Earlier this year I took my daughter to the South Australian Museum, as I often do on weekends. We usually have lunch at the Art Gallery, and then wander the various levels of the Museum at a pace suitable for a 7-year old. The South Australia biodiversity floor is her favourite.
Of course I’m a little biased in my opinion because I live in Adelaide, but in my attempt to be as objective as possible, I think we’re particularly fortunate to have this excellent museum at our doorstep. Not only are the exhibitions and displays top-notch, it is one of the most research-active museums in the country. In my opinion, it’s one of the best museums in Australia. To top it all off, admission is free.
However, this post isn’t about spruiking the museum – it’s about something deeply disturbing I experienced there during that visit earlier this year. In addition to the normal free displays, the Museum often has a special exhibition that one must pay to view. I often don’t bother with this, but on this particular occasion, the temporary exhibition called Ngintaka was free of charge.
Ngintaka was an eclectic mix of song, story, dance, painting and carving from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY Lands) as told by Anangu Traditional Owners. While most of the displays were great, there was one that stood out in particular.
While I’ve forgotten its name, this mesmerising display was a large (5 × 4 m) black floor illuminated with small points of light from individual projectors mounted in the ceiling. Each coloured point of light on the floor emulated the dots typical of many styles of Aboriginal paintings, especially from the desert mobs. What was particularly cool about this though was that it wasn’t static – the dots moved in waves and responded to a person’s steps from some sort of motion detectors. The dots would part as you walked, change colour and generally flow across the floor. The effect was like being inside a living desert painting.
You can probably understand why it was appealing, and especially to children (hell, I loved it too). My daughter would have spent hours in their had a let her. The living painting’s coolness didn’t end there though – every once in a while a stylised, gecko-like lizard measuring the size of an average child would scurry across the floor. You can imagine the shrieks of delight as it randomly scurried across the patterns of dots only to disappear into the wall on the other side of the floor.
But there is where my tale saddens. As I watched the stream of new families arrive and marvel at the display’s wonders, nearly every single one of those children had the same response to the scurrying lizard: stomp on the thing as hard as he could. If it had been the odd, badly behaved child that got a kick out of stepping on the head of a large, animated lizard, I wouldn’t have taken much notice. But it was nearly every single child, no matter how old, what nationality or gender. Not only did the kids get into the stomping, they were nearly always encouraged by their parents waiting on the sidelines. “Go get it”, they’d say. Or “Did you kill it? Good boy”.
One might be tempted to tell me to chill out; after all, it’s only a video image of a painted lizard on a floor in a museum exhibition. It’s not hurting anything. It’s only a bit of fun.
But I realised something that day. Human beings innately torture other species. Respecting other forms of life is not an intrinsic value – it has to be taught, and it has to be learned. While there are certainly exceptions, I am of the opinion that unless you discourage children from that sort of behaviour, it will proliferate into adulthood. It makes me understand a little more why we cannot seem to convince the majority of people on Earth that biodiversity is important and should be valued.
The take-home message here is that unless we can convince children to respect other species, we can expect to continue failing to elicit much sympathy for the plight of global biodiversity. Make sure you get the message out to children if you can. Speak in schools. Offer to give presentations at public events that children attend. Try to simplify your message so that a five-year old can understand – and appreciate – it.