Friday, September 5, 2008

diorama gallery

The American Museum of Natural History has some lovely dioramas... and they are illustrated in the diorama gallery on their website! I adore these miniature worlds. An African plain, Californian valley, an Asian mountain range or an Australian desert all can be compressed into a virtual, tardis-like space along with the appropriate flora and fauna. A long walk for little legs can take a kid from one window to the next and an opportunity to gaze into the world's habitats. Is there anything more comforting than strolling down the halls of a museum at a travel destination and encountering a scene taken from the forest back home?

Of course at home in Melbourne's Museum Victoria we have had some fascinating dioramas also. I suspect that they may no longer exist. Please somebody tell me I am wrong! That would be a serious loss. Of course they reflected 1950s attitudes to Australian Aborigines in particular and present our landscape in simplistic, romantic ways. They are icons of their time, like Women's Weekly advertisements for white-goods aimed at Anglo-Saxon housewives and nuclear families. Australia's landscape is an integral part of the identity of the European settlers who colonised it and those who migrated here much later (but have taken the time to get out of the metropolises along its eastern seaboard).

Viewing the continent's flora and fauna from behind the glass wall of a museum exhibition is quite appropriate. We see the landscape as outsiders, peering in on a strange diorama, limited in the range of perspectives we adopt by the cultural baggage we have carried with us from Europe. Who are we staring at? It used to be that we stared at the Aboriginal people, standing holding spears and boomerangs in a dusty, grass-dotted plane, roasting a lace monitor on the fire. They belonged in the landscape with the kangaroos and koalas. We gawked stupidly from behind the safety of the glass.

But here we are, shaping the diorama as we see fit. Placing its inhabitants in idyllic hunter-gatherer settings that romanticise the history we cruelly interrupted, whilst hiding its difficulties and completely ignoring the damage we continue to inflict. Living here is a wonderful privilege, the cost of which has been born by others. Who'd have thought a museum diorama could hold so much?

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