This is the sixth in a series of posts by National Museum of Australia curator George Main that provides updates on the development of the Museum’s new gallery of Australian environmental history, scheduled to open in August 2021.

Chapter Two: Rhythms, Flows and Connections

The previous post presented the new gallery’s opening chapter, ‘Ancient, Powerful and Active’, which introduces visitors to the mighty, expressive character of the Australian continent, and how people and communities have found ways to enter into responsive dialogue with country. The second chapter in the gallery explores the intersection of human lives with seasonal pathways formed by natural forces—ocean currents, rivers, weather systems—and by migrating species. In this section, the gallery development team has aimed to give visitors a deeper sense of being materially and ecologically enmeshed in country. By inviting visitors to sense that they are physically part of rhythmic flows across space and time, we are aiming to evoke experiences of enchantment. ‘To be in an enchantment is to be in a reciprocal dance and song with an animate, communicating natural world – an embodied encounter’, educator Rebecca Burrill notes. This chapter seeks to make ‘audible’ the seductive, meaningful, seasonal song of the Australian continent, and how it is rapidly shifting as global heating and climate change intensifies. To realise ‘that you are in and of the world and its profound and subtle meanings’ writes environmental philosopher Patrick Curry, ‘entails an experience of enchantment (which word means, literally, to be inside a song)’.

In this part of the gallery, objects and other content convey the material character of pathways, their meaningful points of intersection, ties of humans and other species to these flows, and the ecological and cultural consequences of severance. Featured are the Leeuwin Current of Western Australia and the rain-triggering passage of cold fronts across the temperate south of the continent, the flow of the Murray River, the Pleistocene dust pathway that built the fertile soils of the southern Murray-Darling Basin, the bogong moth migration, and migratory movement of humpback whales along the eastern coast. An ambient soundscape of country and ‘flow lines’ along the floor accentuate the sense of movement and connectivity. As visitors round the corner of the showcase, they pass a wall surface overlaid with aestivating moths.

At the end of the chapter, visitors encounter an orca whale pod in a striking underwater scene. Three life-size model orcas are suspended from the ceiling against a sweeping screen showing humpback whales in graceful motion, a vignette illustrating the deep history of cooperation between humans and orcas in the hunting of baleen whales in Yuin Country, in the Eden district of southeast New South Wales. The value and promise of collaboration, of relationships that provide mutual nourishment, is suggested by this experience. 

The next post will present gallery’s third chapter, ‘Life, Home and Kin’.

If you’d like further information about the National Museum of Australia’s new environmental history gallery, email curator George Main, [email protected]. See also: