Author: Casey Ryan, C’95
I love the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. One of my favorite reasons is its temporary exhibits. I profoundly remember one exhibit, the “Track of the Rainbow Serpent: Australian Aboriginal Paintings of the Wolfe Creek Crater.”
In 2005, I was planning to travel to Australia and I was consuming anything I could about the country to be more informed. I watched Rabbit Proof Fence and re-watched Muriel’s Wedding. I read Neville Shute’s On the Beach and A Town Like Alice (a.k.a. The Legacy), Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburnt Country, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and even Colleen McCullough’s classic, The Thornbirds. There was even an Animal Planet show that I stumbled upon and watched about a marsupial surrogacy program, which paired human volunteers with orphaned marsupial to recreate a pouch-like environment using book bags to help in there development and growth. (What a tear jerker. If you don’t cry at folks trying to treat a sick wombat with an infection, you have no heart)! If it was Australia-related, I was there.
In the middle of my building excitement, I learned there was an exhibit of Aboriginal work at the Penn Museum. I was thrilled. I searched on line for some articles to learn more about Aboriginal Art, and soon visited the Museum.
The culture of Aboriginal peoples is one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures, art traditions and belief system. Though interpreted differently group by group, the creation story centers around the Rainbow Serpent, one of the important creative forces in the cosmology, and his travels to create existence during a mystical state called Dreamtiming that transcends time.
In particular, this exhibit is comprised of works from the Djaru Aboriginal people living by the Wolfe Creek Crater in Western Australia. The story of a meteorite landing was interpreted as a star falling to Earth. Wrapped around the light of the falling star is the Rainbow Serpent. The Serpent makes the hole in the new crater upon impact, then he continues to burrow and move underground and through the area to create waterways, landscape features. The Serpent’s movements and creation opened the land up for the Aboriginals’ First Ancestors to come and live.
The Djaru are stewards of this land and due to sacredness of the area custom prohibits them from directly discussing the story. Yet, through painting, using traditional techniques and colors, they can share the stories through art. The art is bold, using bright colors and traditional symbols for water, watering holes, stars and people. Without speaking, these paintings tell the stories of the traditional way of life for the Djaru.
Thanks to the efforts of the Penn Museum, I had an Australian cultural experience that I wouldn’t have had anywhere in the world as I prepared for my trip. I gained an appreciation for Aboriginal culture and I didn’t have to leave my figurative backyard to get it.