Australian Journeys: review and panel discussion
Review by Michael Cathcart, chaired by Louise Douglas and with panel member Martha Sear, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009
LOUISE DOUGLAS: My name is Louise Douglas. I am the general manager here at the National Museum and I will be chairing this final session for the day. The stellar crew of people we have for you this afternoon doesn’t include Kirsten Wehner. As you have already heard, Kirsten was absolutely unable to be here today so we are missing one of our key thinkers around the gallery development process. But luckily we do have Martha Sear and some of the Australian Journeys curatorial team here with us this afternoon. They will be able to participate in this discussion very fully.
Michael Cathcart has joined us today. You have the speakers’ notes in your folders so I won’t go through them in any great detail. You should note that Michael Cathcart is a great public historian and a great supporter of the idea of history outside academe and has worked within radio and television mediums to bring history to a wide audience. He has just finished a PhD on the history of water - how prescient is that! - that is about to be published. We are very interested to hear what Michael has to say.
I am going to make a few introductory remarks. The Australian Journeys exhibition is number two in a set of three projects that the Museum has been working on since 2004: Circa, which we have heard about and hopefully many of you have had a chance to see it, was opened in December last year; Australian Journeys which we are about to talk about; and Creating a Country, which I think you have heard a bit of reference to already today, is the exhibition that will replace the current Nation exhibition which is on the lower ground floor. These three projects essentially came out of the review that was undertaken of the Museum soon after opening and resulted in substantial additional funding for the Museum to undertake these three projects. That is an important thing to say particularly in light of the Circa presentation earlier, because we did have a substantial budget to undertake that project and to enable us to do it at the highest possible level we could. The budget being an additional allocation is I guess important for you to understand.
At the same time we continued with a dynamic exhibition program; we established a new research centre; and we have been expanding our website. The work we have been doing on the permanent galleries has had to sit alongside all the other activities that the Museum has been responsible for. Australian Journeys opened in December last year, and we haven’t started doing formal evaluation of it yet. This is one of our first chances to have a bit of a talk about the impact of the exhibition. Those of you who have been to a Museums Australia critique, normally what is done is that the exhibition maker does a presentation and sets the scene. We have decided to abandon that approach.
What we have asked Michael to do first up is unencumbered and unbriefed to talk about his response -
MICHAEL CATHCART: They gave me no help at all.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: That’s right, no help at all - to talk about the exhibition. We will then have Martha and her curatorial crew respond, and then we will have plenty of time for exchange of ideas between the audience and Michael and the curators.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Thanks, Louise. The others will come up and sit with me later, will they?
MARTHA SEAR: No, you will just have me sitting here and the giant cohort will just stay there.
MICHAEL CATHCART: I will try to keep my remarks short so that there is plenty of time for discussion because I am just one person with one set of opinions. I have looked over the exhibition today. I came here early and saw it just after I had had breakfast. Then I have been ducking out in the course of today’s proceedings to revisit it and think about it and dwell with it. I will give you some of my responses and then shut up.
As you have heard, I am an Australian historian so this is my home territory. I feel I am among the things I know about and I feel that I am looking at a story or stories unfolding that I have encountered before. I don’t have any fixed idea about the story that should be told here. I don’t have an ideological agenda but I do think that history for the public should tick three boxes.
The first is that you need a powerful story with big human emotions. I don’t think these are necessarily characteristics you want to find in an academic paper but I think that once you go public you need big human emotions embedded in a big story.
Secondly, I reckon you need a compelling argument, and I think it is good if out of those two things you surprise people so that they come away saying, ‘Gosh, I didn’t know that. Isn’t that surprising? I would never have thought that’ so that you give them an unusual take on something or you just bring into their minds something they didn’t know had happened.
The third thing you need are terrific pictures or terrific objects - terrific stuff to work with. So if you are on television you need good shots; if you are in a museum you need nice, startling or eye-catching things to look at. Those are the three things I am looking for.
I am also aware, just to pick up on what Louise was saying, that this all happened in the wake of the evaluation of the Museum under the Howard government. I don’t think we should beat around the bush about this. I was looking for signs of the impact of that. I was thinking all right, the Howard government didn’t like what was here before. They commissioned a review, and I know that the Howard government saw taxpayers’ money as its money. The minister would ring the major theatre companies, would ring Film Australia and would get involved in funding of research, because the argument again and again was ‘Look, this is our money.’ They would ring the AFC [Australian Film Commission] and say, ‘These are our films. Don’t you understand these are our films. We don’t want to see the other lot stories. These are our films.’ Or the minister would ring one of the major theatre companies if there was a play on that was slightly critical or very critical of the government and say, ‘You are biting the hand that feeds you. Be clear about that. Do not bite the hand that feeds you.’
So there was a very clear political drive to reshape the public conversation because people on the right thought that the elites - that is, people who had been educated at universities and come out as Marxist or close to being Marxist - were dominating the public conversation. They were teaching our children, they were running the ABC, they were designing exhibitions in museums - everywhere they were confronting left-wing propaganda and now it was their turn, they were going to get rid of all that left-wing propaganda and put in their stuff. My own view is that that turns on a simple view of the world as it being divided into two camps and that what the right misunderstood was but what they actually had in Australia was diversity - people telling lots of stories from lots of different points of view. Sometime you would hear a gay story or an Aboriginal story or an environmental story or a women’s story or a regional story - but if you are on the right you said but it is just those homosexual, tree-hugging whale-saving - one big conglomerate. If you have ever been involved in the left you will know how easily the left fragments. It doesn’t naturally conglomerate into one big tyranny. Anyway, that was the view.
So I am thinking okay, I am not an insider here at all. I am coming here and thinking: Has that shaped what has come out of this? Has some kind of censorship been at work there? I am asking that question. I would be interested to hear what people have to say, because I would be surprised if I hear that there was no sense of pressure at all, that there was an agenda that had to be met, because that was the real politic everywhere else. So perhaps it was here too. That is not a shameful thing. It may be just a thing you had to work with.
The other thing that that period of censorship didn’t like is it didn’t like irony; it didn’t like irreverence; and it didn’t like playfulness. It wanted statements in national institutions to be worthy and important and it never wanted them to be self-critical. I am asking myself: is this reflected in the museum? Have we lost irony or playfulness or a sense of self-criticism? As I walk around this Museum along with achievements, Anzacs and stump jump ploughs, will I find the white Australia policy? Will I find the black wars of Tasmania? Will I find the stolen generation or talk of environmental damage or challenges to dissent? Of course you need some dissent because you have to prove that you are a democracy. So there must be some dissent otherwise that would be very awkward. It was terrific to hear Jay Arthur’s talk. I thought it was galvanising the talk she gave about the exhibition she is preparing, and the idea that there will be a sticker that says ‘the Vesteys suck black mud’ in an exhibition was startling. In making these remarks I don’t want to repeat the ideological tit for tat that the right-wing commissariat engaged in. I am not interested in seeing a museum that reflects orthodoxy; I want Australia and museums to be plural, complex and a place where ideologies clash.
My second issue is this: this is a national museum and Australian Journeys is a core national story. What sort values or achievements do we want that national story to affirm? What high drama do we present? Or are you uncomfortable here at the Museum - I don’t know; I would like to hear you talk - about the nationalist project? Howard [Morphy] referred to this in his address this morning. If you went to a national museum in France or Germany, or China or the USA, you would expect it to be affirming of their national achievement on a big scale. Many of us as Australians don’t really feel comfortable with that. We don’t beat our chests and say, ‘This is the Australian achievement.’ Is that okay? Or do we actually need to stand up a bit taller and say that there are things we have done and we can tell a good story about who we are and what we are becoming. If we pose an alternative to nationalism and to national pride, if we are going to vest it in something else, then we need to spell that out. It shouldn’t be absent from the Museum. You might say, if you have an alternative to nationalism this is what it is.
Let me talk briefly about drama. Howard Morphy gave us this wonderful story about the Yolgnu spear thrower. It took 30 minutes to do that talk and by the end of it I was in love with the object, and I was even more in love with the object that had a twin, one that came with the other side. But, of course, if you put a Yolgnu spear thrower in a perspex case, you have just got a bit of wood, a stick in a box with a label on it. What I have learnt today is that is the issue that museum people are struggling with every single day. In the end you have a thing and you have a label. We live in a world that is presenting us with narratives that are so much more complex and wild than that. So I am very aware of how big a challenge this is in such an interactive world. Those are my introductory remarks.
So we arrive at Australian Journeys, and I came from the end you are intended to come from, which is not from this end but from the far end. So you come up the stairs and you have a lovely sense of arrival. As you come up the staircase there is a lovely old globe of the world and you feel that Australia should be there but it sort of isn’t. You read the label and it tells you this is xx projection and there is something there that one day will morph into Australian, some vague shape that is the Great Southern Land. I thought that was lovely. I like fabulous maps and that was a fabulous map.
Then you enter this reflective and restful space that opens out in front of you with a series of little visits, little booths that you are going to see. That theme is carried on as you walk along the side. There is a series of maps of the Great Southern Land. It’s a traditional way of opening the Australian story with the fantasy of the Great Southern Land. I have seen it many times before and I thought it was done nicely.
There were things along the way. I liked the unexpected intrusions. We get the Macassan fishermen arriving. You look in their little case and it has a giant wok which says they used it for processing trepang. I don’t know how they processed it and you have these horrible looking dried things which turned out to be dried trepang, which I had never seen before. I have read the word so often and lectured about it, but I had no idea what they were. I knew they were something slightly crusty that came out of the ocean and there they are looking not really worth all that trouble - I don’t mean in the Museum, I mean for those Maccassans. Hooly dooly, that is what you were after; that is what it was all about.
Then I drifted over to my right and I came to a cabinet in which there is an embroidered map of the world. It is absolutely gorgeous. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there are two discs in embroidery hoops which some nice, well-bred, young girl in England has embroidered. They are a map of the world and then when you look a bit more closely - in fact, you are told to look more closely by the little card - you realise that it has Captain Cook’s journey tatted across the Pacific. I thought that was very intriguing. Then I thought okay, I wonder whether something more lyrical is possible here, something about the way the British were stitching the world together because we are being asked to think of this object as a metaphor for something bigger, it is to stand for something greater than itself. This is when I started to think: I don’t know that it quite does that; I think it is caught in its own particularity. It is not actually talking about the way in which Cook inscribed himself and those countries onto a British map in the world in the way that this young lady has embroidered her map onto her little map of the world. There is a kind of imperial ambition in her embroidery, and I am not sure that the scale of that drama is quite present in the little box. I think its particularity, its sweetness, is there but not its audacity, if you see what I mean.
And then I didn’t know which way to go, which box to go to next. I wasn’t sure whether I was being taken on a journey of a line of travel. I sensed that it was going to be chronological because I could see down the far end there was some stuff that looked like recent migrant stuff, ethnic stuff, and I was up here with the early maps and colonial stuff. So I thought that this has to be a chronological job but I don’t know where to go next. I sort of wanted the Museum to take me by the hand actually. I didn’t feel that I was going to get bossed around or ordered about; I just felt that I am on a journey myself and I need a more resolute guide.
I am not going to tell you everything I looked at, I will just visit three or four objects and then shut up. The next thing I looked at was the First Fleet table and I reckon the First Fleet table could be a star exhibit. It is gorgeous. We saw it earlier on in one of the pictures. It is this sweet little table that appears to have a hinge on it. It is about the size of a writing desk and it is made out of something called beef wood. The story is fantastic. Surgeon-General John White who was on the First Fleet, so he is one of the founding chappies, gets a hunk of something called beef wood, called beef wood because it looks like beef - isn’t that fantastic and British! - and sends it off to England where someone does a job on it and turns it into this rather dinky little table with all this inlay and fiddly bits. Again, I thought it is demanding to stand for something bigger than itself. The colonists came here and they cut down trees. That is the first act of coronial entitlement. It is also the first thing they have to do in order to have somewhere to live. And this is the product of that act of imperial claim laying that went on. I felt there could be more interpretation in that. Maybe it goes back to England as a trophy from an exotic part of the world or maybe it’s a symbol of the civilising process, what the British have done to this hunk of beef wood they will end up doing to the whole of Australia; they will turn it all into a dinky table with a hinge instead of being this vulgar wood.
Maybe the fact that I thought these things means that they are there after all. But I suspect I thought these things because I am a professional who thinks about this stuff all the time. Maybe I am just being presumptuous; maybe everyone would get this and I actually don’t have any skills at all. I am being paid under false pretences. We all know this stuff from the ground up.
Then I came to one of my favourite objects in the collection, the convict tokens. I love the convict tokens. I couldn’t see them because when I looked up there was a kind of glare from the light above. Then I discovered there was a torch which was rather nice. You get this little torch and shine it on them. That is rather good. I liked that. I felt as thought I was exploring, investigating, so I went with the torch. I thought that was good. Again, I guess I would like to know more.
I was beginning to think about the interpretation cards, whether they were stimulating, provoking, intriguing or inspiring me or whether they were simply giving me safe information, whether they were saying, ‘We don’t want to impose on you. This is what this thing is. Make of it what you will.’ I wanted the Museum to intervene more.
I thought about that again when Jennifer Wilson was talking about the importance of authenticity as an ideal when she was talking about the Circa exhibition. I must say with the shot of the Mexican water I would have used the shot. I really would have and I thought that even more strongly when I was in there. For heaven’s sake, that shot must have cost $2,000 or $3,000. I couldn’t see how you could justify re-shooting that. I just couldn’t get it.
I know that we don’t want a museum to have fake objects in it. But, really and truly, I wondered whether this focus on authenticity was actually getting in the way of the kind of audacity you have to have to interpret. History is about living within a binary opposition. On the one hand, you have to have humility; you have to shut up and listen. You have to stop thinking what your values are, whether you are a feminist or a land rights activist, because the truth is when you go back and research something, you don’t get it. If you did get it, you wouldn’t do the research. You have to shut up and listen to what people or the sources are telling you and just let it wash over you, wash into you, invade you, and have the humility to listen. But then comes a moment when you have to have the courage to interpret where you have to say, ‘I spent six months living this and I do get it. I am now going to tell you what it all adds up to.’ In relation to the Victa lawn mower, this authentic thing came with the Victa lawn mower that is in a cabinet. You come along and think how fantastic, a Victa lawn mower. Then you think: is this an authentic Victa lawn mower? Well, in one way it is because it is clearly an old Victa lawn mower. But of course it is not an authentic Victa lawn mower because an authentic Victa lawn mower is smelly, dirty and is in the wood hut. This one has been all cleaned up and it’s in a plastic box. What’s more, it would be inappropriate to take that Victa lawn mower out of there and mow the lawn with it. Do you see what I mean? It’s the Duchamp effect. You have this lawn mower that you can no longer use to mow the lawn. So in some ways it’s not authentic; it’s been stripped of its very essence. It is not actually a lawn mower any more; it’s a thing that used to be a lawn mower that is now an object in a museum. You almost have to perform this kind of taxidermy where the lawn mower has been taken out and you have to stuff it with meaning. I am probably going on too long.
There was one other little object where I thought we were getting a little bit obscure. There is a lovely exhibition of beautiful Indonesian puppets and some nice Gamelans which you are allowed to hit. It’s a little bit painful because there are these beautiful Gamelans in this box and four little Gamelan things that you can hit, and you think really what I want to do is get in there and play those big ones. But anyway, I am allowed to hit these four little ones. Then you wouldn’t notice it, but on a little box there is a wharfie’s hook just like the hook we saw earlier. And I thought it’s a wharfie’s hook. I admit I didn’t get it. What’s a wharfie’s hook doing in a case with some Indonesian puppets and a Gamelan. I thought I am not going to get this, I will have to look at the card. And of course - many of you will be way ahead of me - it is because the waterside workers were so active in the struggle for the Indonesian independence from the Dutch and in fact there was a lot of action on the docks black-banning ships and so on. I got it then. So that hook is literally a hook for an idea, but it was a little bit sort of nice, a bit cute, if you know what I mean. The passion, the anger and the kind of brawn that went into that struggle was somehow absent.
I won’t go on. What I saw were these beautiful objects, a wonderful collection. I saw the incredible skill with which curators can display these objects; the beautiful sensitivity with which we are asked to progress from one to the other - it is almost Zen the way it is laid out with its beautiful use of space. It gives museums something to aim for, something to envy just in the sheer technique of how you do it. But I guess I came away thinking: did I want an exhibition to go for the throat or to go to the heart? I didn’t feel that quite happened. I felt I wanted the interpretation to be more robust in the end. I will conclude there, and now you can attack me.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Martha, are you ready to rock’n roll?
MARTHA SEAR: Shall I jump in? Awesome, yes, no worries. Thanks, Michael. It’s absolutely terrific to get your views on the gallery, and I will really look forward to hearing views from the audience as well. We are very excited that the gallery is open. We would welcome everyone’s opinions, thoughts, views and suggestions. It’s wonderful to be at the beginning of this kind of a conversation. We have been champing at the bit to have it. So that is terrific. I might just make a few general comments along the lines of giving you a bit of insight into the interpretive approach that we did take. Then I might round back and look a little at some of the specific points you have made and maybe ask you a couple of questions so I can understand a little better.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Okay.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: We didn’t tell you we were going to be asking you questions, Michael?
MARTHA SEAR: I would like to start by acknowledging that Australian Journeys was created by a very large team of people, many of whom are here today, and particularly to acknowledge Mat Trinca and Kirsten Wehner who were the writers of the original brief for the gallery. I acknowledge not only the curatorial team who are here but also the many colleagues with whom the collaborative process of making Australian Journeys was a pleasure. All of you together have contributed to the material that you can see on display and the interpretive intent that is there. I just want to acknowledge that in the room there could easily be 30, 40 or 50 people who have all contributed something to making the gallery come into being.
SPEAKER: So you are in trouble, Michael.
MICHAEL CATHCART: I realise that.
MARTHA SEAR: By the pure weight of numbers. It is incredibly interesting to hear people speak through the course of the day. I was particularly interested to hear Howard [Morphy] speak this morning and to see that in a way his presentation around the spear thrower in many ways has many parallels with the kind of approach we took to developing the content within Australian Journeys. To begin with, the brief gave us an overview of Australia’s transnational history, the ways in which journeys to and from Australia had connected Australia to the world and the ways in which places in Australia were intimately connected with places abroad. So we had the scope and some of the thematic detail mapped out in the brief.
But we then undertook to develop the gallery from the objects out. We identified what we called key objects, those items that seemed to be full of resonance and possibility to explore many different facets of that interconnection between Australia and the rest of the world. To begin by looking in detail at those specific objects - the First Fleet table, a convict love token, an embroidered map, a Dan tre musical instrument and an Irish dancing dress - in a similar way to the way that Howard did this morning to explore their origins, their form, their cultural context, the many ways in which they have been used, owned, exchanged - the whole trajectory of their life history as it were became the focus of our initial research. We compiled what we call object biographies, which is a method that comes from within material culture studies about trying to explore the agency of objects in the creation of human and historical experience. Out of that research and out of those biographies came the other objects which we felt would come to accompany those key objects in the exhibits.
So you can see how, for example, we began with the First Fleet table and the story of the cutting down of the tree in New South Wales and the effort by John White to ‘suck up’ to his patron in England by sending him this lump of unbelievably precious wood, which seasoned on the voyage and then was taken immediately to a cabinet maker in London and transformed into the veneer on top of a mahogany table, which then sat in Snape Hammond’s ancestral home for the next 200 or so years. This seemed like both a very particular story about the patronage relationships which connected the officers of the First Fleet with the navy administration within Great Britain and the ways in which the lives of those people were so intimately connected to maintaining those powerful relationships across thousands of miles. This process of the transformation of the wood into the table seems like a powerful way of exploring that transnational connection.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Can I interrupt you and let us talk about that. Everything you have unpacked there I agree with you is in that box. Everything you have said I got. But I did dwell there for a long time and I suppose I thought there might be some way in which this could hit someone between the eyes and be more dramatic. There’s a kind of care and prudence about the way in which the interpretive material is worded. It is not worded in a way that is punchy or startling. It is worded responsibly, if you know what I mean.
MARTHA SEAR: That is really interesting. I suppose I would be interested to hear people’s views on how they would compare the text in Australian Journeys with the text that is more characteristic of the Museum’s other exhibitions, because we tried to quite consciously bring a different kind of voice to Australian Journeys - that was a voice that we felt was conversational, more informal than the Museum voice that you might encounter in the rest of the Museum. The words you used for what you were looking for, weirdly enough, were the words that we used for what we hoped we would do. We hoped we would be provocative; we hoped we would be conversational; we hoped that we would be open-ended in our interaction with visitors. That is perhaps where maybe what you are picking up was that we felt that we wanted to recognise, acknowledge and draw upon the vibrancy of the visitors’ own engagement with what they were seeing, what they were coming to, to know in this new environment that they had walked into. I would be interested to hear particularly people who wrote the text but others talk a little about it. The style is quite different to the rest of the museum. When we worked with the publishing team we worked to try to evolve a different style. It is really interesting if that hasn’t come out for you as powerfully as we had intended. That is a salutary comment.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Of course I am getting the wobbles now. One caution is that I am saying: am I wrong other people won’t get it; am I overestimating the professionalism that I am bringing to this and which other people may not be bringing to it? Perhaps I have got that wrong. But anyway we should hear from other people.
MARTHA SEAR: I would be interested to hear from others. From the content development side of things, we felt very confident in the visitors’ own capacity to make meaning out of the presentation of the variety of objects that were presented to them - the material culture, the images, the text and the media. This was partly because the evaluation that we did to lead up to the development of the gallery was based on putting the objects in front of the people and asking them: what do you want to know? What interests you about this? Then giving them a bit more of the story and then saying: what part of this is the part that you are most fascinated by or that moves you or that touches you? It was out of that process that the interpretive direction kind of flowed. Anyway, over to the rest of the discussion.
QUESTION: My name is Alan Pain and I am just an ordinary punter. When I come to museums I am not looking for punchy. There are museums in town. There is one on the other side of the lake that I can’t even go to any more - it is so punchy they might as well see themselves as just a recruiting agency for the defence force, I think. That is just an uninformed view.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Which museum are we talking about there?
LOUISE DOUGLAS: The War Memorial.
MICHAEL CATHCART: I see.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: He doesn’t come from Canberra.
QUESTION: A question to both folk. Clearly Michael has a sense of the need of the object to speak for itself, and clearly the Museum has the problem of giving enough information so those who know nothing about it somehow understand what the object is and what its value and interest is. Is there any sort of ideal balance? Is there any generic thing or is it always an individual case and that you have to do it case by case - this one needs 20 words; this one needs 30 words? I ask the question because some of the people sitting behind me in our classes have as their major project for the year to take a photograph of a visiting celebrity and write the caption for it. That is their major project for the year, and it has to be less than 50 words. There is a whole lot of other stuff that goes with that writing project. But the interest is that for the people curating an exhibition like that, there is something to be learned about how much you can say in the space you have and what you actually need to say. I am interested in both of your reactions to that. Do you think it’s a good exercise? I certainly think it is or I wouldn’t have set it.
MICHAEL CATHCART: I suppose the other part of it that I was really aware of is that the challenge you had with this exhibition that the objects don’t provide a context for each other. When you are in a natural history museum and you are looking at marsupials, you have a whole bunch of marsupials so you start to accumulate information that resonate off each other. But in every little box it is a whole new beginning for you. You have to set up all this new stuff so that Damien Parer’s camera, which might be his camera, speaks and what we just saw of the Gamelan orchestra is not going to help you one jot. So I was very aware of what an enormous challenge it was to create a new context every time.
MARTHA SEAR: In a way the chronology of the gallery helps to set some of the context in the way that objects that are roughly the same period are located near one another. But you are right: it’s a challenge to produce the context. But I guess the question is: what is the context that you are trying to produce? What we were endeavouring to do was to group objects in relation to perhaps the key object and in relation to each other so that they produce a range of contexts and a range of views and interpretations through the visitors’ own movement through the space.
I am fascinated by the extent to which people place so much emphasis on the text as being the place where the interpretation and the meaning is primarily being presented. As I was listening to you speak, Michael, I was wondering you were grappling with this sense in which the spear thrower was just a stick in a box and that isn’t really in accord with the feeling I have about the possibilities that material culture has to engage people physically, imaginatively, conceptually as well as to come to kind of experiences that Brian [Crozier] was talking about.
I was curious to ask you the question about when you say want to be more punchy, you kind of immediately went to the text being more punchy. Whereas what we were fundamentally engaged in trying to do was to use the object culture as the primary focus of the visitors’ attention and the primary thing with which visitors were engaging - and by objects I mean the widest range, material culture and all of those other kinds. I wonder why we keep coming back to this question about text, because text is only an element within the whole field of interpretive objects with which the visitor is presented in an exhibition.
SPEAKER: Can I answer that briefly. One of the reasons for raising it is that, when you go to a blockbuster at the National Gallery for example, the most annoying thing about all of them is the person standing in front of you with the bloody headphones on, who won’t move, who is fixated on that and can’t feel that you are there. There are probably things that are dangerous to do in terms of flow of people or giving people access to the object and so on, and clearly one way to do it is have a quick and dirty way of doing it, which is 50 words that give you the data that you need that will help to locate that object. That is why the text is important. Teaching people to be able to write that is a really tremendous challenge. Without it, what are convict love tokens? What do they mean? Where are they from? You can think of the questions that you need to write the words for, but I don’t think the words can cease to be important unless somebody walks with you and says, ‘This is what these things are.’
MARTHA SEAR: I am sorry, I wouldn’t want what I have just said to be misunderstood in terms of the incredibly important role that words in an exhibition, but it’s a question of what the words are doing. In Australian Journeys we tried to make the words part of a physical and imaginative conversation between the curator, the visitor and the objects so that what you will find in the words is often a provocation to look back into the case - if you look closely at the such and such; the object, even though you can’t feel it, it weighs 12 kilograms - to ask people to not look at the text and then move their gaze on but rather to look at the object again and then pick up something new and create a kind of interaction between the text and objects, rather than the text being the explanation for the objects which are illustrative.
QUESTION: by Kylie Message. I was desperate to go next because my question follows on really well from that. I want to ask you about the interrelationship or the interplay between Circa and Australian Journeys. My interest is in whether Circa was designed to provide an alternative way to orientate the visitor intellectually to what they are about to experience in Australian Journeys; and how does that interplay, do you think, between the representation of the authentic objects in Circa and the actual objects in Australian Journeys? There are probably two questions in there.
MARTHA SEAR: Would Bronwyn and Jen like to begin answering that question?
JENNIFER WILSON: As Louise said in her introduction, Circa was the first cab off the rank, the first of three projects, and certainly Circa is part of the same intellectual discussion that we have been having in the Museum for some time so the three things are very much related. And when you eventually walk through Creating a Country there will be a relationship between all three as well. Circa, which I didn’t go into detail on, is very much an introduction to the Museum’s exhibitions so it has a very strong connection.
The question of authenticity did flow out in Circa from the same object biography investigations that were going on as part of Australian Journeys. There is a lot of similar research in order to create the authenticity in Circa and stick to that kind of focus that was part of the same focus on the object that we were having in Australian Journeys. That is why the two do relate very nicely to one another, and in fact Circa makes more sense now, I think, with Australian Journeys being open because it shows that focus on the object coming out in the Museum work.
MARTHA SEAR: Two things come to mind about answering in relation to Circa, and the first one is that Circa represents the Museum as a place where you will encounter material culture, you will encounter objects, and that is the means by which the Museum will generate knowledge and communicate knowledge. And secondly, many of the objects that you see in Circa briefly, partially or even in full you will see again. There was a quite deliberate effort, as far as I understand, to try to create a good mesh between the artefacts that you would see in Old New Land, Australian Journeys, Nation, the Gallery of First Australians and Eternity, that you would meet them perhaps briefly first in Circa but then you would encounter them again, they would be vaguely familiar to you and you would have a sense of them in the flow of that chronology.
MICHAEL CATHCART: It would be interesting to know whether that sense of familiarity works at the subconscious level because you only see the First Fleet table for a flash - it’s a little bit spooky - and then you think, ‘Oh I know that. Where do I know that from?’
MARTHA SEAR: It would be interesting to see with the evaluation how that works.
QUESTION: My name is Hanna Gason and I am student with museums and collections at ANU and I have a question or comment to Michael. I was very interested in your thoughts on the maps and globe. I was interested to know other thoughts on cartographic material in exhibitions where they are authentic as an object but not necessarily accurate, sometimes showing different information depending on what the producer of the map or globe wants to show and just your general thoughts.
MICHAEL CATHCART: You obviously have something in mind. Do you want to unpack it a bit more before I answer?
QUESTION: I am just interested in the idea of maps: they are sometimes thought of as showing information that is true but they are representations and they can show land in sizes that people want to represent.
MICHAEL CATHCART: A map can be a profoundly ideological document. Even when you are giving a lecture, if you put up a map of Australia in which you show when the different colonies were settled so that you might have a blank map and then put up Sydney in 1788, Melbourne in 1835 and Perth whatever the date is. You can imagine a map like that with the dots appearing one by one and the map is blank. If you do the same exercise but you put the Aboriginal land map on and then put those dates on, ideologically it has a completely different impact. I think you are right: clearly maps are ideological and it is interesting to unpack them. If you draw a map of the Kimberley and look at its mineral reserves, that is saying one thing about the Kimberley and a lands right map is saying another. It is how you bring those two together that is the great challenge, isn’t it?
QUESTION: I would just like to speak in defence of the table. I thought it was quite an evocative piece because it had been there; whereas I did a quick compare and contrast with the Darwin exhibit and there were some letters there and then you read ‘Oh no, they are facsimile’. They are sitting in cabinets but they immediately lost their appeal because they hadn’t been there. They hadn’t been touched by his hand. Whereas some of the books that were on display which had been on the Beagle had that presence certainly for people who like the idea of the real object. The other thing that was interesting was the recreation of Darwin’s study. I presume that most of those objects are not authentic, but the grouping certainly told a good story and equally it was well described and there was a good legend there. I would suggest that a properly designed cabinet display, with some interpretation certainly, if it has the authentic object that has been there does have emphasis or impact on the viewer.
SPEAKER: Question by Claire Martin. I am sorry I haven’t been through the Australian Journeys in any detail but I do wonder about the chronology. When you start with an early map and you are in the present, it establishes a kind of lack. But you know the answer has to be now. What I am wondering is if you had gone through it in the opposite direction and started out with the present, then you would have had a question: where did this come from; how did it get there? So you would have more questioning if you did the reverse chronology starting from the present and going backwards.
MARTHA SEAR: The great thing about the Australian Journeys gallery space is that it is equally possible to read the gallery from the past to the present and present to the past. Whilst one end of the gallery has been given slightly more significance as an entry point from the point of view of feedback we had from visitor services hosts about the circulation of visitors through the gallery. There was a strong sense from the people who guide Museum visitors all the time that the end closer to the Boab tree in the Nation gallery was the primary point of entry and that visitors would mostly come in that direction. But there was also the strong possibility that they would come from this direction. I suppose we opened the possibility of either way. It’s really interesting to think about whether moving from the present to the past creates more questions than moving from the past to the present.
MICHAEL CATHCART: You actually have a sign at this end that says it’s cool, you can go this way.
QUESTION: by Howard Morphy. Which fortunately I did. I have not a comment, but I suppose it’s a slightly amusing thing, to Michael because I really agreed with him about the film of the sea over Mexico. But then I had to reflect on the fact that I had been involved in making a digital media thing for the Maritime Museum on saltwater paintings from north-east Arnhem Land. When we talk Dhuwa and Yirritja, it also applies to the sea and when we showed it first of all to the Yolngu, this area of sea that I had just selected as an area of sea, they said, ‘Oh no, that is completely the wrong sea. That is actually not Yirritja sea, that is Dhuwa sea and you have someone singing about Yirritja sea.’ There are going to be contexts in which precisely those kind of things count. My intuition is that they didn’t count in the context of Circa, but one never knows. This is the problem. You do have to think of these things quite seriously.
MICHAEL CATHCART: It would be interesting to know what the Mexicans think.
QUESTION: by Howard Morphy. I was a little concerned with something you brought up very early on in relation to the bark paintings being perhaps out of time. That was in a way reinforced by both of those areas because it reinforced the stereotype that bark paintings belong to the past and acrylic paintings to the present and the future, because there is a tendency to move in that particular direction. People in north-east Arnhem Land would find this a very false kind of view of the world. So there are those kinds of dangers.
That brings me to a question that I think almost any single trope or idea is going to have dangers and yet at the same time in order to create a coherent exhibition in a relatively limited space you have certain kind of problems. I think it is important to understand the story of an object as being one possibly trope because it begins from the object out, and then you ask: what do you want to know about this object? In some ways you were then concerned with: what do I want the audience to know about the object as well? But nonetheless it starts on a particular kind of way.
In some ways you want to sometimes be beginning with completely the opposite direction and instead of saying well, actually objects have biographies, which those biographies are actually written by people and involved people’s engagement with them that you start the other way around. I suppose that engages what Michael was saying. There is no simple resolution to this. But you have to at some point say, what is as a result of our looking at a whole mass of material in the Museum the conclusion we come to about this, the viewpoint that we feel we want to put across that is backed by our assessment of the evidence; and then how do we get that story across in relation to the material objects at our disposal. In the future I think this sort of dialogue between those two things is a very important thing to bear in mind.
MARTHA SEAR: I think that sense of what we came to ourselves from having investigated the material and spoken to people about it - that is what is there in the gallery. That is the combinations and arrangements of the artefacts and the interpretive material that is present but it also acknowledges the visitors’ participation in the making of the experience that they are having.
The other thing that is really interesting is that, as you say, there is certainly something happening there about the bark paintings being at one end and the Aurukun sculptures at the other. But I suppose we also hoped that the object biography approach allowed us to explore the object - within an exhibit each of the key objects was explored. If you look closely in the case and in the interpretive material that surrounds it, you will find that in most cases the object’s life from the past right up to the present is in the exhibit. There is a sense in which the First Fleet table is represented not only set in aspic in 1792 but is also discussed as an artefact that lived on in the home of the family and had many meanings for the subsequent generation of Snape Hammond’s family and that its trajectory to the National Museum is also part of its life history. Whilst the chronology provides a shape or an impetus through the gallery space, within the exhibits there is also a depth of time. It is different in each one.
QUESTION: By Charlotte Smith. I have to say it’s an object rich exhibition which I love; it’s also quite a text rich exhibition. I know Martha you were saying that text is not the primary case but there are a lot of text panels.
MARTHA SEAR: Yes, there is. There is more than anywhere else in the Museum.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: In the world.
CHARLOTTE SMITH: As somebody who loves objects it is wonderful to see so many fantastic things there. But I am intrigued by the position you took. I obviously come from an institution that took a completely different approach when we did the Melbourne Story exhibition. The 2000 exhibition Australian gallery was very much object based and used a lot of symbolism which evaluation showed that our visitors weren’t understanding. So we made the decision to have more of a grand narrative with individual themes within, using what objects we had in our collection obviously but where we didn’t actually going and sourcing objects. We didn’t say, ‘Right, we have not got it; we just can’t tell that story.’ I am not saying that the exhibition is perfect. It is not by a long shot. There are definitely problem areas with it, but evaluation is showing that our visitors, even if they enter from the back where they get a similar thing saying ‘You have actually come to the wrong way but don’t worry you can enter half way through the exhibition,’ they are getting that sense of the grand narrative going over. As curators, I have to say it makes it easier in some ways - I am not saying we want to make our jobs easier - to try to convey some of the bigger themes and bigger questions that we want to address and get our visitors to think about. I am intrigued that you, Kirsten and Mat decided at the beginning of the stages that was the approach to take.
MARTHA SEAR: Can I just ask a question whether people feel that big themes, big ideas, big questions are not present in Australian Journeys? Is that something that people feel? I think they are just in a slightly different position.
QUESTION: by Brian Crozier: Sorry, could I make a very portentous point because I haven’t seen the exhibition. Just picking up what Michael was saying at the beginning so I am asking a quick question here because Michael you mentioned three things which you were looking for. The first was a powerful story with big emotions. What I am asking is: what is the story of this exhibition? And did you see it, Michael?
MICHAEL CATHCART: I think I have said what I have to say really.
MARTHA SEAR: I suppose in a way the larger story in the gallery is that Australia’s history has been intimately bound with global forces and conditions; that the experience of living in Australia is not confined by our national or continental boundaries but is rather an experience that includes connections to, and profound and active relationships between, Australian places and places elsewhere that are created by the movements of people from places abroad to places in Australia and from Australia abroad. That is the large idea that the exhibition explores and that we hope the Museum will explore over the life of the gallery.
The gallery is only one part of a much larger investment in the Museum in the idea of Australia’s interconnectedness with the world being a significant component of the experience of living and engaging in Australia. So that seems to open up the field of inquiry and of exploration that we can explore through the web, through public programs, through education - through a vast range of ways that the exhibition is a beginning part of the conversation. What we tried to do was to recognise that the Museum can’t represent every facet of that and that the life of the gallery will present many myriad opportunities, through changeover for example, to present a variety of different ways in which that idea has been expressed and experienced.
The intensity of emotion is around particular exhibits. So it is around the idea of a Vietnamese refugee who invents a hybrid musical instrument in Vietnam when he is in a prisoner of war camp; that combines his experience of western music that he has gained from missionaries and his encounter with the musicians of the Central Highlands of Vietnam and it becomes a critical artefact that he remakes in a second camp once he leaves Vietnam; and that when he arrives in Australia as part of a much larger history of Vietnamese arrivals in Australia in the 1970s it becomes the object with which he expresses his emotions about being separated from his family and his places of origin. The object is helping him to mediate those experiences and to express them and to ultimately communicate to others within the community he was living in in Queensland his experience. The intensity of that emotion is something that my observation is that visitors are engaging with in a very strong way. We have looked to the particular experiences of people or groups of people to vest the particular emotional experience of those people as being the major touchstone for visitors who are encountering the larger story of Australia’s transnational history.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Brian tricked me because I thought he was answering Martha’s question.
QUESTION: by Peter Stanley: isn’t it wonderful that we can have such a constructive and civilised discussion and respond so thoughtfully? It’s great. If I can pick up points made by Claire Martin and also Charlotte [Smith]. The first time I went to the gallery, I went in the wrong way -
MARTHA SEAR: There is no wrong way.
PETER STANLEY: And I became increasingly frustrated. I don’t think it works well backwards and there is a reason for that: that is because human beings tell stories from beginning to end. Flashbacks might work in cinema but I don’t think they work in museums. I would put a big red sign at the top of the stairs here saying, ‘Go the other way.’ But that makes me ask: will the gallery be evaluated? Will the assessment take that into account and find out how visitors respond both forwards and backwards? If they do respond in the alienated, confused and frustrated way that I did the first time I saw it - I could see it was a really good gallery; I just didn’t know what I was looking at - do you think it might be changed to make sure that ‘they get it’ by coming in the right way?
MARTHA SEAR: Absolutely the gallery will be evaluated, I am sure, many times over its life and that evaluation will feed into the way that we make the changes that we always make to permanent galleries to make them better and better over time, to improve and facilitate the visitors’ powerful engagement with the material.
Something I want to add just to draw a few people’s questions together is that I guess this particular approach has been taken with a view to exploring this particular idea in this particular place. I don’t think this is how you would do another exhibition necessarily. Exhibition making is so particular and this idea of exploring the transnational history of Australia seemed to lend itself to this particular inter-meshing of approaches. When we do Creating a Country it will be an entirely different set, and every new gallery and exhibition will throw up another set. In a similar way that the history of museums throw up slightly different - so that your evaluation has shown something and has set you in a particular direction and the particular story that you are dealing with will manifest in a different way, that is the joy of working in a museum exhibition environment. Every time the particularity of the approach, the style and the institution will bring something fresh and new to light in terms of the exhibition making.
QUESTION: This is a question for Michael and you possibly don’t want to answer it. But at the moment I feel like you have taken the path and left me hanging over a cliff so I just have to ask this question: you started your talk wondering about the effects of the government’s intervention in the Museum and the review and whether that was going to affect the Australian Journeys gallery but you never told us whether you came to any conclusion.
MICHAEL CATHCART: No, I didn’t come to a conclusion. I was just confessing that that story was in my mind because I wanted to frame the remarks that I was making by sharing with you what I was thinking about. I don’t know. Over the last ten years I have been associated with projects where I have felt the force with which the Howard government could intimidate people who are involved in the arts and in academic life, so I was just wondering whether that force had been felt here. There hasn’t been a comment about that. I don’t know, perhaps not, perhaps they were so busy concentrating on all the other institutions that once they did the review they just forgot and just gave the Museum millions and millions of dollars and said we hope they are not misbehaving themselves down there by the lake. I don’t know.
QUESTION: There’s an awful lot of cricket.
MARTHA SEAR: Cricket is a non-political sport in Australia. I would be interested to hear Louise talk a little on that topic. But from the point of view of the team developing the content for the gallery, the review and the context you are talking about was really only one facet of a much larger engagement with understanding our visitors better, expanding and understanding our collection better. It seemed like only one component and not a dominating component - to me as someone developing the gallery.
MICHAEL CATHCART: So you actually found it refreshing and an opportunity to get another truck load of money and do more. Is that what it was?
MARTHA SEAR: I will let Louise answer that.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: The truth of the matter is that, in fact, one of the criticisms of the review was that we needed to shore up our collection and acquire many more iconic objects and we got a truck load of money to do that. The Australian Journeys exhibition reflects one of the really positive things out of the review.
MICHAEL CATHCART: Well the review itself was not as critical as the political argy bargy that preceded it.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: That is true.
MICHAEL CATHCART: The review did not deliver I think what the government hoped it would deliver probably.
LOUISE DOUGLAS: Correct, yes. Essentially we developed a gallery and collection development plan within the Museum, endorsed by our Council, which spelt out we were going to do Circa in a particular way, Australian Journeys in a particular way and Creating a Country to respond to some of the key things in the review. For example, they wanted a lot more discussion and interpretation of the importance of land and country in our history, and that is starting to be reflected in how we are thinking about Creating a Country. Most of the things were in fact positive that came out of the review. If we have been influenced by the review, they were generally positive.
We haven’t got time for any more burning questions; we are at an end. This has been a terrific session, and I hope it makes the point that the National Museum always has been, and will be into the future, an organisation that welcomes discussion, feedback and critiquing. I think we have hopefully really made that point today. Please thank Michael and Martha particularly. (Applause)
GUY HANSEN: Our speakers can just remain there for a moment while I make the concluding remarks for the day. When we set up the collections symposium a couple of years ago - this is the third one - one of the objectives was to encourage and nurture a critical culture in the museum profession. There is very much a sense that we are so busy doing things that sometimes we don’t get a chance to reflect on them. I really hope that this symposium now in its third year is really helping to encourage museum professionals in Australia to think more critically about what they are doing and how they are presenting material culture in Australian history. I think today we have done it in spades. I would like to thank all the speakers who have contributed today. It’s been really good. (Applause)
Of course this would not be possible without the people behind the scenes, and there are many people to thank. Polly, who is recording all these comments including the thank yous, Adam, Anne, Leanne and Jeff up in the box - all who have made it possible, helped speakers get here, done the administration and done everything which makes these events so enjoyable. If you want to continue conferring we can do that at the University House cellar bar. We will depart from here and go most directly there so please join us there if you would like to. If you have any feedback on how the day was run, if you could contact either me or Peter by email or phone, we would be happy to hear your comments. We are hoping to do again next year so we hope to see you back in one year’s time. Finally, I would like to thank you the audience because I think you played a very important role in making today a great event. Thank you very much.
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Date published: 6 May 2009