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South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture


Bunjilaka is the Aboriginal cultural centre and Keeping Place at the Melbourne Museum. Bunjilaka means ‘the land of Bunjil’, referring to one of the main Ancestral Beings of south-eastern Australia who created the mountains, rivers, humans and animals. It incorporates collections storage, galleries, performance and activity spaces, meeting rooms and a garden.

During the development of the new Bunjilaka museum, which opened in 2000, extensive consultation was carried out with the Aboriginal community of Victoria through the museum board’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Advisory Committee. Their views and ideas provided direction for the museum staff and architects in the design and development of Bunjilaka and the exhibitions. Bunjilaka holds a primary position within the museum, ensuring that Aboriginal culture is presented as a key element of the museum’s focus. It was designed to be ‘integral to the architecture of the museum while being an easily distinguishable element with a unique spirit and character’ (Museum Victoria 2000, 9). Bunjilaka was positioned on the ground floor on the eastern edge of the museum complex, the closest location to the inner suburb of Fitzroy where there are a number of Aboriginal organisations. The centre is easily accessible, an important consideration for Aboriginal elders, and is available after hours for exhibition openings, community events and ceremonies.

Figure 15.1 Wayne Thorpe and Alan Brown (didjeridoo) performing in the Kalaya space at Melbourne Museum

Photograph: Andrew Chapman. © Museum Victoria.

At the request of Aboriginal elders of Victoria, south-eastern Aboriginal collections are stored separately from the rest of the museum’s collections, in a Keeping Place within Bunjilaka. This ensures they are an integral part of Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre and can be readily accessed by elders, who can view items in an adjoining viewing room.

Display cases that present historical and contemporary Indigenous cultural material signal the entrance to the public areas of Bunjilaka. To the left, a long curved wall leads into Wominjeka, the area of Bunjilaka where groups are welcomed. The wall is clad with Wurreka, an artwork by Waanyi artist Judy Watson. Made from 74 zinc panels, it is etched with designs that Watson created after viewing objects in the museum’s Indigenous collections, and travelling around Victoria visiting Aboriginal cultural sites, observing the landscape, and holding discussions with members of local Aboriginal communities. These designs include symbols and objects that reflect aspects of Aboriginal cultural heritage and the features of the Victorian landscape.

Beyond is Birrarung, a bright, open gallery used for temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, for exhibition openings and other cultural events. Birrarung is the name for the Yarra River in both Woiwurrung and Boonerwurrung languages, and the design of the gallery symbolises the river, running through the centre of Bunjilaka like the Yarra River flowing through the centre of the city. Curving walls and curvilinear ceiling panels and carpet patterns mimic the flowing river.

Glass walls along the rear of Birrarung and the adjoining Jumbanna galleries provide views of Milarri, an outdoor area landscaped with a stream, waterfalls and a pool below a rock wall-face. External and internal areas merge visually, reinforcing the importance of the environment in Indigenous culture and philosophy. A wide flat roof positioned above the glass windows provides shade from the sun and reduces heat and light levels in the exhibition gallery. Angled supporting columns placed randomly around the roof’s curving outer edge suggest trees. The garden has been planted with native plants used for food, medicine and technology, which form a visitors trail that identifies the plants and their uses. Milarri is also used for performances and for ceremonial activities, including ceremonies relating to the repatriation of ancestral remains to Aboriginal communities.

At the far end of Birrarung gallery lies Kalaya, a performance and activity space used for activities such as song, dance and storytelling, and Wilam Liwik, meaning ‘camp of elders’, a meeting room used by elders of the Victorian Aboriginal community. Kalaya is elliptical in form with a soaring roof-line creating open space above the central performance area. A ramp spirals up and around the walls leading to the offices of Bunjilaka staff members. The design of this area is based upon traditional construction techniques used by Aboriginal people in south-eastern Australia to create shelters by supporting bark sheets on a frame made from saplings: long narrow sheets of austenitic steel lean inward and log posts suggest trees in a forest. The resulting performance area is both spacious and intimate, like a clearing among the trees.

The central gallery space in Bunjilaka is named Jumbanna meaning ‘storytelling’. In it are three inaugural semi-permanent exhibitions – Two Laws, Koori Voices and Belonging to Country – which explore the relationships between people, land and law.

Figure 15.2 Elderly couple with customer services officer handling a woven basket in the Bunjilaka Gallery

Photograph: Rob Blackburn. © Museum Victoria.

Belonging to Country examines Indigenous relationships to land through activities such as gathering materials for making objects and clothes; reading of patterns, designs and body decorations that identify a person with a particular group or place; and the importance of returning the deceased to their country for burial. Key exhibits are a bark canoe and a flower-decorated hearse used by the Victorian Aboriginal community’s funeral service, illustrating the traditional and contemporary methods of transporting the deceased.

Koori Voices explores the lives of Indigenous Victorians since British settlement. It deals with the effects of colonisation, including the frontier violence that marked the early years of British settlement. An audiovisual display shows images of Victorian landscapes and historical artworks interspersed with quotations from government reports and settlers’ diaries recording the views and actions of Europeans on the frontier. Some are brutally frank and shocking, recording atrocities perpetrated against Aboriginal people. Resilience and resistance are highlighted in sections dealing with Aboriginal peoples’ experiences of being relocated to government-operated institutions and reserves; coping with the changes in lifestyle brought about by the establishment of reserves, missions and schools; and engaging in political protests to reassert their rights. A wall of photographs interspersed with video screens playing films of Kooris talking about their lives put faces and voices to the history.

In the exhibition Two Laws, dialogic and at times provocative approaches are used to examine Indigenous Australian knowledge, law and rights to land, property and self-representation, and their interface with mainstream Australian law. These themes are addressed in a film presentation entitled Two laws, a fictionalised, scripted dialogue between the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer and a Central Australian Aboriginal elder named Irrapmwe. Spencer was director of the museum (then the National Museum of Victoria) from 1899 to 1928 and, with his associate Frank Gillen, carried out fieldwork and collecting in the Aboriginal communities around Alice Springs. In the film, parallels are made between the knowledge and authority of the two men, each ‘a professor’ in the context of their own cultural and educational system. Intended as a means of ‘interrogating Australian history’, it is not meant to be seen as a historical narrative but as ‘a conversation that imagines an argument mounted with a hundred years of hindsight… it necessarily engages history itself because it is a conversation about the weight of history’ (Morton 2004).

Figure 15.3 The Spencer case in the Two Laws exhibit

Photograph: John Broomfield. © Museum Victoria.

Nearby, a life-sized model of Baldwin Spencer has been placed in a display case surrounded by Indigenous artefacts and their stories, a transposition suggested by local historian Tony Birch, who was senior curator on the Koorie Voices exhibition. John Morton, who curated the Two Laws exhibition, originally proposed to position a second figure, a life-sized model of Irrapmwe ‘intently viewing Spencer from outside the case’, an idea that was ‘unfortunately… sacrificed to financial or design considerations’ (Morton 2004). On the glass in front of Spencer’s figure is a quotation from a presentation by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre at the Museum Association’s repatriation conference in London in 1997: ‘We do not choose to be enshrined in a glass case, with our story told by an alien institution who has appointed itself an ambassador for our culture’. It continues on a second panel: ‘To be a voyeur on the physical objects of other people’s culture is not a way to understand them. That understanding could come only from becoming involved in debates on the issues that are at the heart of people’s concerns today’ (Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre 1997). The absence of Irrapmwe’s figure somewhat defuses the intended power of the transposition, but this explicit statement from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre sets the tone for the whole exhibition: it is designed to encourage debate. Visitors are invited to consider the historical circumstances of collection acquisition, the cultural values that circumscribed colonial encounters, contemporary debates concerning Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights, and the ethics of museums holding culturally significant objects and ancestral remains.

A small video screen shows Cracks in the mask, a film documenting an emotional journey by Ephraim Bani, from the Torres Strait Islands of northern Australia, who travels to Europe hoping to view, for the first time, objects of great cultural significance to his people, which have been held in the collections of museums for several decades. Changing policies regarding the holding of sacred objects and human remains is explicitly stated in a text panel that reads: ‘Museum Victoria once had the remains of more than 1000 Aboriginal people, and thousands of secret-sacred objects. The Museum’s policy now is to return remains and secret-sacred objects upon request to relevant communities.’ A photograph shows a scene from a repatriation handover ceremony which took place in 2004 when ancestral remains were returned to the Ngarrindjeri community of South Australia, and nearby is an artwork by Vicki Couzens, a Keerray Wurrong/Gunditjmara woman, entitled Koorrookee ngapoon alam meem mooraka (grandmother grandfather ancestors burial place. This depicts the reburial of repatriated ancestral remains at Framlingham in south-west Victoria in 2004.

Through such reflexive strategies, anthropologists and museum curators analyse and consider the moral puzzles that surround their own institution, collections, and the collectors and museum staff who were closely involved with their acquisition and curation in the early years. In various ways, the exhibitions present visitors with opportunities to learn about Indigenous cultures and histories, and ponder upon moral and ethical dilemmas that surround museums and the (re)telling of history.

Taken together, Bunjilaka offers a suite of spaces incorporating a cultural centre for the local indigenous community to establish their presence in the museum and reconnect with the collections and their heritage, and a space in which historical cross-cultural encounters can be re-interpreted in the light of contemporary concerns and form the basis for reflexive cross-cultural dialogue.


Morton, John. 2004. ‘“Such a man would find few races hostile”: History, fiction and anthropological dialogue in the Melbourne Museum’. Arena Journal 22: 53–71.

Museum Victoria. 2000. Bunjilaka: The Aboriginal Centre at Melbourne Museum. Melbourne: Museum Victoria.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. 1997. ‘Free exchange or captive culture? The Tasmanian Aboriginal perspective on museums and repatriation’. Paper delivered at the Museums Association seminar Museums and Repatriation. 4 November 1997; London, England.


Cite this chapter as: Simpson, Moira G. 2006. ‘Bunjilaka’. South Pacific Museums, edited by Healy, Chris; Witcomb, Andrea. Monash University ePress: Melbourne. pp. 15.1–15.5.

© Copyright 2006 Moira G Simpson
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South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture

   by Chris Healy and Andrea Witcomb