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This poignant museum uses computer vision to reckon with the legacy of colonial Australia

Australia’s Hyde Park Barracks Museum explores the country’s early history through the voices of everyone from the British colonizers to the Aboriginal people.

This poignant museum uses computer vision to reckon with the legacy of colonial Australia
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The story of Australia usually begins in the late 18th century, when shiploads of imprisoned people from England began arriving as forced laborers to build the foundations of a new colony.

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For the Aboriginal people living on this land long before the Westerners’ arrival, as well as for the generations of Australians who’ve since grown up in this complex colonial environment, that version of history is far from complete.

[Photo: Local Projects]
A recently refreshed museum exhibit seeks to reveal the deeper layers of the island nation’s foundational history, told from multiple points of view. Located in Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks, the former administrative hub of the British transportation program responsible for bringing laborers to the young colony, the museum has been updated to explore not just the arrival of these outsiders but also their impact on the Indigenous populations.

This nuanced and immersive exhibition is the winner of Fast Company‘s 2021 Innovation By Design Awards for Enduring Impact. The redesigned Hyde Park Barracks Museum brings a multitude of voices and stories to enliven the complicated narrative of colonial Australia. It was designed by Local Projects, a New York-based firm known for its work on projects including New York’s National September 11 Memorial & Museum to Greenwood Rising, a new museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, memorializing the city’s race massacre of 1921. The firm used its experience designing these nuanced projects to guide its retelling of the history of Australia.

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[Photo: Local Projects]
“Multiple points of view come from very different positions to represent this national history,” says Jake Barton, founder of Local Projects. “You couldn’t leave here without the sense that this is not a single narrative museum.”

Set inside a UNESCO World Heritage site, the museum uses the original building complex as both a living piece of history and a platform for a series of interactive galleries that bring visitors inside the experiences of imprisoned people, colonists, and Aboriginal Australians of the early 1800s. Using a highly precise real-time tracking system, the museum’s audio guide provides seamless storytelling based on each visitor’s location and path through the museum, told through a range of voices.

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Artifacts from the Barracks, the prisons, and the early colonial development sites become jumping-off points for narratives that explore the experience of Westerners dropped into a new land and Aboriginals forced to reckon with a group of outsiders that would soon overrun their way of life.

The experience begins with the cruel details of the conviction and deportation of men in England and Ireland—a 17-year-old sentenced to life for stealing a handkerchief, a 43-year-old given seven years for stealing copper—and their rough transportation to this new land. The audio guide brings the stories of these men to life as a series of screens recreate the uncomfortable ocean voyage. Then, visitors are exposed to a much broader range of people living in and building colonial Australia, from inside the Barracks to a wide-open landscape beyond.

Other galleries feature stories of Aboriginal Australians who experienced the sudden intrusion of foreign ships and people onto their land, and the cultural mixing and clashing that took place.

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[Photo: Local Projects]
Throughout, the audio guide offers visitors a variety of narratives to put the history of colonization in context. To tell the story of the Myall Creek Massacre, a notorious example of colonial-Aboriginal conflict, Local Projects’ designers developed a series of dioramas recreating the site of the violence. Built inside a cluster of cellular forms, the dioramas each have different vantage points for the visitor to see, and the audio guide presents different stories based on those views, from the standpoint of both colonists and Aboriginals. “You’re looking at the same thing, but you’re hearing someone narrating a very different recounting of that event,” says Barton.

This multitude of perspectives, enhanced by the audio guide technology, is a touchstone of Local Projects’ approach to bringing more depth to histories that have no definitive version. Beth Hise, head of content, strategic partnerships at Sydney Living Museums, which oversees the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, says Local Projects’ open-minded take on the multiple layers of Australia’s history helped make this new version of the museum a much more empathetic space.

[Photo: Local Projects]
“Stories of dispossession, loss, frontier violence, and Aboriginal resistance were built into the narrative from the beginning of content development,” says Hise, who was also the head of content for the museum’s renewal. “The early cultural consultation sessions with the Local Projects team were characterized by deep listening and respect, allowing First Nations voices full autonomy and primacy.”

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Barton says the museum’s curators stressed the importance of creating an emotional experience for visitors. This informed the stories that were turned into narratives for the audio guide, from the experience of the unjustly convicted to the Aboriginal woman who recalls seeing her family’s land invaded. Overall, he says, the result is a series of exhibits that prioritize multiple histories and experiences of Australia’s colonization over one definitive version of the truth.

“The language there is really meticulous and specific, to be and feel tentative, which is different from American approaches to history, which are oftentimes quite triumphant and positive and also conclusive,” Barton says. “In this case, the project doesn’t even try to do that. It’s just trying to tell the right story to begin with and to create a sense of shared common awareness and visibility.”

See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.