For Walbanga and Wadi Wadi woman Alison Page, sitting in front of her installation in the National Museum of Australia’s new $25 million Great Southern Land gallery, which opened on Thursday, 15 September, was “like having a moment”.
“It’s bringing everything together,” the award-winning artist and filmmaker said.
“Today, this is the place where our Australian stories come from. This gallery gives voice to Country – and that’s why it’s so important.
“This place brings us all together, not just in a scientific way, or a historic or even an artistic way, but in a connected way.”
Alison, with her creative partner Nik Lachajczak of ZAKPAGE, bookend the gallery story through an on-site immersive media experience, Ochre and Sky, and a media projection entitled The Eucalyptus. It’s the centrepiece of the new gallery which reveals how listening to the land offers hope for the future.
Australian music icon Iva Davies officially opened the new gallery on Thursday, singing the Icehouse hit of the same name.
“That song reminds me that we don’t sing about Country enough,” Alison said. “We don’t sing enough about how proud we are to be Australian.”
To mark the opening, the museum displayed its Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 synthesiser, the same instrument model used by the Icehouse frontman to compose the 1982 hit. He said it was so called because it could play five notes at a time, “which was incredibly useful, especially for live performing”.
“Back in 1982, when I created the title Great Southern Land for a song I was writing, I had no idea what an impact it would have on listeners everywhere, especially Australian listeners,” Davies said.
“To have the song included as part of this incredible project that the National Museum of Australia has undertaken, to trace the history, the diversity and the magic of our country, is very humbling,” he said.
The $34 million revamp of the museum, which encompasses more than a third of the building, features the new environmental gallery and an innovative $9 million play centre designed to connect children with Australian stories. From the soft and colourful crawl space for toddlers at the entrance to the deconstructed 18th-century sloop inspired by Matthew Flinders, it’s all about learning through fun.
The Tim and Gina Fairfax Discovery Centre has been developed for children of all ages to explore our history through stories and activities. It houses a wide range of exhibits, from the fleece of Chris, the world’s woolliest sheep, to the boy from Torres Strait who became a dugong, to Trim the cat who circumnavigated Australia with explorer Matthew Flinders.
Director of the National Museum Dr Matt Trinca described the opening of the two galleries on Thursday as a “pivotal moment” in the cultural institution’s history.
“The National Museum is celebrating more than 20 years of engagement with the Australian public, and these new developments will see it go from strength to strength in the decades ahead,” he said.
“The Great Southern Land gallery explores our fundamental relationship to the land, incorporating the stories of the First Peoples who have lived on the continent for at least 65,000 years and the stories of all those who followed.”
He said the gallery, which showcased more than 2000 objects – many of which had not gone on exhibition before – was designed by Local Projects of New York, best known for their work on the National September 11 Memorial in that city.
The new gallery explores Australia’s stories in four chapters: from the natural forces which have shaped our lives, how we connect, and our unique biodiversity to how we adapt to change.
Under a “sky” of twinkling stars, the 2000-square-metre gallery houses everything from a 4.5-metre taxidermy crocodile to a steel electricity pole, twisted by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas morning in 1974 to a Telstra public phone damaged when bushfires swept through Cobargo, on the NSW South Coast on 31 December 2019, to bush toys made by Arrente children from Central Australia to posts and chains from the summit of the former climb at Uluru that was banned in 2019.
Visitors are also invited to interact with exhibits, including a giant Bunya forest where people can walk among 7.5-metre-high Bunya trunks that have been cast from living trees in the forests of South-East Queensland.
There are also larger-than-life illustrations featuring everything from swooping magpies to nesting turtles. You can (almost) swim with a platypus in an interactive installation where you feel you are underwater with the shy mammal.
Lead curator Dr Martha Sear said the new gallery told the story of love and hope.
“The gallery takes visitors on a 65,000-year journey across the Australian continent – from red deserts to rainforest and beaches to the bush – revealing how our deep connections to the land can guide us towards a hopeful future.”
The new galleries are now open to the public daily. More information is available at the NMA.