A look at the new underwater museum bringing Australian Aboriginal culture and reef conservation together

The opening of the Museum of Underwater Art on the Great Barrier Reef, in northern Queensland, is set to unite Aboriginal culture and coral conservation, and showcases a less-frequented section of the 1,429-mile-long natural wonder. 

Thursday, October 1, 2020,
By Justin Meneguzzi
A sculpture by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor for Australia’s new Museum of Underwater Art in ...

A sculpture by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor for Australia’s new Museum of Underwater Art in Townsville, northern Queensland.

Photograph by Museum of Underwater Art

At first glance it seems like a tsunami has flooded Pompeii, but look a little closer at these ashen figures and you’ll notice they’re wearing gumboots, peering into microscopes and tending to pots of luminous coral. It’s all part of the eye-catching Coral Greenhouse — the latest creation from British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor, for Australia’s new Museum of Underwater Art (MOUA).  

Located in Townsville, in tropical northern Queensland, the museum is an ambitious installation comprised of four exhibits that blur the line between marine science, architecture and art. The aim is to both showcase some of the less-frequented sections of the 1,429-mile-long Great Barrier Reef, and shine a spotlight on Aboriginal culture, with the museum’s opening coinciding with the state’s 2020 Year of Indigenous Tourism.

DeCaires Taylor and his team have worked closely with the local Wulgurukaba traditional owners to develop exhibits that create new environments for marine life while also reflecting ancestral stories from the area. The museum is set to boost the economy in Aboriginal communities and create more jobs in sustainable reef tourism, while also helping to support ongoing scientific research.

Travellers can book a diving expedition to see the Coral Greenhouse up close, swimming down a sunken boulevard of man-made floating trees and exploring the surrounding coral gardens. The 165-ton structure has been designed to attract new corals and will, ultimately, be absorbed into the John Brewer Reef, creating a playground for clownfish, butterfly fish and shape-shifting mimic octopuses.

For those who prefer to keep their feet firmly on dry land, the Ocean Siren can be admired while enjoying an ice cream or fish and chips on Townsville’s waterfront. The 13ft-high sculpture is modelled on the granddaughter of the late Arthur Johnson, who fought for recognition of Wulgurukaba land. It’s fitted with 202 LED lights that change colour in response to water temperatures, making the statue a living mood ring to the ocean. Follow the siren’s call at sunset to see her shimmer from red to orange and blue in the fading light.

Another two installations are in development for 2021, too, including a proposed semi-submerged gigantic head off Magnetic Island that will greet travellers as they fly into Townsville Airport. Half of the sculpture will be painted by local artists with stories of the Dreamtime (the Aboriginal retelling of Creation). Visitors will be able to splash through the shallows around the artwork while hearing the stories behind the paintings from their Aboriginal guide. 

The final installation, due to be completed by December 2021, will see divers mingling with 100 underwater statues, each immortalising real Wulgurukaba people, standing in silent congress off the shore of Palm Island. 

The goal of the new underwater museum is to showcase some of the less-frequented sections of the Great Barrier Reef and shine a spotlight on Aboriginal culture.

Photograph by Museum of Underwater Art

Three more ways to discover Aboriginal culture
 

By boat
Hop aboard a 100-year-old, classic 58ft ketch sailboat for an adventure along the Mooloolaba canals with Saltwater Eco Tours. This Aboriginal-owned tour company visits important cultural sites of the Kabi Kabi people. The sunset package includes live music and turtle-spotting while grazing on bushtucker and craft beer. From A$55 (£30). 

On foot
Kuku Yalanji country is the only place where the Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. Join an Aboriginal guide with Walkabout Cultural Adventures to learn about native plant medicine and try your hand at hunting with spear and boomerang. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a mud crab. From A$180 (£100) for half-day tours. 

By scuba
Dreamtime Dive & Snorkel allows travellers to join Aboriginal sea rangers on a snorkelling day tour to two sites on the outer Great Barrier Reef. Listen to stories about Sea Country and learn how traditional owners harvested the reef before European settlers arrived, then dive beneath the water to explore vibrant coral outcrops. From A$199 (£110).

Published in the Sept/Oct 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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