With an aspiration to be a museum that is owned and valued by all West Australians and admired by the world, WA Museum Boola Bardip is a new $400 million redevelopment in the heart of the Perth Cultural Centre.
Since 2010, Alec Coles has been CEO of the Western Australian Museum, the State’s premier scientific and cultural institution with sites in Perth, Fremantle, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie and Albany. He was previously Director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums in North East England for eight years, and before that held the position of CEO of the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, a wildlife conservation charity in North East England.
Coles is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia, an Executive Member of the Council for Australasian Museum Directors, a Board member of the Australian Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, and former Chair of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Australia.
Currently Chair of the Participant’s Council of the Western Australian Biodiversity Sciences Institute, he is committed to developing and demonstrating the public value of museums in today’s society.
In 2010, he was awarded an OBE for Services to Museums
Boola Bardip: many stories
Boola Bardip means ‘many stories’ in Noongar. It acknowledges that the museum sits on Whadjuk Noongar land and celebrates the shared cultural heritage of the 2.65 million people who call Western Australia home.
The museum opened to universal acclaim in November 2020. A few months later, Alec Coles OBE spoke to Blooloop about his career path, the new WA Museum Boola Bardip, and the ethos around which it is created.
Coles was named Western Australian of the Year for Arts and Culture in June 2021:
“I’m just looking at the award now,” he says. “What for me is particularly gratifying about it is the fact that I am accepted as a West Australian. I became an Australian citizen about six years ago, but to be accepted this way is amazing. I am humbled.”
His interest in museums began early:
“When I was a student, I got some holiday jobs in museums. My first full-time job after I graduated was a contract in a museum. I started at Woodspring Museum in Weston Super Mare, which is now North Somerset’s Museum Service. I was working for the curator then, Jane Evans, who is quite an inspirational character. She really taught me about community museums, and was a huge influence on my career thereafter.”
A career in museums
Coles completed a degree is in biological sciences from Leicester University:
“I have always had a particular focus on the natural sciences, and became the Keeper of Natural Sciences in Tyne and Wear Museums. I progressed through the organisation, joined the management team, and took on a number of roles for David [Dr David Fleming OBE]. Then I got to the point where I felt I had to learn how to run an organisation.”
He was also attracted by the Chief Executive role at Northumberland Wildlife Trust, which had come up:
“I had spent all my career at that point in the public sector. So, I thought it was time to test myself, somewhere else. I went into the charitable sector and had two very happy years at the Wildlife Trust. I would have probably lasted longer, had David not left Tyne and Wear, and that job came up. It was the one job in the world that I would have applied for, which I did, and got.
“We did a number of projects. Literally just after I arrived, we opened the Sunderland Museum and Art Gallery. It was ironic because I had been working on it before I left and I came back just in time to open it. I felt a bit of a fraud. Everybody else had done all the work, and I was the one that got to welcome the Queen.”
The biggest of these projects was The Great North Museum: Hancock.
“It was brilliant to be able to get that one up,” he explains. “When I had been the curator at the Hancock, we’d had a go at the Lottery Fund and been pushed back. This time we got it over the line, which was great. And then we merged the archives in, so it became Tyne and wear Museums and Archives.”
The museum reopened as the Great North Museum: Hancock in May 2009 following a major extension and refurbishment of the original Victorian building. The museum and most of its collections are owned by the Natural History Society of Northumbria. It is managed by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums on behalf of Newcastle University.
It was at this point that the position of CEO of the Western Australian Museum was available.
“This was a similar-sized organization to the one I was working in. But there was also the opportunity to build a new museum here in Perth, which is what we did, eventually. It took about 10 years to complete, but we got there in the end, last November. It’s just won its 11th award. We completed in the middle of COVID, which was pretty amazing as well.”
A new museum for the state
Outlining the original idea behind the new WA Museum Boola Bardip, he says:
“I think it’s fair to say the vision and the ethos behind it is one that I drove; the one I brought from Tyne and Wear. I mentioned Jane Evans, my first boss, who was very much community-oriented. David Fleming was a huge influence on me, as well, as somebody who really promoted the public benefit of museums. I always felt, when I worked for David, that I’d finally found somebody who had a vision for museums which accorded with mine, which was about, what are they for?”
“When I came to WA, my line always was, it’s not about what the state can do for the museum. It’s about what the museum can do for the state. It was all about demonstrating our value to WA, to the people, as a place of exploring issues of identity, similarity and difference; a particular focus on ensuring that the people of WA own the stories”
The museum is a platform for many diverse voices, a large number of whom have never been heard, particularly in this kind of institution:
“The name of the museum, Boola Bardip, means ‘many stories’, but we also had a commitment to many voices. We spoke, one way or another, to about 54,000 people. I don’t think anybody in the world has done more prior consultation for a cultural venue.”
“We generated a huge amount of interest; a huge amount of stories,” says Coles. “People gave their stories, their opinions, their perspectives; in some case cases, they gave their collections as well. It sounds like a cliché, but it really is a museum created with, by and for the people.
“In fact, if you look at the demographic of the people coming in, it is quite different from what was there before. That was something that we also achieved at Tyne and Wear. We had a much broader demographic than a traditional museum audience.”
This is a period when a lot of museums are changing to a more community-oriented model, and being mindful about colonisation, in terms of interpretation and the provenance of artefacts.
“We worked with over 60 different Aboriginal language groups in Western Australia in dealing with this. WA Museum Boola Bardip has community liaison officers who are actually people from those communities. They are working in those communities, helping us liaise with them. We had a principle, which I think we stuck to, which was that we wouldn’t speak for people who can speak for themselves.”
WA Museum Boola Bardip & COVID-19
A new museum has an advantage in that it can be created around principles, rather than adapted radically to accommodate them.
“The WA Museum goes back, depending on the point you count from, nearly 130 years now. So it was an institution, and we did develop it on this site. But we stripped it all back and started again. That was a principle, and it provides a touchstone for all our work because we have seven public museums around the state.”
While the pandemic affected the project, its impact, Coles explains, was relatively mild:
“We have a government in Western Australia that really embraced that principle of going hard and going early. We closed our borders quite early on to people outside. Consequently, – I’m touching wood as I speak – we’ve had relatively few cases in Western Australia because of that.”
Adapting to challenges
Nevertheless, COVID did provide some challenges for the WA Museum Boola Bardip project.
“Eight, nine months on, there are still items missing from the displays, for instance; we are still waiting for loans from the British Museum,” says Coles. “Commerce and supplies came in and out of the state, while people couldn’t. The upshot of that was that we were able to continue building right throughout the pandemic.
“We never actually stopped. There was access to sites throughout; people worked throughout, and that’s what allowed us to finish. What it has done, at various times since we opened this site, is to restrict our visitation.”
“At any one time, probably between 25 to 40% of our normal visitation has been denied to us. However, by the same token, there are plenty of West Australians coming. The population of WA is about 2.5 million people.
“Some of those people are in very remote communities. Flying from Perth to Kununurra, in the Northwest, is like flying from Newcastle, where I used to work, to Moscow. That’s the scale of the state. The populations are dispersed, but we’ve had over half a million visitors in the first six months.
“The response has been fantastic.”
Visitor engagement at WA Museum Boola Bardip
There has also been a significant amount of repeat visitation:
“Boola Bardip has free admission at the moment, and we’re hoping we will be able to keep it that way. The government guaranteed free admission for the first 18 months. But as the budget situation in Western Australia has improved, we have to make a case to keep it that way. It’s certainly important to remove that potential barrier.”
The museum engages with visitors pre and post-visit through social media interaction and a range of activities. They can access these through the website, from videos on making a robot to lecture series on feminism and environmentalism and much more.
“It’s a whole gamut from popular to very serious issues,” Coles says. “We have a digital app when you get on-site. So you can download a lot of additional material if you want to. The aim is to engage people really well on all levels.
“The point about technology is you just use it as a tool. You don’t use it for the sake of it. We commissioned 300 different multimedia exhibits. Each of these might have many different choices, particularly when we were working with Aboriginal stories. While admission is free, in order to control numbers we use the Tessitura booking system.”
Multimedia experiences & artefacts
WA Museums has been working for a long time with VR companies to commission new work:
“That has been a major part of our output in recent years, particularly a piece called the Antarctica experience,” says Coles
The Antarctica Experience ran at the WA Maritime Museum through 2018. It allowed participants to see first-hand the work that goes into understanding climate change, managing eco-systems, researching sustainability, and conserving wildlife. Through VR, they explored Antarctica from a helicopter cockpit, landing on glaciers; jumped in a zodiac to discover the resident penguin colony and new chicks; explored Davis Station and the logistics that go into surviving the harsh Antarctic conditions, and viewed the spectacular Southern Lights in high definition.
“We are now working with a company on another three major commissions in that area,” Coles adds. “There’s plenty of multimedia, but there are plenty of actual objects, as well.”
Artefacts include the largest meteorite collection in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s oldest grapevine, and largest whale skeleton, as well as the largest pieces of banded iron ore formations in the world, and microscopic single-celled organisms, among the earliest evidence for the evolution of life on earth.
And then there are the stories, with the perspectives of over 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups reflected throughout the space.
During COVID, the amount of digital content online increased, something, he says, that will continue:
“We also developed a system for other museums in the state including the independent museums to put their collections online. So we are, if you like, acting as a hub for those collections as well. It’s not just about creating something in Perth. It’s about using it as a hub for people to discover collections right across the state – and the state is two and a half million square kilometres, which is the size of Western Europe.”
“But this is Western Australia, and there are two and a half million people living here. That is a population density of one person per square kilometre. Obviously, that is not how the distribution actually is, but it’s a very different set of engagement issues from what you would find in the UK or the Netherlands.”
Boola Bardip’s mission
Commenting on what the function of such a museum should be at this point, Coles says:
“Boola Bardip’s mission statement is to inspire and challenge people to explore their identity, their culture, their environment, and their sense of place, and to contributes to the diversity and creativity of our world. It’s about promoting understanding, and it’s so important in a place like Western Australia.”
Western Australia was, in many people’s eyes, traditionally, regarded as a predominantly white, European dominated colony:
“Yet we have the Aboriginal peoples of WA,” he says. “They represent the longest continuous culture on the planet. The First People’s knowledge and impact, and indeed the ongoing experience of that for many of these people, particularly living in remote areas, is unparalleled, I would suggest, anywhere else in the world. At the same time, we have the most multiculturally diverse state in Australia. There has been huge migration from, particularly, southeast and east Asia.
“It’s an extremely exciting place. It’s a very multicultural place. The Aboriginal cultures in their own right are multicultural, consisting of many different language groups. Meanwhile, we’ve got this amazing environment. Southwest WA is one of the recognised world biodiversity hotspots.
“Crystallising that mission statement, it’s about helping people understand and appreciate the place they live, the people they live with, their own lives, and the impact they have on the place and the people they live with.”
Top image: Family looking at Megalodon. Image courtesy of Western Australian Museum, photographer Michael Haluwana, Aeroture.