Relexivity (and an animal icon) at the Melbourne Museum

Institutional reflexivity and the uses of performance in museums are topics that frequently arise in our teaching and research. This week my first visit to the Melbourne Museum prompted reflection on both issues.

The Melbourne Museum opened in 2000, following a reorganisation of the Victoria’s nineteenth-century state museums. Within the museum, Bunjalika (meaning the land of Bunjil, one of the main ancestral beings of south-eastern Australia) is the Aboriginal cultural centre and Keeping Place, which includes a meeting and performance space where community events and ceremonies can take place. Reflexivity and performance are also inscribed in the displays in Bunjalika, which do not attempt a totalising survey of Aboriginal culture, but rather tell a conflicted narrative of contact, power and mis/understanding between colonialism and Indigenous peoples. In a section called ‘Two Laws’, the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer, finds himself on the other side of the glass case. A life-size model of Spencer (director of the National Museum of Victoria from 1899 to 1928) is installed within a vitrine, nicely drawing attention to the politics of looking within the museum. The dialogic approach to interpretation is extended in a nearby video installation in which two actors play the parts of Spencer and his contemporary, an Aboriginal elder called Irrapmwe, respectively. In the piece, the two men, each an ‘expert’ in the context of his own cultural traditions, reflect on the conditions of their relationship and the subsequent uses of Irrapmwe’s material culture within the museum, including issues of display, authorship and restitution.

Meanwhile, as some of you may know, my colleague, Sam Alberti, is developing a research project on ‘iconic animals’ in museums. It is a wonderful topic – and the Melbourne Museum houses a wonderful example: the famous race horse Phar Lap, whose success on the track cheered up hard-pressed Melburnians during the Great Depression. Poor Phar Lap died quite young, but he is just as popular in his afterlife, mounted in a glass case … As one member of staff said to me, the first two questions that visitors ask when they come to the museum are, where’s the lavatory (or words to that effect) … and where’s Phar Lap?

Any student who wants to find out more about the Melbourne Museum, send me an email and I can give you some references.