There's more than one way to preserve humanity's collective knowledge.
Thursdays at the Australian Museum, Sydney
Walking through the galleries of the Australian Museum before it opens is an eerie experience. The dim lights cast long shadows up the walls and although the specimens are perfectly still, muffled sounds spook your attention. The audio loops linked to video displays speak to empty halls and your footsteps echo faintly off glass cabinets and monstrous skeletons. It’s a side of the museum that people seldom see, but it’s a moment I catch, briefly, as a volunteer.
Then it’s doors open. The kids arrive. School groups troop through. Laughter and thrilled excitement fills the building.
On my lunchbreaks, I explore our wild planet too. A favourite specimen from my time volunteering at the museum is the opalised skeleton of a small pliosaur, Eric, a carnivorous marine reptile, that lies spreadeagled in its case. Discovered by an opal miner near Coober Pedy, South Australia, Eric lived 100 million years ago when the Eromanga sea inundated much of the Australian mainland. His bones slowly solidified into treasured opal after soaking in mineral-rich groundwater for millenia.
Collectively, humankind has amassed a fortune of knowledge about our own history, the world around us and the stars above. The Australia Museum was born out of curiosity at a time when British settlers would have been puzzled by newfound flora and fauna. It's been documenting Australia’s natural history and Indigenous anthropology since 1827, and now it has a collection of 18 million objects — most of which are packed away or used for research behind the scenes. An archive of that size calls for a purpose-built off-site storage facility and the largest elevator in the southern hemisphere.
But not all cultures are compelled to document their history in this way. Indigenous Australians chose to weave their history into Dreamtime stories, dances and songlines. The oldest, continuous culture on Earth is painted in ochre and drawn out across the night sky, not preserved in print or air-conditioned buildings. The lore belongs to the land.
In light of this, the storage of Indigenous specimens for scientific study has been a delicate matter for museums and universities to address. Taken without permission for others to treasure and measure, the removal of ancestral remains from the land disturbs the connection between Aboriginal people and the spirits of their relatives. The land and its people have been dispossessed.
Such is the case with the Mungo Man, who lived 42,000 years ago on the shores of Lake Mungo in far west New South Wales. His burial was ceremonious, red ochre anointed the grave. His remains were found in 1974 when lengthy rains unearthed what was to be evidence of the earliest known funeral rites in the world. Anthropologists learnt a great deal from Mungo Man, who was held in custody by the Australian National University, and the area was listed as a World Heritage site. But Aboriginal people mourned their loss and argued that scientists were only telling them what they already knew.
Mungo Man swiftly rewrote our understanding of Australian history, but it has taken over four decades for the remains to be returned to their ancestral home. Going forward, the wishes of the traditional custodians of the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area will be duly respected: any human remains exposed by natural erosion in the dunes are to be promptly reburied. Elsewhere, in the Top End, traditional custodians are laying down ground rules for visiting scientists so that any work is on their terms, by invitation, and to protect, not dissect, sacred sites.
Meanwhile, other traditional owners are choosing to share their stories with welcome strangers on cultural immersion tours. Passing on their knowledge as they always have — this time to a new audience — elders are sitting down to have a yarn about their Country so that we can all learn to care for this country. In this way, I’ve revisited places of my childhood memories: the Yacaaba Headland, north of Newcastle and Booderee, on the shores of Jervis Bay. The beauty is richer, runs deeper, when layered with lore.
So go outside, feel the sand between your toes — whether its red, speckled or the whitest of whites. Stare at the sky, wonder who has looked at it before you, and ask them what they know, be ready to listen and learn. Volunteering at the Australian Museum taught me to look at the world like a wide-eyed kid again, naturally inquisitive. But their collection, while it speaks volumes, is just one way to take stock of this place we call home. The human mind is an archive, too, and Aboriginal people have an intimate knowledge of the land that sustains them. I am learning, with each conversation, to look at this country through old eyes, their eyes.
Uncle Paul Callaghan runs cultural immersion tours along the Yacaaba Peninsula, Hawkes Nest, and likewise Aunty Julie Freeman welcomes visitors at Booderee National Park, Jervis Bay. If you’re quick, you can also catch Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters, a “peerless exhibition of Aboriginal art” that takes you on a journey across the Australian desert, on show at the National Museum of Australia until February 25.
Edited by Tessa Evans