Monday, 1 December 2014

Being provoked

On reflection, this piece is full of the things I've been saying and trying to do for most of my working life, but it was good to feel them coming back to be as it were like a boomerang out of the interviews recorded with contemporary people

In Melbourne Museum

This is not a dead place. It is full of the dead but it feels like a celebration of life. From geology and fossils to invasions and the stilted culture of Victorian settlements, this is celebration. The museum is full of active, vibrant voices and the heart of the buildings is alive: a living, growing, wriggling and swimming forest. "Museum" - a house for the muses

Bunjalika , a native Australian gallery, has caught me most. There are familiar cases of less familiar objects: lives and fragments in glass boxes. There are big photos and tall carvings. Relationships with the invading/colonising Europeans have their bones laid bare, too: a grim litany of deceit, betrayal and dismissal. But, there are first person panels and films of activity: contemporary people practising or learning older skills. "I" and "we", and the text wakes up, the commentary lives, reminding us that these are not the artefacts and traditions of a lost people. There is also a great generosity in aboriginehood (? aboriginality?) that welcomes newcomers if only one grandparent, or maybe even great grandparent, came from the tribe. That is enough for you to be welcomed back in.

Most intriguing of all was a wall of faces. Almost life-size, presenting an absorbing sequence of monologues: living voices talking about culture, connection and landscape. Here, home, people and place were all woven together so that the personal, communal and political are all inevitably connected through a relationship to place. Individuals and the human communities they belong to are recognised as growing out of, being dependant upon and in turn supporting the land where they live. And out of those relationships comes the identification of issues and the need and the will to act.

Of course, I don't know if what I read, watched and heard here is representative (I would hope for it and, at the same time, be surprised if it was). It might just be Melbourne, or the state of Victoria or even just the curators of this display but these were not the voices of a defeated people or a dwindling culture. These were people advocating a different perspective on self, community and how we live within a landscape and for me they raised challenging and exciting questions about identity, especially in reflection of UK debates about regional and national identities. There is an immediate, active and graceful sense of mission here, recognising the huge length of history behind the indigenous people of this land, but moving forward, to learn and be inspired by but not to be trapped by the past.

Thinking about "being British", or Scottish, or Welsh or from Yorkshire, we often seem to talk about what we were and what we did, or who we are not (not English, not from Lancashire) while what we are seems to dissolve into a sea of generality. Maybe "being British" is to be generally vague without any vibrant distinctiveness. Are we becoming essentially bland? I can't pin this down to my satisfaction. To be "distinctive" isn't really the issue but it might be a symptom. I think I am looking for a sense of self that is rooted in celebration of ourselves: not in opposition to other people but a pride in being "of here" or "of there".

This isn't about nationalism or regional identity in overt political terms. Reading and listening to voices here, I hear a people who many counted all but dead and gone, just getting on with being, with becoming who they need to be, where that "who we need to be" is governed by their principles of people, land and culture as much as by the interaction with a wider culture and the loss of personal or community identity in the swamping presence of that other socety. Here, and I'm seeing this again with Maori principles in New Zealand, culture is seen as growing from the fusion of individual, community and place: we are who we are because of how we interact with each other and our land. I think that "land" bit is crucial( the despairing cry of environmental educators and interpreters for so many years, myself included). How we live in a place and with a place is as important to who we are as what we say and do to and with each other. Culture grows from the inspiration of place. And out of that thought comes the challenge: to find ways of reconnecting culture, people and place

To work on a sense of place - not just to talk about it in exhibitions, books and blogs but to encourage people to find their own sense of place in where they are now. We can remember where we once were (the lost home we would return to?), and reflect on where we might be (the dream home we might never see), but most of all we need to explore the place where we are now. To map it: physically, emotionally, creatively; to find ways for people to express how they feel about "home". We need to find ways to appreciate it, to work with it, to grow into the hills and moors and streets and buildings that surround us now. To find the songs, stories and practices that express those feelings. There may be old traditions to draw upon, to reawaken or reinvent or that fusion of people, place and culture might offer new seeds for new traditions.

We could learn from the example of the oldest human culture around today and remember that we are part of the earth we live on, we are bound to it and all that we are comes from the world around us. Connection is never broken, just sometimes forgotten. Environmental education (and interpretation?) is not a stand-alone discipline. Effective env ed will also see the individuals involved learn, grow and develop and education about environmental issues overlaps with community education, and environmental action also becomes community action and vice versa. Education to promote a sense of place then always (almost?) draws personal and community action into the same eddy. Like a spiral pattern in Maori or Celtic art, everything moves. To touch one piece of a pattern is to be drawn into the whole. To separate one section is to break the pattern

We can shake ourselves a bit, waking up again, and stand and breathe. We don't need to wait for official approval or even grant support (although that would be nice). We can just get on with becoming who we need to be to live gracefully, richly, creatively with the land we walk upon. We don't need to permission to appreciate a sense of home, to explore the fusion of "people, land and culture". We just need to do it.

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