Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels about objects

This weekend I went to the National Museum of Australia’s current visiting exhibition, A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum. The promo describes it thus: “Explore the history of humanity — how we have shaped the world, and how the world has shaped us — in this major exhibition. Witness compelling stories expressed through a beautiful collection of artefacts from across the globe.” It’s a beautiful, and, to be clichéd, thought-provoking exhibition. I expect I’ll visit it again.

Funerary stela, Egypt

Funerary stela, Egypt, 100BCE-100CE

The texts associated with the objects varied in the sorts of information they conveyed, depending of course, on the sort of object, and its purpose and meaning. I was particularly interested in those where the object has thrown light on our understanding of people’s lives and social structures. For example, the Egyptian funerary stela is inscribed in three scripts enabling it to be read by “multiple levels of Egyptian society”. That says something about the wish to communicate to all, doesn’t it? Another point the exhibition curators make is that objects have their own biography which may depart from their original role or purpose. They exemplify this by the very first object: an Egyptian mummy FOR x but when it was x-rayed was discovered to contain a male. Why the woman was replaced by a man at some time in the object’s history is a matter of conjecture, though they have some ideas.

Anyhow, all this made me think about novels which focus on an object – and I thought it would be a fun topic for a Monday Musings. It turned out not to be easy – though I suspect it would be easier if I decided to include crime fiction! Objects – weapons, serial killer trophies, and so on, aren’t hard to find there! But literary fiction? Hmm… However, here goes … and of course I’ve made it harder for myself because I am going to focus on Australian novels (listed in alphabetical order by author)

Geraldine Brooks’ People of the book: I read this book before I started blogging. It’s not my favourite Brooks’ novel but it does have an intriguing premise which matches the themes of the exhibition because in this novel Brooks tracks the history of the book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, the people who have owned and handled it through history, its impact on their lives and on history. Parallel to this story is a contemporary thread about the conservator whose job is to prepare the book for exhibition and who is anxious to retain (i.e. not restore away) its history. (I must say though that I’m with the readers who found conservator Hanna’s story the problematic part of this otherwise good read.)

Peter Carey Chemistry of tears bookcover

Peter Carey’s The chemistry of tears (my review):  This was the first book that popped into my head, the one, in fact, that inspired me to write this post. It’s hard to forget the father travelling to Germany to have an automaton made for his ailing son, and the grieving museum conservator given the project of reconstructing it a century later. (I hadn’t thought until now of the loose similarity with Brooks’ book!). The object plays multiple roles: it represents what a father will do for love of a child; it plays a role in the resolution of grief; and, it contains a clever little mystery/irony/message within itself.

Gary Crew’s Strange objects: I haven’t read this novel, a young adult crime novel which won a few awards including the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 1991, I but decided to include it because its title, for a start, is a perfect fit. Here is the Wikipedia article‘s description of the book: “Using the framing device of a collection of papers made by a missing boy, Steven Messenger, it is a mystery story that explores the construction of history. When Steven discovers relics from the wreck of the Batavia while on a school camp, (a diary and a mummified hand with a gold ring on it, the two inside an iron pot), he investigates the media frenzy surrounding them …” Wikipedia states that this book was a response to Australia’s bicentenary which, as we Aussies know, brought about quite a revival of interest in exploring Australian history.

Sarah Kanake, Sing Fox to meSome other books in which objects feature, but not as strongly as those above, are Sarah Kanake’s Sing fox to me (my review) in which a Tasmanian Tiger pelt plays a major role in the way various characters manage grief, take agency, accommodate wildness, and Marcus Zusak’s The book thief (my review) in which books in general, starting with The gravedigger’s handbook, and words, in particular, become the focus of our young protagonist’s attempt to understand the Nazi-controlled world she finds herself in. Murray Bail’s The pages (my review) is also framed by an object, by a dead man’s papers (pages) containing his “philosophy”. In fact, when I started thinking about fiction which focuses on objects, the most common object turned out to be books or papers! Not really surprising, eh? But, to conclude my little perfunctory survey, I’ll go for something very different, a bridge. It features in one of my favourite Kate Grenville books, The idea of perfection. It’s at the centre of conflict in a country town, but it also becomes the means of bringing two lonely people together. (And it features on the cover of my edition!)

Have you read any books in which an object is central to the story and the meaning, in which it plays some role in explaining or resolving people’s feelings and lives? I’d love to hear about them – Aussie or non-Aussie of course.

Or, would you like to answer the question our ABC RN asked listeners in a competition related to the exhibition: What object has shaped your history — and why?

My encounter with Encounters

I rarely write about museum exhibitions, and when I do it’s usually in the context of a travel post, but I do want to share with you our National Museum of Australia’s current exhibition, Encounters. Subtitled “Revealing stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum”, it is described by the Museum as “one of its most important exhibitions”. That could sound, of course, like your typical promo-speak, but in this case I’m inclined to agree. Encounters is a very interesting and, yes, important exhibition – one that is not without its controversy.

The foundation pieces of the exhibition are 151 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander objects, including masks, shields, spears and spearheads, didgeridoos, baskets and head dresses, which were collected by a wide range of people – settlers, explorers, administrators, and so on – between 1770 and the 1930s, and which are now held by the British Museum. Complementing these are 138 contemporary items, some specially commissioned for the exhibition. The objects are supported by excellent interpretive labels which convey both the history of the objects and contemporary responses to them. The end result is a conversation between past and present that is  inspiring and mind-opening.

I’m not going to formally review the exhibition. You can read a thoughtful one published in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, including a discussion of the repatriation controversy. (Thanks to brother Ian for pointing me to this review). Instead, I’m just going to comment about its impact on me. So, here goes …

One message I took from the exhibition is not a new one at all, really, but more a confirmation: it’s that indigenous people, like all of us, are not one! It is way too easy for us (no matter who “us” are) to simplify “other” (no matter who “other” are). We tend to think that “they” all think the same, but obviously, like “us”, “they” don’t! This is made patently clear in Encounters where we see different responses by different indigenous communities to the objects. Some are adamant that their objects should be returned to them. Others may agree with that, but that’s not their priority (perhaps because they realise such a goal may not be realistic, in the short term at least!) They, such as Robert Butler, a Wangkangurru man from the Birdsville area, believe that the objects should not have been taken in the first place but recognise that the fact that they were now means they are available once again. Still others argue that the important thing is not the object itself, but the knowledge and skill they can obtain from it. Obtaining knowledge and practising skills that can be passed on, they argue, are the crucial thing, because they are critical to indigenous people’s identity and mental health.

I was consequently interested, for example, in a comment from the Noongar community regarding objects that had been collected by a young Englishman Samuel Talbot in the 1830s. He made detailed notes about the objects, demonstrating his keen interest in understanding Noongar culture. Present day Noongar woman, Marie Taylor, says:

I want to acknowledge the white people who sat down with the Aboriginal people, who wrote the stories down, who collected this information that still exists today. Down here in Noongar country, we may have lost all of that had it not been for many of these people.

Talbot is one of many such people. Lieutenant Dawes, about whom Kate Grenville wrote in her historical novel The lieutenant (my review), is another. Taylor’s response is, though, a generous one, since had there been no white people, they would not have lost (or been at risk of losing) their culture in the first place!

Bagu figures, contemporary objects from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Cardwell, north Queensland

Bagu figures, contemporary objects reflecting the past, from the Girringun Aboriginal Art Centre, Cardwell, far north Queensland

A very different story comes from far north Queensland. The panel that accompanies a shield, club and basket is titled “Guerrilla warfare”. The objects were collected in the 1860s by settler John Ewen Davidson at Rockingham Bay. He’d gone there, we’re told, “in 1866 to establish a sugar plantation. He began as a shocked observer of the violence of the occupation, yet within six months he was part of it”. Coincidentally, this story reminded me of another Grenville novel, The secret river, in which her fictional protagonist commenced with the aim of being peaceful but he too got caught up in violence.

Then there’s a comment that touched me on a more deeply personal level. It comes from Aunty Barbara Vale, a Dieri elder in South Australia. She says:

When I visit Killalpaninna I get a strong feeling of belonging. It’s our land, Dieri land. I feel safe and relaxed and always come away feeling good for having been there.

Now, I know my connection to the land is nothing like that of an indigenous person’s sense of belonging to and responsibility for their country, but Vale describes perfectly how I feel each year when Mr Gums and I go to Kosciuszko National Park – safe, relaxed, and a lovely sense of well-being. I don’t presume at all that my feeling is the same – it’s not – but her statement did give me a sense of connection, and, in that, of the validity of my own “truth”.

Towards the end of the exhibition, I came across a recent statement by Don Christopherson, a Muran man. He said:


And that is the spirit I’d like to think we all have in Australia today. It is surely the only real way we can move forward. Objects like the ones in this exhibition are crucial to this process, because, as one elder said, they bring the past into the present, which then enables us to move into the future. And, I’d say, they provide an excellent basis for a conversation.

A wonderful exhibition that I’ll try to visit again.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is a link to short films included in the exhibition. Many depict the way contemporary indigenous Australians are making objects today – some making traditional objects, some making modern ones commenting on contemporary relationships and concerns (like the ghost net project on Darnley Island – Erub – in the Torrest Strait).