Qualia's Qualms

Liminal confutations from a historian of race, science and empire

Exhibiting Melbourne’s histories

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I’m currently conducting archival research for my second book in Australia. During my trip, I’ll be visiting libraries, museums and state depositories in Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart and Sydney. I’ll also be giving a conference paper for a conference on Colonial Formations at the University of Wollongong. It is a wonderful opportunity to make substantial progress on my second book whilst meeting new colleagues.

In Melbourne I chose to work under the dome of the stunning La Trobe Reading Room at the State Library of Victoria. It was a wonderful place to work. The library holds an extraordinary collection of Australiana and I spent much of my time looking at manuscripts describing early settlement in Victoria.

I was especially keen to visit the Royal Exhibition Building. Opened for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880, the building also hosted the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition of 1888 and is still used for contemporary shows. The Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, inaugurated the tradition of holding world’s fairs. By the mid twentieth-century, millions of people had visited fairs in places as far-flung as London, Paris, Berlin, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Cape Town and Melbourne. The Royal Exhibition Building is an extraordinary edifice that bears witness to the lasting importance of world’s fairs.

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Royal Exhibition Building, Melbourne

Directly behind the Royal Exhibition Building is the new Melbourne Museum. The museum houses some beautiful displays including the ‘Dinosaur Walk‘ and ‘Forest Secrets’ but, without doubt, the most outstanding was ‘First Peoples‘.

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Bunjil’s feathers

The galleries recount the history of Aboriginal Victoria using the voices and languages of the Koorie community and was co-curated by a Yulendj Group of Elders, community representatives and staff at the museum. Throughout labels using ‘we’ describe the creation, the violence and dispossession of colonial settlement and the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. It was the first time I have seen ‘we’ used in a museum gallery showcasing indigenous history.

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‘First Peoples’ stands in stark contrast to the representation of indigenous histories and cultures in museums across the world. It is far too common to see displays about indigenous peoples, presenting perspectives that have not been shaped by broader communities and where the violence of colonization often remains unspoken.

I hope to see many more museum labels using ‘we’ in the future.

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