More than four years in the making, the journey towards First Peoples has taken Caroline Martin all around the world, "even to the Arctic Circle with the Sami people."
With the aid of a Churchill Fellowship, Martin visited museums in Europe and North America before returning to Melbourne to commence work on First Peoples, an ambitious new permanent exhibition at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum.
"The most important thing about this project," says Martin, the Centre's Manager, "is that for the first time it presents a Koorie narrative not the museum's narrative." Museum narratives have a tendency to be academic but a community narrative is based on first-hand understanding. "So it’s lived experience as opposed to learned knowledge."
First Peoples has been entirely co-curated by the Victorian Koorie community and the Museum. The notion of a shared telling of history is a relatively new concept, Martin explains. It's very rarely done and when it is, it tends to be for standalone community collections. "What is quite unique about us telling our story from an Aboriginal perspective, is we're a mainstream museum…No one else in the world is doing that."
The new exhibition will explore 2,000 generations of Victorian Koorie culture, from creation to European settlement and beyond, but it maintains a strong emphasis on the present. "Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, as a living Aboriginal cultural centre in a museum, is very, very hard for people to fathom," says Martin, they "can’t understand how a living Aboriginal cultural centre can be in a space that's essentially about the past." But for Martin, a Koorie woman herself, it's simple, "It's a way of saying "We're still here. We're still practicing our culture.'"
Every object in the exhibition will have a narrative. In doing so, the cultural material has been brought to life. "The community sat with the collection and told us the narratives. They’ve woken them up," says Martin, "That’s what I feel we're going to do in Australia. We're going to wake up and have a shared history together."