DM and MM's Northern Territory 2008 Diary

Day 17 - Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory

Saturday, 30 August, 2008

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Lizard Shadows Further relaxation occurred today. We're currently sitting in the hotel lounge, with M. reading and me writing. We decided this would be more interesting than sitting in our room out of the sun. We've just come via a couple of native art galleries housed in the same building - the Mbantua Gallery, showing several dozen large canvases and many smaller ones by more-or-less well-known Aboriginal artists in various styles: dot painting, cross-hatched, and more modern abstract and representational styles. The other gallery was a small display of Larrakia community lino-cut prints as part of the Entertainment Centre complex. Both these galleries are commercial in nature.

Earlier, we spent several hours perusing posterity and cultural art collections in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. After rising this morning and eating breakfast, we walked over to Cavanagh Street and the bus stop outside the Woolworths there. We caught the number 4 bus, getting out past Mindil Beach and halfway to Fannie Bay, a short walk to the museum. It opens at 10:00 on weekends, and we had a few minutes to wait, so wandered over to the beach adjacent to admire the view over the tropical green waters of the bay, where several yachts, cabin cruisers, fishing boats, and commercial vessels were sitting.

When the museum opened, we quickly went in to the air-conditioned cavern of displays. The museum has an irregular shape and the map is a little confusing to navigate at first. We decided to tackle the smaller upper level first, which was split into two separate sections. The first contained a temporary exhibition of entrants in the 25th National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards - all works submitted by indigenous artists this year.

A staff member gathered a few visitors together to begin a bit of a guided tour and commentary on the artworks. The tentative nature of the talk and the presence of a photographer snapping shots of her talking to us made me suspect it was more a publicity photo op than a regular guided tour. Nevertheless, she told us a few interesting things about some of the works.

Lateen The first was a large lino print on paper by one of the most experienced artists of the Larrakia community, who had first adapted native carving techniques to lino-cuts and began the style amongst his people. The work was an impressive metre high by about 5 metres long, with black ink printed over hand-coloured background showing a montage scene of native life and interactions with wildlife, with hunting scenes, people in canoes, traditional houses, kangaroos, turtles, crocodiles, and so on.

The next item was a Torres Strait Island headdress, decorated with feathers in the traditional shape seen on the islander flag. The woman continued talking, but we wandered off to browse the art at our own pace. The incredible diversity of styles was amazing, with many pieces done in very traditional styles in natural ochre on bark, some in ochre on linen, some with modern acrylics on canvases, some craftwork using traditionally dyed and woven pandanus fibre, some watercolour landscapes in the Hermannsburg style, some contemporary compositions, even a couple of pop art canvases, painted totem and funerary poles, wooden carvings, and one entry that was a combination of a painting and a video of the artist talking about its symbolism and significance.

The competition artwork done, we went downstairs, ending up in the Transformations exhibition of natural history. This contained a timeline of astronomical and geological history, leading to fossil animals and thne present ecosystem displays, with many impressively arranged models and displays, including mounted skeletons of a fossil giant grazing marsupial and an enormous three-metre high bird which it said was a type of goose!

Lantern From here we went through the Cyclone Tracy exhibit. This recounted first a brief history of Darwin prior to 1974, with photos and memoriabilia. Cyclone Tracy hit late on 24 December, 1974, and the exhibit continued with aerial photos of the damage - showing matched photos of several suburbs taken six months earlier, a week after Tracy, and then in the 1990s showing the redevelopment since. A video loop showed news reports from 1974 chronicling the destruction and evacuation following the razing of 90% of all the buildings in Darwin. Voices on the video recounted that the wind speed recorder at Darwin Airport reached 217 km/hour before being destroyed. Newspaper front pages and other photos of the devastation showed just how complete it was.

The exhibit continued with a reconstruction of a typical home living room of the early 1900s. Next was a living room of the 1970s, with a large radio and record player with disco-era album covers, decorated with tinsel and an artificial Christmas tree. Then the exhibit led into a dark booth. The door bore the legend "WARNING: The sounds in this room may be distressing to people who remember Cyclone Tracy". We opened the door and walked into the darkness. The power would have gone out in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve. Then the sound began. It was an actual recording made in 1974 of Tracy. The wind whistled and howled with a fury and intensity that simply has to be heard to be believed. But that wasn't the worst part. You could hear buildings being ripped apart, huge sheets of roofing iron being torn away, whipping through the air, crashing into other buildings, scraping and ripping and tearing along the streets, into cars and trees and anything in its path. And this horrific noise all around while you were cowering in the pitch darkness, hoping to survive to see daylight.

Vivienne Exiting the sound booth, you were confronted with the remains of a house. All that is left are the foundation posts, the floor, and some bits of tinsel, with sheets of corrugated iron scattered around, bent into contorted shapes, half-embedded in a neighbouring wall. The effect is gut-wrenching and incredibly effective. Turning a corner, we see a rebuilt Darwin house, post-1974, with stronger walls and roofing, and a TV in the living room.

Leaving this exhibit, we moved thorugh the linking gallery of South-East Asian artefacts - jewellery and pottery, and ceramic statuary fragments - on to a temporary exhibit of historical missionary work done by nuns in the Northern Territory, and a small interactive science section. Then we exited into a non-air-conditioned space - the Colin Jack Hinton Maritime Gallery. This immense covered space contained almost a dozen ships of various sizes, from a three-masted pearl lugger and a Vietnamese refugee ship down to Fijian ocean-going canoes and other Pacific vessels. All were wooden hulled and in good to reasonable condition. Smaller vessels such as lateen-sailed dhows and dugout canoes filled the gaps. It was a very impressive collection of sailing, powered, and oared ships and boats, rounded out by a small lighthouse head with fresnel lens and displays on nautical knots.

Butterfly Wall By now it was approaching noon and we were ready for an early lunch, so we went out to the Cornucopia Cafe attached to the museum. It was busy and we only managed to get a table by promising to be out within 45 minutes to make way for another reservation. M. had a cheese and tomato grilled focaccia, which was large and reportedly delicious, and I had fried barramundi and chips. While eating on the deck in the warm shade, we spotted a couple of birds feeding in the adjacent grass and mulch - another orange-footed scrubfowl and something which I thought was a sandpiper or curlew, but which remained unidentified after returning to our room and consulting the bird book.

After lunch we returned to finish off the museum. We began with the gallery of indigenous art, which contained more traditional examples of the artefacts such as stone tools, axes, boomerangs, spears, spear-throwers, baskets, bags, nets, headdresses, and so on, then moved into paintings with both traditional and modern media. One piece was a woman's costume made of dyed and woven pandanus fibre with a grass-style skirt, head and shoulder bands, a woven bodice, and concentrically covered and pointy breast pieces. Reading the information plaque revealed that the costume was inspired by Madonna's "Material Girl" phase - a bit surprising to see on what we'd assumed was something of traditional design, older than the 1980s! Another work nearby was an installation consisting of a large painting with two golden kangaroo sculpture in front of it, plus a white one looking into the painting (which depicted a scene of colonisation and industrialisation in a blue and white style reminiscent of Chinese porcelain).

Orange-footed Scrubfowl From here we moved along another natural history gallery with mounted display of northern Australian insects, birds, reptiles, and impressive display case just full of moths and butterflies. This led past a rock art painting on natural rock, moved into the museum and commissioned from an elder who is one of the few practising rock artists alive, specially for the display, and on to "Sweetheart" - an enormous 5.1 metre saltwater crocodile. The beast had been captured in 1979 after terrorising a river and several fishing boats. It died during capture and was preserved for the Museum. Apparently crocs can grow to 6 metres, but this one at a mere 5.1 was huge enough - far bigger than any we'd seen so far anywhere else, either in the wild or captivity.

The final gallery was a temporary exhibit of Indonesian contemporary ceramic art with several interesting works of representational, surreal, and abstract styles. Following this, we bought some items in the gift shop for presents and then walked back to the bus stop to catch a bus back into town.

We got the bus back as far as the mall to see if we could beat the 14:00 closing time for a cafe where we'd seen date scones (M.'s favourite) yesterday. Unfortunately, we were a minute or so late. We walked back to our hotel, stopping off at the Cold Rock Creamery for an ice cream for me - chocolate with Mint Slice mixed into it, yum - and an iced coffee for M. Then we came back to the hotel to rest a bit in the cool before going to check the adjacent commercial art galleries and relax here in the lounge a bit.


Hanuman We've returned from our dinner at Hanuman. Before going to the restaurant, we crossed the Esplanade in front of our hotel to Bicentennial Park, which runs between the street and the bay. There is a lookout there with a good view of the water and boats, and some World War II memorials, including a 4-inch gun from the USS Peary - one of the American ships sunk in the first Japanese attack on Darwin in 1942. (An attack that sunk more ships than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, by the way.)

From there we went to dinner, getting a table in the corner of Hanuman. The restaurant is very elegantly decorated, with subdued lighting and Thai sculptures in wood and terracotta on the walls, and on a podium amidst the tables. We ordered some vegetable pakoras, then a red lentil dhal and meen mooli - which is barramundi fillets in a sauce of coconut milk, lemongrass, and curry leaves. It was incredibly delicious and very possibly the best meal of the entire trip. A wholemeal roti to help soak up the delectable sauces rounded things out. And all this for the same price as a buffet meal for just one person at Jabiru.

Skipping out on dessert at Hanuman, we walked up Mitchell Street to the Cold Rock Creamery again, where I got a cup of macadamia ice cream with a Violet Crumble mashed into it. Delicious and cooling on another sultry Darwin winter evening.

Back to the hotel and I cooled down with a swim in the pool before we turned in for our last night in the Northern Territory.

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