Department of State Development
Yidaki and the Sound of Australia

01 June

Yidaki and the Sound of Australia

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In support of National Reconciliation Week, we sat down with the South Australia Museum’s Professor John Carty to talk about Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia.

John’s work with Yolngu elder Djalu Gurruwiwi, the world’s foremost authority on Yidaki (didjeridu) has resulted in both visitors and museum professionals rethinking how cultures, stories and their artefacts are presented.

Here, John tells us about working with the Yolngu to bring Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia to the South Australian Museum.

Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia is open until 16 July 2017.

Did curating the exhibition change or clarify your understanding of the reconciliation process?

Absolutely.  Yidaki clarified for me why I’m at the Museum and what role a Museum has in the reconciliation process. I’m not an expert on Yidaki, I didn’t know how to tell that story, so I had to go and work with the experts – the Yolngu – to work out what they wanted to do and how we could tell a story together.

For me that’s what reconciliation is about, finding a new story. Or finding a way to share an old one. But either way it involves listening deeply. Not just to fact and figures but to the heart of the question. Most Australians have probably heard a lot of the facts about how poorly Aboriginal people have been treated. We know. What non-Aboriginal Australians need are ways into those facts and figures, a way into feeling what they mean, a way to empathise, and to feel implicated.

I learnt a lot from Djalu about that during the making of the exhibition. For him Yidaki is not simply a musical instrument, but a social instrument, an instrument of healing and of spiritual life.  It is an instrument of Reconciliation. Its sound brings people together, it moves us, makes us feel, and opens us up to new ways of understanding what this Australian story is all about.  He has spent his life using the instrument in that way, and in our own small way we are using the Yidaki exhibition for a similar purpose.  

You describe this exhibition as a massive shift in the way the Museum works with collections and Aboriginal people. Why is that – what has changed?

The South Australian Museum holds the world’s most important public collection of historic yidaki and didjeridu. We wanted to create an exhibition that brought those instruments to life, but it wasn’t our story to tell. It was the Yolngu people’s story. The Museum is not the author of this story, but more like the stage from which Djalu and others can speak.

And for a year we had to listen to the Yolngu to develop the exhibition.

Our director had to do the same, our designer had to do the same. Our entire museum had to learn to listen again. And then we turned that experience into something we could share with the public – to share the Yolngu message, Djalu’s message in particular.

So, instead of putting didjeridus on the walls with labels explaining where they came from, we developed a creative concept with the Yolngu of taking people into their country, to learn their way. We didn’t follow museum conventions on this project, in fact we flouted most of them! We left out things you normally need, like labels and wall-text (and walls!) and introduced things you’re not supposed to, like moisture, vibrations, and lightning machines. We were trying to get away from the idea of an exhibition and get closer to the integrity of the experience. 

The shift that happened during Yidaki – not only in how we work with Aboriginal artists and custodians – but in what we produce for our public, is truly seismic. It’s about rethinking the role of the modern museum.

What does the exhibition offer visitors?

Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia is an immersive exhibition, telling the origin story of yidaki and the importance of the instrument in Aboriginal life.

Rather than building an ‘exhibition’, we built a stringybark forest. And in that forest you are led by Yolngu voices guiding you through their system of meaning, on their terms. The trees in the exhibition talk to you, playing you the sounds of instruments from our collection that are in some cases over 100 years old. It’s amazing to have such an old instrument played for you. It’s moving.

As I was saying earlier, Yidaki is an instrument you are supposed to feel, not simply ‘hear’ – its vibrations are integral to its power. So, we also built “thunderboards” – resonating floors you can stand on so you can feel the power of the instrument coming up through your bones.

Then to top it all off the whole exhibition bursts into a lightning storm every 20 minutes to herald the coming of the West Wind and to let visitors share some of the powerful song line sung by Djalu. Making the exhibition was a powerful and emotional experience for us as a museum – and we think that visiting the exhibition offers audiences a similar opportunity. To feel their way back into a story that maybe they’d lost track of, or perhaps never felt invited to share.

What has been the feedback from the Yolngu people during the curation and then final launch?

It’s hilarious. When we arrived in Arnhem Land in April last year to discuss the project with Djalu and his family, they just said, “Yeah, of course, we’ve been waiting.”

Djalu has spent his life sharing this instrument around the world – and he’s probably been somewhat mystified by the lack of interest here in Australia. So, we were late as far as they were concerned! Djalu just saw the exhibition as a natural – if somewhat delayed – extension of his own work. He sees it very much as his exhibition. Which is the responsibility we carried in making this show – to make sure it was true to Djalu.

We were so thrilled that when launch time came in March, Djalu and his family just took over. They took over the whole museum. They took over the launch, they blew people away at the opening concert – 3,000 people turned up on our front lawns just to hear them play. It was overwhelming. And then they blew all the families and young kids away at WOMAD the following weekend.

We knew we’d done the show right because the Yolngu were using the Museum as a stage from which to share their vision of reconciliation. And they’re still doing it every day that the exhibition is open.

Visit Yidaki: Didjeridu and the Sound of Australia at the South Australian Museum until 16 July.