An Observation on Sydney Museum

I tend to stick closely to semi or wholly esoteric musings on literature, or roleplaying. I deviate into the realm of the popular occasionally with a movie review, or discussion on sport. Now, I step out on a limb to say “WTF?” to Sydney’s Museum.

Perhaps I went to the wrong place. I’m prepared to admit that possibility. I’ve been to Sydney only a handful of times, and the giant “Sydney Museum” signs outside might in fact have been saying “go there instead”. Who knows? But what I found inside troubled me none the less for any mistakes on my part.

We arrived at the museum, paid our AU$10 and took a quick look at the prospectus. One floor of largely mineral interest, a floor featuring photography of Australia, two Aboriginal display areas and two areas of natural Australian wonders. Straight off we realised that ‘s burning question of “why was everything except the city itself named after MacQuarrie” was not going to be answered. Convict history? Forget it: Australians have always been respectable middle class farmers.

The natural wonders on display were carefully presented and had nicely attenuated explanations of what each individual critter was: I have no complaints about that. The geology section was focused on displaying pretty minerals, rather than a survey of geological processes or history but I don’t particularly care.

But the two sections on Aboriginals were deeply troubling. The ground floor, and apparently permanent, display was “don’t Aboriginals have it good here mate.” There were large glossy photographs and testimonials from a variety of black-faced people doing well for themselves. What discussion there was of the ongoing issue of Aboriginal inequality was carefully truncated and glossed over. My favourite example was a plaque inside a sample prison which said something like “the institute examined 15 cases of Aboriginals dying in custody. Formal inquest ceased in 1987, but there were some reports after this.” Well, that explained fully the problem and reassured me it was solved perfectly.

The second area was upstairs and was cunningly entitled “First contacts 1932 to 1987”. Correct me if I’m wrong, but by 1932 it was well too late to have a “first” contact with any conception of the Aboriginal people as a collective. There were again huge photo displays of modern Aboriginals expounding what wonderful lives they’d had since the white man had acquiesced to their requests to be brought into civilization, working back into “historical” case studies of the Aborigine people being brought the light in varying ways. Occasionally there would be a worrying allusion to Aboriginal rights, but always with a positive stress, that those problems were all solved.

There was nowhere much of a sign that the curators of the museum were aware of the various atrocities and inequalities both historical and modern. Broadly, the two sections on their native peoples were utter whitewashes. If that is the sum total of the information available to the myriad school children being taken around while I was there I have grave concerns about the whole state of race relations and its future. So I hope you won’t regard me as too much of a long haired hippy if I advise you not to waste your time with or contribute your money to such an institution.

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9 Responses to An Observation on Sydney Museum

    • cha0sslave says:

      Well I don’t recall seeing anything in Te Papa about how we gave the Maori all the fun diseases from Europe or how we hunted them until we ran out of supplies from the motherland and reluctantly conned them into signing a questionable legal document that had no serious representation or intent.

      I also don’t see much information about how the Maori have claimed back as much as they possibly can once it was re-worked into a valuable financial asset, nor how they are overly representd statistically in criminal and benefit related concerns. I furthermore fail to locate any mention of how the Maori were solely to blame for the extinction of several species of animal since there relatively recent introduction to this minor land mass.

      Museums like Te Papa and the Sydney Museum are solely for tourists and, by policy ignore any political or social issues that may disgrace the nation or question it’s policies. They are there to gouge the tourist and impress them so they tell their friends to visit when they are in the area. They also give local government agencies a convenient money sink to increase “cultural, artisitic or historical” budgets, some of which is no doubt rerouted to other areas, such as benefits and pay rises for councellors.

      • adrexia says:

        Last time I was at Te Papa, they did have a lot of that information available. Alongside the giant treaty…

  1. Chaosslave has a point but then, when I came to NZ, I was impressed about how well people were aware of how complicated relationships between “former Europeans” and Maori people were/are. Even as a tourist you do get information about this if you really want to. (Well, and I also went into a class about NZ history at uni because I was interested =P).
    Fact is:
    -Maori people still have a lot to claim but they’re doing way better than most other native people.
    -You see a lot of Maori people just by walking down a street whereas I haven’t seen one single Aborigine during my Aussie stay of 18 days.
    -I went into a “cultural village” thingy and I felt horrible inside, it was like being in a zoo but with people instead of animals. Don’t know if it’s as horrible in NZ…
    -I wasn’t surprised about how Australia treats their native people, it’s the same way the US treats theirs. And obviously it seems to work for centuries which nowadays can only make you angry.
    -Whitewashing is a very common way to deal with things. Just like renaming crimes to make them sound less harmful. Not only when it comes to the treatment of native people. (I’m German I can tell you a lot about whitewashing in other European countries).
    -what it really shows is that governments can rely on the stupidity of the majority of people who actually don’t think about what they see in a museum. Or don’t care enough to speak up.
    [/rant]

  2. Isn’t that the Australian Museum in Sydney? There is a seperate Museum of Sydney, with Sydney focussed stuff.

    Me and Sam zipped through it and it was seriously disappointing, both in terms of tone and depth. Just down the road for free is a great art gallery which really put it to shame.

    • mashugenah says:

      Could be. 🙂 There were a couple of other small museums scattered around, including one specifically on convicts. I’m less concerned with scope than emphasis though: I went to dozens of perfectly satisfactory “small” museums in Greece and England, some of which had no real scope beyond their own walls, yet presented a holistic account within that purview.

  3. That’s pretty weird.

    When I was in Melbourne in, um, 2001? the thing that every public institution cared about was Aborigine rights. In particular, there had been a practice, in the Yarra Valley district at least, of taking Aborigine kids from their families and raising them in boarding schools, for what the Powers That Be thought was ‘their own good.’ The museums had some pretty heartbreaking stories about what went on in the process.

    Actually, Melbourne was very good quality for museums of all descriptions. I liked the Natural Science one best.

  4. lobbasta says:

    I’ve been thinking

    So after we went to the museum I was thinking about the whole things as well.
    The only point I’m going to share is that this museum is called THE **Australian** museum, and apart from those two aboriginal exhibitions, which let a lot to be desired, there was _nothing_ uniquely Australian about it. The skeletons, which were cool, could have been in any country in the world. Especially the elephant centre-piece, why not a marsupial lion or something else that people would go, yes! Australia!

    The stuffed bird display had only Australian birds I admit, but there was no synthesis about them, this bird has a distribution of this much of Australia, well who really cares. And who will remember?

    Sorry Aust Mus, you get a lob* thumbs down

  5. archielady says:

    I was disappointed by aforementioned Museum. My uncle however really enjoyed it. He must like to look at dead stuff more than me.
    Te Papa is free, it may be organised terribly but I find it more informative than I found the Australian Museum.
    New Zealand does have a better Human Rights record than Australia. We are by no means perfect but we managed to not stuff it up quite so well as they did.
    I got to Museums to learn about history and stuff. The ground floor had some pretty cool skeletons but the display of a fake human skeleton riding the skeleton of a horse was a little disturbing. I also found it funny that the Australian Museum had an Egyptian mummy in a hallway, probably because Te Papa are all “we don’t like to display human remains”

    I have decided that along with informing, museums like to lie to us. Example A: The giant Treaty at Te Papa us not real, it is a giant photocopy
    B: The giant replica of a dinosaur skeleton at the Australian Museum
    C: The reconstructions at Knossos

    They lie.

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