Film director George Miller of Mad Max fame is used to viewing the world through a camera. But as one of the Australian Museum’s newly chosen 200 treasures – along with Australia’s first female prime minister Julia Gillard, a 2800-year-old Egyptian mummy and a Tasmanian tiger pup – his image will shine brightly inside and outside the museum.
Mr Miller is one of 100 people living and dead – including Billy Hughes, Eddie Mabo, Cathy Freeman, Bob Hawke and Sir Donald Bradman – who the museum selected because they had shaped the nation through contributions to history, science and nature or culture.
Attending the launch in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery, Mr Miller said the honour was surprising, especially as his mother attended the National School – which now forms part of the Museum – as a girl about 90 years ago.
“Today is a big Mum day because it goes back a long way,” said Dr Miller, who also made The Dismissal and Babe.
When the Long Gallery first opened at the Australian Museum in May 1857, nearly a quarter of Sydney’s 45,000 residents – equivalent to a million people today – visited within a week to see stuffed cabinets stuffed with jaw-dropping curiosities and lit by gas lamps.
On Saturday the refurbished gallery reopens, showcasing 200 of the museum’s 18 million treasures: 100 objects showcased in cabinets with related items that tell a story, and the stories of 100 people considered to be the nation’s brave and the bold. Images of the 200 people and things will be projected nightly in a Vivid-style light show from sunset from October 13 to 22.
Museum director Kim McKay hopes the quirky collection will pique visitors’ thirst for knowledge enough that they will come back again and again, and give the world’s fifth oldest natural science museum and Australia’s first museum the stature she believes it deserves.
“We are ranked the 34th largest in the world, which is extraordinary given that it is newer [than most]. We have got this extraordinary collection, which is worth close to $1 billion, and it tells us so much who we are and where we came from,” she said. “We are using [the Long Gallery’s] incredible form and architecture combined with the collection to show people that the Australian museum sits beside the great museums of the world,” she said.
Chosen by guest curator and historian Peter Emmett, the 100 objects include a Hawaiian ‘ahu’ulaa red and yellow feathered cape which was given to Captain Cook in 1778 or 1779 by chief Kalani’opo’u who was regarded the English by the Hawaiians as a god. With yellow feathers plucked from the neck of tiny birds that had tufts of one or two feathers on each neck, it would have taken years to make. The 140cm wide cape was meant to give the wearer power, and provide spiritual and physical protection. Yet its mythic powers didn’t work for Cook, who died soon after in a fight with locals.
Other treasures from the collection – many which defeat attempts to give them a monetary value – include a Tasmanian Tiger female pup collected and pickled about 70 years before the last animal died in captivity in 1936; Papuan Asaro mud men masks with comic hungry tongues created last year; a family of Aboriginal toy dolls collected in Arnhem Land in 1948 made from shells wrapped in cloth; the paradise parrot, the only mainland bird to become extinct since the arrival of Europeans; and the night parrot, thought to be extinct but recently found to be alive.
“This is an Australian story,” said Dr Emmett. “Not a narrative of firsts and greats, but a unique and distinctive story of our entanglement with people, places, and animals and things.” Nearly every item was still the subject of current research.
When the original gallery was opened with its glass ceiling, money had run out before a stairway to the upper floor could be built. The $9 million refurbishment, split three ways between Westpac, the NSW government and Australian Museum’s Foundation, has let new light into the restored and updated gallery.
Ms McKay says museums are the ark of humanity, preserving the past and predicting the future. The top 59 museums, with the Australian Museum in 34th place, hold 90 per cent of the world’s natural and object specimens.
With her trademark enthusiasm, she showed off a tableau including a kangaroo nearly standing erect, a koala, and a cockatoo with a wing tag used in an ongoing study.
They sit under a large rug made from 75 platypus skins.
It was “quite the thing in the day to have one of those”, said Ms McKay.
“What we are looking at is a tableau about Australian conservation in the future, and the species that helped us define who we are as a nation. And yet our attitude to them has changed over the years so, and God forbid, there should ever be another Platypus rug in existence.”
Under Premier Mike Baird, the museum was asked to increase visitor numbers by 15 per cent by 2019, a goal that Ms McKay says the museum has exceeded with visitor numbers up 20 per cent. There were 440,000 visitors to the Australian Museum in 2016-17, 419,902 in 2015/16 and 392,927 in the previous financial year.
She is now lobbying for more funding to allow the museum to host more temporary visiting exhibitions, and didn’t miss a chance to call on the Premier and the Arts Minister at the launch on Friday for more funding to expand the floor space.
“We punch way above our weight in science and reputation, and I would just like to have this museum restored in such a way and funded in such a way that reflects that,” she said.
“Last year we discovered 199 new species in our collection and in the field, and that is over 1 per cent of all the new species found on the planet last year.
Only recently a group of visitors told her they hadn’t been to the museum since they were children. That’s something she wants to change.
But former Australian Museum director Des Griffin said the impact of repeated budget cuts had taken their toll.
“All the time we are told to do more with less, and the phrase, ‘We all have to feel some of the pain’,” he said.
“After 20 years there has been substantial pain, and what is the gain? If anything, the patient is less well than we started out,” said Mr Griffin.
He said governments needed to realise that museums were, more than anything else, places of ideas.
“There is not enough understanding of the contribution museums have made, or the gains they have made to the understanding of the environment, and what museum people have done with citizen science and expeditions,” he said.
“One of the things that used to gall me was people saying,’Oh museums, they are great halls of dead stuff’.
“That’s bloody rubbish.”
Opens October 14, 2017
Australian Museum, 1 William Street, Sydney
Free after general admission. Adults $15, kids are free