On 23rd April this year, at 10 am, the barrier at the bottom of the steps was removed and the doors of Room 35 at the British Museum were opened to the general public. Despite the speed and enthusiasm of a small group of French teenagers, I made it through them first.
If I had known then what I know now, I might have hesitated, I might have turned away.
Not. So not. It has had such an impact on me already, I wonder whether in retrospect I shall consider it to have been life-changing.
This exhibition has been much anticipated by many. With its planning going back to Australia more than 5 years ago, this is not a small thing. It’s a big thing, however you look at it: the numbers of people involved, the depth and breadth of their experience, their wisdom; the exhibition’s complex cultural, philosophical, historical, social and political dimensions, and its ambition.
There is so much to understand, and so little time. Indigenous Australia – Enduring Civilisation is the focus of my MA dissertation, and so understand it I will: somehow. I am in the early stages of a process that is happily flexible, encouragingly non-linear, and feels a bit messy. This is not helping me to write a traditional proposal – whatever that means. But it is helping me think in different ways from those I am used to, and that is very refreshing.
What is this exhibition? Well it is certainly more than what is behind the doors of Room 35: much, much more. It is the histories of all those who have been involved in its creation, which has brought them together, some for the first time, others familiar colleagues, friends. It is their hopes, expectations, demands, ambitions and loves. It is the meetings of hearts, minds and weary bodies from the Western Desert to the rooms of universities and the galleries and storehouses of museums. It is the informal conversations over food, beer, wine, tea, coffee, water, and the shared listening in talks, panels and conferences. It is the papers written, and the exhibition catalogue. It is the ceremonies, some public, some for selected audiences; others even more discrete and intimate. It is the creative impulses and responses. And of course, it is what the public can see and hear in Room 35. In the Millennial Great Court. In the British Museum. In London. More than 170 ‘objects’ – for want of a far, far better word – some hundreds of years old, their creators long dead; some newly made, their creators here and now, sharing it with people in many and varied circumstances. It is all these things and more.
There is so much to understand, and so little time. So I am reflecting on how to conceive of this differently.
I have already encountered some of the above life of the exhibition. I have passed through Room 35 several times; I have sat, sketched, written and reflected in the dim light. I have met and conversed with some lovely and fascinating people: museum professionals, artists, academics, writers and drummers. I’ve heard some impressive and emotive talks. I’ve seen Grayson Perry and Prince Charles up close and personal for the first time, and listened to those in influential, hierarchical positions. I have already been deeply affected. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that I am not the same person as I was a month ago. So I am already understanding something, somehow, in non-intellectual ways. I feel differently about my life. Perhaps my challenge, as I continue to encounter the exhibition through the eyes, ears and experience of others as well as my own, is not to try to understand, but to focus on creating a means, a process that will enable me to express, and necessarily to communicate in particular ways, something of my understanding.
And with that, I will cease writing this and make a start on that, where I am and with what I have, and do what I can.
Until 2nd August. Opening 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays.