Reflections on exhibition: life after Indigenous Australia

The British Museum exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was the focus for my MA dissertation. It had a great impact on me, or perhaps I should say they had a great impact on me – the exhibition and the dissertation. Two stand out today: encounters – between visitors and objects, historians and subjects, authors and histories; and the reprise of my own encounter with the dissertation as a form of encounter.

I am currently in the middle of waves of thoughts about, within and upon these impacts. Clearly, or perhaps not, I am expecting to be able to express these coherently at some point. Writing here will I hope precipitate or encourage that eventuality.

Here is my first element, and extract from Jane Rogers’ Promised Lands:

“A new world worse than the old, because it can only be seen in terms of the old. Though its birds are brightly plumed, they cannot sing. Though the sun shines bright, there is insufficient rain. Though the mountains are high and full of magic, the function of mountains is to source rivers. Dry mountains are bad mountains, there’s nothing else to know.

And so the explorer, perhaps more than anyone else, is locked in his own cage; carries its bars before his eyes, views the country through its grid. Here we may farm sheep. Here, dig ores. Here, fields of corn, and over there a city. He does not even see the land, or traces of the massive dream ancestors that have shaped it; only how he will remake it, in the image of his own small country. He will mine it to increase the currency of his homeland. He will never escape.”

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Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation

Abe Muriata is a Girramay man of the Cardwell Range area Girramay Traditional Owner, Painter, Potter, Weaver and Shield Maker

Abe Muriata is a Girramay man of the Cardwell Range area
Girramay Traditional Owner, Painter, Potter, Weaver and Shield Maker

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.

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Metaphors for the flaneur: ‘Botanizing’

Hybrid Flaneur

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Understanding metaphors

Metaphors have been used from an array of intellectual voices to describe the dynamic constellation of flaneur, city, walking and senses. Yet, before entering into such a constellation, I would like to describe what a metaphor really is. Metaphors are not just mere theoretical words. They describe practices and situations from everyday life, yet what is important is that they are actively derived from lived, embodied experience. Following Lakoff (1993: 203) and his analysis, metaphors are expressed through speech, however they are not located in language at all – but ‘in the ways we conceptualize one mental domain in terms of another‘. In their seminal book, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) categorize metaphors as (i) structural ones (something is structured in terms of another), (ii) orientational ones (related to spatiality: up-down, in-out, on-off e.t.c.) among others. Yet, our everyday metaphorical system is central to the understanding of…

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The Colour and Humour of Foley Vereker’s Journals at the Royal Geographical Society’s Archives

Foley Charles Prendergast Vereker (1850-1900)

The five journals of Foley Vereker cover journeys from 1870 to 1885 that took him completely around the world via such places as the Red Sea, Borneo, the Philippines, Vancouver Island, South America and West Africa. Over that time he rose through the ranks from Midshipman through Lieutenant to Commander in the Surveying Service of the Royal Navy.

Last week, I had the brief opportunity with my fellow Royal Holloway MA Cultural Geography students to look at these journals, held in the Royal Geographical Society’s archives at Kensington Gore in London. I spent my time with the first of them, covering the years1870 to 1872 on “the East Indian and China Stations.” This journal starts with the commissioning of HMS Nassau “for Captain W. Chimnio for surveying services in East Indies” on Monday 25th April 1870. After having “exercised at Fire Quarters” and “mustered by divisions and inspected bedding” over the next few days, Vereker and HMS Nassau left the port of Plymouth for the Far East, but not before “a glass of grog at Mrs. Blakeley’s.”

Vereker’s journals revealed some fascinating details about the voyages and the man, even in the brief time we had with them. It was not possible to decipher and transcribe large amounts of the variable handwriting, (although this was far from being the worst I have seen in my brief encounters with archives.) But quantity isn’t everything, and with some focus offered by the guiding questions from our Royal Holloway tutor and guide, Innes Keigheren, and by allowing the eye and the mind to alight at points where my interest was piqued, some qualitative details proved quietly compelling.

The first of these was Vereker’s ‘collection’ of examples of his name written in various different languages, either by himself, or by others. The inside cover of the first journal contains his name in Persian and in Abyssinian, together with a Persian proverb written later (in 1872) by a Captain Speedy, (if I read the name correctly). Vereker’s name also appears in this volume in “Hindo” and “Singalese” among others. To me this suggests more than a passing interest in the languages he encountered, and the choice of translations of his name rather than other words perhaps gives an indication of an informal or personal sense of connection or openness.

He describes his encounters with places and people in a way that strikes me as light and engaging. Here are a few extracts that I think reveal something of the man as much as the places and the people he encountered.

“Having disposed our [materials?] to form pretty comfortable beds we lit lamps and read till [sic] sleep overtook us and we were all soon in the arms of Morpheus, except one enthusiast who kept up mournful ditties nearly all night.”

“The town is a most wretched place … several dhows were landed up on the beach some of which although they do not look up to much still they say go to Bombay.”

“About 5AM we arrived at our destination and found horses waiting. We soon mounted and presented I daresay a ludicrous appearance to the natives, one of the party’s legs being about half the length of his body and another a six footer being perched on a very small animal and a third had a horse with only one ear!”

There were “… a great number [of people] being carried in hammocks made of matting and carried by two men. They are pretty comfortable but are evidently not built for English men as they are very short. The [mestisa?] women seem to like them very much, they cock their legs under them and sit in them smoking their cigarettes as coolly as [illegible]. We had fine [fun?] chatting [to] them as we passed but usually got as good as we gave.”

“I invested in a Cockatoo here which has proved a source of some amusement. He is wonderfully tame …”

I read in these lines an engaging sense of humour and an eye for everyday details of places and people. His keen observations are even more evident in the extensive range of illustrations throughout the journals. The colour and diversity of Vereker’s images range from precise sketches, graphs and maps through to both detailed and evocative, broad-brush watercolours of scenes both in towns and rural locations. These, together with his decorative dates, initials and occasional titles are fascinating entries, and again are suggestive of the sense of both the man and his experiences that are there to be discovered in these journals.

Finally, I also found some humour in several of the fragments on the backs of relevant newspaper cuttings scattered through the journal; one of these describes how the Prince of Wales went deerstalking in the Ballochbuie Forest but, “owing to the rain, his Royal Highness returned to Abergeldie without firing a shot”.

I find the contrast with Vereker’s experiences curiously compelling.

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Finding Geography’s place?

The subject of several conversations in recent seminars …

By Neil Roberts, Plymouth University and Tim Hall, University of Winchester

Despite UK geography’s high international research standing and continued success in attracting students, it is becoming less easy to identify geography and geographers within its universities.  A principal reason for the reduced disciplinary visibility is that only around half of all geographers are now located in traditional Departments. As we show in a current paper in Area, the proportion of single-discipline Geography departments in the UK declined from 55% to 37% between 1995 and 2010, largely at the expense of multidisciplinary “Schools”.

The naming of departments and what processes of change these new titles reflect are a concern way beyond geography. Eric Jaffe recently wrote about the case of Psychology departments in the US in the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer magazine. In many cases these departmental name changes were an attempt to address Psychology’s image problem or…

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Focus is not quite the word

Given my eclectic nature and fascination with many different things at the same time, (some of which are shown here) this blog will focus on one chunk of my interest in geography: research for an MA in Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London.

I started the course in September 2014, and have already enjoyed a whirlwind tour of such mighty topics as: Space, Place, Mobilities, Nature, Landscape, Urban, The Body, Mapping and Exploration. And that’s not the half of it. Add to that methods and techniques such as Interviews and Focus Groups, Questionnaires, Visual Methods, Participatory Action Research, Ethnography and Social Research and you will quickly see that there is more there than you could shake a hefty stick at. So perhaps focus isn’t quite the word.

My plan is to collect bits of many ideas and links on twitter and to expand on some of those related to the MA here.

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