What is Country? Where does memory end and knowledge begin? And when is a tree more than just a tree? These are the questions Yorta Yorta woman Kimberly Moulton, senior curator of South Eastern First Peoples Collections, Museums Victoria Research Institute, considers in the museum’s new exhibition, More Than a Tarrang (Tree): Memory, Material and Cultural Agency.

On now at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum, the exhibition brings together rare Indigenous artefacts and cultural belongings, including an assortment of canoes, shields and coolamons, as well as branches and segments of the very trees from which these artefacts originated. They’re paired with newly commissioned artworks by First Nations artists from Australia’s south east, as well as research from Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous Research Lab at Monash University, to explore the cultural importance of trees.

“A big part of my practice is working at that kind of intersection of contemporary art and the historical archive and collections,” says Moulton, who co-curated the exhibition with art historian Dr Jessica Neath.

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As its full name suggests, More Than a Tarrang aims to show how trees have held such an important place in First Nations history. For many Indigenous Australians this framework is familiar, with Country intrinsically linked to knowledge – not just through the regenerative care practiced by and passed down from ancestors, but in the physical forms of Country itself.

The exhibition engages both of these ideas, guided by a tapestry of artistic perspectives. Professor Brian Martin, director of Wominjeka Djeembana and descendent of Bunjalung, Muruwari and Kamilaroi peoples, has been a particularly important voice for the exhibition.

“He’s been really influential for the way we think about the language around the show,” says Moulton. “We often talk about these ‘scar trees’ out on Country – trees which hold the mark of the canoes, the coolamons, the shields. Brian has been pointing out that they’re not actually scar trees, they’re marked trees. ‘Scar’ implies a wound or a violent kind of action, but…the tree was obviously cared for in the process of removing the bark. So that’s been really influential in shifting our consciousness about how we look at the collection.”

For Moulton, interrogating the colonial contexts of the exhibition goes beyond just the history of the works themselves. She also wants to gain insight into the ways these collections can be econtextualized in these spaces.

The commissioned artworks vary just as much as the tree segments on display in the exhibition. They include an experimental photographic series by Brook Andrew presenting the trees in dialogue with the knowledge of their Country, an installation by Moorina Bonini that repurposes museum storage boxes and critically engages the practice of creating collections, and a moving sound work from Maya Hodge inspired by the intricate traces left by moth larvae on gumtrees.

“[Boon Wurrung elder] Carolyn Briggs has been working with Deep Design Lab and using new technology to kind of scan wood and trees and create a really interesting projection piece,” says Moulton. “There’s this absolutely incredible marked tree in the exhibition that was brought in after being rescued from Country a few years ago – it bears two beautiful big marks of a coolamon and maybe a small water vessel. They’ve been working with that at Monash and using it as a teaching tool to talk about Country and culture. It’s this sort of photogrammetry display – this incredible x-ray, almost. It’s a really abstract and highly conceptual work that sits next to this very literal cultural object.”

As for Moulton’s hopes for those experiencing More Than a Tarrang, bringing together community and fostering connection is always the end goal. But if the new research projects already emerging from this process are any indication, More Than a Tarrang is more than just an exhibition.

“It’s so important for our mobs to be leading the discussion in institutions now around our cultural material and our stories,” says Moulton. “There’s so many new stories already coming out of this and there’s going to be threads that continue for a long time, I think, which is so exciting. You can never do everything in one exhibition.”

More Than a Tarrang (Tree): Memory, Material and Cultural Agency is showing at the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum until November 5. See more details.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Museums Victoria.