Natalie Carfora with Professor John Carty at the Yidaki exhibition at the South Australian Museum. Photo credit: Rachel Wong
What is a museum? What stories should be told? These two questions curator Professor John Carty asked me have stayed in my mind after our conversation. I visited John at the South Australian Museum to walk through Yidaki, their current exhibition about the use of didjeridu in Yolngu culture. The Yolngu people are from Arnhem Land, up in the northeast of the Northern Territory, and John worked with them to co-curate Yidaki.
John advises that you should enter Yidaki with the message, “Welcome, you know nothing. We’re here to guide you.” And we don’t. For instance, I had no idea that didjeridu were not used all over Australia. There is a general concept that didjeridu are a pan-Aboriginal instrument, but they were mostly used in a small area of northern Australia. They are musical instruments, but they’re also political, and they continue to be used in everything from ceremonies, for healing, for diplomacy, and in rock bands or hip hop.
Yidaki tracks the evolution of a tradition. The exhibition is different to any exhibition I have seen about an Indigenous culture before. Don’t expect to see objects with labels, or read panels of text. Instead, interact with didjeridu and hear them play. Watch videos demonstrating the traditional use and creation of didjeridu, and then sit back in what John calls the ‘Yolngu outdoor cinema’ and enjoy videos demonstrating the contemporary use of didjeridu, chosen by the people themselves. Yidaki is an interactive experience, and as soon as you enter the space you are transported to the forests of Yolngu country. You’re not in entirely control of your experience as a storm erupts around you, but you will learn more than you have about Aboriginal culture in a long time.
The Yidaki exhibition poster
Yidaki is just a small taste of the huge South Australian Museum Indigenous collection, which is the biggest collection of Aboriginal objects in the country. While these objects were no doubt mostly collected in questionable ways, this collection has become a resource for Aboriginal people living in Australia today. John tells me about a group of Nukunu men coming down this week from near Port Augusta, who are spending a day with some objects in the collection to re-learn the traditions and methods of wood carving, skills that would have otherwise been lost. The South Australian Museum collection enables Indigenous people to reconnect with their ancestors and traditions; it activates the collection and can re-activate culture.
After leaving Yidaki, the contrast with the old Aboriginal cultures gallery is powerful. I see the old gallery in sepia, like looking at old photographs of people or places. Despite the map that greets you as you enter, it portrays Indigenous culture as a single entity that no longer exists. The objects are displayed static in cases; Indigenous life is captured as it was in the early 20th century when many of them were collected by anthropologist Norman Tindale. The importance of progress and of representing Aboriginal culture as it has been in Yidaki, alive and vibrant, hits me.
Where did you learn about Aboriginal culture? I think we had a single day dedicated to it in primary school. Last week, my friend’s little sister came home from school and told us about how she was taught that when the British invaded Australia they made friends with the Indigenous people. It may be 2017, but schools aren’t quite there yet, and the media is definitely still a way off. Museums, however, are maybe one of the best ways of learning about Indigenous culture on offer to us. Yidaki is unique because John worked directly with the Yolngu people to have them teach what they think is worth knowing about didjeridu and their culture. In exchange, it has given us a beautiful snapshot of Yolngu culture as it is today.
One more thing that John says stays with me after I leave: “it is through exhibitions like this, Indigenous people are given a platform, they’re given an audience”. Be their audience, go see Yidaki. I promise you won’t regret it.