Sunken Treasures of Brunei Darussalem. National Museum of Australiauntil October 4, 2004. Adults: $8 Concession: $6 Child: $5 Family $16. Enquiries 6208 5000.
This is an exhibition which ought to be a lot more fascinating than I found it. I wandered about rather aimlessly, when the story of the amazing discovery of a 500 year old shipwreck off the coast of Brunei should be full of excitement and drama. What's gone wrong?
All the elements are there. The vast array of pottery, mainly from 15th Century China and Thailand, shows us the great quality of goods being traded around the South China Sea. The deductions from the discovery about the trade routes and the important role of Brunei so long ago change our more recent perception of backwardness compared with Europe. The technical details of a difficult and dangerous archaeological project 63 metres under water make us wonder how it was done without a single accident.
The problem is the layout of the exhibition. It fails to take us on an engaging journey of discovery. We walk around images, objects and information, on film, still images and sound track. But it's all in dim lighting, while the sound surrounds us non-invasively, virtually unobtrusively. It's all too quiet, except for the sound of one pot smashing - the most dramatic part of the exhibition.
After seeing a 25 minute film, and naturally starting off to the left to explore, you may find the panel labelled Introduction which is very near the door called Way Out, on the far right. Or you may not. But if you do start from the Introduction and go right to left, you will not be guided through. You will have to piece the story together from interesting but disparate bits.
If you pay for the catalogue, you find the story told, beginning from a modern map, of the archeological discovery, integrating the history, with examples from the ship's payload, and leading to the details of the found objects and the reconstruction of the ship. If the exhibition clearly led us through in this order, we would be excited by the discovery, how the engineers and archaeologists did their work, how their work enlightens our understanding. Then we would look at the pottery from the ship with new eyes.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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