Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Visiting Boola Bardip Museum of Western Australia

Western Australian Museum - Boola bardip from beaufort street (photograph by Gnangarra via Wikimedia Commons)

Located near the CBD, the newest addition to Perth’s cultural precinct opened in November 2020. Boola Bardip, as it’s now known, is near the train station, the Art Gallery of WA, the State Library and Perth Institute of Contemporary Art; all that is missing is a river view and you’d have a mirror image of Brisbane’s cultural precinct. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a comparison piece, it’s a review. However, long time readers will know how much I love visiting Brisbane’s art hub, it has a chill vibe that the humidity can’t shake. I’m in Perth for a conference so I took the first opportunity to explore this new addition to the contemporary presentation of history, culture and place.

I begin my journey through this shiny glass and metal behemoth in the introductory gallery dedicated to Western Australia’s First Nation people, the Whadjak Noongar of the southwest. Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn (Our heart, Country, spirit) is an exhibition of two C-shaped rooms intersecting. Here I arm myself with the requisite knowledge to undertake a journey on this Country. I’m a visitor here so I appreciate learning the seasons and other useful knowledge to keep me alive including which plants will feed me, heal me, etc. This is how it was before invasion, and I appreciate this is how it should continue to be.

I’m not sure the museum is making this explicit, however, what I hear and see in these first rooms, functions in this way. I’ve also been to enough Welcomes to Country to know, as visitors, we have obligations and I try to absorb these before I move to the next display.

I’m visiting Boorloo (Perth) on the cusp of a new season, it’s Kambarang (Oct-Nov) the season of swooping Magpies and blooming wildflowers. Tomorrow it will be fire season, known as Birak (Dec-Jan) represented by the pink and grey Galah. This seems slightly ominous but unsurprising given the arid location. Later, on my epic trek around the museum, I learn that 40% of Perth’s water comes from desalination because (due to climate change) Perth’s rainfall no longer fills the weir.

The significance of Country permeates all the exhibitions I see from here on. The ways we cannot escape its harshness, its significance to Aboriginal culture, its role in the wealth creation of the state, and the contradictions flowing from these things keep niggling at me as I wander from cavernous room to cavernous room. Again, I’m unsure if the museum curators/directors/board/money people have done this intentionally.

Boola Bardip, Western Australian Museum, Perth, 2023 (photograph by Kgbo via Wikimedia Commons)

The first was probably my favourite exhibition: Bush Mechanics. Featuring animations created to celebrate the hit ABC TV show and documentary, as well as the actual cars. I was unexpectedly thrilled to see them in their rusty glory and to learn more about the production. As ten-year-old this might have been my introduction to Aboriginal culture existing inland on the continent, so arid it couldn’t have been further from sub-tropical northern NSW.

Bush Mechanics began in 1999 as a 30-minute documentary amusingly recreating how the Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert first encountered the motor car. In 2001 a four-episode series followed, made in Yuendumu by writer/director David Batty and co-director Francis Jupurrurla Kelly and produced by Warlpiri Media Association in association with Film Australian and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It was an instant hit.

In episode 1 an FJ Holden is carrying too much luggage (instruments for a concert the group of ‘mechanics’ are driving to in Willowa over 100kms away along desert roads). The roof collapses and they convert it to a sort of trailer while the car itself becomes the convertible we see in the exhibition (on loan from the National Museum Australia). In the final episode they trade in the Ford ZF Fairlane (Museums Victoria) they’ve driven some distance exchanging it for pearl shell which is then used to bring rain to the parched community. Spoken mainly in Warlpiri and subtitled in English, the humour stands out as unusual tools are used to fix the cars (including spinifex for a flat tyre and mulga wood for its strength).

I credit Bush Mechanics with inspiring my brother and I to make our own car (billy cart) from found wood and bike parts. It wasn’t unusual in our house to repurpose things we found. Dad did most of the work and the vision was likely my brother’s but I was definitely riding shotgun.

The exhibition works on several levels in addition to millennial nostalgia. It’s really intended for children – hence a range of interactive elements and activities. You can also watch the series on the Museum’s website. The audio tour for this section also features culturally relevant and safe introductions which impressed me.

Bush Mechanics is one of 3 Journeys of Aboriginal storytelling through film, music and art, on until 4 February 2024. The other two journeys are behind the scenes and multi-media interactives from Cleverman and Warnarral Ngoorrngoorrool an evocative sculpture which reimagines a 1980s Mazda Ute, symbolic of the outback as we’ve seen, as a musical instrument. Warnarral Ngoorrngoorrool means ‘old car’ in Gija language. The Gija people created the sculpture along with Miriwong community at Warmun and Tura (a Perth-based intercultural arts organisation). The reimagined vehicle will feature outside the museum once the exhibition ends. It has been painted by a group of artists and functions as a percussive instrument itself. The versatility of the vehicle to covey meaning struck me once again.

It’s longer than it looks (photograph by Gnangarra via Wikimedia Commons)

The remaining exhibitions which took me on a circuit of the vast building as it wrapped itself around the old library and heritage buildings (known as the Hub). I enjoyed looking out of this glassed space at different moments; onto the current state library (a beautiful brutalist ziggurat), onto the city of Perth bathed in too much sun, and onto the Hub below with its distinctly penal-colony vibes.

In one section intended for children and young visitors was a space replete with interactive screens and tables unpacking ‘data’ and ‘automation’ for the youngsters. This is the Innovations gallery (sponsored by Rio Tinto) featuring ‘creative minds, amazing ideas’. Here I paused to remember what makes such a huge gallery redevelopment possible: money. Money from mining. Money from mining the Country that gives us the oldest living culture. It was all a bit much, I moved on.

I next came across the more traditional display Reflections you’d expect to find in a museum: material culture exploring the histories and culture of those who arrived on Boorloo (Perth). As you’d expect I gravitated towards the textile displays and away from the military re-enactment (although this was compellingly presented by talking heads in the characters of soldiers, their wives and mothers). A dress in fabric designed by Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike was a highlight for me. I first wrote about his work for TEXTILE magazine after seeing his super brightly coloured fabric in an exhibition in Brisbane. He started making art while in prison and became highly successful. It’s every 80s colour-clash dream with contrasts vibrating your eyeballs. Naturally this stands out among the other objects sombre and serious historical objects.

I did appreciate the different levels and nooks in this room which encourage children to stop, look, read, sit, and crawl along the displays.

From here I found the world’s longest marble and gold spiral staircase which neatly (inconveniently) obscured the old state library. Later I find the library, shelves empty, quaint mezzanine floors inaccessible and roped off. I pushed on through Changes and Origins and Wildlife, all exploring the natural and animal kingdoms – the bread and butter of the museum as educational organ. I couldn’t stop, though, I was keen to keep climbing until I could look down from the third floor and see the Perth skyline stretching before me.

Spacious is an understatement (photograph by Gnangarra via Wikimedia Commons)

Here I encountered Reko Rennie’s Pastoralists = Squatters which cemented my view that cars and car culture are the real highlight of the museum. Rennie’s installation is a 1954 International AR 110 truck and once again a rusty hulk has been lovingly augmented by the artist’s hand. On the wall nearby is his signature neon signage with the eponymous words.

Cars, if you follow my attention through the museum, represent humans conquering the vastness of the state of Western Australia, their mobility achieved through an exploitation of the very land they traverse. Cars also provide an apt vehicle (cough) for unpacking how Aboriginal people can celebrate and maintain their culture in the present.

If you’re thinking of visiting this floating cube of a gallery, I recommend leaving a few hours and making use of the quiet spaces which are available on each level. I also tried to listen to as many entries in the audio guide as possible but admit to giving up halfway through when there was nothing available on Jimmy Pike or Reko Rennie. I’d recommend a visit, even just to make sense of the architecture and see if you, too, can reconcile the contradictions of this place.

This is a post from Slow Looking, a newsletter about art and history. Subscribe at https://nikitavanderbyl.substack.com/