STORIES ON HOLD
As our museum takes shape, its precious inhabitants wait patiently in ... Welshpool
ABLACK bear and a warthog stand sideby-side eyeing off a swooping eagle. A polar bear snarls over their heads and a hippopotamus yawns at a light fitting.
This is the exotic menagerie found at the Western Australian Museum’s Welshpool storage facility, where endangered rhinos rub shoulders with grey kangaroos, and lions jostle for shelf space with exotic monkeys and domestic dogs.
Next to the stuffed animals are giant banks of drawers, each containing neatly labelled collections of small animal bones. Hundreds of tiny femurs. Piles of rib cages. Tubs and tubs of miniature pelvises.
It is just one of the wild and wonderful rooms in the cavernous warehouse space which holds about 8.5 million of the objects that collectively tell the story of WA. From rocks that reveal the secrets of how the land was formed, to indigenous artworks depicting stories from the Dreamtime, to artefacts from the shores of Gallipoli, this is the physical stuff that has shaped this land, our culture, us.
In the second half of 2020, the new Western Australian Museum is set to open in the Perth Cultural Centre. Part of the $395.9 million development will see a modern structure envelop the existing heritage building. It will boast 6000sqm of gallery space and it is set to be the jewel in the crown of WA’s museums, which include the Maritime and Shipwreck museums in Fremantle, and several regional centres.
“It will be a unique museum in terms of not only its construction, but also the story it will tell in terms of the West Australian story and our place in the world,” Minister for Culture and the Arts David Templeman said.
While construction ploughs ahead in the city, in Welshpool teams of curators are sorting, categorising and, in some cases, discovering anew the museum’s treasures. History doesn’t sit still, and the new museum is giving the custodians a chance to rethink how the story of WA should be told.
“We are taking a completely different approach to how the museum displays its collection,” project director Trish McDonald said.
“Previously, the museum was a very taxonomic museum, there was the butterfly gallery, there was the dinosaur gallery, there was the history gallery. What we’re trying to do is a much more multidisciplinary thematic approach so we’re blending in the natural history, the social history, the cultural history.”
Forget dusty old exhibits with dry scientific placards. The new museum will tell a more in-depth story of WA. The museum is carrying out ongoing consultation with remote Aboriginal communities about how to tell their story. And Ms McDonald said they would not shy away from the darker aspects of WA’s past.
“We will be dealing with some quite hard history,” she said.
“The deaths in custody and various other stories around the impact of colonisation. One thing we are doing is working very closely with communities to talk through the way forward and how we can do it in a way that celebrates survival and looks to the future, acknowledges the past, but definitely looks to the future.
“We will have some areas in that space where there is a bit of a decompression and a quiet space after some of those hard stories.”
There is also a renewed focus on our changing climate and how humans have impacted the WA environment.
A new exhibit will look at the extinct animals of WA and will feature a never-before-displayed gem from the taxidermy collection — a crescent nailtail wallaby. Also known by its indigenous name, wurrung, the small, nocturnal creature was last sighted in the 1950s. The item has a tag around its neck from when it came to the collection — 1899.
“We need to learn about what we have lost to care about what we still have,” Dr Kenny Travouillon, curator of mammals, said.
“Often people don’t realise how much diversity is out there because most of the animals were nocturnal, so people have never seen these animals alive. They don’t know what they are missing because they have never had a chance to see them.”
There will also be a focus on WA’s impact on the world and how outside forces have affected life in this part of the globe. One exhibition will look at Gallipoli, in particular the 3rd Field Ambulance C Section. Front and centre of the display will be a relatively new acquisition — a Red Cross Flag believed to be the first medical flag flown at the beach at the landing. The flag was souvenired by its bearer, Pte A. D. Kemp who, in 1918, sent it to C Section’s commanding officer, Capt. Douglas McWhae.
“(McWhae) brought it back to WA, but it gets a bit murky then,” explained Stephen Anstey, head of the history department. “No one quite knows where it ended up, and there are sort of vague rumours about it being found in a storeroom in Beatty Park when it was being renovated, but we can’t verify that.”
In 2016, the flag resurfaced in Canada, where it had been bought by military collector Doug Buhler.
A grassroots campaign raised enough money to buy the flag for the WA Museum, where it will go on display for the first time in 2020.
The new museum will also contain some old favourites. The much-loved blue whale will be returning.
The whale washed ashore near Busselton in 1898, where it was cleaned on the beach and transported to Perth.
“I marvel at the fact they were able to render this beast down and transport it. Without all our modern technology, these guys working in the 1890s were able to do it,” Dr Scott Mitchell, head of collections management and conservation, said.
The blue whale will be hung above visitors in the original part of the museum.
“I think it’s true to say, through the history of the museum it’s consistently been the most popular item,” Dr Mitchell said.
Because sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Build it and they will come: Minister for Culture and the Arts David Templeman at the WA Museum under construction. Left: How the museum will look when completed. Right: Stephen Anstey, head of history, with the 3rd Field Hospital Red Cross flag that flew at Gallipoli, at the museum storage facility in Welshpool. Below: Curator of mammalogy Kenny Travouillon at Welshpool.