A grey Buxton February day really benefits from a bit of Oz-ness. And when that comes wrapped in a big gold ribbon with a pink heart post-it with my name on it, it’s even better.
Perth seems long ago and far away. But there is no doubt that echoes of Australia still resonate in my bones. I worked out at the weekend that I have almost exactly 1% of my life there – so maybe its understandable.
So what was my surprise parcel? I recognised it straight away. It was my thank you gift from the Museums Australia/ Interpretation Australia (MAIA) ‘At the Frontier’ conference. I knew it was a special print but hadn’t been clear what it was. In fact it is an immensely aptly chosen limited edition facsimile print of a watercolour ‘Baie des Chiens Marins, observatoire de l’Uranie’ (‘Shark Bay, viewed from l’Uranie’) painted in 1818, from the Freycinet Collection in the State Library of Western Australia.
I shall treasure this for a range of reasons. There are layers of meaning and associations here. Speaking at the Perth MAIA Conference was a highlight of my professional life: visiting Australia was a highlight of my life. It is good to have a souvenir of that.
This also reminds me of how much I learned – and how wrong my understanding of Australia’s story had been prior to that visit. I think I had truly believed that the Brits had single handedly invaded Australia. I had no cognisance at all that other Europeans of the time were perfectly capable of sailing that far … Stories, stories and the way we tell them, there is always so much of the teller in there. Interestingly, that’s part of what I went to Perth to talk about – so another layer of thoughts and associations flow from this painting.
We went to Shark Bay while we were in Western Australia. Our night on the Peron Peninsula was probably the highlight of the camper van trip that was the highlight of our Australian adventure. A fiercely wild and beautiful place. So this image for me also carries is also a reminder of that and the whole crashing impact of this exciting land populated with strange animals on European senses and sensibilities.
This objects speaks volumes from many angles.
And I like the interpretation. It is fitting that my souvenir from the conference leaves me with questions and things to think about, just like good interpretation should. The description on the back of the picture explains (my emphasis!): Louis-Claude de Freyinet visited Shark Bay in September 1818 and set up his observatory on the Peron Peninsular. Pellion depicts the Uranie encampment at Shark Bay with …. and Rose de Freycinet seated with her mulatto companion by her tent on the right (the first reprentation of a white woman in Western Australia). She was edited out of the published plate in the Atlas Historique.’
It won’t surprise most women to know we were there and were then removed from the record. But this painting is a vivid and striking example of that. This lovely present, resonates with one of the main messages of my keynote – that we need to heighten our awareness of whose story we are not hearing. Who is being written (or painted) out of the history? How can we bring their voices into the circle?
And I am left questioning and wondering about the moment when someone, and in my story-making mind I am convinced (possibly unfairly) that it was her husband, instructed that she be painted out. Was that at all difficult? Was there an edge to that conversation? Or was it completely casual, presented as just part of adjusting the composition? Or bringing it more in line with the priorities of the trip, removing the irrelevant? Just another example of editing our history to get our story across?
And then I wonder whether Rose had been more active in bringing on her oblivion. Had she done something to induce her husband’s ire? Behaved badly and brought shame on him? Maybe even with ‘her mulatto companion’? Is the writer hinting at something here?
Questions , questions, questions. Imaginings. Pictures behind the pictures. Stories beyond the frame. Layers of meaning from an object. Well done that writer!