Awakening First Nations knowledge

Awaken exhibition

Interior of the Awaken exhibition at the University of Melbourne

Throughout his 50-year career, anthropologist Donald Thomson collected thousands of First Nations belongings while living in remote communities in the Cape York Peninsula, Arnhem Land and the Western and Central Deserts. Now part of the Donald Thomson collection, the belongings provide rich, multi-faceted insights into the living culture of Australia's First Nations people.

To showcase the belongings as part of the Awaken exhibition, the University of Melbourne asked Art Processors to create an accessible technological solution that blended the physical and digital worlds, enabling museum visitors to explore the collection anew.

Exploring the relationship between people, place and content is central to all the projects we take on at Art Processors. For this contextually and technically complex project, we sought to push the boundaries of extended reality technologies and exhibition design to create a culturally sensitive and insightful museum experience.


Challenge

Genevieve Grieves, exhibition curator and Melbourne Museum’s Director of First Peoples, had an overarching vision for Awaken that focused on inclusion and community. The exhibition was more than just a window to look back at history with fixed perspectives — it was an opportunity to move forward; to reconnect the belongings with community and to start new conversations around future outcomes for First Peoples. Our challenge was to find the best way to breathe life into that vision using our expertise in exhibition design and extended reality.

An iPad screen showing a 3D didgeridoo as part of the augmented reality experience at Awaken
Digital label from Awaken exhibition
Digital label from Awaken exhibition

Approach

With help from The Mulka Project and representatives of the remote communities involved in the project, we captured 360º audio-visuals of the landscapes where Thomson originally sourced the belongings. Working closely with the University’s Faculty of Arts along with the Digitisation Centre and NExT Lab, we explored various approaches to the 3D scanning of the belongings. Virtual reality and Oculus Go headsets transported visitors to the far-flung reaches of the Northern Territory and Queensland where they could see and hear the belongings in their remote environments.

An iPad screen showing indigenous Australian artefacts digital labels

 

Art Processors understood from the outset our objectives to reconnect the objects with community through a contemporary, best practice approach that would complement the Arts West object-engaged learning methodology. They delivered an innovative solution that opens up new ways of cultural exchange, of communication and of exploring our shared history..

– Professor Russell Goulbourne,
   Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Melbourne

If the landscapes are vital to understanding the history and knowledge embedded in the creation of First Nations belongings, why not take people there? Using sunlight captured in 360º video filmed in the three remote regions, we were able to re-light digital surrogates, in effect reuniting them with their original landscapes for the first time in nearly a century.

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A woman is wearing a VR headset at the Awaken exhibition

Solution

We created a context-based virtual reality museum experience that used film, video, audio, AR, VR and 3D technologies to synchronise time and place, sound and vision, awakening old and new connections between the belongings, the communities, the country, and museum visitors. A technically and culturally complex project, we collaborated closely with stakeholders including institutions, museums, remote communities and technicians. The success of the project was ultimately delivered by this diverse group of participants coming together, often virtually over vast distances, to contribute their skills, knowledge and enthusiasm to realise the exhibition’s goals.

A woman is holding an iPad at the Awaken exhibition. The iPad content replicates the objects in a showcase in front of her