It’s rare to see a koala in the wild – the Australian Koala Foundation estimates the population currently numbers less than 100,000 and that figure is ever decreasing, thanks to human destruction of their habitat. The story is much cheerier at Yunchep National Park, north of Perth, where all visitors hae to do is walk a 240-metre boardwalk and look up – there they’ll be, snoozing in tree forks, munching on eucalyptus or going about their business in an extremely leisurely fashion.
The unambiguously named Penguin Island off Rockingham, south of Perth, is home to Western Australia’s largest colony of fairy penguins. The smallest of all the penguins, the fairy penguin weighs about one kilogram and is 30 centimetres tall (bear size!) – but their vociferous vocalising belies their size (expect to hear snorts, screeches, growls and dramatic trumpeting). There are regular ferries taking visitors to the islands, which is also home to a colony of 500 pelicans (no word on how they feel about being skipped over in the naming department) and other nesting seabirds.
The whale shark – in truth not a whale but a carpet shark, or wobbegong – is the definition of a gentle giant. There’s no possible way to comprehend the majesty of a whale shark at close quarters. In crystal-clear water at Ningaloo Reef, visitors can swim alongside the minibus-size creatures, which weigh about 19,000 kilograms. (The largest ever recorded? It weighed 21,320kg and was 12.65 metres in length.) It’s possible to get close enough to see their intricate patterning and five large sets of gills.
The 123 picturesque islands off the Geraldton coast are familiar to fishermen and lobster-catchers but few others: the Abrolhos Islands have only been opened up to tourism since 2016 after being made a national park. They are known for their pristine waters teeming in marine life and beautiful yet treacherous coral reefs that have claimed many a ship over the centuries, most notably the Batavia, the subsequent mutiny of which in 1629 did not, shall we say, end well. The islands are one of the world’s most important breeding grounds for more than 90 species of seabird, including the vulnerable lesser noddy and the Pacific reef heron, and the white sand beaches are the sunning-spot of choice for Australian sea lions. Migrating humpback whales also make the waters of the Abrolhos their home during the July-October migration season. Tourism plans include a campsite and possible floating barge-style accommodation.
Australia’s largest birds of prey make their home at Margaret River’s Eagles Heritage Wildlife Centre where rehabilitation of injured birds, breeding of endangered species and education are priorities. Eagles, hawks, falcons and owls can be spotted along the one-kilometre Eagles Heritage Walk, and stay to see the daily flight displays. It’s even possible to don a leather glove and have one of the majestic beauties land on your arm.
At 62,000 hectares, Dirk Hartog is Western Australia’s largest island. It became a national park in 2009 and since then the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife has set about returning it to its pre-pastoral state (it once served as a station to 20,000 sheep). A successful eradication of all feral pests was the first step. The second? Reintroducing 10 mammal species, including rufous hare-wallabies, banded hare-wallabies, chuditches (also known as the Western quoll), mulgaras (tiny marsupial carnivores), greater stick-nest rats (also known as the house-building rat), desert mice, Shark Bay mice, heath mice, western barred bandicoots (the smallest species of bandicoot, weighing just 220g), dibblers (pictured – small, nocturnal, carnivorous marsupials) and boodies (which have a number of other names, including the burrowing betong and the short-nosed rat-kangaroo).
It takes time to grow accustomed to the incongruous beauty of desiccated red outback in the same frame as the white sand and clear turquoise water of the ocean at Kalbarri. Once you’ve reconciled this natural spectacle, the next visual hurdle is the slow progress of majestic humpback whales and their calves making their annual migration from their feeding ground in Antarctica to the warmer waters of the Pacific between June and November. Some 22,000 of these stately creatures pass by this way each year and it’s also possible to spot southern right whales, Bryde’s whales and false killer whales.
Joyous wild bottle-nose dolphins have been visiting Monkey Mia’s shores for more than 40 years and these days they’re rewarded with a sizeable audience. A pod of dolphins began turning up at Monkey Mia, 25 kilometres northeast of Denham, in the 1960s and the interaction between human and dolphin proved so pleasing to both species that each has kept on turning up, daily, to this day. The vists are now regulated by rangers, who nominate several lucky dolphin-watchers for hand-feeding duties (the menu: tasty fish).
Albany is now a safe port of call for migrating southern right, blue and humpback whales, but whaling was one of Western Australia’s first industries, and the city’s whaling station was a major employer until 1978. Now the southernmost Western Australian city is a major tourism hub and whale-watching cruises depart regularly from its port, though it’s possible to spot the imposing giants from shore. Find out more about Albany’s history with whales at the Historic Whaling Station at Discovery Bay, located inside the former whaling station.
With their lustrous black plumage and bright-red bills, black swans are permanently dressed to the nines. The graceful birds have become an emblem for Western Australians, adorning products and services (dips, beer and taxis to name a few) and lending their name to the Swan River (originally names the Black Swan River, or Swarte Swaene-Revier by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh in 1697), which flows through Perth. The best places to observe the large waterbird is Lake Monger Reserve, where wetlands provide a prosperous hunting ground.
But the first trip will be to visit the world’s cutest and most photogenic marsupial 🙂
Rottnest Island, located just offshore from Perth, is home to the world’s cutest and most photogenic marsupial, the quokka. It’s the only place where you’ll see the so-called “world’s happiest creature”, a title earned courtesy of its perpetual good natured grin and curious nature. Looking like a cross between a kangaroo and a wombat, except tiny (bear size!), the quokka is actually a type of wallaby. It can bound and hop but if necessary it can climb trees, too. The little creatures have really come into their own in the age of the selfie 🙂
The Brickman Wonders of the World exhibition has already been to Brisbane and Sydney and it opened in Melbourne on April 1. More than 50 awe-inspiring are on display, taking visitors on a hands-on journey through history. Brickman Wonders of the World took 4,944 hours to build.
The exhibition will open in Perth on 22 June 2017.
Little Puffles and Jay are on a tour of Melbourne Town Hall to learn about Melbourne’s history.
Melbourne was founded in 1835, in the reign of King William IV. Unlike other Australian capital cities, Melbourne did not originate under official auspices. It owes its birth to the enterprise and foresight to some settlers from Tasmania, where the land available for pastoral purposes was becoming overstocked. The settlers formed the Port Phillip Association for the purpose of the pastoral exploration of Port Phillip. On May 10th, 1835, John Batman set sail in the 30-ton schooner Rebecca on behalf of the Association to explore Port Phillip for land. He entered Port Phillip Bay on May 29th and on June 6th, at Merri Creek, near what is now Northcote, Batman purchased 600,000 acres of land from eight Aboriginal chiefs. This area of land included the sites of both Melbourne and Geelong. The Government later cancelled this purchase and, as a result, had to compensate the Port Phillip Association.
On June 8th, 1835, Batman and his party rowed up the Yarra River and landed near the site of the former Customs House (now Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices). Batman recorded in his journal: “about six miles up, found the river all good water and very deep. This will be the place for a village.” Batman left three white men of his party and five Aborigines from NSW behind with instructions to build a hut and commence a garden, and returned to Launceston to report to his association.
John Pascoe Fawkner had made a similar decision to settle at Port Phillip and formed a syndicate in Launceston which purchased the 55-ton schooner Enterprize. On August 29th, 1835 the Enterprize sailed up the Yarra River and anchored at the site chosen earlier by Batman as “the place for a village”. Fawkner’s party (minus Fawkner who stayed behind because of sea sickness!) then went ashore, landed stores and livestock, and proceeded to erect the settlement’s first home. The Enterprize then returned to Launceston to collect Fawkner and his family who eventually arrived at the settlement on December 10th, 1835.
The Irish pioneer journalist Edward Finn, using the pen-name Garryowen, wrote in his Chronicle of early Melbourne in 1888 that there had been much dispute as to who actually founded Melbourne. Finn, however, arrived at the conclusion “that not Fawkner, but Fawkner’s party – five men, a woman and the woman’s cat – were the bona-fide founders of the present great metropolis”.
On March 4th, 1837, Governor Bourke arrived and instructed the Assistant Surveyor-General, Robert Hoddle, whom he had brought with him, to lay out the town. The first name suggested by the Colonial Secretary was Glenelg. However, Governor Bourke overruled this and named the settlement Melbourne as a compliment to the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Hoddle’s plan for Melbourne was approved by Governor Bourke, but the plan was based largely on the work of Hoddle’s predecessor, Robert Russell.
Garryowen’s Chronicles reported that there was a remarkable controversy between Governor Bourke and Surveyor Hoddle and an extract from Hoddle’s journal states –
When I marked out Melbourne in 1837, I proposed that all streets should be ninety-five feet wide. Sir Richard Bourke suggested the lanes as mews or approaches to the stablings and out-buildings of the main streets of buildings. I staked the main streets ninety-nine feet wide and after having done so, was ordered by the Governor to make them sixty-six feet wide; but upon my urging the Governor and convincing him that wide streets were advantageous on the score of health and convenience to the future city of Victoria, he consented to let me have my will. I therefore gave up my objection to the narrow lanes thirty-three feet wide, which have unfortunately become streets, and many expensive buildings have been erected thereon. Had a greater number of allotments been brought to public auction at first, houses in broad streets would have been erected thereon.
Swanston Street is Melbourne’s oldest street, laid out in 1837. It is also Melbourne’s spine, lending a backbone to the CBD. It was named after Captain Charles Swanston, a founding member of the Port Phillip Association.
This “muddy, rutted thoroughfare’’ vied with Elizabeth St for supremacy until Princes Bridge was built over the Yarra in the late 1840s.
By the late 19th century, Swanston St pavements were flanked by significant buildings such as St Paul’s, Melbourne Public Library, Melbourne Museum and the National Gallery.
On October 22nd, 1841, the settlement of Melbourne was divided into four wards for the purpose of electing commissioners for the management of the Melbourne markets. The first markets were established on the present site of St Paul’s Cathedral (hay and corn), the Western Market site – now the National Mutual Centre – (fruit and general produce) and the north-east corner of Elizabeth Street and Victoria Street opposite the present Queen Victoria Market site (cattle). A fish market was later established on the present site of the Flinders Street railway station.
The first elections for the Town Council were held in December 1842. The four wards each elected 3 councillors who met on December 3rd at the Royal Hotel in Collins Street to take the oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria and make declarations of their acceptance of office. On December 9th, the 12 councillors met again to elect a mayor and aldermen. In a close election, Henry Condell was elected the first Mayor of Melbourne.
The motto Vires acquirit eundo (we gather strength as we go) was suggested to the Mayor of Melbourne by the first Judge of the district (Judge Willis), a well-known Latin scholar, who, recalling the passage in Virgil’s fourth book of the Aenoid – Fame, malum quo allud veloclus ollum, Mobilitate viget, viresque acquirit eundo (In her freedom of movement lies her power and she gathers strength with her going) – thought it would be appropriate for the new Town Council. The tree words Vires acquirit eundo were adopted by the Council as the motto for the Town.
The Town of Melbourne was raised to the status of a City on June 25th, 1847 by Queen Victoria.
The discovery of gold in Victoria in the early 1850s had a remarkable effect on the growth of Melbourne. The Melbourne Morning Herald in October, 1851, stated that – The whole city is gold mad; the city is getting more and more deserted every day. But this trend to leave the city was only temporary, for in a week or two the gold seekers were drifting back, some successful, some disappointed. But the news of the discovery of gold had spread all around the world and during the years 1852, 1853 and 1854 the number of people arriving in Victoria by sea averaged 90,000 a year. From 1855 to 1858 the average was still 60,000.
In 1851 Victoria was separated from NSW and Melbourne became the capital of the colony.
Melbourne in the early 1850s was chaotic. Roads were full of holes, disease was rife, robbery was common and the cost of living had skyrocketed. At the same time, successful diggers were able to afford whatever they wanted. They came to Melbourne with vast amounts of money – rolls of banknotes and bags of gold.
In less than a decade, the gold rushes transformed Melbourne from a rambling colonial service town to a metropolis with the confidence of a modern city. But in the early years of the gold rushes, Melbourne had trouble keeping up with its newfound wealth.
Until 1854, there was no drainage system in Melbourne. The streets were open sewers and, sometimes, raging torrents. Clement Hodgkinson noted in an official report on the Sewerage of and Supply of Water to Melbourne: … in the block bounded by Great and Little Bourke Streets, Elizabeth Street and Swanston Street, there is a space of upwards of one hundred square yards hitherto occupied by a green putrid and semi-liquid mass, partly formed by the outpourings of surrounding privies. Charles Browning Hall commented that the greatest gold and the greatest filth (were) not ten feet apart.
In 1853, William Kelly observed:
Swanston Street on the one hand, and Elizabeth Street on the other, were complete rivers running in volumes … In the deep and wide sloping channels especially, the current was so impetuous that it made one giddy to gaze at it as it roared past, empty cases, coffee tins, old hats, sardine boxes, discarded clothes, tattered mats, butchers’ offal, and all the varieties of household filth and warehouse abomination hoarded since the previous flood, careering on its bosom.
The huge and rapid influx of people stretched facilities to breaking point. Many people could not find accommodation, and resorted to living in a crowded tent city. Squalor, poverty and disease spread quickly. To make matters worse, there were few tradesmen to build new facilities – everyone had left for the diggings.
The pressure eased within a few years as major public works and building developments caught up with new demands. Key infrastructure organisations were established in 1853, including the Melbourne and Hobsons Bay Railway Company, the City of Melbourne Gas and Coke Company, the Central Roads Board, the Melbourne and Mount Alexander Railway Company and the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Company. Commissioners were appointed to improve Melbourne’s drainage and work began on a permanent water supply at Yan Yean. In 1854 the Government decided to install electric telegraphs – the first linking Melbourne to Williamstown. Within two years, a telegraph line was laid between Melbourne and Adelaide.
Many of these public infrastructure works were funded by loans, the most famous of which was the Gabrielli loan. In July 1853, Antonio Gabriella, a 29-year-old travelling financial agent, offered the Melbourne Corporation a loan of £500,000 for their public works program. Gabrielli claimed to be connected with the house of Rothschild, the international gold brokers, and Sir Samuel Moreton Peto, a British railway magnate, but this claim was never verified.
He offered the loan at an interest rate of six per cent plus his commission, to be repaid over 21 years. After much discussion the loan was approved, guaranteed by the Victoria Parliament. Gabrielli claimed the funds would be raised in London and Melbourne, but most of the investors proved to be local. It became clear later that the councils could have raised the money themselves, without paying Gabrielli’s commission of £56,000.
From 1853 to 1854 the number of buildings in Melbourne doubled. Talented young British architects like John James Clark, Peter Kerr and William Wilkinson Wardell were drawn to Melbourne by the building boom, and created grand public buildings with an elegance of design equal to those in major European cities.
In 1853 a Parliament House design competition failed to produce anything the Legislative Assembly deemed acceptable, so Colonial Engineer Charles Pasley produced the designs himself. He handed the responsibility to two architects in his office – Peter Kerr and John George Knight. Kerr considerably expanded and improved on Pasley’s basic designs. He produced more than 600 detailed sketches and designs, while his colleague Knight managed the actual site construction. Building commenced on Parliament House early in 1856 and was sufficiently completed for it to be officially opened on November 25th, 1856. Parliament House was home to the Commonwealth Parliament from 1901 to 1927.
Governor La Trobe set aside £13,000 of Parliamentary funds to build a free public library in 1853. Joseph Reed, who went on to design the Town Hall and the Exhibition Buildings, won a competition offering £150 and £75 for the two best architectural designs submitted for a library building. Reed’s design was to be constructed in stages in order to meet the demands of an expected expansion in the library’s collections; it originally included a mermaid fountain in the forecourt, but this did not eventuate.
Three customs buildings have occupied the current site of the Old Customs House (now the Immigration Museum), culminating in the existing grand structure. Archaeological digs have revealed the foundations of the earlier buildings, and a detailed restoration project has returned the Customs House to its former glory.
The first Customs House was a round white tent pitched on the banks of the Yarra River. A structure described as a ‘shabby, leaky, comfortless, weatherboard cabin’ was shipped in pieces from Sydney and erected here during the 1830s. As trade increased, a two-storey bluestone Customs House was completed in 1841. Designed by the Government architect in Sydney, it was Melbourne’s first stone building. However, by the 1850s critics called it one of the ‘ugliest and most inconvenient of all our public buildings’.
With the vast increase in revenue brought by the gold rush, the Victorian Government commissioned immigrant architect Peter Kerr to design a new Customs House. Although the building was occupied by Customs in 1858, a shortage of funds prevented its completion. The building was finally completed in 1876, to a modified design by Kerr and two other government architects. The Australian Customs Service vacated the building 1967 and it became home to the Federal Parliamentary Opposition. Following its refurbishment in 1997 and 1998, the Old Customs House re-opened as the Immigration Museum in November 1998.
The Old Treasury Building is regarded as one of the finest 19th century buildings in Australia. The building occupies a unique position in the history of Melbourne. Its origins lie in the 1850s Victorian gold rush, which brought great wealth to Melbourne, and its construction between 1858 and 1862 expressed the rapid development of the city.
The Old Treasury was designed by nineteen-year-old architect JJ Clark, and is a reflection of the vision that Melburnians of the 1850s gold rush era had for their future city. His design for the Treasury Building was in the Renaissance Revival style, derived from the ‘Italian palazzo’ form popular in the 19th century. The exterior of the building is finished in Bacchus Marsh sandstone, its bluestone foundations were mined from Footscray, and the floor above the barrel-vaulted basement is a metre thick.
The Old Treasury was built to store the colony’s gold, but also provided offices for the leaders of the young colony, including the Governor, the Premier (at the time called Chief Secretary), the Treasurer and the Auditor General. When the Treasurer and his officers moved to the State government offices at 2 Treasury Place in 1878, the building was renamed the ‘Old Treasury’.
The first theatre on this site opened in 1854 when entrepreneur Tom Moore constructed a large, barn-like structure called Astley’s Amphitheatre. The venue featured a central ring for equestrian entertainment and a stage at one end for dramatic performances. It was named in honour of the Astley Royal Amphitheatre, also known as Astley’s Amphitheatre, near Westminster Bridge, London. Controversial entertainer Lola Montez performed her seductive “spider dance” at the Amphitheatre in 1856.
Astley’s Amphitheatre was remodelled and renamed the Princess’s Theatre and Opera House in 1857. This original Princess Theatre was demolished in 1885 and the New Princess Theatre, as it was known, opened in 1886 with the Australian premier of The Mikado. At the time of opening the New Princess Theatre was greatly admired for its luxurious interior, electric lighting and opening roof for ventilation. This ingenious, roll back roof required an eight metre wide circular opening in the ceiling to slide open and two sliding sections of gabled roof to move apart.
The Princess Theatre is of architectural significance as one of the finest examples of an 1880s boom era theatre in Melbourne and one of the most important works of the architect William Pitt. Of the number of theatres he designed, it is one of only a few remaining
The theatre is considered an exemplar of the French Second Empire style, complete with multiple mansard domed roofs topped by cast iron crowns; the delightful leadlight windowed ‘winter garden’ foyer at the first floor was added in c1901 and the auditorium was rebuilt in 1922 in the ‘Adam’ style by theatre specialist Henry White. Facing an uncertain future in the 1980s, it was extensively restored in 1989 by Allom Lovell & Associates, and is now the Flagship of Melbourne’s ‘theatreland’. The Princess backs onto the rear of the former Palace Theatre, giving rise to the urban rumour that chorus girls would appear in one show, then run across the back lane to appear in another!
In 1888 Federici, a singer playing Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, collapsed and died under the stage. Legend says his ghost still haunts the theatre.
Some of Melbourne’s grand buildings were never fully completed because of an economic downturn in the 1860s. Parliament House never received its dome, and the classical Greek temple-style facade for Customs House was never completed.
Construction of the existing Melbourne Town Hall began in 1867 on the site of the first Town Hall at the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets. Architects Reed and Barnes won a competition for the design of the new Town Hall, and the firm was responsible for the portico which was added to the Swanston Street facade in 1887. An Administration Building was constructed to the north of the town hall in Swanston Street in 1908, and various alterations were made after a fire in 1925.
Reserved by the government in 1837, the site at the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets was issued as a Crown Grant to the Corporation of Melbourne in June 1849 as a site for a town hall. Designed by the City Surveyor, James Blackburn, the first Town Hall was subsequently completed c1854. By the early 1860s it was already of insufficient size and the foundation stone of its successor was laid by Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in 1867.
The new Town Hall included a public hall, administrative offices, Lord Mayor’s rooms and council chambers. Built in a French Renaissance style with slate mansard roofs, this freestone building consists of a rusticated bluestone plinth, a two storey section of giant order Corinthian columns and pilasters, an attic storey and a corner clock tower. The main Swanston Street facade is divided into five parts, with a central and two end pavilions. The central portico, added to this facade some twenty years after the initial construction to provide a grand entrance and balcony, is of a pedimented, temple form, with materials and details used to match the existing building.
A fire in 1925 effected the first changes made to the Town Hall building. The main hall, together with the organ, was destroyed and as a result a new hall, designed by Stephenson and Meldrum, was built.
As Melbourne’s main concert venue the main hall saw the debut of Nellie Melba in 1884. As venue for Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performances, it showcased many famous visiting musicians. The Beatles were given a civic reception in 1964 and rock music groups appeared regularly throughout the 1960s, although the exuberance of the fans sometimes caused consternation to the council.
In 1954, people were enraptured by Queen Elizabeth’s visit. They brought crates into Melbourne’s CBD to stand on, in the hope of a glimpse of Her Majesty. Hawkers sold cardboard periscopes and flags.
Melbourne City Council bought a new silver tea service for the monarch. But when Her Majesty arrived at Town Hall, she declared she’d had tea earlier at Parliament House, and instead requested an orange juice. She never used the tea set,
During the 1954 visit, the Queen presented the Melbourne Lord Mayor with a book about Burke and Wills that had been owned by Queen Victoria.
One of the most impressive rooms inside Melbourne Town Hall is the Council Chamber, where the Council still meets. The room showcases ornate ceilings, intricately carved wood panelling and light filled stain glass windows. Overall, the room is categorized as combination of Italian and English Renaissance style.
Decision: Tour the other historic buildings on the next visit to Melbourne!
The Japanese garden was designed by Kanjiro Harada, a landscape architect from Yaizu, Japan, Hobart’s sister city. The garden officially opened in 1987. It emphasises traditional Japanese garden elements of wood, stone and water. This project involved a reciprocal Australian garden design project for Hobart’s Japanese sister city. The plants in the garden largely consist of species native to Japan and selected cultivars, with Japanese maples a feature, particularly in autumn. The waterway with its associated tea house, waterwheel and bridges, acts as a focal point for the central plantings.
We need art. But for what? Can we view art as adaptive? Is it a by-product of our evolution, or just a bunch of pretty pictures?
Little bears are quite partial to pretty and fun pictures 🙂
David Walsh, Mona’s founder, asked some of his scientist buddies these questions. The result was four answers and four exhibitions. Or one exhibition in four parts.
On the Origin of Art, at the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, is a unique attempt to take a look at the evolution and biology of a human practice many people view as entirely based in culture.
According to David Walsh, the museum was always “about learning, not indoctrinating”. He has been wondering about the origins and purpose of art since before the museum was even created, and now that Mona has been around for six years, the museum team are finally delving deeper into the topic.
A fan of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Walsh believes that the postmodern art world, much to its detriment, pays insufficient attention to science, and art academics choose to avoid learning “things that are hard”, such as biology.
To ‘invoke evolution’ in the origins of art, Mona turned to academics with a track record of exploring this idea in their previous works. A wish list of ten people was whittled down to four accomplished writers and thinkers – Steven Pinker (cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist and popular science author), Geoffrey Miller (evolutionary psychologist), Brian Boyd (professor of literature), and Mark Changizi (evolutionary neurobiologist, science writer and author). They were invited to curate four individual exhibitions that together form the larger whole of On the Origin of Art, accompanied by a hefty hardcover book that serves both as the exhibition catalogue and a presentation of their ideas in an essay format.
After nearly three years!!! of intensive labour, the end result is not just a curious intersection of art and science, it’s a dazzling display – 234 objects from 35 countries, spanning millennia; some drawn from the gallery’s collection, others on loan; some in Australia for the first time, and nine commissioned specifically for the exhibition.
Shaped almost like a labyrinth, the exhibition consists of four discrete pathways through disorienting rooms peppered with classical paintings, installations, artefacts and sculptures that span thousands of years and go across many cultures, from the stone age to the Ottoman Empire and Italian Renaissance. Characteristically to Mona, there are no plaques or essays on the walls – instead, visitors are guided through the rooms accompanied by the voices and words of the curators themselves via the museum’s proprietary app, the O.
The exhibition begins in a foyer space on the underground floor known as “the void”, with four identical doors leading to four very different spaces. Four experts in science, psychology and language – four men who, in line with Mona’s philosophy of rethinking how we understand art, are outsiders to the art world – have curated their own exhibitions to present their theories of where art comes from. Each expert asks and answers a different question about art, science and evolution – some more successfully than others, and some in direct opposition to others – for an overall experience that’s as fun to think about as it is to look at.
The first door leads to evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi’s art selection that resembles the natural world – evocative but also grotesque “uncanny valley” sculptures by Patricia Piccinini, a commissioned installation by Brigita Ozolins exploring the resemblance of alphabet letters to the contours of nature – to show us that art is shaped to fit preferences our brains have already developed.
Mark Changizi’s exhibition aims to capture an elusive idea. To him, aspects of human culture – including art – mimic nature, giving humans the kinds of stimuli that our brains have evolved to process. For Changizi, we don’t have instincts for art and other ‘stimulus artefacts’ like music, language and design. These are inventions of civilisation; but crucially, they persist in (and possibly define) our species because they have been shaped to fit the preferences of our ancient brains. This is ‘nature harnessing’: the process wherein aspects of our culture mimic nature ‘so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose’. Speech, for instance, mimics the sound structures of the environment in which we evolved; alphabet letters, at the deep, unconscious processing level of our brains, resemble the contour combinations characteristic of our natural habitat. Music, arguably the pinnacle of artistic expression, is structured according to the sounds of people moving; we respond with emotion, and movement of our own.
Indeed, says Changizi, the highly evocative aspects of our culture most likely can be traced to the most powerful natural source of all our woe and joy, that which on our prosperity depends: other humans. Herein lies his hypothesis for art: that it exists not because we have an instinct for it, but because it responds to—harnesses—our instinct to engage with other people.
The second door leads to Brian Boyd’s exhibit. Of the four academic curators, Brian Boyd stands closest to the arts, with a career spanning both English literature as well as evolution and cognition. He argues that humans, like many other animals, engage in play behaviour that helps them succeed in their environment. And to him, art comes about through a human impulse to play with patterns. So Boyd homes in on patterns – in nature, in Shakespeare, in Indigenous art, in comics – which help humans make sense of, and play with, the information around them.
Boyd argues that to understand the origin of art, you need to look to the ‘signalling systems’ that all kinds of plants and animals use to convey information to each other. Think of the relationship between flowers and the birds and insects that pollinate them: flowers have adapted to reflect and amplify the preference of their ‘audience’. This interplay between audience preference and the artist’s desire to satisfy and expand those preferences creates a kind of a feedback loop that propels the trajectory of art history, and that can be seen in the diverse styles and techniques different groups use to express their identity.
Underpinning this diversity, however, is the status of art as a form of cognitive play. Play, widespread through the animal kingdom, is a mechanism that evolved to help us practice important life-saving skills in a safe circumstance. Because humans gain most of their advantages via intelligence, they are inclined towards cognitive play, and in particular, cognitive play with pattern. Humans are natural-born pattern-extractors: reading regularities in the environment is crucial to ensure our survival and prosperity. Art of all kinds uses pattern—on multiple levels, in intersecting, locally relevant ways—to engage the attention of its audience; the audience is rewarded with the opportunity to fine-tune cognitive skills needed to understand the world, and gain mastery over it.
Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller presents a much more Darwinian picture, arguing that the creation of art is one of many ways we signal our general fitness to mates in order to win the sexual selection game. “There’s a lot of sexual content in my exhibition; I’m not making the argument that there’s a direct link between the sexual selection theory of why people make art and depicting sex or nudity,” Miller explains.
Definitely a lot of sexual content in Miller’s exhibition and definitely not suitable for little bears!
Miller agrees with Brian Boyd that art is a signalling system—like a bee’s dance, a bird’s song, or a gorilla thumping its chest—but reaches a very different conclusion about the purpose and function of that system. It’s easy to explain the ‘receiver’ end of art, says Miller; we consume it like ‘eye candy’, in the sense that it stimulates our pleasure-responses to certain stimuli, the shapes, colours and patterns for which we have a ‘sensory bias’. But on the ‘sender’ side: why bother? Why invest ‘limited time, energy, and risk in growing ornaments, making sounds, or creating works that receivers might enjoy,’ when such efforts might be better put to more practical ends? The answer, says Miller, lies in Darwin’s explanation of art more than a century ago: that it arose—long before humans—as a mechanism for attracting mates. Art making is one of the many ways animals ‘signal their health, resourcefulness, intelligence, and / or general fitness’ to potential mates, in the same manner as do the splendid (but otherwise useless) feathers on a peacock.
Stephen Pinker, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author, makes perhaps the most compelling argument. He believes artistic drive has not evolved as a trait but arrived as a byproduct, piggy-backing on other adaptive aesthetics – our appreciation of “good” bodies (for reproduction), high status (for security) and pretty landscapes (for safety). For Steven Pinker art is not adaptive, in the sense that it’s not a heritable trait that enhances human reproductive rate; put simply, making and looking at art in Pinker’s view doesn’t result in more successful baby-making. Instead, the creation of art is a by-product of human tendency to seek out aesthetic pleasures in the same way that junk food is a by-product of human tendency to seek out sweet and fatty flavours.
Pinker takes issue with ‘lame and flabby’ theories for art that confuse questions about its worth and value at a social level, with questions about its function in a Darwinian sense. The proper question to ask is: ‘Is art a heritable trait that enhanced the reproductive rate of our ancestors?’ The answer, he finds, is that art is a by-product, a kind of side effect of other adaptations, such as the desire to obtain status via ‘conspicuous consumption’ (Veblen) of sumptuous goods, and to identify oneself as a member of the fashionable elite.
Art is also a vehicle for engagement with our evolved aesthetic sense. There are adaptive explanations why certain faces, bodies, patterns and habitats give humans aesthetic pleasure: ‘they are cues to understandable, safe, productive, nutritious, or fertile things in the world.’ Artists can choose to play with or flout the audience’s preference for such sensory stimulus, or to create ‘supernormal’ doses of it. Art is, in this way, akin to cheesecake: a ‘pleasure technology’ we have invented for no other reason than our own enjoyment and satisfaction.
On the Origin of Art doesn’t look to answer these evolutionary questions directly but prompts visitors to reflect on their assumptions and to be open to alternative ways of thinking about art.