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Stories from the Deep

Stories from the Deep

The Australian National Maritime Museum uses science, art and history to tell stories of the past, present and future. 

Words by: Robin Kopf


The Australian National Maritime Museum, with its facade reminiscent of a large, white sail, looks like it could be nothing more than a maritime museum, but its contents make it so much more. It uses the ocean as a platform to show its patrons that it cares about the stories that it tells through the exhibitions. 

Every nook and cranny is packed with information, artefacts and stories that make it a place to learn more about the world through a variety of mediums. According to Kevin Sumption, CEO of the museum, “we are trying to bring a little bit of science, a little bit of art and a little bit of the history together in a new kind of set of exhibitions.”

Modern History

I was drawn by the curiosity and wonder behind James Cameron—Challenging the Deep. The exhibition tells about James Cameron’s dives in DEEPSEA CHALLENGER, the vessel that Cameron himself took deeper into the ocean than anyone had gone before, and the science and art that came after. These expeditions were born from a sense of curiosity about the world previously undiscovered by anyone else and they helped inspire the creations of Cameron’s films Titanic (1997) and The Abyss (1989).

Challenging the Deep tells a modern story, but the indigenous exhibitions carry a sense of passion and respect for stories that have existed for a long time and deserve better recognition. Gapu-Monuk Saltwater: Journey to Sea Country took me through the importance of the bark paintings of the Yirrkala community of Northeast Arnhem land and how the paintings were the legal documents that contributed to the recognition of their sea rights in the Blue Mud Bay legal case. The paintings and their descriptions give an important history and help the viewer see these paintings in a way that surpasses their beauty. The exhibition has also been internationally recognized and awarded the 2018 International Design & Communications Awards prize for Best Scenography.

 “[The paintings] are both sacred artworks, social documentaries and maps. They are quite complex amalgams of all these different meanings and they are some of the most important artworks the museum has in its collection. We are custodians of that collection for that community in Yirrkala.” said Sumption.


Looking into the Future

Beyond history, the museum’s upcoming exhibition focuses on creating a more sustainable future through ocean conservation. On Sharks and Humanity, which will be open to the public starting December 11th, will fuse art and science to stimulate dialogue surrounding sharks, some of the ocean’s most misunderstood creatures. The exhibit will include large scale sculptures and other indoor and outdoor photography, poetry, drawing, performance, painting and video pieces by 30 international and indigenous artists.

The exhibit is designed to be inspiring and educational for people of all ages. Throughout On Sharks and Humanity’s run, shark specialists from the Sydney Institute for Marine Science will give talks and demonstrations as part of the program. Young families with children under five can join in on the fun with arts and crafts programs inspired by the art.

“Sharks don’t have a great reputation, so these artworks are really there to stimulate debate and discussion. If we do wipe out our apex predators, our own ocean-based food supplies will be severely affected. We are connected to the wellbeing of sharks,” said Sumption.


The theme of ocean conservation is also present with the ghost net sculptures that hang above the entrance of the museum. Because fishing nets are man-made and difficult to recycle, a group of indigenous artists had the idea to use them for weaving projects that represent the animals living in the ecosystems damaged by these nets. The sculptures show how waste can be repurposed into something beautiful that reminds viewers of the animals that need their home free of waste.

The museum has a lot to gain from these new exhibitions covering ocean conservation in addition to existing exhibitions. Sumption described that hopefully patrons will leave with “a greater awareness and understanding of the importance of our oceans and our connection as human beings living on the coast of these oceans.”

This exhibition is a great example of the new direction of the museum and its focus on the sea. It has a strong conservation message and also features local Indigenous Australian artists who explore sharks as totems and their role in informing cultural and ecological sustainability in water, land and species.

With a bright present and future in tow, the Australian National Maritime Museum continues to combine art, history and science into one experience that shows how the sea is rich with stories from above and below. It is a museum with a great deal of spirit and passion for storytelling and the perfect place to learn to care about the things that may have never crossed your mind as a part of your own history.



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