CEO Kim McKay catches up with Laura McBride, AM's Creative Producer - Indigenous Programs during NAIDOC Week 2017.

Laura McBride
Portrait of Laura McBride, First Nations curator at the Australian Museum. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

“For a long time these institutions have held authority over the way Aboriginal People are perceived by the public, and therefore they’ve controlled our social agency. The way in which we were portrayed has left a distorted image of who we are with the general public, and we have a really special place at this museum to be able to change that. And so we’re in really exciting times.” — Laura McBride.

Kim McKay: Welcome to AMplify, the Australian Museum's regular podcast where I get to chat to Australian Museum staff, specialists, scientists, all about the work they do here behind the scenes. I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO of the museum, and today it is my great pleasure to welcome the fantastic Laura McBride, a creative producer in public engagement. Welcome Laura.

Laura McBride: Thank you.

Kim McKay: It's good to have you here today because of course this week is NAIDOC week in New South Wales which focuses on Aboriginal people and particularly education in your case. You are an Aboriginal woman. Where are you from?

Laura McBride: My family is from central west New South Wales, so my grandmother is a Wailwan woman from Gulargambone in New South Wales, and my father was born on a place called Montkeila Bend in Walgett, and his father was a Yuwaalaraay man, his mother was[Nantopsie 1:15], and she gave birth to them around St George which is all the same territory, and my father ended up being born on Montkeila Bend.

Kim McKay: Wild. So you've got quite a big connection to your forebears.

Laura McBride: Yes definitely. I was born in Sydney but my mother migrated from England when she was 16 years old and met my family. And she moved to Sydney to become a nurse and my father followed her down here and I was born down here. So I spent nine months of the year down here with my mum doing my schooling, and then three months of the year in my community with my father.

Kim McKay: And that's where you really started to learn about your Indigenous heritage.

Laura McBride: Yeah, well, you don't really know you're learning about it, you're just immersed in it, and I was lucky enough to grow up between both societies. That was difficult growing up with the two different worlds, but once I reached university I realised that there was a special place to be able to communicate across both societies on different issues.

Kim McKay: So that must be difficult when you are a young woman growing up in modern society here with different value systems and then you go back to your community. What was the biggest change that you noticed about living with your Aboriginal family?

Laura McBride: You always want to go home, you want to spend time with family, it's much more family oriented and more interesting than the city, more connected. There's more disadvantage but you don't necessarily notice that when you're there, it's when you come back you notice the differences. I think it's the social expectation. So, for instance, something that is socially acceptable in one is not acceptable in the other. So just using the word 'bum', for instance, one day I used that word and someone said, 'Oh, what is the correct term?' And I was thinking to myself, well, surely it can't be 'arse', and then I realised the correct term was 'bottom' and that was the property word to use. Just different social expectations. What is perfectly fine in one is not in the other. And then there's the expectation that when you're in Sydney you're not black enough, you're not surrounded by black people. I look white, so you get those stereotypes. And then because I've got a white mother when I'm back in the community people think that I have wealth because of that, but my mum was a single mother and a nurse, so that wasn't necessarily the case. You build resilience as you grow older and you become more educated. And in the end it has ended up being a great benefit to me and it's how I've ended up being here and doing what I'm doing.

Kim McKay: Which is right. So let's talk about that. So after school you went to the University of Sydney.

Laura McBride: Yes, I went straight from school to uni and I enrolled in a bachelor of arts, but I always wanted to go to Sydney Uni, and when I enrolled on that day I didn't realise I had to pick my subjects, so I did that out of the book. I actually took philosophy in my first year which I dropped very quickly.

Kim McKay: Maybe you've got a different understanding of philosophy now out of that. And then of course after that you went on and did a masters in education at UTS.

Laura McBride: Yes, so when I finished my undergrad degree, which is in psychology, which is a science degree and then Australian Indigenous studies, which is an arts degree, I fell into teaching at Tramby Aboriginal College. And from there one of their Board of Directors was working here, Sheryl Connors, the first Aboriginal educator in a museum. And she got me at a graduation dinner and said, 'I heard you're a good worker, would you like to come and work in a museum?' And I had always wanted to work in a museum or an art gallery, and so I took up that option straight away and came across. And then I very quickly realised that I wouldn't like to work in an art gallery and so the museum is the place for me.

Kim McKay: And that's quite an interesting thing because those outside of the sector may look at an art gallery and a museum as very similar sorts of organisations, but they're not, are they, especially in terms of how we regard Indigenous heritage.

Laura McBride: Yes, they're very different in what they do, even between museums. We are quite different to the Powerhouse being a science and technology and design museum versus us being a natural history museum. I'm much more keen on natural history museums, and history, I love science, palaeontology, history, so all of those things always interested me. I didn't actually see them in relation to Indigenous culture, it wasn't until…in fact my first visit to the Australian Museum I came over with our Indigenous class, and basically we thought, oh, is that all they have? We didn't realise that we only display less than 1% of what we hold. As an outsider I didn't realise that.

And so then coming in and learning about it and seeing the different ways in which we could help improve not only the way Aboriginal people are represented within the museum, but start to have Aboriginal people control narratives of the benefit of the museum and also Aboriginal people. Because for a long time these institutions have controlled…or they've held authority over the way Aboriginal people are perceived by the public, and therefore they have controlled our social agency. So years ago when we classified Aboriginal people as hunter gatherers, and whether we like it or not that sits in a system of advancement, and the way in which we were portrayed here has left the distorted image of actually who we are with the general public. And we have a really special place at this museum to be able to change that. And so we are in really exciting times.

Kim McKay: We really do. So how do you grapple with the context of having a cultural collection and the natural science collections? Where is that bridge, that meeting place for you between those two collections here at the museum?

Laura McBride: Well, a lot of the natural sciences collections can just be interpreted differently by Aboriginal people. In fact a lot of the big problems that we are encountering as a human race can take advantages from looking at different perspectives, not just mainstream perspectives. So the different ways in which Aboriginal people have social and emotional relationships with the environment, for instance, could help us with climate change because our scientists have been talking about the devastating effects of climate change and what it's going to bring for 20 years and it just seems that people are not listening. Where's the disconnect between scientists and the general public and people not listening to them, and about how important this is for our lived futures? So are there ways of looking at Indigenous ways of viewing the environment and start to incorporate them into the Western world so that people start to look at things little bit differently, connect to things a little bit differently.

Kim McKay: I think it's that connection to the land that we miss out on that Aboriginal people have so deeply inside them in their souls, that understanding and empathy with what's going on around them in nature, that is a really important thing that we can learn so much more from Indigenous people about those very issues.

Laura McBride: Yes, I think there's a really large disconnection, even today with some of our taxidermied animals…we had our event NAIDOC in Hyde Park where we delivered our cultural programs to over 5,000 people, and a lot of people will say, well, this poor animal died, and we say, well, it most likely died before it came here and we just utilised the body for education purposes. But, I mean, you eat meat every day. And a lot of the kids are actually surprised that the steaks that they might eat at night actually come from an animal. There's just this massive disconnection between how they behave every day and what they do and where these things come from or even the waste material goes to, so there is a really big disconnection.

Kim McKay: Your ability to straddle both cultures I think and to interpret Aboriginal culture has really come to the fore because you co-curated the Garrigarrang: Sea Country exhibition which is a permanent exhibition here at the Australian Museum. And it's a very special one because it's actually in the first person, it's the story of Aboriginal people and the relationship to our waterways and oceans but told by them. Can you tell us about how that message evolved?

Laura McBride: Basically me and my co-curator Amanda Reynolds who wasn't just a co-curator, was actually a great mentor to me on the project, we had both been working in the museum space for quite some time, and the first thing we wanted to do was tell the Indigenous story by Indigenous people, so therefore it had to be done in first person. Every object and every story in that space came from the community itself. And so we worked with…we had quite a short timeline, so we actually worked with most people that we knew either through our personal lives or through our working lives, and we were completely guided by peers and elders.

So everything I do, whether it's a program, an exhibition, a text panel, whoever I'm talking about or collaborating with needs to have a say, and that would include in the design from the very beginning to the very end. And so we are constantly guided by them. So first and foremost I'm accountable to peers and elders, then I'm accountable to my managers and the museum. So everything is just as important, but because I'm telling somebody else's story they have to be the first people that I work with and the first people that I work for.

And since I've started working here I've had the privilege of meeting so many new community members and elders who have taken me under their wing, and I'm really building a huge amount of cultural knowledge here. So unfortunately for us in our areas our culture has been systematically destroyed, and we still have a lot and we are very proud of it and we are reviving a lot of it, but I've also learnt a huge amount from other communities, which is just invaluable to me and very special.

Kim McKay: It's one of the things I really love about Garrigarrang: Sea Country, and Bayala Nura too, but in Garrigarrang you've managed to portray historic objects that are held in the collection along with modern-day cultural objects. So it shows the community that this is a living thriving culture, not one just from the past. And I watch tourists who come into the museum and I think they become very engaged in that. You know, they might have read about Aboriginal culture in a brochure or a book at school but suddenly they see that it's a living culture.

Laura McBride: Yes, that's right. I mean, it's only really the Western world that puts a marker at 1788 and basically says we have to be everything before that point which is not true because everything evolved every day. If you were to come here in the 1500s and then records the Sydney language, for instance, and you came back in 1788, that language would be completely different. People pass away, terms don't get used, new terms are created, new concepts. So there are particular stories that are endless and go on and on, but they are always told in new ways. And so the culture is completely dynamic and we still are now. So it doesn't really matter if something was…if Aboriginal people did something a certain way pre-colonisation to post colonisation, that marker is a Western marker. And for us it's a marker of the beginning of survival where we've really had to try and maintain our cultures and our identities as well.

Kim McKay: Totally. Now tell me Laura, you're an educator, you interpret the culture here at the museum, you work with young people all the time, and as a creative producer, what have you got up your sleeve next?

Laura McBride: Well, this week is NAIDOC week, so we actually have seven events in seven days. So we had a sold-out talk with Travis De Vries, Lost Tales, a spoken performance which was really beautiful, and actually looked at is that sense of his using traditional stories and contemporary experience to create a new world. And so that was a fantastic beginning to NAIDOC week. But coming up next on Friday we'll be celebrating the launch of our Gumbayinggirr Marine Seasonal Calendar…

Kim McKay: I love that, because that's new in Garrigarrang, but that seasonal calendar has six seasons, doesn't it, or more?

Laura McBride: It has seven seasons…

Kim McKay: Is that because the Gadigal people here of the Eora Nation had seven seasons?

Laura McBride: I'm unsure how many seasons the Gadigal people had, I'm not sure if that information is still around, but many Aboriginal communities have six seasons, it's just that Gumbayinggirr has seven seasons. And so they are from the mid-north coast of New South Wales. This is a very special project because what happens is when you approach this screen, the calendar is on rotation and things come in and out of the environment. So we are teaching people to be a little bit patient and to look at the landscape for indicators that tell them what's occurring. And so it encourages people to be seasonal. It looks at the connections between living things. So when a particular tree is flowering, the mullet might start running up the coast. Or when a particular grub starts moving around in lines, it means that the oysters are good and fat to eat and that's the best time to source those for not only protein and nutrition but also to have least impact on the life-cycle.

Kim McKay: Well, what a wonderful way to be able to connect with the local environment here in Sydney and right along the New South Wales coast, by coming to see Garrigarrang, which you helped create, and also many of the other wonderful programs. Laura McBride, it's wonderful to have you working at the Australian Museum, and for all the work you do here, thank you so much.

Laura McBride: Thank you.