Outlawed at the National Museum of Australia. Adults $8, Concession $6, Children $5, Families $16. Until April 26, 2004 (closed Christmas Day).
This is a massive exhibition - a real stage coach in the middle makes you realise how big, clumsy and heavy history can be - so be prepared to spend lots of time. I found 2 hours was not enough. You certainly get your money's worth, but it is a good investment to also buy the catalogue, even for $20, because it gives you an excellent guide to how you might think through all the detailed information, images and artefacts and put together your own idea of the place of outlaws in human history.
At the end you can literally make up your own mind by choosing, say, our own Ned Kelly or Mexico's revolutionary bandit Pancho Villa, logging in to consider the evidence for and against, and deciding on a guilty or not guilty verdict. The question is, should every terrorist be condemned for breaking the "sanctity of law and order", or is the law sometimes on the sanctimonious side, like the law that condemned Robin Hood for killing a deer because all the deer in the forest were the King's deer.
The next question is, even when some outlaws really were robbers and killers without any obvious justification, why do so many - like Australian bushrangers, or the "respected merchant revealed as Ishikawa Goemon, renowned thief" and executed in Japan, 1594 - become treated as heroes?
The exhibition presents the historical record in a visually almost overwhelming way. Large film screens show snippets of movies, touch-screens abound, you can make your own video acting with Jesse James on a railcar rooftop, hooves and gunshots surround you. At the very end you can play a brand new Robin Hood playstation game which is not available in games stores yet. You see the real guns, real costumes worn in films, real photos of outlaws - dead and alive, the real armour that Joe Byrne wore in the Kelly gang's final battle at Glenrowan, real death masks and even the real head of a Chinese outlaw from only 90 years ago which was hung on the wall after his execution as a warning to others.
It takes a while to work out the floor plan of all this excitement. I found this confusing until a kind staff helper explained it to me. Maybe the Museum should give people a map. You begin by finding out what an outlaw is: a person who is classed as outside the law. Dr Madden, speaking in the Victorian Parliament in 1878 about a law about outlaws said, "Under this Bill a person may stalk them; he may steal upon them and shoot them down as he would shoot a kangaroo..."
Then by following around the outside circuit of the exhibition you walk through the typical life of an outlaw: what starts them off (like Phoolan Devi's gang rape and torture by higher caste men); how they confront the forces of the government; what they gain or fail to gain from being an outlaw; and how they come usually to a grisly end. Not every outlaw is represented in each of these sections, especially the more ancient cases, depending on how much historical evidence there is available. Up above the entrances to each section, made to look like engravings in gaps through stone walls, you will find title words like "Confrontation", but there is so much to see and hear on either side and to walk around that you can easily miss the signposts.
In the central area you will find the "studio" where stacks of multimedia screens show the outlaws represented in fictional film and documentaries, and where you can make your own video acting alongside the outlaws. You don't have to speak Japanese to be seen with Ishikawa Goemon, but I guess it might help!
The studio also includes the major exhibits on Goemon and the American woman outlaw Belle Starr, so they have less about them in the outer circuit. Above everything there are screens virtually on the ceiling with lengthy sections of fictional movies, so you can see why I felt slightly overwhelmed. However, I noticed the young people present seemed not to be fazed in the slightest, so maybe I'm just getting a little old and jaded. One 10-year-old thoroughly enjoyed leaping from one carriage top to the next with Jesse James.
Some people have fussed about the Museum seeming to support revolution, but this is nonsense. Outlawed shows the good and the bad of those both outside and inside the law, and leaves us to consider the rights and wrongs. Because some outlaws saw themselves as doing some kind of good, and some were seen after their deaths in this way, I guess that's why they have become heroes. The National Museum doesn't push a viewpoint. The evidence is there for everyone to make up their own mind. This is as it should be.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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