Exhibition First People at museum Victoria © IDAIA

Exhibition First People at museum Victoria © IDAIA

After 18 months of renovation, Bunjilaka has opened its new permanent exhibition, First Peoples. The comprehensive display of objects, images and artwork is brought to life by the voices and knowledge of Indigenous community members aided by cutting edge multimedia tools.  The project is the incarnation of a 2-year collaborative process between the Melbourne Museum and the First Peoples Yulendj (‘knowledge’) group.  It is this focus on shared story telling that makes the exhibition so very strong, original and engaging, as highlighted by Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre Manager Caroline Martin; “What is quite unique about us telling our story from an Aboriginal perspective, is we’re a mainstream museum… No one else in the world is doing that.”[1] The exhibition traces the history of Aboriginal Victoria from creation to invasion and beyond. As Indigenous curator of the exhibition, Genevieve Grieves told ABC Arts, First Peoples offers both local and international visitors the first major “opportunity to learn about the richness, diversity and sophistication of Victorian Aboriginal people.”[2] It not only gives voice and visibility to a group of Indigenous Australians who are often overshadowed by their desert compatriots, but also highlights their unique and continuing cultural practices.

The exhibition design is centred around Bunjil the wedge-tailed eagle and creator of the land.  The story of Bunjil can be experienced in the Creation Cinema where an impressive large-scale kinetic sculpture with undulating wings hovers in the centre of the circular space. As a series of colours are projected upon the wings, recorded voices share the creation story. The wings glow and the spirit of Bunjil is made powerfully present. The captivating quality of this presentation was evident when I arrived to see a child being dragged away from the cinema by his mother who was exclaiming “But we’ve already heard the story twice!”  The exhibition is particularly successful at engaging younger audiences through the use of new technologies and Martin hopes that all school children will have the opportunity to visit the display; “I hope they grow up with a better knowledge than we did. If Koori and non-Koori kids grow together there will really be a shared history. Racism can’t be negated until we acknowledge the first people of this country.”[3] Exposure is the first step.

Upon entry to the exhibition, visitors are welcomed with an interactive language map representing the eleven language families in Victoria. Here one can press and hear the different languages spoken. This is later enhanced by an interactive learning activity that encourages children to listen, speak and understand the languages. This exposure may help foster confidence in visitors to tackle indigenous language in the future – something that is too often faced by the “I have no idea how to pronounce that so I’m not going to even try” attitude.  Just as Indigenous Victorians dream that their children be bilingual, they also dream that their languages be appreciated and spoken by the wider community.

The focus around contemporary Indigenous Victorians is prominent throughout the entire exhibition where living members of the community share their personal reflections and stories about their aboriginality in a meaningful and accessible way.  This is particularly evident in the Deep Listening Space where Victorian Aboriginal people from age 8 to 72 reflect upon themes of culture, connection, family and resilience.

Whilst it is inevitable that the exhibition treats issues such as violence, loss and discrimination, there is an overall celebratory atmosphere of revival and continuation of culture.  This is particularly well demonstrated by three contemporary projects that highlight the importance of cultural practice:  the reconstruction of ‘Boorun’s Canoe’ by Albert Mullett and his 8 grandsons including artist Steaphon Paton  (previously known for his Urban Doolaghal that infiltrated Melbourne’s laneways in 2011), the revival of possum skin cloaks by Lee Darroch as well as Maree Clarke’s revitalisation of the kopi mourning ceremony, a ritual once lost in Victoria.  All of these projects bring traditional knowledge into the present day, fostering greater cultural understanding and a deepened respect for Aboriginal land and identity.

First Peoples demonstrates that Victorian Aboriginal culture is alive, strong and here to stay.

Hayley Haynes

[1] Caroline Martin as quoted by Edmond, Maura, ‘First Peoples’ from Time Out Melbourne, (19/08/13)
[2] Genevieve Grieves as quoted in Zeccola, Carlo, ‘Indigenous voices take centre stage at First Peoples exhibition’ ABC Arts (06/09/13)
[3] Caroline Martin as quoted by Hartford, Sonia, ‘First peples share rich cultural legacy’ from The Age (06/09/13)

About the author:
Hayley Haynes is a curatorial contributor based in Melbourne. Hayley is completing a combined Honours degree in French and Art History at the University of Melbourne, writing her thesis on Lena Nyadbi’s Dayiwul Lirlmim rooftop commission at the Musée du quai Branly, Paris.