'A conduit for healing': Perth’s $400m Boola Bardip is a museum for the post-truth era

The new museum invites ‘difficult conversations’ about history and culture, with perspectives from 70-plus Aboriginal language groups

A beam of light shoots across the gallery space, projecting a series of zoomorphic figures onto a grainy, red surface. A dugong, a turtle, a fish and a small kangaroo glisten in the dark, barely distinguishable, as you might expect of artworks that are some 50,000 years old.

These are the Dreaming stories of the Ngarda-Ngarli people of Murujuga country, also known as the Burrup Peninsula, which is home to the world’s largest concentration of petroglyphic rock art.

“The rocks, they are alive,” says Yindjibarndi elder Tootsie Daniel of Murujuga, where three billion-year-old rock formations meet the vast Indian ocean. “They speak to us. They are living stories.”

Tootsie is among more than 54,000 Western Australians whose “living stories” are weaved through the WA Museum Boola Bardip, which reopened on Saturday after a $400 million, four-year redevelopment.

WA Museum Boola Bardip night (c) Michael Haluwana, Aeroture
WA Museum Boola Bardip reopened on Saturday after a $400m, four-year redevelopment. Photograph: Michael Haluwana/Aeroture

The perspectives of more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups are featured throughout the museum, an approach known as “two-eyed seeing”, where western and Indigenous knowledge are placed on equal footing.

“I’m not aware of any other museum in the world that has surveyed this many people,” says Alec Coles, chief executive officer of Boola Bardip, which translates to “many stories” in Whadjuk Nyoongar. “We made a commitment from the very beginning to represent many diverse voices, many of whom had never been heard, let alone in this kind of institution.”

Among the museum’s eight permanent exhibitions are a bounty of rare and world-first artefacts, including the largest meteorite collection in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s oldest grape vine and largest whale skeleton. It also includes the largest pieces of banded iron ore formations in the world and microscopic single-celled organisms, which Boola Bardip’s project director, Trish McDonald, says are “some of the earliest evidence for the evolution of life on earth.”

Australia's largest whale skeleton suspended at Boola Bardip.
Among WA Museum Boola Bardip’s permanent exhibitions is the country’s largest whale skeleton – as well as ‘some of the earliest evidence for evolution’. Photograph: Michael Haluwana/Aeroture
New exhibition space Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn at Boola Bardip.
New exhibition space Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn at Boola Bardip. Photograph: Michael Haluwana/Aeroture

But it’s the multiplicity of stories and ideas, rather than the objects, that set this 6,000 square metre museum apart. In this era of post-truth, where science is often dismissed and alternative facts flagrantly offered, museums can play a vital role in promoting evidence-based knowledge, according to Coles.

“Museums are places that people tend to trust, where you can have some of these difficult conversations without the rancour and the bias that you see elsewhere,” Coles continues.

“Of course, there will be some people who are upset or incensed by what they see, people who are climate denialists, for example. But that’s exactly the point. We want to encourage critical reflection and debate, to be a conduit for real stories, for healing, and ultimately, for truth.”

Perhaps the most interesting of these “difficult conversations” takes place in the Changes gallery, which explores how economic activity has impacted our natural resources and Indigenous heritage, posing the question: is “for the good of the state” good for everyone?

As the world’s largest producer of both iron-ore and liquefied natural gas, where the logos of multinational explorers shout from skyscrapers and “did you see the iron-ore price today?” is standard water cooler chat, mining holds a firm place in Western Australia’s identity.

As Bill Johnston, minister for mines and petroleum, states in a display within the Changes gallery, “Our capacity to function as a government is directly connected to the success of the iron ore industry and so is the entire nation.”

But with incidents like Rio Tinto’s destruction of the sacred Aboriginal site Juukan Gorge in May, and warnings that 100 more sacred sites, some predating the ice age, could be next in the firing line, there are concerns about the sector’s disregard for cultural and environmental assets.

On a screen we see footage of a massive train hurtling across the Pilbara carrying iron-ore, likely bound for China or Japan. It is overlaid with an audio of July Hicks, an Eastern Garuma elder: “They’re going to have nothing left,” she says. “Nothing left to say, ‘This is where your descendants came from, this is where your elders lived.’ Because of mining companies just destroying the land.”

Mining section of Changes gallery, an installation at WA Museum Boola Bardip
Mining section of Changes gallery, an installation at WA Museum Boola Bardip which re-opened on 23 November 2020. Photograph: Michael Haluwana/Aeroture
Warakurna Superheroes, a photographic series by Tony Albert featured at Boola Bardip.
Warakurna Superheroes, a photographic series by Tony Albert featured at Boola Bardip. Photograph: Michael Haluwana/Aeroture

Like many Australian cultural institutions, Boola Bardip receives funding from a roll-call of resources companies, including Woodside, Rio Tinto and the Minderoo Foundation, owned by mining businessman Andrew Forrest.

While Coles stresses these affiliations have no bearing on Boola Bardip’s content, saying that issues are presented “without fear or favour”, there is no mention of Rio Tinto’s Juukan Gorge blunder or Woodside’s “relocation” of more than 1,700 pieces of rock art into a holding compound for their North West Shelf Project in 2014.

A little further up the hall, the Connections gallery explores WA as a multicultural state which has the largest overseas-born population in Australia. It introduces Alicia Freudenberg, who escaped persecution during Hitler’s reign, arriving in Perth on a summer’s day in 1939. “After what we had been through, it was wonderful,” she said.

A didactic wall panel bearing the UN Declaration of Human Rights issues a timely reminder that “All human beings are born free”, before the gallery transitions into WA’s modern record on refugees. Conflicting attitudes towards migration are brandished on placards: “We are boat people” and “Assimilate or leave”, interspersed with stories of refugees who built a life here from scratch, and those who agonise over an uncertain future in offshore detention.

And downstairs, in a temporary exhibition situated between the Innovations and Reflections galleries, another kind of uncertain future is explored: that of the Covid-19 pandemic. The displays chronicle premier Mark McGowan’s stewardship, including his notorious hard border stance, which has so far protected the state from a second wave.

“Covid has created this incredible sense of community here,” Alec says. “The world has shifted so much under our feet. And when that happens, where do we turn? We turn to nature, we turn to culture, we turn to science.”

“Our public cultural and scientific institutions have never been more important. And I feel very optimistic about that here in Western Australia.”

• WA Museum Boola Bardip is now open


Rosamund Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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