Museum curator Shona Coyne offering Indigenous perspective through exhibitions
Menang woman Shona Coyne is proof that you can take the girl out of Albany, but you can’t take Albany out of the girl.
She misses the salty sea air of her coastal home town, longing for the ocean her Menang Noongar heritage ties her to.
However, Shona has much to be proud of as she gives Indigenous Australians a platform for storytelling through exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia.
A senior curator with the NMA, Shona made the big move to Canberra in 2018 where she worked on creating an award-winning exhibition that brought our country’s shared history to life in a new light.
Endeavour Voyage: The Untold Stories of Cook and the First Australians explored views from the ship and shore on the 250th anniversary of the 1770 journey.
Wrapping up in April this year, it won the temporary or travelling exhibition category at the 2021 Museums and Galleries National Awards.
The exhibition expanded on the often one-sided narrative about Captain James Cook and colonisation, and was the result of extensive collaboration between curators and east coast Indigenous communities.
Shona said while the project’s topic had seemed daunting at first it was a “pleasure and privilege” to work on.
“I remember at the time thinking ‘oh my goodness, do I want to work on this story’,” she said.
“In my mind, I had conflicting ideas on who Captain Cook was and what he represented in the colonisation of Australia.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to deep-dive into this story and really reflect the Indigenous perspective on it which is something that really hasn’t been given air time before.”
On a more personal note, Shona said it felt like “righting a wrong”.
“People can be uncomfortable about this story because there is violence involved, so being creative and clever about it in exhibition space is a skill set that I’m trying to develop,” she said.
With story perspectives from the ship and the shore, other key items featured in the exhibition included a renowned 1773 portrait of Cook, three of the four spears collected by Cook/Banks at Botany Bay in April 1770, one of the Endeavour’s cannons and Cook’s famous journal.
In an exhibition space of more than 1000sqm, the entry featured three massive water spout installations.
“(This idea) emerged from reading the journals,” Shona said.
“On the very first day Cook and crew see the east coast of Australia three water spouts appeared. When I read that I was excited because I know in Noongar culture water spouts often appear if you’ve done something wrong against lore in community practise,” she said.
The move to Canberra was too good an opportunity to turn away, however it wasn’t the “big smoke” Shona expected — rather more like Albany on a Sunday.
“I thought it would be like Melbourne and Sydney but smaller,” she said.
“I went out with my partner on the first weekend and the town was dead, I thought ‘there must be an event on’ but I soon realised that, no, Canberra is just not that exciting,” she laughed.
“It’s a really beautiful place to work but it’s a long way from the coast and I'm a beach girl, a coastal girl, a Menang girl and I really miss being near the ocean.”
Despite surrounding herself with art in her work, Shona admitted she had never picked up a paintbrush.
“I think I express my creative side through storytelling and so I see being a curator as an expression of my artist’s side, looking at different ways to present stories in new and exciting ways that will engage people but also create a safe place,” she said.
Her passion for curating blossomed in Albany after an emerging curators program and her work on WA exhibition Yurlmun: Mokare Mia Boodja — showcasing 14 rare, significant objects originating from the Menang Noongar people.
She is also the NMA’s repatriation and community engagement manager which involves the care of ancestral remains and sacred material.
She is working on an Indigenous art exhibition titled Belonging set to come out in February. Inspired by her Menang roots, Shona draws on inspiration for her projects from her own heritage.
“When the museum employ a First Nations person they don’t just get the person, they get the cultural being that I am and the love and support my Albany community has given me over the years in particular my family, my aunty Vernice Gillies and my uncle Harley Coyne,” she said.
“It’s a really complex space for First Nations people to work in a colonial institution. There are policies and procedures that are formulated from colonisation so there’s a lot of work and pressure for me to try and help change and leave a legacy that will create a safe place for First Nations people in the future.”
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