Michael Pickering ‘Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route’ Exhibition

Michael Pickering from the National Museum of Australia – Brown Bag 29 February 2012

Mike Pickering has had a long career with the indigenous societies of Australia. He is currently the Head of Curatorial Research for the National Museum. He is co-author of the repatriation book The Long Way Home: The Meaning and Values of Repatriation.

Michael began his talk discussing the past issues and ideas that the National Museum of Australia has held where indigenous exhibits were concerned. He explained that, previously, museums have been more concerned with the curatorial voice rather than the indigenous one. In the last decade the NMA has moved towards the ideal of allowing the subjects to speak for themselves with only minimal curatorial help to ‘translate’ the story to the public. Mike stated that this has now become BAU or Business as Usual for the museum.

The exhibition that Michael was here to discuss was the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route that opened in 2010 at the NMA for a six month run. It was a collaboration project between the NMA, FORM (http://www.form.net.au/) and nine Aboriginal art centres in Western Australia.

The Canning Stock Route was a road built in the late 1800s to early 1900s for the transportation of cattle. The road, unfortunately, ran right through Aboriginal land and a great deal of violence and destruction took place to build it, including the desecration of many of the Aboriginal wells that were important to their culture. The venture turned out to be very uneconomical, and only 20 cattle droves took place on the road. However, the event in the history of Australia is one of both first contact and pastoral significance and it did succeed in uniting the Aboriginal tribes in the area. More information can be found on the NMA website through the title link.

The exhibit ran for six months in Canberra, a capital city that is heavily influenced by its politics. In the short run nearly 120,000 people visited the gallery. From there it travelled to Perth in 2011 for the Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting and was opened by the Queen [30,000 attending at this location]. It is now in Sydney until April 29th of this year.

Prior to the run of this exhibition, a first of its kind in Australia, ‘indigenous imagery’ was common in the country. It was often displayed on airport walls for advertising, on tourist giftware or used by corporations to show their link to the land. People had forgotten where the imagery came from and the overexposure to it by the audience caused some of the museums approached for the exhibit to decide the public simply wouldn’t be interested. The NMA thought otherwise, as it tied in well with their move towards an indigenous story driven narrative in the museum.

The exhibit consisted to around 120 paintings done by Aboriginal artists from the area along the Canning Route. At the centre of it was a map showing the route, the wells and lined with paintings from specifically marked areas on the map. Each piece of art included was its own gateway to a story; much like the cover of a book, Michael put in, is the window to the novel behind it. The exhibit was a showpiece of how successful indigenous engagement can be. The art that was displayed on the walls had text panels with quotes from the artists and brief explanations that were endorsed by the Aboriginal communities to which they belonged. Also part of the exhibit was a 9m long interactive table showing details of the Stock Route for the public to delve deeper into the history.

Michael went on to discuss the stakeholders that were part of the exhibition development. FORM had originally been the front runner of the project, and had been the organisation to do the background research with artists and communities in the North-West. They acted as representatives to the artists and their families when they approached the NMA to host the exhibit. The NMA is a very large museum and often has nearly a 100 projects on the go at any one time, with no project taking preference over another. This time, they knew they had to do things differently. FORM approached them in 2007 to exhibit the project as an artistic showcase. The museum was interested in it for many reasons, but mainly because it came to them as a free project at a time when their funding was running short and because it fit in well with their new focus on the Aboriginal voice. NMA also wanted to acquire the large amount of cultural research that FORM had done in their background work and make it more of a cultural exhibition, rather than purely artistic.

After much consultation, the museum made a decision to purchase the entire collection for $900,000 Australia Dollars, but not to take over control as a buyer normally would. The museum wanted to share the partnership with FORM and the artistic communities. NMA took the opportunity, with the Aboriginal artists available for consultation, to make certain they were designing an exhibition that put the Aboriginal perspective first, without over simplifying or compromising the narrative. During the beginnings of the exhibition project, NMA continued to work with the artists and with FORM to include them in all aspects of the design process. They made frequent field trips to the communities involved to discuss design and implementation of the project.

At this time, the issue of copyright was also raised. Who owned the rights to reproduce the paintings for the exhibition? After a great deal of consultation, it was decided that each artists would be approached individually to ask their own opinion on whether they wanted to allow their work to be reproduced.

When creating the text panels for the exhibit, NMA careful included many quotes by the artists so that their voice was heard first and foremost and used such introductions as ‘I believe’ rather than ‘The Aboriginal People believe’. Though some meaning will always be lost in translation, especially when text panels can only display a certain number of words, the museum tried wherever possible to focus on and convey the essential message of the individual artists and the communities they represented.

In all, the exhibition ended up costing the NMA around $2 million AUS over the three years it was in development until implementation. The total, with all of the collaborators, was nearly $4.5 million! As the exhibition opening drew closer and closer, concession had to be made and cuts found. It was the single largest project the museum has ever undertaken or, Michael went on to state, will ever undertake. Now the NMA has a yearly budget for all the galleries and temporary exhibits of only $1.5 million. However, he felt the original cost was worth it, since it made the museum rethink how they exhibited Aboriginal cultures, collaborated with communities and what their future partnership could be.

At the opening nights of the exhibit, many of the artists themselves were present and in the gallery, lending a more cultural experience for the visitor to have the creator of the work standing right beside it. Michael reiterated time and again during his closing words that, without the partnership with FORM or the Aboriginal art communities, the project never would have been possible. Though such a large scale exhibit will likely never happen again, the museum hopes to use the knowledge they have gained from it to maintain the same level of collaboration in their future (smaller) exhibitions.

In the end, Michael summed up his presentation quite simply: maintaining a high ethical standard in museums costs money, but the effort is worth it.

Michael asked if people would visit the website for the NMA and explore it. They hope that it will serve as an academic resource for all to learn about Aboriginal history in Australia.


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