Tag Archives: education

Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.

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A Tale of Two Dairies

One weekend, two heritage sites. Both The Dairy Precinct and the Yaralla Estate lie along the Parramatta River in Sydney, and I knew nothing about the history of either property before my weekend visit. Strangely there are some similarities in the way that both sites came into existence, but in 2016 there is little connection in the funding, management or the way each site is interpreted for the visitor, apart from the fact that both offer occasional guided tours.

The Dairy Precinct is an area north of  Old Government House in the centre of Parramatta Park containing both the Rangers and Dairy Cottages and overlooking the Parramatta River. It is managed in accordance with the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001 and Parramatta Park Regulation 2012.

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The Dairy Precinct, Parramatta Park

The Dairy Cottage was home to George Salter, an ex-convict turned cattleman who constructed the cottage in 1796, on his 30 acre grant. It was converted to a dairy after its purchase by Governor Macquarie c1813 to provide milk for Old Government House and the Female Factory. Macquarie added a sunken dairy processing room in an extension beside the cottage. A cow house and barn were also added to the original building.

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The Dairy Cottage

The $1.7 million upgrade to the site has stabilised, conserved and enhanced the Dairy Precinct to improve the interpretation and understanding of the area as part of the greater Parramatta Park cultural landscape.

The new interpretation works really well for this small site and pays tribute to the Indigenous and Colonial Australian history of the site as well as orienting the visitor to the role that this site played in the early days of the colony in NSW.

During the recent “Day at the Dairy”,  Parramatta Park Trust ran short half hour tours of the cottages. A longer tour option would be even more worthwhile because there is plenty to learn about the site. On the open day, the tour and the new interpretation were a perfect introduction to the site.

 

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The second open day that I attended was at the Yaralla Estate, further down Parramatta River at Concord. Yaralla is of course much more than a dairy, but like the The Dairy Precinct at Parramatta, Yaralla began as a small land grant to a freed convict in 1797. Isaac Nichols not only grew food for the colony, but became Australia’s first postmaster.

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The Walker family home at Yaralla

Eventually, debt ridden, Yaralla became part of the Walker family story until the death of Dame Eadith Walker in 1937. The property then became vested in the Crown under the Walker Trusts Act in 1938 and remains the largest community bequest of its kind to survive intact in NSW. The City of Canada Bay Heritage Society holds two major fundraising events at Yaralla each year and one at Rivendell, another property which is  part of the estate, to raise funds for the continued restoration and to research the history of several outer buildings and gardens on the property.

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Our guide Karina walked us through the estate armed with lots of narrative. We covered the original Nicholl’s cottage, the Dairy, the Coach house and Stables, the rose garden, the sunken garden, and then moved down to the river where the boathouse and wharf, swimming pool and grotto and the Powerhouse once stood. We then viewed the exterior of the Yaralla homestead (designed by Edmund Blackett and modified by John Sulman) rising above its Italianate terrace where there were originally croquet lawns and a tennis court. Our last stop was the Squash Court built for Prince Edward’s unofficial visit with Louis Mountbatten in 1920. The story goes that the court was never used because the floor was made of concrete rather than the timber flooring necessary in these types of courts. It is great that the volunteer guides know their history and are good storytellers since so much of the estate has already been destroyed in the name of progress or through vandalism and there is currently very little interpretation apart from some historic photographs and memorabilia on display  in the Coach house and Squash court.

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The Yaralla story is fascinating and the life of Dame Eadith would be a perfect plot for a movie. Born in 1861, Eadith  lost her mother in 1870 and was raised by her aunt, Joanna, in a shared childhood with Annie Masefield (her companion and friend for life). She inherited Yaralla from her father, Thomas Walker, and made significant alterations to the estate. She was active in Sydney Rowing Club and the Animal Protection Society of NSW and was patron of the Yaralla Cricket Club and leased land to Royal Sydney and Concord Golf Clubs. She made a considerable contribution to several charities and to the Great War effort in both a physical and monetary sense. She was also very involved in supporting her own staff at Yaralla even after their retirement from the Estate. A woman well ahead of her time. The heritage society has produced a lot of information about the Walker family,  and the history of the site itself. There are books and guides available through the Canada Bay Heritage Society website.

I guess my purpose for writing today’s blog was that I was struck by the similarities and contrasts between the two sites. The Dairy Precinct seems well managed and well funded by The Parramatta Park Trust while Yaralla needs more funding and support in the future. Yaralla does not enjoy the same profile in the community nor the funding that Parramatta Park receives.

Today, we are more connected than ever to our Australian Indigenous and Colonial heritage and Yaralla has suffered some significant losses through not having its significance acknowledged. NSW Health has done a great job restoring the old house (which is currently in use as a Dementia hospital) and the grounds are neat but there needs to be greater support to bring the Yaralla estate to the standard of Parramatta Park with its public recreation areas and heritage buildings. I couldn’t help thinking how great Yaralla estate would be as a public park in the ever increasing concrete jungle springing up around Parramatta and along the river bank.

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.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.