The first exhibit in WA Museum Boola Bardip's Origins gallery is a video entitled "Under One Sky". Projected onto an 11-metre-wide screen, it explains the different ways Western and Indigenous peoples interpret the planets, moon and stars. It's an example of "looking two ways" – an approach taken throughout this excellent new museum to show that both perspectives are valid and deserving of equal attention.
Since opening in November 2020, the $400 million complex in the Perth Cultural Centre has won a flurry of architecture awards. Integrating a sleek new five-storey structure with several existing heritage buildings, the museum contains more than 7000 square metres of gallery space.
Less obvious is the work that went on behind the scenes to ensure it reflects the stories and cultural traditions of Western Australia's Indigenous communities. More than 54,000 people were consulted over five years, a mammoth undertaking that navigated different language groups, opinions and belief systems.
The result is a new curatorial benchmark, an innovative approach that could serve as a blueprint for all Australia's cultural institutions. As well as eight permanent galleries, a cafe and a retail outlet, the museum also has a large temporary exhibition space, which, until November 7, is showing "Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes" – a collection of 178 Greek artefacts loaned by the British Museum.
The permanent galleries cover a broad range of topics, from the state's spectacular landscapes and natural resources to how its social attitudes and leisure interests have evolved over the decades.
There's a wealth of compelling personal stories, from the tale of Aboriginal tent boxer Geoffrey "Barker Bulldog" Narkle to asylum seeker Stefan Gebski, a Polish immigrant who arrived in Perth in 1950 after surviving several years in Nazi concentration camps.
Refreshingly, there is no side-stepping of difficult topics. In the Ngalang Koort Boodja Wirn gallery, there's a map of Western Australia showing the sites of 40 Indigenous massacres, plus accounts of people being enslaved as pearl divers and domestic help. In the Connections gallery, there's a section covering the notorious White Australia policy alongside racist T-shirts and stickers proclaiming: "Close the borders. We're full."
There are plenty of wow-inducing exhibits, too, such as the 24-metre-long skeleton of Otto, a blue whale that was washed ashore in 1898 near Busselton. Dramatically suspended from the ceiling of the heritage-listed Hackett Hall, it's the first time it's been on display in 18 years. Equally impressive are the dazzling collections of the state's bountiful minerals and crystals, most notably a colourful slab of banded iron that's an unfathomably ancient 3020 million years old.
Kids will love the interactive elements, which include high-tech touch screens, animations and audio recordings. Plus, the dinosaur section, of course, which has a model of a Megalodon, a nightmare-fuelling 19-metre shark that thankfully no longer prowls the state's coastline.
Perhaps the biggest endorsement I can offer is that I visited every gallery twice, which is unprecedented for someone who's normally crippled by knee-buckling lethargy the moment he enters a multi-storey museum. One intriguing question to ponder is how the institution will portray the momentous period of history we're currently experiencing. Hopefully, by then, we'll be allowed back into Western Australia to find out.
Perth Cultural Centre, Perth. Open daily, 9:30am to 5pm. Entry to the eight permanent galleries will remain free until June 30, 2022. After that, they'll be a charge for anyone aged 15 and over. Temporary exhibition Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes runs until November 7, 2021. Cost: adults $25, children $15. See museum.wa.gov.au
Rob McFarland was a guest of Tourism WA.