The Queensland Museum is not shy about drawing parallels between the K-Pg extinction, which killed off the dinosaurs whose skeletons are proudly displayed as part of its Lost Creatures exhibit, and the Holocene extinction, in which we are currently living and of which we are the cause. The dangling pterodactyls, goggling ichthyosaurs and clay-preserved clawprints are footnoted by sober, studious warnings about the likely outcome of the ongoing environmental catastrophe. The kids who gawk up at the rearing muttaburrasaurus, its brown bones plucked from outback dirt and painstakingly reassembled into a mockery of life, are exhorted to change their consumption habits before it’s too late to save all life on Earth from a disaster that rivals the Chicxulub impact for severity. It’s all very socially conscious. The effect is undermined, however, by the fact that the whole thing is sponsored by BHP, a Melbourne-based mining company which by some estimates is responsible for 0.5% of all the carbon emissions in the world.
You might expect an exhibit on Australian prehistory to take even an abstract interest in coal, a fossil fuel made up of the compressed peaty remnants of a deceased ecosystem, now being repurposed by companies like BHP as the catalyst for a wave of extinction just as brutal as the one that put the Carboniferous rainforests to rest and created the Queensland coal deposits in the first place. You would be disappointed. The museum acknowledges that humans are decimating the planet, and even deigns to admit that climate change is a genuine problem, but its proposed solutions are conspicuously inspecific and it has no interest in assigning blame to any of the actual culprits. After all, paleontology costs money, and all the people who could fund them are implicated. Their most likely contributors are those with public images to manage and guilty consciences to assuage.
The floor above the dinosaurs is occupied by more modern corpses - stuffed wallabies, taxidermied sharks, snakes preserved in jars and a lonely cassowary set apart from the rest of the specimens in its own private enclave as a symbol of the far north’s rapidly-vanishing wilderness. A plaque up here assures you that BHP “is serious about conserving Queensland’s unique biodiversity and ecosystems”. Museums probably shouldn’t lie to the public as blatantly as this. It’s depressing, but unsurprising, that they seem to feel they have no choice.
I’m not sure what the left take is on dinosaurs. The Marxist dialectic of history, the grand narrative of class struggle and economic modernity, seems to preclude engagement with a race of giant reptiles exterminated by cosmic accident sixty million years before labour exploitation was a twinkle in the first plutocrat’s eye. My secret favourite blogger Patrick Stuart argues in this essay on the failures of the film Jurassic World that the existence of Earth’s fossilised past, the deep span of time that came before us and will come after us, must have some kind of transformative but difficult-to-articulate moral implications, and I’m inclined to agree. Every species we eliminate is gone as permanently as the dinosaurs. Brilliant corporate scientists are not going to bring them back to life. You may not miss them - you don’t miss the passenger pigeon or the Steller’s sea cow in the course of your daily life, any more than you miss the velociraptor - but they’re gone. Once something’s dead it stays dead forever and dinosaurs, who’ve been dead for so long that we only know them as skeletons, are where we start thinking about what that means for us and our relationship with the natural world.
Museums, where we do our best to resurrect dead worlds, where children come to terms with the fact that they will never, ever see a dinosaur in real life, ought to be places where we go to figure this out. They should be able to help us relate the stories of our own lives, the struggles for justice that seem to us to be so vitally important, to the vast sweeping arc of geologic time in which we’re nothing but the merest eyeblink. But capital doesn’t concern itself with any timespan greater than a few financial years, and for BHP the K-Pg extinction is nothing but an opportunity to squeeze a few more dollars out of the earth by manufacturing some good PR. We cannot give prehistory its proper moral weight as long as we allow mining companies to fund the places where we study it.
Mephisto is a kindergarten drawing of a tank - a crude iron trapezoid with hatches and rivets pasted along the side for verisimilitude and a stumpy afterthought of a gun, sketched in with a few strokes of a heavy pencil to remind you it’s supposed to be a weapon of war. Like the museum’s enormous plasticky Energex-sponsored tyrannosaur it seems a childhood toy, inflated to inhuman size, waiting for some giant hand to pick it up and play with it. Like the tyrannosaur it’s a symbol of an extinct species - an obsolete, lumbering predator, designed for a habitat that will never exist again, plucked from a shell hole in the fields of northern France by presumably-courageous Aussie soldiers and dragged back to Brisbane as a trophy of imperial conquest. The cheerful red demon cartooned on the front is supposed to be running off with a British tank, but in the Australian context he looks more like he’s scampering down to the beach with a surfboard under his arm then slaughtering Allied battalions in the name of the eternal German Reich.
The music that plays in the Queensland Museum’s Anzac Gallery is alternately mournful and triumphant, as if the curators aren’t sure whether WWI is supposed to be a tragic waste of human life or an adventure for our heroic boys. Even the walls are painted a carefully neutral white. As we saw in the Lost Creatures exhibit, the museum is able to understand that something bad is going on, but the necessities of existence as an educational institution under capitalism prevent it from thinking about how to assign blame.
WWI, catalyst of the Russian Revolution, vicious endgame of 19th-century imperialism, has a particular fascination for me - as a socialist, as a history dork, as a complete idiot who likes big steel toys that go boom. It activates both the part of my brain that obsesses over the confluence of ideological and material factors which underpin every event and the part of my brain that likes comic books, dinosaurs, bombs and guns. The cowboy revolvers and monolithic black Vickers machine guns, the primitive chunky hand grenades and gleaming bayonets, are extremely good to go and look at - but the museum decontextualises them. They become works of sculpture, ripped from their political habitat, reduced to aesthetic objects.
The German Reich threw Mephisto together in hasty imitation of the equally ridiculous-looking British Mark 1s, bizarre rolling rhombuses developed by Winston Churchill’s Landship Committee to break the stalemate along the Western Front. At that point in WWI both sides were committed to total industrial war on a scale never seen before in human history. The only people to come out of it with any measure of self-respect were the Bolsheviks, who correctly determined that the whole thing was moronic and they should back out of the conflict as quickly as possible before every single Russian person wound up dead in a ditch. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who kicked off the whole thing, had that kind of world-historical deliberate stupidity that we now associate with Donald Trump. Mephisto is a relic of that extremely dumb time, when millions of more or less innocent people were butchered on the whim of an inbred, childish, cartoonishly ignorant ruling class, in service of an expansionary capitalism that drove the titans of Europe to grind themselves to pieces under the wheels of each others’ war machines.
We need to know how this happened so we can never do it again. We need to see Mephisto as an actual weapon, a tool of murder, built to enable the German gunners crammed like sardines inside its metal shell to end human life in relative comfort. I would like to know if they loved their tank, their suffocating iron prison, intolerably hot and loud, reeking with cordite fumes, clumsy and slow and the only thing standing between them and death at the point of an Australian bayonet. I would like to know how their industrial artefacts, the guns placed in their hands and their confinement in this rattling devil-haunted box of pain, converted them into men who were willing to die and kill in the name of the Kaiser. Mephisto could tell us something about this. But it’s impossible to talk about without taking a political position, and so it’s not the kind of question the museum is capable of answering.
It is now a hundred and one years since WWI staggered to a close. For Australia, a young country, starved of history, still embarrassingly desperate to be a part of Europe and the grand fabricated tradition of The West, the war is essential to what we like to pretend is our national myth. It lets us be as patriotic as we like - it’s safely far away, we didn’t cause it and we didn’t do any particular war crimes to anyone who wasn’t trying to war crime us right back. For a nation that’s spent most of its brief existence brutalising Indigenous people, enslaving Pacific Islanders, clamping down on Asian immigration and generally promoting white supremacy as often and aggressively as possible, it’s nice to have one place where we can act like we’re the underdog.
The Mephisto gallery is partly sponsored by the Anzac Centenary Public Fund, established by the state, whose contributors include Rio Tinto and most of the major banks. It is not pro-war, in the same way that the Lost Creatures gallery is not pro-extinction. That would be too hard to get away with. But neither the Australian government nor the Centenary Fund’s corporate donors have any real interest in calling the myth of the Diggers into question, and so we end up with a bunch of vague assertions that war is terrible and tragic and a lack of serious interest in its causes and prevention. This is most visible when the gallery talks about Afghanistan, treating the Australian military occupation of that country as a simple extension of the Anzac legend. We are still part of the war over there. In the last century we have learnt absolutely nothing about overseas military adventurism, except that it’s fun to do and puts money in the tank manufacturers’ pockets. If even our museums can’t deal honestly with our history, that seems unlikely to change.
Tucked away behind the tank, a display case tells the story of Townsville’s Fred Paterson, the only Communist ever elected to any Australian parliament. The Queensland Museum does not have a position on Communism. It praises Paterson for standing up for Italian immigrants - equal rights for Italians being, by modern standards, fairly uncontroversial - but it doesn’t have much to say about the police baton that fractured his skull and laid him out of politics for several months in 1948, or the ALP’s deliberate dissolution of his seat as revenge for his support for striking unionists. I still don’t know as much about this as I would like, and the museum is not going to fill me in on the gory details. Its whole educational project is characterised by woke insincerity and the squeamish avoidance of any topic that might compel it to have a real opinion.
Socialism is unlikely to abolish death. Even in our most distant technological fantasies, the fully automated luxury utopias for which Silicon Valley kingpins cryogenically preserve their heads, we cannot expect to live forever. We will always need museums to remind us that the people and creatures who preceded us were just as alive as we are, and just as confident of their own importance. But I don’t want the museums of the future to talk about climate change in the same way the Queensland Museum talks about WWI now. I want them to be angry. I want them to say, this does not have to happen. It’s not some tragic but inevitable accident. It’s not a meteor impact that nobody can prevent. It’s the result of conscious decisions made by people who could stop at any time, specific nameable villains like BHP and Rio Tinto, and to pretend otherwise is to deprive human life of its essential ethical significance. If we cannot talk honestly about the dead, if we cannot acknowledge the political and moral dimensions of their existence, we abandon not only them but ourselves.
Matt Halton is a Brisbane-based writer who's interested in radical takes on history. He and his brother Nico co-author a blog about roleplaying games at rememberdismove.blogspot.com.