If we consider a global issue in local terms, what insights might we gain? The Waterhole Project investigates the global problem of anthropogenic climate change from the perspective of place. > More

Sanctuary

June 14th, 2011 by George Main

The National Museum of Australia recently opened a new exhibition, Landmarks: People and Places across Australia. Landmarks includes an exhibit about the agricultural history of the Wagga Wagga district, just to the south of Combaning. The Wagga exhibit contains objects associated with the life and work of Dame Mary Gilmore, the renowned writer and political radical, who lived as a child on various farms and stations in the Wagga region. This photo of Mary Gilmore, held by the State Library of New South Wales, was taken in 1893, when she was 28 years old:

Gilmore knew well the country around Combaning. She had relatives downstream from the Combaning waterhole, on Morangarell station. The typewriter on which Mary Gilmore prepared manuscripts for publication is displayed in Landmarks in the Wagga exhibit, alongside the original manuscript of ‘Native Sancturies’, a chapter in Old Days Old Ways: A Book of Recollections, first published in 1934.

‘Native Sanctuaries’ describes regulatory systems developed by Wiradjuri people to maintain particular areas as animal and plant sanctuaries. Wiradjuri law banned hunting, fishing and harvesting in these protected areas, thereby promoting biological diversity and abundance beyond sanctuary borders, ensuring ecological resilience, and securing productivity in a climate that often delivered intense droughts and powerful floods. She records the use of Lake Cowal, north of Morangarell, as one such sanctuary (see ‘Creeklines ~ day one’).

Today, as our climate turns increasingly chaotic and we struggle with droughts, fires and floods, Gilmore’s descriptions of Wiradjuri systems of tending land suggest the value of ecological production methods, a value that Wiradjuri people understood after many generations of paying close attention to the patterns of their country.

Questions

May 23rd, 2011 by George Main

Curraburrama, September 2010

During the walk from Lake Cowal to Combaning (see from Creeklines ~ day one) I started thinking about the particular contributions that museums can make towards shaping useful responses to the crisis of climate change. It seemed to me that by enabling encounters with the material particularities of places and their objects, museums allow a way of knowing that differs from the abstractions and generalisations that often characterise modern, scientific knowledge.

The Waterhole Project, for example, doesn’t present the Combaning region as a case study, as a key to abstract, generalised forms of knowledge. Instead, readers are invited to engage with the unique particularities of things, of place, people and other species. I think that museums have a rare capacity to generate accessible, democratic forms of knowledge by enabling visitors and readers to generate understandings through the engagement of their own sensing bodies, as well as their minds, with materiality.

The philosopher David Abram argues that: ‘We are by now so accustomed to the cult of expertise that the very notion of honouring and paying heed to our directly felt experience of things—of insects and wooden floors, of broken-down cars and bird-pecked apples and the scents rising from the soil—seems odd and somewhat misguided as a way to find out what’s worth knowing. According to assumptions long held by [western] civilization’, he continues, ‘the deepest truth of things is concealed behind the appearances, in dimensions inaccessible to our senses.’ (Abram, Becoming Animal, 2010, p. 4)

Over time, cultural processes that devalue the local and the particular have served industrial development at great cost. The material terrains our bodies directly experience, ‘rippling with cricket rhythms and scoured by the tides’, writes David Abram, ‘is the very realm now most ravaged by the spreading consequences of our disregard.’ (Becoming Animal, p. 6)

Freya Mathews, another philosopher whose thoughts are useful here, argues that the adoption of a universal perspective, a framework that retreats from the particularity of things, denies the subjectivity of others and refuses dialogue. ‘This is because the subjectivity of others is communicated to us via particulars’, she writes. ‘Communicative cues reside deep within the particularity of things: communicative intent is recognizable only at the level of the particular instance, at those junctures at which behaviour departs from an anticipated norm.’

‘To initiate communication [with the world at large]’, she continues, ‘we must address it at the level of particulars. This requires awareness of intricate patterns of unfolding, attunement to the minutest details in the order and sequence of things; we must be prepared to pay attention to things in their infinite variability.’ (Mathews, Reinhabiting Reality, 2005, p. 16)

It seems to me that museums are uniquely positioned to foster the sort of attunement to particularity that Mathews advocates. By enabling encounters with particular, material things, and with the people, places and other species to which those things are connected, museums enable dialogue. Within dialogue lie opportunities to respond, to build the social and ecological links that provide resilience and hope in a time of crisis.

Others might disagree! What do you think? Do you have any ideas about the possible contributions of cultural institutions in promoting constructive responses to climate change? Feel free to join the dialogue by adding your comments below.