In the mid-1970s I received an unexpected phone call – could I come and check out a museum display. The unexpected part was not the checking out, but the nature of the display I was to check.
In those distant times the only “museum” in Canberra (leaving aside the War Memorial) was the “Institute of Anatomy”. I don’t now remember its history, but it had been established early in Canberra’s history in a splendid Art Deco style building. I presume they funded research, conferences etc, maintained collections of anatomical specimens, but the main function by 1976 was their display area which was like a Dickensian museum of glass display cases full of all sorts of bits and pieces of flora and fauna and rocks and humans.
It was open to the public, and I assume visited by school groups desperate for an outing in those days when not only did Canberra lack a museum but has few educational attractions of any sort. Anyway, some visitor had looked at part of the display, been horrified, and had (unlike any other visitor in the previous 40 years or so), complained. Made a complaint to the institution I worked for, which was geographically close by and had some tenuous links with the Anatomy Institute. [just for interest this formed a kind of seed from which the vastly different National Museum of Australia would later grow, and I was also briefly involved in the original committee which began to establish the Museum].
So off I went, and there it was – a display case with the heading “Human Evolution” in which there were three skulls. One was a Baboon Skull. One was a European skull. And, in between, showing the “evolution” of humans, was an Aboriginal skull.
Now this display in itself was stunning. The idea of me investigating and reporting was ludicrous, so obvious was the problem. If I could have dismantled and removed it on the spot I would have. But the whole situation was much worse than it was even at face value.
First, as I’ve pointed out, there seem to have been no earlier complaints – thousands of people, including children, had apparently looked at this display over the decades and easily absorbed the message that Aborigines were primitive, only half way evolved from apes, much less advanced than us “Europeans”.
Second, while it is quite possible to imagine such a display being assembled in the 1930s, when such an attitude was commonplace in Australia, it was hard to believe that it was still there 40 years later. A difficulty compounded by the fact that I was being called in to explain to this organisation that no, this was not ok.
Not ok just because of its racism, but because it was totally wrong. Humans didn’t evolve from Baboons, both evolved from a common ape ancestor. “Europeans” didn’t evolve from Aborigines, both groups are equally modern humans originating from the earlier human groups moving out of Africa in the last few hundred thousand years. Yet the public were being told, in an apparently scientific context, that they were vastly superior to the original inhabitants of the Australian continent. Not just red neck racists saying it, but scientists.
Finally of course it was just a matter of fact thing that an Aboriginal skull, like a baboon skull, was perfectly appropriate as an exhibit in a museum. It would be a couple of years before I would retrieve the stolen skeleton of an Aboriginal man and return it to his community for burial, a first. In subsequent years this kind of action became common, and continues today, from museums all over the world, as Aboriginal people discover where remains of their ancestors and relatives are being held. And a display such as this one that I had just succeeded in having removed, could no longer I think be mounted anywhere. Progress of sorts I guess. Evolution even.
But it all came back to me this week, for some reason, when a young girl football fan screamed at a star player on the opposing team, an Aboriginal man, that he was an “ape”, and later said that she didn’t what it meant or why he would be upset (as he was) by it. And then, making it worse, came the President of her club, trying to make things better, who talked about the Aboriginal player being suitable for launching the King Kong movie!
Anyway, as I say, don’t know why I was reminded of my long ago removal of an exhibit purporting to show that Aborigines were not much evolved from apes and were vastly inferior to us. Perhaps you can work it out.