One of my favourite places growing up was the Adelaide Museum. I didn’t get to visit very often, but the gigantic whale skeleton in the front window is seared into my memory, as are the painted walls of the quiet Egyptian room.
Part of the attraction of museums is the melancholy. The dead live again in a formaldehyde half-life, or stripped bare, fossils or skeletons presented for our education, stuffed shapes frozen in a tableau, posed to impose and intimidate. I am enthralled and appalled by the unnatural nature of museums. Thus, when I was in Sydney, I visited the Australian Museum and came across their mammoth exhibit.
Well, yes it was big, but Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age did really feature mammoths and their relatives. I also came across the museum’s 200 items exhibit / wonder room.
I sometimes wish humans resisted the urge to worship things, because inevitably, we harm what we are devoted to. I think of the industry in ancient Egypt that sprang up to supply a demand for mummified cats; I think of elephants taken while young, beaten until they are cowed into obedience for temple work and tourist rides.
And it’s not weird to consider Egypt and mammoths together. Tis said the pyramids were built while mammoths wandered far colder parts of the world.
It was moving to see Lyuba, the preserved baby woolly mammoth, tufts of fur clinging to the legs if you look closely, 40,000 years after she died.
There is something about scale and museums. Like nowhere else in this urban, regulated world, humans are carefully presented that which we often cannot see, and confronted by those beings whose hearts a human child could swim in, whose thigh bones are taller than I am.
Presented with the large, the small, the ancient and long deceased, the human impulse seems to be to tell stories. Mammoth skeletons inspired the stories of Cyclops, the one-eyed giants of Greek myth. But even that could be a story. Some ancient Hellenes would have been familiar enough with elephants and before them, perhaps even memories of Ice Age mammoths.
I wandered around the comprehensive exhibit and learned about the different types of ancient animals we accidentally all call mammoths. I learned scientists have gathered evidence that suggests they lived much like elephants do now.
I learned humans co-existed with mammoths and also hunted them. It’s also obvious that humans continue to be inspired by them and to learn from them like they did thousands of years ago.
I looked at the art created from bone, from the time of mammoths, and marvelled at the skill, and again at the scale. Tiny fragments and reconstructions are all we have left of the human material culture that lived with these creatures. I wonder about the stories they told each other; the songs and dances that played out in fire light. No museum can display these.
I left the mammoths to their dimly lit, cavernous exhibit and wandered around the First Nations displays, finding the traditional tools and art of the Gadigal People a pointed juxtaposition inside the ornate, colonial era building. From there, I found a wonder room. Actually it is named for a bank that sponsors it, but no matter. Here were 200 items deemed treasures: ephemera of former museum administrators, and unique displays, set within exactly the kind of architecture you’d expect. There were narrow stairs, a high ceiling and oodles of wrought iron.
Ah, how carefully we pay homage to dusty records of past (passing?) prejudices. Also, there was a moose skeleton suspended from above. Don’t know why.
No museum is complete without glassed-in displays of trophy kills. I find these dispiriting. Animals and birds are arranged as if they are alive, but it is a version of alive they wouldn’t recognise. I want the Thylacine to run, to hide, to save itself, but it is here, long dead, like they are all dead now. This one, coming apart at the seams; we killed them all and can’t even keep them dead safely.
Museums preserve what we humans decide we value, almost always too late, as with the Thylacine (above). Imagine if instead of stuffed extinct species, we lived with them.
Based on bones and fossils, the museum also presents us with the best guess at the colours and stripes of a T. Carnifex (above), the Australian continent’s megafauna answer to the Sabre Cats of legend, like this, below:
Then again, sometimes museums contain nightmare fuel, with displays of animals so huge they are difficult to photograph. Even then, though, I still don’t want them to be extinct. This is probably why we continually resurrect them in our stories, in our films, in our deepest fears.
There will always be a place in my heart for museums of natural and human history, because despite of their colonial genesis, they are the arks of our cities and identities. They show us what we were, and hopefully, how and why we need to be better.
After my mammoth journey, and wander through megafauna and culture, I was re-birthed into the warm winter Sydney sunshine. I once more walked the same path as the copied imprints of Mungo child’s steps. Outside, with the light of the city making golden the sandstone, and with the park and its white ibis poking about, and the gentle breeze through the trees, I felt relief. There is life yet in this city.
The mammoth exhibit is exclusive to the Australian Museum and is on until mid-November.