Four strong Indigenous women are behind much of the work that has gone into making sure WA Museum Boola Bardip presents a truly integrated Indigenous story.
Representing about 60 of 100 different language groups across the State, the museum staff ensured the facility was developed in a culturally safe way and with Traditional Owner permissions.
While the entire museum hosts eight different galleries, visitors will experience “Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn: Our Heart, Country, Spirit” upon entry.
Curated by Yindjibarndi woman Michelle Broun, the exhibition celebrates the diversity of WA’s Aboriginal people.
“Right from the start . . . we never intended to have an exhibition where all the Kimberley mobs were in this corner and this was the South West mob and the Pilbara mob on that side,” she said.
“We created a visitor journey, beginning with the Welcome to Country, which is for the whole of the museum.
“The overall messaging through Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn is about connection. Connection to country, but also connecting to each other as people, and ultimately, looking inwards and connecting to yourself.”
Mununtjali woman Barbara Paulson is the museum’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement officer responsible for the extensive consultation with mobs across the State.
Aboriginal knowledge and perspectives are woven throughout the museum — not just in Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn.
Paulson said a huge part of speaking to communities was remembering Aboriginal people would be visitors — not just subjects of the museum.
“We wanted to be able to represent . . . in a more meaningful way,” she said.
“We made sure that we had representation from across the multiple regions of WA.
“One of the big things, of course, was making sure that every cultural group understood how they were being represented. They had the opportunity to decide how much involvement they want- ed and in the way in which representation was developed.”
Paulson found a key issue for communities State-wide was ensuring WA’s colonial past was educational without being burdensome.
“One of the things we were very wary of right from the start was to make sure that this generation were informed of this history, not burdened by it,” she said.
“It was something that our elders were personally telling us.”
While WA Museum Boola Bardip doesn’t shy away or sanitise the State’s history of colonial violence, Broun was mindful of its confronting nature.
That’s why one section of Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn is partially closed off, with a caution to visitors that the area contains confronting imagery.
Yamaji/Nyoongar woman Deanne Fitzgerald — WA Museum’s senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adviser — said much of her role was supporting Paulson, Broun and curatorial assistant Marani Greatorex in their efforts.
“I was kind of in the background supporting them, helping out across all of the museum and making sure those stories (from across WA) were reflected,” she said.
A young Jabirr Jabirr/Nyikina woman, Greatorex was responsible for procuring all the images used throughout the museum.
A first contact story and one of Ms Broun’s favourites, in Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn the museum will tell the story of Pitjantjatjara man Fred Ward’s encounter with the white man.
“His first contact was with a . . . helicopter in the western desert with him and his uncle,” she said.
“They had never seen a whitefella before, they had never seen a helicopter, and they were trying to spear this helicopter.”
The story has since been revitalised by the local school, with a sculptor coming in to re-create the helicopter, or “dust-up”, for the museum.
Hanging high in the ceiling space, the helicopter will have spears aimed upwards in the chopper’s direction.
“They call them dust-ups because when they come up from the ground there’s dust everywhere,” Broun said.
“And Fred, when he first saw it, it was a Mamu, or devils from the sky.”
Another aspect is every Indigenous piece in the museum is documented or attributed in some way — a rare occurrence in museums across Australia. Paulson said many traditional owners came in to view items for the museum and would identify items their parents or grandparents had made.
“You had to give the time and space for that, to walk through that emotional response, then ask questions and then document that,” she said.
“We, through this engagement process, have been lucky enough to document a lot of our materiality that didn’t have it previously.”
By Hannah Cross