A museum of collective vitality

What are museums for?

One answer to this question comes toward the end of Orhan Pamuk’s epic novel, The Museum of Innocence, as the anti-hero Kemal visits thousands of museums in Europe, Asia and America. He’s planning to open his own house museum in tribute to Füsun, the forbidden love of his life – he’s been collecting objects he associates with her for years, from her cigarette butts to the ceramic dogs on her family’s television set. Pondering the purpose of collecting, he comes to the simple conclusion that museums are time compressed into space.

Looking at it from the direction of visitors rather than collectors… within the space of the museum we decompress the assembled material – expand it to witness something of the flow of time – what happened, how, and what it might mean. But is knowledge and understanding the end point?

In another take on their purpose of museums, New Curator describes museums as the city’s lymph nodes, immersed in its central nervous system, providing immunity against its ills. This model suggests a purpose beyond the (co)production of knowledge and understanding. Here, museums play a role in maintaining public health and happiness.

I’d like to reconceive of the National Museum of Australia in these terms. If a city museum can contribute to a city’s vitality, then a national museum can contribute to a nation’s. And now that we have a new director keen to take the museum into the future and willing to engage with contemporary issues, it is timely to reconsider its purpose. Could it be to promote our collective health in both social and environmental terms?

What would such a museum look like? It would certainly host celebrations – of admirable qualities of people and country. But it would also work to heal historical wounds, to tend to our collective psyche and our ecology. It would enlist visitors as active collaborators in witnessing, in recognising, in empathising, and provide means for us to respond in constructive ways. In this way, the National Museum would cultivate our collective vitality.

Into the desert – audio blog

The National Museum of Australia is exploring new territory, staking a claim in the blogosphere. It is a mission echoing its new blog’s focus – an expedition into the desert to find – amongst other things – fossils of the large marsupial lion, Thylacoleo.

Into the desert contains regular audio reports by desert archaeologist Dr Mike Smith, sent back to the Museum via satellite phone. As well as hearing about the party’s progress – including how the camels are going! – you can visually trace the path of the party via a dynamic expedition map.

I knew there used to be BIG things out there in South Australia. I had a charming paleontologist uncle who once gave my sister some little pieces of dinosaur egg. But I’d never heard of this big marsupial lion. And one thing that does not appear on the blog is a picture of the prized object of the search. So here’s a great drawing that appeared in a book published by the Australian Museum on prehistoric animals in Australia:


It was drawn by Peter Schouten, but appears here via a website on Thylacoleo.

It is good to see the Museum out there like this. I imagine there will be many followers of the mission via the blog. Pity there seems no scope for in-blog discussion. That would have been good to see, too.


Museum Victoria has won the McFarlane Prize for excellence in Australian web design for its lovely site Caught and coloured, about zoological drawings from colonial Victoria. Nice one – I love scientific art / arty science, and there is great contextual info – and stories – here too.

My only disappointment is that the audio for Pobblebonk / the Sand Frog is a human voice about the frog, ie, it doesn’t actually play the ‘pobblebonk’.

This Botanic Gardens page on frogs has audio recordings of various frogs, and it claims that when Eastern Banjo Frogs croak in unison, they make a sound like ‘pobblebonk’. Unfortunately (again!) the recording is of a solo performance.

I remain pobblebonkless.

Prehistoric pine and platypus

In the Australian National Botanic Gardens the other day, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the cage that protects the young Wollemi Pine tree:


I remember when the news broke of its discovery in the depths of a rainforest gorge in the huge Wollemi National Park, just northwest of Sydney. A rare story of species discovery, rather than extinction! And a species that is old, old, old – prehistoric. That was about the extent of my knowledge recall.

This was my first encounter with a real live Wollemi Pine. The cage is odd. But it also adds to its appeal. And you can peer through and see the tree, gloriously alive and flourishing:

This is what the Gardens tells you on the spot:

I was inspired to find out more. Did you know…

  • each tree is bisexual, having both male and female seed cones – I guess this is a male one:
  • it sheds whole branches, rather than individual leaves, and
  • it is being exhibited alongside a platypus at World Expo 2005 in Japan.

See the Wollemi Pine website for information, inspiration and… a demo of clever marketing.