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Big objects and Museum Workshop: exhibition opening

Dick Smith, Shane Mortimer and Andrew Sayers, 24 October 2012

ANDREW SAYERS: Welcome everybody to the National Museum of Australia. For those of you who don’t knowme, I’m Andrew Sayers, Director here of the National Museum of Australia. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which the National Museum stands, and shortly Shane Mortimer will welcome us to country - welcome Shane.

I would also like to welcome particularly to the National Museum: Mr Dick Smith AO and Pip Smith, Mr Peter Piggott AM and Mrs Anne Piggott, Jim Maple Brown and Mrs Pamela Maple Brown, Gary Humphreys, and the many members of the diplomatic community who are great supporters of the National Museum. I have to give apologies this evening for the chair of the National Museum, Danny Gilbert, who is in fact detained in Sydney on important National Museum business and was unable to join us. But I would like to welcome members of the National Museum of Australia Council including deputy chair Emeritus Professor Andrea Hull AO.

Tonight is a start. It’s the start of a new look and a new direction for the National Museum. And the manifestation of that - these wonderful objects from the Museum’s collection with which we have populated the Museum’s main Hall. This is a signal that we would really like to bring much more of the Museum’s collection to the fore. The Museum has a large part of its collection most of the time in store, and as much as we can do to bring as much of the collection out into the open as we can over the next few years we will do, both in terms of the permanent display such as we see in the Hall this evening and also in terms of our exhibition program. The objects that we display here in the main Hall are united by their travelling stories which reveal many places and periods of Australian history and culture: from the Dreamtime tracks of the recent Martumili Ngarra canvas to the journeys of the baby Citroën and Ernie Old’s Malvern Star road racer, both of which covered many thousands of kilometres as they circumnavigated and crisscrossed the continent. Also in the display there is a model of the paddle steamer Enterprise. While there is a model in this room, the real thing is out there on the lake, another one of the Museum’s working objects which is maintained by our professional staff and by a very devoted band of volunteers.

I think perhaps for the first time visitors to the Museum will have an immediate sense as they enter this hall that they are in a museum - as soon as they come through the doors. And eventually what we want to do is not only to populate this Hall with large objects but also the area as you come towards the Museum and also in the Garden of Australian Dreams so you will be able to look down on objects there as well. So that not only when you enter the Museum but as you approach it you will have a sense that you will be able to understand something of Australian history through the interpretation of these big things that we have in the collection.

And to complete the ensemble, in December we will be opening our beautiful new café and the café stretches out towards the lake. There’s a wonderful picture window out onto the lake and it will be a wonderful experience to sit in the café. So the café will be a great experience as a part of the Museum experience after you have experienced the interpretation of these large objects in this hall.

We also this evening have an exhibition called Museum Workshop and I will talk about that a little later. But first I should like to invite Mr Shane Mortimer to welcome us to country.

SHANE MORTIMER: Thank you, Andrew, ladies and gentlemen, special guests, Dick and Pip Smith, welcome, members of the diplomatic corps, Dr Margo Neale, wherever you are, and the great work you’re doing on the Indigenous side of things here with the National Museum, I acknowledge you, Paul Hodgkinson and Jill Van de Koort, my personal guests here this evening - welcome. The exhibition you are about to see, the preview I’ve had is fantastic. To meet and talk with the people who are behind the scenes who bring you these extraordinary exhibits, you are going to have the privilege of meeting some of those people tonight. It’s very exciting.

As I walked through the preview this evening I looked at all of the technota that’s here, the technology that has come through the centuries. It’s prompted me to share with you a very quick story about a friend of mine who lives up in the Gulf, an Aboriginal man and his wife and their six children, who live a customary life, a very simple life where they hunt food every day of their life to feed their family, and they live very well. This friend, Murphy, was telling me about hunting goanna. I said to him, ‘Are you using a spear or are you using a gun?’ He said, ‘No, if you sing the right song he knows it’s his time.’ He’s using frequency, a technology that we haven’t even caught up with, a technology that Aboriginal people have been using for tens of thousands of years that hasn’t been harnessed by western community. It’s fascinating when you meet a person like that. It’s makes you realise how much of your culture you’ve lost.

My privilege here today is as an elder representing over 400 members of my people, the Ngambri people for whom Canberra is named - and Canberra incidentally doesn’t mean ‘meeting place’, it means ‘cleavage’, the space between a woman’s breasts. It’s Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie, a wonderful place to be, and this is our corroboree ground where you are standing tonight. We speak the Walgalu language, and in that Walgalu language I say to you, [Indigenous language spoken], which means ‘welcome to Ngambri country’. Thank you.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Shane. The exhibition Museum Workshop, which we open this evening, is a world first and it’s a very different sort of exhibition. This is the first time anywhere in the world that you will be able to see the entire conservation workshop of a museum in action with not only the objects and the processes, but most importantly the people who bring their expertise to the preservation and conservation of the collection. For the next three months the exhibition will be populated with the staff of the Museum whose responsibility it is to look after the collection, and they will in fact be working on objects that will be included in future Museum exhibitions. It’s an opportunity not only to understand something about the important processes that go into the preservation of museum collections but also to meet the people who do the work and to engage one on one with them. So it’s a unique live exhibition.

One of the reasons that we wanted to mount this unique exhibition experience was some of the feedback and some of the interest that we had from our open days. When we have open days at our Museum store, hundreds of people, thousands of people, turn up and are deeply interested in process. I think as a community one of the things that characterises the contemporary age is that we are fascinated not just with end products but we are fascinated with the journeys of how things come to be the way they are and the human stories, the ups and downs, the challenges that are faced in the course of transformation. That’s really what we have tried to bring to you in the Museum Workshop exhibition - the story, the journey.

We have our conservation lab divided into paper textiles, large technology, objects and paintings sections. Each of those sections are working on significant objects for inclusion in the Museum’s future displays. You will be able to see period costumes from the nationally significant Springfield Collection. You will be able to see the large technology team working on restoring the Royal Daimler used by the Queen during her 1954 visit and supported by donations by the community. You will see conservators working on Aboriginal bark paintings from our world-renowned collection, which is going to be the focus of a major exhibition opening this time next year. And you will also be able to see a range of items which are being prepared in readiness for the exhibition with which we kick off the Centenary of Canberra year 2013 in March called Glorious Days - Australia 1913. Our conservators look forward to sharing their stories and the stories of objects with you, the visitors to the exhibition.

I would like to acknowledge particularly some people this evening who have been very significant in developing the Museum’s rich collection through generous donations. Beginning fittingly, I think, with Jim and Pamela Maple-Brown who donated the incomparable Springfield collection; also Val Grant and Shirley Breese, the granddaughters of Ernie Old who donated his famous Malvern star bicycle; the family of George and Janet Rankin whose family coach looks so wonderful on display here in the Museum; Mr Bruce Macdonald, the passionate collector of toy and model towns and as a part of this display we have a magnificent showcase with a large part of that collection; and Rex, Dean and Harrington Greeno, three generations of the family who are the makers of our newly commissioned Tasmanian bark canoe, a bark canoe made this year to an ancient blueprint. I would also like in closing to acknowledge Peter and Anne Piggott who are here this evening. Peter Piggott played a very significant role in envisioning the National Museum of Australia. We constantly refer, even today many decades later, to the principles of the Museum set out in the Piggott report. It’s fantastic that you are here this evening and able to help us to celebrate this next chapter in the evolution of the National Museum.

I would now like to introduce Dick Smith who is, of course, one of Australia’s most recognised individuals. He’s an adventurer, an aviator, an entrepreneur, an author and a philanthropist. He has served the public as Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority and later as chair of the Civil Aviation Safety Board. He led the National Council for the Centenary of Federation and served as an ambassador for the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. He is, as you all know, a passionate supporter of environmental and conservation efforts and since 1995 has been chairman of the Australian Geographic Society. In 1986 he was honoured as Australian of the Year.

In the late 1980s, Dick joined the Friends of the National Museum and was a very strong advocate for the establishment of a national museum, and he remains a true friend of the National Museum. I would like you to join me in welcoming Dick Smith to open tonight’s exhibition.

DICK SMITH: Thank you, Andrew, and it’s great to be here. I get criticised by the Murdoch press because I link my food company with patriotism. But I tell you what, you come into this Museum and you do feel patriotic, don’t you? ‘What’s wrong with that?’, I say. If I go to the Olympic Games I barrack for Australia, not for America, or Germany or somewhere else, and I think a bit of patriotism from time to time is good fun. I don’t take it too seriously. But when you go through this fantastic museum, especially looking at the saw doctor - how could you take that seriously? - what could be more Australian. A family in the Great Depression without any work built that vehicle and travelled around earning a dollar.

Before I was a member of the Friends of the Museum I was on the interim council for the Museum of Australia – wow, let me tell you about it. I think because of my friendship with Peter Piggott - Uncle Pete, where are you, Pete? Please put up your hand. There he is. He’s hiding. There’s a seat down here. You’re a VIP, Pete. Ah, the drinks are up there. That’s what it is.

Anyway, I have been a friend of Uncle Pete’s, and one day Bob Ellicott, the politician, rang me up and said, ‘Dick, look, I’d like you to go on the interim council for the Museum of Australia. It’s only a day a month or something like that down in Canberra.’ So I thought that’s sound okay. I have never done anything like that before. I only lasted about five meetings, and in the end I rang Bob Ellicott and said, ‘Bob, look, I have to resign. I was hopeless at school and I hated school. First of all I thought it reminded me of being at school, but then I said no, it reminded me of being in detention at school.’ Can you imagine a free enterprise bloke – I mean, I haven’t worked for anyone since I was 23 years of age, and I remember one particular meeting which went for two days and we discussed what the remuneration of the museum director was going to be. This went on and on. I said, ‘Look let’s give him a low retainer and a percentage of the ticket sales and the restaurant sales.’ That went down like a lead balloon of course. But then after the end of two days Don McMichael who was present suddenly looked up something and realised that the pay of the new museum director when it was opened was set by the Remuneration Tribunal. So we had just wasted two days. I thought, ‘Gee in my own business I would have sorted that out in about 12 seconds flat.’

But we definitely have a fantastic museum. Every time I’ve come here, I like it better. I must admit at the opening I was concerned about this big room here because I am a marketing bloke, I like to get into a museum and see the objects. Already we’ve now got some fantastic objects here. Andrew, I think you can fit a few more in. Even if they tell you that the roof is not strong enough, no, you can dangle a few more things off the roof, because this is a fantastic room here looking out across the lake. What you’ve done is fantastic. It can be made even better.

The other thing I would like to comment on is the workshop. What a fantastic idea. I don’t know if the conservators are going to be doing as much work as they normally do but, for communicating the conservation work of the Museum, you couldn’t have anything better. It’s an absolutely brilliant idea. I talked to the conservators working on the Daimler and I couldn’t believe they are actually paid. One of them whispered to me, ‘Dick, I would do it for nothing.’ So there you are, you can save some money, Andrew. Ever the businessman.

It’s interesting when I first came to this Museum I was interested in the European Australia - the Birtles vehicle, the original Holden car, all of those things. Now I’ve got a completely different idea. I love the original Australian exhibition and that’s Aboriginal Australia. I will tell you why: I have stopped and thought there’s no-one who has benefited from growth more than me. I started my business when we had about ten million people in Australia, we now have 22 million, so it would be hard not to make money. But I have realised that European men and women have been in this country about 220 years. We are using something like 50 per cent more of the resources that we replace every year, so that can’t go on. I have often said an economic system, which is ours, that requires perpetual growth in the use of resources and energy is not sustainable.

Then I think about Aboriginal men and women who lived here for 20, 30, 40, 50 maybe 60,000 years in total balance and you look at that exhibit. Maybe it was because they didn’t have a grain that they could grow crops and that meant they couldn’t move into towns and couldn’t get those efficiencies - the type of modern society that we now have. But could it have been that they were sensible and they realised that what we are doing now is not sustainable.

So to me, to go and look at the Aboriginal section and wing of the Museum, it’s absolutely fantastic. My favourite object here is the dugout canoe built by the Aboriginal people up at Borroloola, I think, where I have been. I think most of us would agree that we are very fortunate people in this country to be able to afford a beautiful museum like this. By the way, any of the business people around, how about digging in deep for another donation? Pip and I have decided to put a bit more money in. I think everyone should do that. We often talk about the government doing everything but the tradition in America is that most of the arts and most of the museums are paid by the business community. There are some fantastic donors here like the Maple-Browns, but I’m sure we could do better.

Just in closing, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales recently sent me a book that he wrote called Harmony. It’s interesting because in the media here we’re told that Prince Charles talks to his plants and he’s made out to be a bit eccentric but he’s actually a very learned person. His book, which is basically saying that you need to live in balance with society, with nature, is so true. I would suggest if you can you read it.

I have to open here the new main Hall and of course the Museum Workshop, so I declare both open. Thank you very much. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you very much, Dick. They were fantastic words. I think if we remember that the National Museum’s principal interests are not only Australian history since 1788 but also the interaction of people and the landscape and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, your words could not have been more apposite - so thank you.

I would like to acknowledge the staff of the Museum across the whole organisation who have put in such a huge effort to bring these exhibitions to life. It’s been a mammoth effort and will continue throughout the course of the Museum Workshop with the conservation staff of the Museum working over the Christmas period to present the story of conservation to visitors to the Museum. I would also like to thank Carcoons Australia who have donated the carcoon. What’s a carcoon, you’ll ask? You’ll find out as soon as you go into the Museum Workshop exhibition. It’s an important part of our conservation tools in the Museum. I would like also in closing to acknowledge Capital Wines, tonight’s wine sponsor, who are great friends of the National Museum.

Tonight the Museum Shop is open. It was interesting that Dick mentioned that he thought the director’s remuneration should be based on shop revenue and restaurant revenue. I can tell you our shop is doing fantastically. So although my salary is established by the Remuneration Tribunal, don’t let that stop you from going to the shop or, when we open the café at the beginning of December, patronising what will be a beautiful experience. Thank you and enjoy the exhibitions. [applause]

Date published: 14 December 2012