As the venerable Australian Museum reopens after major renovations, so is it being challenged by the brand new Chau Chak Wing Museum in the University of Sydney. Dr Chau, who already has a startling building named after him at the University of Technology, has helped to fund Sydney’s confabulation of three existing (and rather lost) institutions “ the three generations of the Macleay Collections of natural history, ethnography, science and historic photography that were actually begun before the Australian Museum collection, the Nicholson Collection of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities dating back to 1860, and the University Art Collection.Â
Amazingly, the Uni has accumulated just short of 444,000 items in its short existence (compared to Salamanca and Oxford unis). And a sparkling new building designed by Johnson Pilton Walker architects will now offer a tiny proportion of that number for display at any one time, and attempt to unite these diverse collections into one multidisciplinary institution.
And that’s what I found exciting. Although each Collection has a dedicated room, curators are constantly challenging the imagination elsewhere by thrusting boomerangs, Egyptian mummies and the distinctive Modernist paintings of John Wardell Power into close proximity. First Nations artefacts from the 16,000 object Macleay Collection get prioritised, with nine dedicated ‘Ambassador‘ cases scattered throughout the museum “ eight of which are of a single language group, while the entrance foyer mixes together Deerubin, Wiradjuri, Bardi, Iwaidja and Gadigal language regions.
Deerubin/Dyarubbin? That’s a word we’re going to hear a lot more of when the recently published ‘People of the River’ by Grace Karskens gets out and about (review coming soon). Could it replace the ubiquitous Gadigal? For it’s the real name of the Nepean/Hawkesbury river system that embraces Sydney before colonialists attempted to appease distant masters in the UK by imposing their names on such a well-understood and named feature of the landscape. So why not give prominence to an almost featureless stone Deerubin handaxe from the Penrith Lakes, only about 20,000 years old, in that foyer cabinet?
But I wonder how many will appreciate that antiquity beside the elegant carving of the Egyptian goddess Hathor in red granite, a mere 300 years old?
Other ambassadorial cabinets represent Larrakia, Wik, Jirrbal, Wiradjuri, Bardi, Tiwi, Iwaidja, Wankajungka/Walmajarri and Gadigal language groups.
And then there’s a huge room containing 350 works from more than a hundred artists in three major Yolngu communities who are offeringÂ ‘Gululu dhuwala djalkiri “ Welcome to our ancestral imprint on the land’. There’s everything from a dugout canoe with sail (by David Malangi) to a fascinating horizontal display of ‘barks’ which date back to the anthropological Berndts’ student collecting days in the 1940s. Some, controversially are painted not on bark but on masonite “ challenging the local law that the sacred can only be represented on material from the land. But the great Narratjin, who’d just escaped Japanese bombing, could argue that the radar tower which supplied his canvas was now flat on the land!
Appropriately, the barks are laid out geographically so that they map Country around Yirrkala. Further west, the collection that was put together at Ramingining by Djon Mundine to become the ‘They Are Meditating‘ exhibition at the MCA has now been restored to the Power Collection, part of the Chau Chak Wing Museum. Also available is a series of painted hollow-log memorial poles acquired at Milingimbi from the 2016 Makarraá¹¯a Ceremony, which was a peace-making event between the local YolÅ‹u community and international museums who’d been ignoring Milingimbi art for too long! Its success as a ceremony may well have brought the concept of Makarrata into the thinking at Uluru, becoming a key part of the Statement from the Heart.
Finally, the ultimate museological cross-over occurs deep in the basement where contemporary art commissions will regularly find a home. Daniel Boyd’s ˜Pediment/Impediment’ is the first cab off the rank. The artist, of Gangalu and New Caledonian ancestry, spent months researching the museum’s various collections, eventually selecting a group of 19th century plaster casts from the Nicholson Collection of antiquities, including a model of the Athenian Acropolis. For his commission, the artist has veiled the entire Penelope Gallery in his trademark pinpoints of light, creating a disturbing and eerie space. In this installation, the transplanted, second-hand versions of western civilisation are recast, inviting other ways of seeing our past and future.
The excellent host for my visit was Indigenous Heritage curator, Matt Poll “ also, like Boyd, of New Caledonian ancestry “ the Watego family of Byron Bay fame. Significantly, he’d chosen Gadigal fishhooks for the foyer Ambassador’s case.
And that turns out to be the prime subject of ‘Bayala Nura: Yarning Country’, which is the subject of its ‘mahn‘ installation, dedicated to Sydney’s first fisherwomen who plied the local bays and waterways for thousands of years, sustaining both the people and sea in harmony. There’s also an installation of 125 shields from across Australia arranged by Wiradjuri artist Jonathan Jones. Oddly, another Wiradjuri man, Book Andrew, had very much the same idea when the Australian Museum set up an offshoot, Djamu at the Customs House more than 20 years ago. His display of shields then was pretty memorable.