River Connections: Introducing Sustainability to Museum Visitors

Read Time: 3 minutes

All life on our Earth is connected—and all life is dependent on healthy natural environments to thrive and survive. That is the message of a new 3D video experience titled River Connections at the Melbourne Museum. The film introduces the story of interconnectedness in a powerful way with First Peoples narrations and engaging animations by Australian design firm Grumpy Sailor. Read on to learn how all collaborated to produce this immersive experience about sustainability.

In southeast Australia, the Murray River stretches more than 1500 miles from its source in the Australian Alps (between Canberra and Melbourne) to its estuary in the state of Southern Australia not far from the city of Adelaide. This extraordinary length makes the Murray the longest river in Australia and the third longest navigable river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile.

The Murray serves as an important commercial waterway for southeast Australia and also supplies water to an estimated 1.5 million households in the region. But today—after decades of pollution and waste from boats, dams, agriculture, industries and households—Australians understand the need to better conserve this vital natural resource.

Australia’s First Peoples have called the Murray River valley—and its tributary valleys—home for some 40,000 years and today are calling for the protection of the river and its surrounding habitats.

To help raise awareness of these issues, the Melbourne Museum collaborated with designers from Grumpy Sailor (Sydney) and First Peoples elders and artists to create River Connections, an immersive “dynamic learning environment” designed to engage school groups when they first enter the museum and prepare them for the topics to follow. Located inside a large rectangular space, this animated film—projected on all the room’s surfaces—acts as a kind of movie title sequence to the exhibitions that come after.

“As the designers, our responsibility was to listen and absorb information from the elders and artists as they shared their stories, while facilitating the interpretation of those stories for a modern audience,” says James Boyce, Founder of Grumpy Sailor and SEGD member.

Most of the animation’s visual perspective is from underneath the surface of the water, with currents flowing past and fish swimming by. And as its title implies, River Connections provides a context for how the waterway connects different habitats to one another, but also how it connects people to one another, often across generations.

“It’s not just the rivers themselves, it’s all the connections,” states Uncle Larry Walsh, Kulin cultural leader and storyteller. “And that’s what we’re at risk of losing, if they can’t be put together.”

Uncle Larry provided First Peoples’ perspectives along with three other elders—Esther Kirby, Brendan Kennedy and Genevieve Grieves—through a series of “deep listening” sessions with Melbourne Museum staff and the designers of Grumpy Sailor. Led by the elders, a process of deep listening was used to develop the film’s content by engaging the larger community and considering everyone’s input in a respectful way.

To create the final product and bring River Connections to life, the designers and animators employed several 21st century technologies, including VR, iPads and green screen. The result: an immersive video experience which introduces visitors to First Peoples’ perspectives and the natural wonders of the Murray River.

This innovative project is intended to remind viewers that we are all part of a dynamic web of life and need to practice sustainability to keep our natural resources intact. This is best summed up by elder Esther Kirby, the narrator featured in River Connections:

 “Physically, mentally and emotionally, we are connected to that land … We have a responsibility to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and it’s our job to look after that.”