Iconic Landscapes and 20 years of desert research exhibitions

Both the ‘Iconic Landscapes’ and ’20 years of desert research’ exhibitions opened last Thursday (12 August) at the University of Sydney’s Scitech library.

See a short walk through both displays below. (A more detailed video of desert exhibition coming soon)

ICONIC LANDSCAPES – exhibition introduction…

In August 2009, a team of Arts and Science scholars from the University of Sydney commenced a year-long study of how scientific researchers can make better connections with the people who live in the environments that the scientists investigate. The project was called ‘Iconic Landscapes’, because of the special regions that were examined: 1) Sydney Harbour, 2) the Simpson Desert in the arid dry-zone and, 3) the rangelands in Western NSW.  The ‘Iconic landscapes’ team examined how fresh knowledge can be made available to the local people and how local knowledge can be accessed while research is under way.   The team started with a hunch that more ‘down-to-earth’ explanations about the objectives of the scientists could be combined with better understanding of the values of the people living in the study regions.  Perhaps this dual approach could produce richer knowledge and experiences for everyone involved?  

The project needed to test this hunch or hypothesis. So the team looked at how scientists were investigating and communicating their knowledge of: 

1) wildfire and predators in the Simpson Desert 

2) engineered habitats for seawalls in North Sydney 

3) the grazing behaviour of sheep and kangaroos in the rangelands.  

Most importantly, the team paid close attention to how and why the community members engaged (or did not engage) with the scientists.The team staged special events in each location, bringing the communities and scientists together to explore not only scientific research but also the emotions and desires of various people involved with the particular regions. These exchanges were important, as they helped scientists reconsider how to make inquiries and deliver results that meet the challenges and the deep feelings that are most important to the communities.Unlike conventional ecological studies, ‘Iconic Landscapes’ sought to combine scientific and cultural observations by supplementing empirical data collection with humanities methods of analysing why people do what they do and how communities form bonds and act together.  Using cross-disciplinary techniques, the study sought a better understanding of the relationship between biological events, ecological and social value and human practices of place-making.  In addition to scientific data-gathering, ‘Iconic Landscapes’ also pursued ‘softer’ or more qualitative investigations involving storytelling, memory-gathering and playful word-associations in response to questions about the emotions attached to particular places. At the end of the project, when we gather up all the different ‘data-sets’ generated by ‘Iconic Landscapes’, we can see a little more clearly how particular communities experience nature, how they perceive their immediate surroundings, and what they want and need from the people who come into their territories.    So, this collection of videos, stories, word-patterns and images gives some fresh and refreshing insights into the scientific and cultural perceptions that tangle together in each of the three landscapes. 

20 YEARS OF DESERT RESEARCH – exhibition introduction…

There’s something about arid Australia that is incredibly magnetic… Once you get red sand under your skin, it pulls you back irresistibly. You don’t have much say about it. 

– Professor Chris Dickman 

20 years ago, Ecology Professor Chris Dickman arrived in the Simpson Desert. He planned to spend five or six years researching the patterns, distributions and abundances of small mammals and reptiles in the area before moving onto another site. After two decades, the University of Sydney’s Desert Ecology Research Group (DERG), of which Dickman is director, shows no sign of slowing down, or moving on. The 2000 kilometre journey north, through NSW and Queensland, is made three to four times a year. Each of these trips involves the participation of professors, students carrying out Honours and PhD projects and volunteers. To date, over 500 volunteers have been out on roughly 150 trips. Many have returned again and again. 

The desert itself is made up of a parallel dune system running southeast to northwest, extended for up to 200kms. While the Simpson Desert is only one part of the continent’s vast arid zone, it covers more than 17 million hectares of central Australia. DERG works mainly within Queensland’s Diamantina Shire channel country area of Bush Heritage Australia’s Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves as well as Carlo cattle station and Tobermorey station in the Northern Territory. 

The DERG is driven by a fascination with the richness of animal life, the systems that sustain them and by the imperative to conserve and manage the land. It is among the longest and most comprehensive arid zone research projects in Australia.

While numerous studies have been undertaken in the past, the DERG’s current two Australian Research Council projects are investigating the effects of predators on small mammals and reptiles and a follow up to the broad scale wild fire that went through the desert in 2001 and 2002 looking at the recovery of mammals, reptiles and plants.In this exhibition you will see a snapshot of life, fieldwork and the great diversity of plants and animals in the desert. 

It is hoped the DERG’s research will contribute vital information on how common and threatened species respond to fire, exotic species and grazing in the arid zone. It will also define the resources required for population and community recovery. 

Advances in ecological understanding are crucial for protecting, restoring the arid biome of Australia, which is experiencing pressure from changed land management regimes and uncertainty with respect to climate change in the future. 


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Filed under Arid dry-zone (Simpson Desert), Australian landscape's 'character', Bringing the project to life, People and the environment, Presentation methods, Rangelands (Fowlers Gap), Sydney Harbour (seawalls), Visuals

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