv

[2] Simpson, M.G. 1996, Making representations: museums in the post-colonial era/Moira G. Simpson Routledge London; New York

[3] Kelly, L. and Gordon, P.2002. Chapter 11. Developing a community of practice: museums and reconciliation in Australia. Richard Sandell (Ed).pp 153 -174 in Museums Society and Inequality.

[4] McCarthy, F.D.1966. Bungaree (?-1830) in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University at http:adb.anu.edu.au/biography/Bungaree-1848/text2141, published hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 March 2014.

[5] National Library of Australia collections database at http:// www.nla.gov.au/collections accessed online 26 March 2014

[6] Flinders, M. A voyage to Terra Australis (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1814

[7] King, P. Narrative of a survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1827.

[8] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 111, Scene 1; Geoffrey Dutton, White on Black: The Australian Aborigine portrayed in art, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1974, pp 28–31

[9] Schmidt, A. (1990). The loss of Australia’s aboriginal language heritage. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

 

 

References

Smith, K. (1992).King Bungaree: A Sydney Aborigine meets the Great South Pacific Explorers, 1799-1830.Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press.

Simon, N. (2010) The Participatory Museum. California: Santa Cruz. Museum 2.0 pp 139-152

Weil, S.E. (2002) “From being about Something to being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum” in Making Museums Matter. Washington Smithsonian Institution. pp 28-53.

https://australianmuseum.net.au/bungaree

 

 

Archaeology – subdivision and the loss of historical context

Over time, Australia’s amazing indigenous, maritime and cultural heritage is being uncovered via numerous archaeological investigations, many of which pre-date The Heritage Act 1977. I was amazed when I visited an Open Day in Parramatta for the Centenary Square development to see the incredible history which lay under the Post Office and surrounds in Macquarie Street. Strangely, although this site had been built on in the interim, there was a large amount of archaeological evidence still visible from the earliest times such as the footings of pre-existing colonial buildings and a variety of everyday objects uncovered by  Casey and Lowe’s meticulous dig. I wondered whether we had lost the context for the earliest land use of the site because it had already been disturbed? I guess that the most recent dig will be the last opportunity to research Parramatta’s past from the Centenary Square site because once the underground car park has been excavated – the existing layers of history in the substrate will be lost.

 

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That isn’t really why I was writing the blog post. The point I was actually thinking about after my Centenary Square visit was that if we continue to subdivide Parramatta and other parts of urban Australia into tiny blocks (which seems inevitable), then what happens to the layers underneath? If the colonial subdivisions are double, triple or quadruple the size of the modern land holdings, what will happen to the archaeological material and the context of where that material is located below the surface? The size of indigenous Australian history layer will be even greater. If an archaeological survey is required by  a developer before an underground car park is excavated, are we only getting part of the story from the archaeological report? Are we looking at half a house, quarter of a hotel or a miniscule portion of a larger landholding such as market gardens, farm, factory or place of indigenous significance? Considering that the layers of earth below the surface can reveal so much about our past  and that suburbs like Parramatta are a significant part of the history of Australia, I really hope that some very important person with vision or the Office of Heritage and Environment or local council responsible has all this in hand before the evidence and context is destroyed for all time.

P.S. After I posted this I noticed some posts by @gmlheritage on Instagram showing items from the archaeological dig of 200 George Street, Sydney, reinterpreted for use in the foyer of Mirvac’s new headquarters. Great to see the objects used along with some explanatory text about the site’s history supported by a wonderful artwork by Judy Watson on display in the public foyer instead of being archived in boxes and stored out of sight.

Musing on Text and Labels

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Persuasion – an exhibition of wartime propaganda art at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Many museums and authoritative museologists  have written guides or chapters in their books on producing text and labels (see VandA guidelines for example). As a Masters student visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I was given some good advice by art educator about looking at and learning from objects in a more creative way than just using text and labels. Now I have changed my approach to my own museum and gallery visits. I always focus on the objects first, and if they interest me, I read the text and labels. It’s like reading the book rather than seeing the movie. When you actually look at an object, you can use your own imagination to make a  decision on how connected you feel (if at all) to that object and what you see is not a predetermined response to the information given in the text panel or label (or audio tour for that matter).

I like to find out information about the objects that I connect with – their age, construction method, maker, provenance and the story behind their creation so I use the text panels or the internet for extra information about various artists or particular objects. For example, after seeing prints by Koizumi Kishio and Onchi Koshiro, I found that I had strong connection to the type of Japanese woodblock prints created by these Sosaku Hanga  artists who are not as well regarded as Ukiyo-e printmakers like Utamaro and Hiroshige. I love the fact that these “creatives” were involved in the process from start to finish and that they don’t use other artisans to design, carve and print their wood blocks. Their works on the surface don’t appear as complex and yet these artisans were highly skilled individuals. In another exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I learned about the animated installations by contemporary Japanese artist Tabaimo who creates thousands of detailed drawings which are laboriously scanned into her computer to create her wonderful works. These facts gleaned from text panels and further investigated on the internet added value to what I saw on display and my appreciation of the works that I initially connected to.

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Text panels of different heights at Old Government House, Parramatta for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition in 2014.

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One instance of the text being too low for visitors to access easily. This problem has been corrected in the new 2016 exhibition.

Although officially the importance of text and labels has been recognised, theorised and documented, I still notice that many art galleries and museums are not getting it right.

When you track visitors in any gallery space, it is surprising how their behaviours can vary. Very few will stop and read all the labels and even fewer will read the labels in any kind of order and so it is important to grab their attention when you have a chance. Yes, labels must be accessible for wheelchairs and children but what about those with poor sight or the elderly who can’t bend down too far. Labels need to be in bold print and text must stand out from the background even if the lighting in the room needs to be dimmed for conservation reasons. I have seen elderly people nearly fall over while bending to see a poorly placed label. I have seen others struggle with text on an inappropriate background colour which makes it difficult to make out the words. I have seen visitors wasting time trying to find out information about an object when a label is missing or incorrect. Labels need to be visible to several viewers at the same time and able to be viewed from a distance. They should not be too detailed because their role is to enhance the experience of seeing the object rather than take over from the object.

The British Museum speaks about the use of “Gateway Objects” to catch the eye of the viewer with accompanying text to allow the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without having to read every single label in the exhibition. These objects aim to engage the audience quickly with enough information on the label to draw them into the exhibition or gallery. I guess that  my newly adopted technique is similar, but without well written labels may not always be as good as the constructed British Museum experience. Thinking about the short window of time to grab the audience’s attention – 30 seconds or so – and realising that the average visitor may spend less than 10 minutes in an exhibition……. museums really need to think about the importance of well designed and well written text and labels to accompany the objects on display.

See also:

Australian Museum – Writing Text and Labels which also discusses the audience response to text and labels.