The spirit of place

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  • Published 20150203
  • ISBN: 9781922182678
  • Extent: 264 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

IN CONTRAST TO Western Australia’s wondrous Indian Ocean sunsets, there have been many false dawns in the quest for a new state museum. Now, with funding announced to the tune of $428.3 million and a completion timeline of seven years, the New Western Australian Museum is set to dramatically revitalise interest in the state’s cultural heritage. There will also be a new state museum facility at the Perth Cultural Centre.

This is not to say that the state and its current museum have been sitting on their laurels. There were two new WA Museum sites built in 2002: the WA Maritime Museum in Fremantle – home to Australia II, the yacht that famously, with WA backing, crew and design, wrested the America’s Cup from the USA in 1983 – and the impressive Geraldton Museum to add to the existing local sites at Kalgoorlie-Boulder and Albany.

For the emerging New WA Museum the theme of Looking West holds two paradigms. First, and perhaps for the first time, it focuses attention on the cultural capital (and cultural Capital) of Western Australia. For too long in Australia, and certainly since Federation, the major museum and gallery developments have happened on the eastern side of Australia. The cities of Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Hobart have all seen major developments in recent decades. The New WA Museum is not a case of it being ‘Buggins’ turn’, but is quite simply one of the most significant museum developments anywhere in the world today. Hot on the heels of Perth’s new State Theatre Centre, it is testimony to WA and Perth’s emergence from the so-called cultural cringe to take their place as global centres for culture and the environment. In 2014, Perth featured once again at number nine in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of the world’s most liveable cities: it was only held back from a top five place by cultural and environmental indicators. Hopefully, the development of new cultural infrastructure will begin to address this perceived deficit.

The second paradigm is, of course, about Western Australia and ‘looking west’. Indian Ocean socio-economics were once defined by the monsoon winds, but modern transport and communication have changed all that. Perth is an Indian Ocean capital in every sense, being located in a time zone that accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s population – a statistic that many of us still find difficult to believe. It is also a major supplier of food, fuel and other natural resources for the growing economies of Asia; of expertise and technology for the mining and sub-sea technology industries; and of education for its new professional classes. The New WA Museum can play its part in making this a vital locus of activity, not least by establishing itself as one of the major museums of the Indian Ocean.

The level of financial investment demonstrates a state government commitment to prepare for the doubling and rapid diversification of its population over the next thirty years: and an opportunity not just to ‘provide’ for all these extra citizens, but to provide an opportunity for them to express their identity, explore their place in the world and build an understanding of themselves and their fellow citizens. Cultural facilities will be just part of the almost exponential growth in infrastructure that will be required to sustain this population, but those facilities will also be critical in reflecting and presenting this cultural diversity and establishing a sense of identity for WA’s many migrants.

With huge opportunity comes great responsibility: the goal is to create a museum truly for the future, not just for 2020 but a modus operandi for 2050 and beyond. And so the New WA Museum team faces unprecedented challenges that raise thorny questions. How do you design the museum of the future? What are the stories that will define Western Australia? How will Western Australians be able to contribute their stories, their experiences, their opinions and their views? In particular, how do we capture the sense of place and space that so defines our state? How do we distil the soul of its people, their identity and their sense of community? What is the driving force behind Western Australians’ sense of identity? Is it the state’s unique Aboriginal heritage? Is it the mineral wealth that defines so much of our economy? Is it the amazing and diverse natural landscapes, flora and fauna? Is it the setting sun on the Indian Ocean horizon? Is it as simple as the tyranny of distance and that infamous, supposed isolation?

A vital question is whether a ‘spirit of Western Australia’ exists? And if so, where might we find it and how might we collect, define and distil the elements? In search of inspiration, I’ve headed north and am now sitting on a massive pile of angular red rocks, looking west across the undulating land beyond which I can sense, but not see, the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean. To the north-west those same red rocks tumble abruptly into Hearson Cove beside a white beach, not of sand, but of billions of tiny shells – flotsam of the lives of their previous inhabitants. To the south, the swathe of green in this otherwise sunburnt, iron-red, grass-yellow, salt-white landscape defines mangroves: a reminder that we are well north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

At this time of day – late afternoon – it is the west that captures my squinting gaze: exposed rocks on the next escarpment are impossibly red, their hue accentuated by the rapidly falling sun. The sky, as it relinquishes the sun, changes colour and character, its optimistic china-blue supplanted by the foreboding purple and pink that heralds evening and, sometimes, the onset of storms. Yellow clumps of spinifex grasses assume iridescence as the sun’s last rays are intercepted and deflected by them. Between the clumps a natural garden is blooming, alive with the dancing, shimmering pink ponytails of mulga and the livid vermillion of the slightly sinister Sturt’s desert peas with their black ‘eyes’ voyeurs to the only occasional strangers that visit. These are the colours of Western Australia’s Pilbara region, and this is the Burrup Peninsula.

There is something surreal about my vantage point: the rocks are piled erratically as if the result of some catastrophic industrial intervention. In fact, their aspect is quite natural. They have a lustre that suggests careful polishing, but this too is the result of ancient processes. These rocks are not stained red by leaching iron in the way thousands of WA homes are by the reticulated bore water purloined from deep in the ground. No, these rocks are red because they are encrusted with ironmore accurately, iron oxides created when iron minerals are oxidised.

Cue another link to the Pilbara, home to the fossils of, arguably, some of the first living things – microorganisms whose relatives can still be found in WA today – that began to photosynthesise to produce oxygen, and eventually created the atmosphere in which we live and breathe. However, prior to this they oxidised the iron to unwittingly, and posthumously, claim a starring role in Western Australia’s economic miracle. Strange indeed to think of the cyanobacteria at the dawn of Earth time industriously creating their stromatolitic fortresses, underpinning a booming resources industry some three billion years later.

If these rocks have been around for some time then so, in relative terms, have the people of this place: all around me the rocks are marked with images both cryptic and figurative. Some of them depict animals still familiar today, others fabulous beasts that are less recognisable. Human forms are not uncommon, while cryptic designs and figures require careful inspection and interpretation. Their power runs much deeper than the history they tell. The knowledge, the beliefs, the culture they represent is palpable, yet in some ways, for me at least, impenetrable. For my companion, an Aboriginal man not from this place, it is too much. This is not his country: he has no connection and he has not been welcomed here. He is cowed by the weight of this place, its stories, its messages, its history, its spirits. He tells me his head is aching, his stomach churning and he sits on the ground. This is no outpouring of faux respect, no demonstration of false humility. The symptoms, somatic and psychological, are real, brought on by the power of this place and his relationship to it, something that as a wadjela – a white person – I could never experience, however much I seek to understand it.

This ancient landscape, with its almost peerless history, is suddenly brought into modern context by the stark contrast of an industrial reality. Beyond the place where my friend is sitting, across the track and along the flat valley bottom, is an ammonia plant, the long-term impact of which can be seen in the scars in the vegetation around it. There is also the LNG plant located between the furthest hill and the ocean that is now distinguishable from the after-burn of the setting sun as a flare atop a ‘stack’. This controversial development impacted dramatically on many pieces of Aboriginal rock art at the Burrup, causing them to be relocated from their rightful place into a compound nearby for ‘safe-keeping’. Through the Museum and other arms of government, the works have been catalogued, protected and interpreted, and ultimately saved – but they have been removed from their country and things will never be quite the same.

These developments are an eloquent descriptor for the tension and possibilities that are played out almost daily between building the economic health of Western Australia and respecting the rights of its Aboriginal people. It is no longer a debate, but a reality, that Western Australia’s immediate future is laid out here, with billions of dollars of investment into fossil fuels for which East Asian nations retain a seemingly insatiable appetite, backed up with contracts signed for decades of supply. Of course, the Pilbara economy is best known for its vast deposits of iron ore and just beyond the mangroves the kilometre-long trains roll to the port of Dampier from mine sites with exotic names like Cloud Break, Whaleback, West Angeles, Paraburdoo: they sound more like national parks or holiday destinations than massive holes in the ground.

WA has become a giant state in every sense. Its statistics are well rehearsed: 11 per cent of Australia’s population occupying 33 per cent of its landmass, and generating nearly 50 per cent of its dollar exports and 60 per cent of the nation’s mineral and energy imports.[i]  So from its ancient landscapes, through its millennia of Aboriginal occupation, to a cashed-up present and an optimistic but sometimes uncertain future, all sitting beside the glistening Indian Ocean, if you are looking for the ‘spirit of Western Australia’ there is probably no better place to look than the Pilbara. Louis de Bernières immortalised the region in his novella Red Dog (Secker & Warburg, 2001), based on a true story, whose real-life hero Red Dog (aka Bluey) is immortalised in a bronze statue in Dampier. Nelson Voss produced the film of the same name as a self-confessed ‘love letter to the Pilbara’, which not only became one of Australia’s highest grossing films but introduced this remote and important region and its people to a wider world.

It would be remiss, of course, to suggest that the Pilbara alone could characterise the whole state and provide the narrative for the Western Australian Museum. Indeed, that would be stereotyping of the worst kind; after all, most Western Australians will never visit the Pilbara in their lifetime. And in this state of 2.5 million square kilometres there are plenty of other places you could choose: the boab-studded, vast wilderness of the Kimberley; the productive and rolling fields of the Wheatbelt, with its satellite communities that coalesce at pre-assigned times, dictated by seasons and crops; the brash optimism of the goldfields; perhaps the idyllic mix of coast and country that defines the south-west and the aptly named Great Southern? This is a state where, if you had the time, inclination and a suitable vehicle, you could drive thousands of kilometres from the pristine, shark-rich, powder-blue Southern Ocean off Esperance, infused with waters straight from the Antarctic, to the tropical allure of Broome and the Mitchell Plateau – all without crossing a state boundary.

I suppose that many people would choose the city of Perth and its surroundings as the spiritual centre of the state. After all, it is the administrative capital and the place where most Western Australians live – almost two million of the 2.5 million people in the state. The Whadjuk Noongar people of the Perth region would relate to the Waugal – the rainbow serpent that created the Swan and Canning rivers; to the Derbal Yaragan – the turtle estuary, variously applied to the Swan River and the expanse of Perth waters; and to Kaarta Gar-up, the magnificent vantage point renamed by the wadjelas as Mount Eliza and, latterly, King’s Park. And of course, the wadjelas themselves would claim significance for Perth and the banks of the Swan River as the sites where many of their ancestors began their antipodean adventure.

For me, however, it is still the Pilbara that can claim to be the nearest thing to WA in a microcosm, albeit a pretty macro microcosm. It is not simply the juxtaposition of ancient cultures and modern developments, of environment and industry, of ocean and land; the Pilbara has also come to epitomise the extremes of WA, and is an allegory for its repeating economic cycles – we do not like to talk about boom and bust here. For a long time, the mining-boom town of Karratha could claim the highest property prices and accommodation rates in WA, based entirely on supply and demand. Little wonder then that so few people have seen the Burrup, when it was costing over $400 for a night in a motel room in Karratha. At the same time, barely thirty kilometres to the north-west, the old gold-rush town of Roebourne was experiencing some of the most challenging socio-economic conditions of any place in WA. The contrast has narrowed, with some of the heat coming out of the Karratha property market whilst investment in Roebourne has been bearing fruit. However, these uncomfortable truths are just as much a part of WA’s history as are stories of inspirational Aboriginal leaders, intrepid white explorers and outrageous commercial bravado.

The WA Museum aspires to be many things to many people: a museum owned, valued and used by all Western Australians and admired by the world; a place that captures the spirit of Western Australia; and a museum fit for 2050 and beyond. In particular, it needs to deliver on its mission to ‘inspire people to explore and share their identity, culture, environment and sense of place, and contribute to the diversity and creativity of our world’. To achieve these ambitions in terms of building design, exhibition content, operational effectiveness and, most of all, user engagement, the Museum will need to be innovative, daring and visionary. It will also need to be of international stature, but at the same time uniquely Western Australian. One thing it certainly cannot be is the old Museum re-created in a shiny new building. Similarly, content cannot be restricted to that defined by the Museum’s staff and expertise: we are two hundred people in a state of 2.5 million and there are many more stories, perspectives and collections than we could ever hope to represent without working closely with the people of WA.

So, how to go about setting the parameters to create a museum that really is owned, valued and used by all Western Australians and admired by the world? And importantly, how do we ensure that we involve the people of Western Australia in our aspiration, our achievements and our decision-making along the way? We began by adopting our formula of ‘3+1’ – three pillars of knowledge underpinned by communicating the work of the Museum. The first pillar, Being Western Australian, explores issues of identity, diversity, origins and futures, mutual understanding and tolerance through sharing knowledge. It considers what it means to be Western Australian, whether you are Aboriginal and can trace your culture back through tens of thousands of years, or from a migrant family with your origins in one of over two hundred countries represented in Australia’s most diverse and multicultural state. Perhaps it is this diversity of origin that so fuels our desire to mark our identity, to determine our place in the world and to remember and commemorate our origins, our arrivals and our losses.

The second pillar for the museum is Discovering Western Australia – to be a gateway for discovering the state’s geological heritage, amazing biodiversity and ancient landscapes. The oldest known rocks on the planet, the earliest known evidence of life on Earth, one of the top thirty global biodiversity hotspots (and the only one in Australia) – they are all here.

The third pillar is Exploring the World. It is about understanding the world and Western Australia’s relationship and contribution to it. A confident Western Australia is defining its place in the world – as are its people. Central to this is recognising that WA’s key relationships are no longer just with the east coast of Australia: our markets for mineral resources, grain, beef, engineering services and tourism all lie to the west and north and our travel is increasingly focused on South-East Asia and the Indian Ocean rim.

And what of the future? What will be next? Will it be the creative or technical industries? WA allegedly has more patents per head of population than any other state and claims more Nobel Laureates per head as well. This is a place of tenacity, determination and innovation. The Museum needs to research and reflect all of this, as it positions itself as one of the great museums of the Indian Ocean.

In addition to these three over-arching themes, the Museum is committed to the theme of Revealing the Museum to showcase the research, conservation and investigation that takes place behind the scenes, not only for interpretative and public programs but significantly for the future of WA and the world. This work informs environmental assessment, land management and cultural relationships. The Museum’s scientific biodiversity research, in particular, is vital when assessing the impact of new resource projects, and in any one year museum scientists will discover dozens of new species of animals, never before recognised anywhere in the world.

Key to the Museum’s future is to establish it at the heart of its community: for it to be in the hearts and minds of all Western Australians. To do this, it must foster a sense of ownership by including them in the creation and sharing of knowledge. This concept of sharing seems obvious to a museum today, but previously the WA Museum had neither the capacity, nor, in some cases, the will to do so. We are on a sharp learning curve.

Part of this journey is the new WA Faces project, a community programme developed in 2014 for Harmony Week, which commissioned and collected portraits, thoughts and opinions of some of WA’s diverse communities. Beginning with sixty-two people, the project has now been rolled out across the state and is building steadily as it engages new audiences and collects material, but there is still much to be done to ensure meaningful engagement.

Another initiative is in high-profile events or acquisitions. This was most recently achieved with the acquisition of a refugee and asylum-seeker vessel that made it through the Royal Australian Navy cordon sanitaire and arrived in Geraldton in 2013. The Museum has stated its role as a place for debate and discussion – a safe place for unsafe ideas. This author has promoted museums as platforms for freedom of speech and also highlighted the challenges of taking such a position. This vessel released the ire of opposing sides of the community – those who supported a compassionate approach to asylum seekers and those who clearly did not. What was demonstrated, beyond all doubt, was the importance of the Museum in stimulating and facilitating this debate.

Equally, the commemoration of our Anzac past, present and future is an important subject for consideration. In 2014, exactly one hundred years since the first Anzac convoy sailed into Albany en route to battle, the Museum led the interpretative and online content for the city’s new National Anzac Centre and is also co-ordinating, on behalf of its partners Museums Australia and the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, Remembering Them, one of the most extensive Anzac regional community commemorative programs anywhere in Australia.

The Museum takes seriously its responsibility for identifying, collecting, conserving and making available collections of objects, images, sounds and memories. Authenticity is a keystone: this means real collections of real objects and real stories told by real people. The old WA Museum’s famous and much-missed blue whale skeleton is surely the ultimate ‘real object’ and number one on the list to be reinstalled in the New Museum. However, equally important will be partnerships with storytellers such as Yirra Yaakin, one of Australia’s longest established and most respected Aboriginal performance companies that is to be the museum’s company in residence, developing and delivering authentic Aboriginal content for all visitors. International museum consultant Elaine Heumann Gurian writes that ‘the foundational definition of museums will, in the long run, I believe, arise not from objects, but from place and storytelling in tangible sensory form where citizenry can congregate in a spirit of cross-generational inclusivity and inquiry into the memory of our past, a forum for our present, and aspirations for our future.’[ii]

The Active Museum is another principle coined in the title of the Aktives Museum Spiegelgasse (the Active Museum in the Spiegelgasse for German-Jewish History in Wiesbaden) referring, in their case, to how ‘active citizens participate in this project to make people aware of the German-Jewish legacy in their common culture. Traces of Jewish life are preserved and displayed.’ Our concept is of a place that is alive, dynamic, relevant and reaching out to its communities, that uses people and their stories as the focus for activity. Hence our own concept of the Activated Museum, whereby the entire museum space becomes activated and content is developed, presented, experienced and co-created throughout and not just in predetermined gallery spaces.

Above all, the New WA Museum is promoting ‘people first’ so that experiences and content can change and morph constantly, driven by the engagement, involvement and participation of our audiences. Of course, in a digital age that will see the development of even more sophisticated personal technologies in 2020 and beyond, this should not be difficult: the real challenge will be in making it relevant, vibrant and, of course, authentic. In embracing the possibilities of new technologies we should not forget, or jettison, the Museum’s key assets – its authenticity, as demonstrated by objects, stories and people – and its social spaces, where people can feel comfortable and welcome, can engage with each other and can enter into discourse, dialogue and debate about the past, present and future.

As the Western Australian Museum embarks on its $428 million redevelopment, it is acutely aware of the need to change its practice as well as its fabric. This is a time to renegotiate its relationship with Western Australians and the world: to reaffirm its commitment to involve people in sharing their stories, opinions and experiences. The WA Museum, through its museum sites, public programs, scientific, social and historical research, and through the way it prepares for this future, has the potential to touch the lives of every Western Australian. In this sense, it can become something much more than a cultural institution – more of a ‘whole-of-life’ institution. And in doing so, really does have the potential to become the heart of the state and soul of its people.


[i] Government of Western Australia 2013, Department of Mines and Petroleum.

[ii] Gurian, EH 2006, Civilizing the Museum, Routledge, Oxon.


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About the author

Alec Coles

Alec Coles is the chief executive officer of the Western Australian Museum and an adjunct associate professor in the School of Social Sciences at...

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