Opinion: History rests on the brink as SA Museum faces extinction event

South Australian Museum 2024"Reimagine."

This word set all my cultural alarm bells off into strident chimes of incredulity.

The new administration plans to “reimagine” our stately old SA Museum.

They find it tired. They think the Egyptian Room is old hat. All very yesterday.

Silly old me.


I have spent my life believing that museums are where you keep old hats.  Dated old hats with dates recorded on them, so to speak. Museums are all about things dated.

Carbon dated!


If anything is old and tired, surely it must be all those ancient rocks our museum has so expertly collected. They don’t do much. They just sit there. But, their millions of years of survival telling the fossil record of evolution makes the 60 thousand years of Aboriginal artefacts and history seem Johnny Come Lately.

In the vast scheme of things, this is so.  

The museum’s collections shows us exactly how it is so.


Our museum’s Ediacaran collection has led to that geological period here scoring what they call a “Golden Spike” in the planet’s timeline. That’s a bit on the big deal side.

I’m an old lady now but my knowledge base from childhood has been underscored by what I have seen and learnt to understand in our museum.

I’ve always loved it, although some of the concepts it explores have scared me.

Many things have been heartbreaking. Extinction, for instance. 

The loss of Aboriginal heritage and language.

The rise of recognition of this is uplifting. We are learning how much we have to learn. 

But without the museum’s showcase of our pasts, bad and good, it would be hard to teach our young and young to come.


The importance of the museum and the knowledge it represents is so fundamental that it feels a bit ridiculous to be enumerating it.

“Seeing with your own eyes” is what museums give us.


That “outdated” Egyptology room has been imprinted on my memory since childhood. It led to years of learning and even to a small degree of collecting antiquities. It was a springboard for knowledge. Yes, it is fusty. But it could do with more, not less.


As for the insect collection. It fed my fascination, too. Had I not fallen into journalism, becoming an entomologist was high on career choices. In my London years, I had the privilege of breeding insects for the living collection: cockroaches and stick insects. To this day, I study and worry about the insect and arachnid world. The drop in their population is a terrifying signal in our growing climate crisis.


The museum is there to explain these things, its researchers to devise reasons and strategies.  Sometimes, nuances in science lead to major world-changing developments.

Research is a core business. Knowledge is everything.


The idea of slashing research in a crucible of discovery is sickeningly regressive.

As for “reimagining”. What an insulting concept. 


History tries to represent the past with integrity. It often leaves a record. Museums keep the record. It helps us to imagine what and where and how of the past, to see history in the mind’s eye. But “re-imagine”? Re-contexualise? I can think of a few “re”-words, since “re” sings of a different sort of backwards. Repress, retard, regress….


It makes me think of those American museums where religious anti-evolutionists had forced the change of exhibit labels to “theory”. Ignorance is on the rise.


So it comes to pass that the people of this state have risen to the cause. We’re furious.  We’re a crowd of signatories of letters and Tweets and memes. Suddenly, from all sides of politics, from all ages and demographics, we are angry activists.


See you on the steps of Parliament House on Saturday 13th April.


Samela Harris