From the incredible fluorescence of the world’s rarest and most expensive opal to the humble qualities of a painted papier-mâché apple, South Australia’s treasures are vast and diverse. The people who care for them are bound by a passion to preserve their heritage. These are the treasure keepers.
Meet Tony Kanellos.
As manager of Cultural Collections at the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium and curator of the Santos Museum of Economic Botany, Kanellos is custodian to a treasure trove of objects that connect us to the botanical world. Carefully curated and displayed, the collection offers important lessons about life, culture and the essential roles that plants play in human existence.
“This collection is brimming with stories about life,” says Kanellos, a UniSA graduate.
“Not just South Australian stories, but stories of all cultures – and many of the cultures that now make up South Australia.
“When you walk around this museum, you see the commonality of all cultures – we all need food, fibre, and medicine, we all need different ways to express ourselves.
“But at the heart of it, culture is humanity, and while we celebrate different cultures, all people are the same and we’ve all depended on plants since day one.”
The museum was established in 1881 to teach early colonists about the different uses of plants – for food, fibre, medicines, dyes, tools, shelter, even musical instruments. As the only museum of its type to survive in the world, it’s a repository of stories and curiosities, from the origins of gin and tonic rooted in anti-malarial drugs dispensed to British soldiers, to the seafarer’s illusion of a diving mermaid conjured by the shape of the world’s largest seed, the coco de mer (picture right), floating in the ocean.
Yet behind the curiosities – and the beautiful 19th century feel of the museum – is a story as important now as it was then: sustainability and biodiversity.
“Walking into the museum is like stepping back in time,” Kanellos says.
“Of course, people didn’t use these words [sustainability and biodiversity] back then, but the concepts today remain the same.”
Connecting past, present and future is a common mission for all of the State’s cultural institutions. For cultural expert and scholar, UniSA’s Professor Susan Luckman, the sharing of stories, histories and narratives is an illustration of how people make sense of the world.
“When people think of ‘culture’ they often relate this to high-end experiences, but of course culture is really just the everyday practices of people getting on with their own lives: it’s the tattoos, it’s going to the footy on the weekend, it’s everything we do that makes us human,” Prof Luckman says.
“For centuries we’ve been challenging understandings of culture as the official record. We need to ensure our collections are diverse and representative of both the past and the present, because this will become tomorrow’s history.
“Increasingly, cultural institutions are doing wonderful work in this space to make sure their collections capture everybody’s stories, not just those who get to write history.”
Read the full story, and many more, in the latest edition of Enterprise magazine.