A New Way of Telling The Australian Story

A New Way of Telling The Australian Story

It's not so long ago that the telling of Australian history in schools and cultural institutions was all about the white settlement and European explorers.

Just recently I returned to Sydney for the first time in fifteen years and I got to see the extent of change in how Australian history and culture is now presented there. It was exciting to see such a dramatic shift in how our flagship cultural institutions tell the Australian story to Australians and visitors from overseas.

 

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales

I had the opportunity to visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Mitchell Library, the Australian Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The first three institutions are all a short walk from each other around Hyde Park in Sydney's CBD. Each brings forward an updated and refreshing picture of Australia and its past.

I found it quite inspiring. There has been such a change in the way our institutions represent Aboriginal history and culture. So much has moved over recent decades.

 

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Art Gallery of New South Wales has always been a leading edge presenter of Aboriginal art. It has some of the best collections of early bark paintings, all extraordinary things. Their displays showing the material culture of Aboriginal Australia are truly fantastic. There is good representation from local Aboriginal communities and an impressive collection of contemporary Aboriginal work from all around Australia.

Currently, the weight of the artwork displayed in the gallery seems to be more equitable between Western art and Aboriginal art.  I found that fascinating because it definitely affects your perspective as a visitor - Aboriginal culture is present and vibrant.

Initially, I found a lot of the early Australian artwork to be so heavily European. It was such a divorced perspective from how we view Australia today. It took me a while to be able to get into that section of the gallery and feel comfortable looking at those paintings.

It is no surprise that many of the artists were trained in Europe, and they expressed European sentiments and applied them to the Australian experience. That was in such contrast to walking around the Aboriginal section which can be such a big leap for Western viewers. It gives you access to the kind of culture and beliefs and positions of Aboriginal people in Australia.

The gallery exhibits an immense range of work. This extends from the older material culture from a pre-colonial Aboriginal world up to the most contemporary Aboriginal paintings on canvas. This is an extraordinary historical record of Aboriginal culture in this country.

Mitchell Library

It was fascinating to visit the State Library of New South Wales, the Mitchell Library and Gallery, on the corner of Macquarie Street and Shakespeare Place. The gallery collection was a small revelation -  I wasn't aware that it existed. There is a substantial collection of historical paintings documenting Sydney over the past 230 years which recording significant people and events over the centuries. This colonial material is a rich visual historical record of early history of New South Wales as it was taught in schools through the twentieth century.

You then get to see the Aboriginal perspective of life in New South Wales. The Mitchell had some wonderful videos interviewing Aboriginal people telling their story. You could sit in the gallery area and listen to these stories and take in personal accounts of families as they experienced the development in Sydney. They explained how all that change affected their own lives. It affected the way their families developed and established themselves in a new kind of Australian environment.

The Mitchel Library is a wonderful resource for traditional material about the growth of Western culture in Australia as well as some insightful material on the Aboriginal experiences of those same events.

Australian Museum
Australian Museum

The Australian Museum was another great surprise, a delightful visit.  A museum conjures up images of animals and biology and botany and history. The curators have done a fabulous job in keeping the historical record of Aboriginal culture in context with the other more scientific views of Australia. There is interactive material which includes aspects of contemporary Aboriginal culture. This keeps the connection between historical record-keeping and the contemporary experience of Aboriginal people as a continuous and interlocking process. I think this is such a valuable asset for Australians and overseas visitors attending this museum.

It offers a visual introduction to the culture of Australia and how we tell the stories about ourselves. I think it reflects a more balanced view of history than we were presenting even several decades ago, when we may have been surprised to find Aboriginal voices telling their story at the Mitchell Library. I have been surprised to find such strong engagement with cultural statements from and about Aboriginal Australia in the Museums and Art Galleries.

The experience of visiting these institutions has helped me understand how people need to be shown a visual representation of these stories in order to understand our own culture and our own country. Whether we're Australian visitors or from overseas, these displays are a really important aspect of our cities. They create a high profile aspect of cultural integrity for Australia.

Images in Order of Appearance 
Museum of Contemporary Art (Feature Image)
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Mitchell Library
Australian Museum
Australian Museum
Australian Museum

Australian Museum