What's in the museum that Apple wants to demolish in Melbourne?

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Melbourne's Koorie Heritage Trust has recently been in the news for all the wrong reasons, caught up in the controversial plan to demolish a building in the city's Federation Square so Apple can open a massive store in 2020. As a result, the Aboriginal cultural institution may be forced to move elsewhere in the square.

So in the midst of this turmoil, as the proposed rebuild is debated by the public, it's worth asking: what's there to see?

The first thing I discover when I visit, is that the Trust's most remarkable exhibit is easy to miss.

Heading up the stairs from Federation Square's broad plaza, I take a sharp left past a wall inscribed with Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations. Another left brings me to a tall glass case above the stairwell, full of wooden artefacts.

On top is a wooden shield carved with a big goanna against a red background. It's the creation of Aboriginal artist Richard Mullett, and was crafted in 1998.

But here, directly below it, is the impressive artefact that's easy to overlook. It's a wooden club, a long slender object with a tapering head, delicately indented with dots and zig-zag lines. This was carved by William Barak over a century before the shield, in 1897.

That the two objects sit in close proximity says volumes about the philosophy of the Trust.

Objects exhibited range from thousand-year-old stone tools to contemporary necklaces. The idea is for visitors to discover the wide variety of skills and techniques in use, such as pottery, weaving and boomerang carving.

This collection space on Level 3 is unlike any museum or art gallery I've been in before.

Its tall glass cases wrap around office space and meeting rooms, mixing employees and visitors in a tranquil, light-filled environment with glimpses of the Yarra River.

The items on display include many older than the club of Barak, a well-remembered elder whose name graces the nearby pedestrian bridge to the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Blending the practical and the artistic are intricately decorated boomerangs from the 19th century. I open a drawer below them and smile at a contemporary interpretation, a pink perspex boomerang bearing a kangaroo and green stars.

More twists of modernity are on display in the woven baskets: some made from natural fibres, some artificial. All demonstrate a continuity with the age-old techniques used by Victoria's first peoples, passed on to visitors via monthly weaving workshops.

At the far end of the collection is a set of painted emu eggs. The one that most draws my eye bears a naturalistic scene of gum trees beneath a big blue sunny sky, with low dark hills in the distance. The curved surface of the egg suggests the sky's dome; you can sense the wide open spaces that inspired the artist.

Downstairs on Level 1 is a more traditional white-walled gallery space, devoted to current and emerging artists. The day I visit, there's everything from familiar dot paintings to a colourful depiction of local creator spirit Bunjil, his eagle form etched and painted onto a kangaroo hide.

Though the Trust has only been open in this location for two years, visitors to Melbourne are still discovering what is has to offer. Whatever happens to its location within Federation Square, it's proof that Indigenous culture has survived in Victoria. It's strong, alive, and on show in Melbourne's heart.

The writer lives in Melbourne.

Four more Aboriginal experiences in central Melbourne

1. NGV Australia. A short walk from the Koorie Heritage Trust in Federation Square is the National Gallery of Victoria's Indigenous Australian collection. Among the 4000 items are works by William Barak and Emily Kame Kngwarreye. Free, see ngv.vic.gov.au.

2. Aboriginal Heritage Walk. Across the Yarra River, visitors can join this daily walk through the Royal Botanic Gardens. An Indigenous guide explains traditional uses of plants for food, medicine and tools. $35, see rbg.vic.gov.au.

3. Bunjilaka. This section of Melbourne Museum in Carlton Gardens is dedicated to Aboriginal culture. Also check out the museum's own mini-rainforest, with captions explaining the Indigenous seasonal calendar. $14, see museumvictoria.com.au/bunjilaka.

4. Charcoal Lane. This Fitzroy restaurant set up by Mission Australia serves dishes using native Australian ingredients such as emu, quandong and lemon myrtle, also providing hospitality training for young Aboriginal Australians. See charcoallane.com.au.

TRIP NOTES

More information visitvictoria.com

Getting there

Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies to Melbourne from all major cities.

Staying there

Adelphi Hotel, 187 Flinders Lane. Stylish hotel near Federation Square, from $285 per night. Phone 03 8080 8888, see adelphi.com.au.

Jasper Hotel, 489 Elizabeth Street. Affordable accommodation near Queen Victoria Market, from $109 per night. Phone 03 8327 2777, see jasperhotel.com.au.

See + do

Koorie Heritage Trust, Federation Square, open 10am-5pm daily. Free, see koorieheritagetrust.com.