Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is ninth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
Australia’s northeast coast is a tropical rainforest, part of the state of Queensland, and home to a number of Aboriginal peoples and those of the Torres Straits. The Smithsonian has had a strong fellowship program with Queensland and a recent history of scholarly and professional exchange. The head of the Woodford Folk Festival was a fellow at the Smithsonian, I’ve collaborated with the museum studies program at the University of Queensland, and a number of tropical biologists have gone back and forth between the Great Barrier Reef and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in an effort to understand the formation, vitality and challenges to coral reefs.
Our group meets Malcolm Turner, the director of operations for the Great Barrier Reef, who explains the ecology and conservation issues for the largest living thing on the planet. He tells the group that cyclones, fresh water run-off, and most importantly, global warming, are threatening the reef, as it heads out for a day of snorkeling, diving, and just enjoyment of this natural treasure.
Aborigines Harold Taley and Shaun Creek give our travelers a brief introduction to Aboriginal use of the natural flora. Harold has our group marvel at the soapy cleanser made from leaves; he demonstrates nut-cracking, and the use of various medicinal herbs and vines. Our folks are very impressed with the obvious knowledge embedded in aboriginal ways. Shaun then shows us how he plays the didgeridoo—typically made from eucalyptus naturally hollowed out by termites. On this wind instrument he produces a sound that resonates deeply, seems so primordial, almost mystical.