In a small, unstable room in an inner Sydney house, one of Australia’s greatest anthems was born. Iva Davies wrote Great Southern Land between the tumult of passing buses and the planes overhead, having to wear headphones to hear yourself work. Today, 40 years after its release, the song has yet again been immortalized as the title of the National Museum of Australia’s new permanent gallery.
Celebrated with an Icehouse performance of the title track, the Great Southern Land Gallery was officially opened on Thursday, September 15. Visitors are invited to walk with the ghosts of time through four chapters that explore Australia’s rich history. Entry is through Bunya Forest, where the 7.5m tall trunks were made from casts of living trees in southeast Queensland.
Once inside, discover the wonders of Australia with big animals like the life-size killer whales that helped whalers hunt humpback whales, or the stuffed saltwater crocodile, a prehistoric apex predator. There are man-made marvels such as jewelry created with finds from our gold fields, a whale bone corset and bush toys from the Arrente children. The gallery captures the diversity of Australia’s natural wealth with a wall of various minerals collected from Broken Hill and a crisp documentary about Uluru.
Although the new gallery cannot include everything from our past, it does a phenomenal job of highlighting important elements of the Australian experience.
“Creators face the same dilemma I encountered with a song; we can’t capture everything,” Davies said. “But certainly there’s enough to give you an incredible insight into very specialized bits of Australia and history and to ask a lot of questions, which I guess is probably the most important thing about of an exhibition.”
Davies wrote the iconic song after returning from his first international tour; during the six months of their absence, Circular Quay in Sydney installed its first McDonalds. Davies then reflected on the country’s history; if he were to do the same now, he doesn’t think he would change much in the classic hit. He says the changes are noticeable in the cities, but once you leave them, it’s how it’s always been.
“A lot of things have changed, a lot of things haven’t changed,” Davies said. “Only two weeks ago we played Uluru and I was very fortunate to take my son, who is a guitarist. We did this flight through central Australia, across Lake Eyre and I think his head exploded the same way mine did when we were leaving for that first international tour. I guess that was the first light bulb moment for me that started the song. I looked at it and I was like, ‘No, it hasn’t changed; it’s fantastic’.”
The event also marked the official launch of the Tim and Gina Fairfax Discovery Centre. The two renovations were the Museum’s largest since it opened in 2001 and redesigned a third of the complex at a staggering $34 million outlay.
The Discovery Center is a place where kids can do things most of them want to do in any museum – play with all the fun items on display! Each section relates to an element of one of the exhibits and encourages children to learn through self-directed, play-based principles.
“Kids can learn about it, and then if parents want to go deeper, they can go into the galleries and see the objects directly related to those stories,” said curator Dr Jonathan Lineen.
Dr Linen said the reason he worked for the Museum was to bring his own children there when they were young. One member of staff joked that he was so over there he should be working there – and now he does! Work on the new Discovery Center began in 2017, consulting with early childhood education experts, parents and children to understand what they wanted from the space.
“I asked them at one point ‘what do children really get at the Museum?’ They immediately said they were animals. We knew we had to structure it around animal stories, and the benefit was that the animals were part of the landscape and that connected this space to the new environmental history gallery,” he said.
Australian animal stories have been broken down into five defined sections. The Quiet Zone is based on Wiradjuri’s story of how the kangaroo got its pouch, with cozy play pods mimicking the experience of a joey in its mother’s pouch. Australia’s most famous sheep, Chris, makes an appearance in an active play where children experience what it would be like to move around the shearing shed. Gelam, a Torres Strait myth, engages children in team building and cognitive exercises, while Trim, Matthew Flinders’ feline passenger, hides among the ship’s rigging in a gross motor skills area while learning what life was like for a cat on a ship in the 18th century. Finally, the imagination is stimulated when children dress up in the billabong Bunyip.
Next to the playground there is space for children to be creative around tables and a mini museum exhibition under glass. The exhibits relate either to the stories told in the discovery center or to what connects museums and children, the love of collecting. By displaying objects from different time periods, the museum aims to spark a conversation between child and carer about how things change over time.
“I wish I had this space when my kids were little. There’s so much room for conversation here. So much space for them to learn Australian history without bumping their heads. You can come back again and again and there are more questions.
The Discovery Center is open for several 75-minute sessions each day with prices starting at $15 for a child and an adult. Once a month, the Center will host a day of free games, while admission is always free for members who are friends of the Museum.
Find out more about what’s happening at the Museum via nma.gov.au
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