Opening of the Old Quad

Speech by Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell at the Opening of the Old Quad, University of Melbourne, 4 May 2019

Thank you Julie, and thank you everyone for being here this evening. I also acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which the Old Quad and Parkville campus stands, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations. I pay my respects to the Indigenous elders, past, present and emerging.

(And I might add it was great to hear the jazz music legend Herbie Hancock use exactly that form of words in acknowledging the Wurundjeri elders at Hamer Hall two nights ago – which prompted a very nice spontaneous round of applause from the audience. Those ‘emerging’ leaders – some of them, present students and doctoral candidates at Melbourne, are very important to the University.)

Tonight, I really just want to say that I hope everyone enjoys this fantastic exhibition, Ancestral Memory, which I’m going to declare officially open in a moment!

And I also hope  that we can all start to feel comfortable and familiar with these new surroundings – or old surroundings made new through a stunning re-development project – and go away from here tonight eager to come back, and spread the word on what an exciting space Melbourne has here now.

I apologise if some of you have heard this before, but late last year I was honoured to be the first Vice-Chancellor welcomed by the Indigenous Elders of each of the lands on which the University’s campuses are located: Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung, Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Wurrung.

This was a particularly moving experience as I commenced my time here in Melbourne, and it began for me a journey in understanding how our mission as a university connects to the voices and values of these lands and peoples from the time of Bunjil the eagle, creator of the Kulin Nation.

I’ve written in the commemorative booklet for this exhibition that as a newcomer to Australia I am hungry to learn as much as possible about the Indigenous peoples who walked this land for more than 60,000 years.

What a privileged vantage point it is to undertake this learning, here at the University of Melbourne, where we are lucky enough to have great experts in Indigenous knowledge, growing numbers of Indigenous students and alumni, a great relationship with so many Indigenous elders – including Auntie Diane Kerr OAM who was here earlier this evening --  and if I can put it this way, an emerging project throughout our institution to strengthen our sense of place, informed by Indigenous story, knowledge, culture and respect.

That is a personal perspective for me, but I think it is one which many of us can share, if we are interested to learn more about the Indigenous perspective on reality. I think lots of people are interested. So it’s a great time to be here and be part of the University of Melbourne community, as we can see through an exhibition and space like this.

Tonight we are all able to take home with us copies of two great souvenir booklets on Ancestral Memory and the Old Quad. Apart from the terrific visual reproductions there are some great words describing this wider project.

As the University’s Dr Fran Edmonds puts in in the Ancestral Memory booklet:

As a more recently established knowledge centre, the University is well-placed to embrace “Indigenous ways of knowing” – knowledge systems transmitted across hundreds of generations for more than 60,000 years.

So tonight, I hope we can all enjoy this fantastic space, and in particular two stunning new creations downstairs – the Ancestral Memory exhibition itself, by artist and curator Maree Clarke, and ‘Towards a Glass Monument’ by artist Tom Nicholson.

Maree Clarke is a very important contemporary Indigenous artist who has been doing extraordinary work re-vivifying Indigenous Australian culture and knowledge for many years. The absolutely stunning glass eel centrepiece in the Treasury downstairs is really a masterwork of Maree’s.

Sorry to go on about the booklet but there is an interesting conversation there that you might enjoy, between architect Jefa Greenaway and Samantha Comte from the Ian Potter Museum, where they discuss the story of the eels and their relationship to this campus.

It’s an amazing story of resilience, of global travel and internationalisation, and once you’ve read it, it may also change forever the way you look at storm water drains when you’re walking on this campus.

Speaking of Jefa, and the eels, it’s striking how these stories are emerging not just here in the Old Quad but across campus now, as we just yesterday opened ‘The Living Pavilion’ festival event over near the 1888 Building, on the future site of Murrup Barak, the Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development.

I do recommend you visit there when you can. It’s an outdoor exhibition, quite an immersive experience, again reflecting unique expressions of Indigenous knowledge. It features 40,000 species of plants from the Kulin nation, and a re-imagining of Bouverie Creek which probably ran where Bouverie Street now is, and forms another part of the amazing eel story.

So again, what a great moment this is on the University of Melbourne campus.

I would like to think, in fact, that what we are experiencing in things like the Living Pavilion and the Ancestral Memory exhibition, is a new dialogue emerging, on campus, about the present and the past. And it’s a dialogue in which Indigenous knowledge and culture is central.

And this dialogue is also informing our emerging sense of place (something Julie and I hope might also work into the new strategy for the university, I’ll say in passing).

What is very striking about this, particularly in this building and even in this room tonight, is that this is also a dialogue across time – and we have another reminder of that in some of the pieces from the University’s cultural collections here in the Library.

I think in different ways, this idea of an ongoing dialogue across time but located here in this place has inspired these two artists whose work we can enjoy tonight, Maree and Tom.

I don’t know if everyone has yet seen the glass work by Tom downstairs. Like Maree’s (though different!) it is amazing. It’s been designed to use natural light in extraordinary ways, so you might have a completely different experience of it depending on what the sunlight’s doing whenever you visit.

In a completely different way (and different colouring) it puts me in mind of that amazing gem of a building in Paris, La Sainte Chapelle, with its rose light – a building I thought of with some slight relief when fire sadly struck Notre Dame recently.

Tom’s work here, like Maree’s, is also a kind of dialogue with knowledge from the past. I love the fact it is inspired by two botanical specimens of ferns (Gangamopteris angustifolia and Gangamopteris spatulata) drawn by University of Melbourne people here in the Old Quad building, actually, in the late 19th century.

This botanical reference picks up yet another striking theme about this campus – bringing to mind the System Garden, the landscaping around Arts West, the new biosciences building on Royal Parade, which itself has amazing artwork in its fa├žade.

So there is an interesting dialogue about knowledge we can see on campus at Melbourne now. It’s great to enjoy it, and it’s a privilege for me as VC to see it evolving.

Once again, everyone, thank you for attending tonight. It is a pleasure to now declare the Ancestral Memory exhibition officially open!