Dr Bernadette Drabsch combines her research, teaching and illustration skills to bring humanity’s past into vibrant colour and forge a more sustainable future for our planet.
Dr Bernadette Drabsch’s work provides a rare glimpse into our past, using illustration and visual technologies to reveal and examine long-forgotten artworks, from ancient Egyptian coffins to 6000-year-old frescoes from the Dead Sea. Her work brings the past to life—but it is also helping to inform our future. In her most recent research, Bernadette has shifted her attention to environmental sustainability and collaboration, looking for ways to halt damage to our planet before it’s too late.
“I am most proud of the projects that make a real difference to how we live and how we treat our planet. My goal is to encourage my colleagues and students to use their skills for good, taking on the mantra, ‘creatives for change’.”
Secrets from our past
Bernadette’s visual humanities research explores early forms of visual communication and ancient art, celebrating our ancestors’ technical and artistic sophistication while highlighting the importance of art as a window into our history.
“This research looks at the role and value of creatives in ancient societies, as well as depictions of gender in ancient art and the semiotics of comparative religion—all subjects that have been discussed at international forums.”
For her PhD work, Bernadette studied 6000-year-old wall paintings from Teleilat Ghassul in Jordan that, up until recent years, had been largely overlooked by historians since their discovery in the 1930s. Her work brought renewed attention to the paintings for their unique anthropological importance, providing a fascinating snapshot into culture and life for our prehistoric ancestors.
“My work helps people to appreciate the beauty and complexity of ancient civilisations, such as those from the Levant and Egypt as well as our own Indigenous cultures. I feel that any development of respect for the culture of ‘others’ is always a good thing.”
Along with University of Newcastle colleague Dr Andrew Howells and a team of scientists and archaeologists, Bernadette has also helped to expand our understanding of ancient Egyptian burial rituals. When archaeologists wanted a better look at the 2500 -year-old coffin of Mer‑Neith‑it‑es—a noblewoman who lived in the sixth century B.C.E—Bernadette and her team used advanced digital technologies to produce a re-coloured 3D animation of the ancient Egyptian coffin, showing what it might have looked like when Mer‑Neith‑it‑es was first laid to rest.
Bernadette’s art and humanities research has captured the public’s imagination. Her work has been shared widely through media interviews, public lectures, and exhibitions. A recent collaboration with the NSW Government means that the public can expect to see more of Bernadette’s work shared with local communities in the near future.
“This side of my research has always had a high engagement factor due to the novelty and beauty of the artefacts I work on.
“As I begin to share more of my work with local communities in NSW, I hope that it will encourage a deeper appreciation for nature and our unique Australian heritage, both Indigenous and European, and encourage more people to visit regional communities in NSW.”
Towards a more sustainable future
Bernadette’s more recent research is focused on building collaborations with conservation ecologists and psychologists to study issues relating to biodiversity loss and eco-anxiety, which refers to a fear of environmental damage or disaster. To understand these issues in more depth, Bernadette enlists the help of University of Newcastle School of Creative Industries staff and students to wade through data and examine baseline biodiversity literacy in Australia and, eventually, from around the world.
“We plan to extend the conversation around biodiversity literacy and develop the project into an international review. The goal is to enable us to learn from other countries that have good records with biodiversity conservation, such as the UK and India, and enable us to share what is working in Australia.”
To help learnings translate into practice here in Australia, Bernadette is working to establish a Biodiversity Education and Engagement Network, bringing together key stakeholders from government, industry and community to discuss their greatest problems and successes regarding environmental conservation.
“We want to challenge all levels of government to think about land usage, conservation issues, climate science and Indigenous connection to the land.”
Spring-boarding from the topic of biodiversity loss, Bernadette’s work has now extended to include related fields such as sustainable fashion design, creative communication around the impact of climate change on coastal communities and the development of Geotrails in Western NSW, which combine Earth Science with ecology and Indigenous knowledge. Her work is also being incorporated into new, universally accessible learning curriculum for students, including a Drawing Nature, Science and Culture MOOC that has seen excellent success.
“These projects have the potential to help change the way we, as Australians, think about our world and its inhabitants, and to look at nature with respect.”
Across all her work, Bernadette carries a deep appreciation for nature and culture, the way it has shaped our past, and its impact on our future. Above all, she is committed to seeing her work lead to change for individuals and our world.
“The goal is to make an impact on an individual level but also at a policy-making level, adjusting the lens through which our land, its unique flora and fauna and its human occupants are viewed.”
The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.