At one end of the National Museum’s summer blockbuster, Circe the witch takes her revenge by turning Ulysses’ men into pigs. And not too far away, the costume worn by Kylie Minogue in her 2011 Aphrodite: Les Folies tour exerts similarly extraordinary powers.
Draped in shimmering white and gold, ornamented with pearls and capped by a winged helmet and golden bodice, Our Kylie stands next to a classical statue of Venus from the first century and is none the worse for the comparison.
Feared and Revered, an examination of female power through the ages, comes to Canberra from the British Museum and, by all accounts, is all the better for it.
Minogue is not the only local luminary: the original exhibition has been significantly enhanced by Australian additions, and thanks to the larger spaces available at the NMA, it is almost twice the size of the original show.
More than 160 objects, dating from about 6000 BC to the present, illustrate multiple ideas about women’s power in the temporal and spiritual worlds. They examine power, strength, mystery and influence, ranging from representation of the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and Kali, the black-limbed Hindu goddess of death, snake-haired Medusa and the Virgin Mary.
Yawkyawk, the Kuninjku people’s female water ancestor spirits from Western Arnhem Land, appears in several guises. With the head and body of a woman and the scaly body and tail of a fish, the Yawkyawk lives in freshwater pools and streams, emerging after the rains to sit on rocks.
Five broad themes shape the exhibition: creation and nature; passion and desire; magic and malice; justice and defence; and compassion and salvation.
There’s a universality about this that was immensely appealing to Dame Quentin Bryce, who spoke with a panel of guests, including the exhibition’s British and Australian curators, on opening day.
“I’ve learned so much from the experience of being involved in this exhibition”, she told Region.
“When I listen to the scholars from both museums talking, it reminds me how much we learned from Indigenous Australians about the power of storytelling.
“Look at Circe, the sorceress and daughter of the sun god Helios, from this very memorable occasion when she turned Ulysses’ sailors into animals after they landed on her island and showed terrible manners. The image is so beautiful – you can imagine the conversations about what she was thinking.
“You can see all the animals that were part of her life, the armour that had been discarded by the sailors. There’s quite a sense of peace about it!”
It’s also been a long journey for the exhibition’s British Museum curator, Dr Belinda Crerar, and National Museum senior curator Cheryl Crilly. Lengthy Zoom meetings, conversations and planning went on for months before the exhibition opened, but both agree that the objects on display are only the starting point.
“The National Museum really strives to be more than a venue, so we don’t want to replicate and duplicate what we’re seeing at the British Museum,” Cheryl says.
“We redesign and reshape it for our space, make it more relevant for Australian audiences, while working with the BM.
“We threw in Kylie Minogue because we wanted to do a fun and fabulous kind of mad juxtaposition between the ancient world and the contemporary. It’s been an amazing experience working with Belinda and her team.”
Dr Crerar says the purpose of any exhibition should always be more than assembling a group of objects. “The question is how we prompt ideas and energy. It’s not a static mystery. It’s about how we explore huge ideas and powerful questions. The objects are the starting point, especially for a show like this.”
The Museum has an extensive program of events associated with the exhibition. You can find more details here.
Feared and Revered is at the National Museum until 27 August 2023.