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A load of old rubbish: displaying the archaeology of the modern city

Dr Charlotte Smith, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

CHARLOTTE SMITH: Good morning everyone. Museum Victoria has an immense collection of archaeology of the modern city. The most significant assemblage is that excavated over a period of 15 years from Little Lon, a nineteenth-century multicultural, working-class area in inner-city Melbourne. The Little Lon assemblage, totalling almost 500,000 artefacts, came to the museum in two lots: one in 1989 after the first archaeological excavation; and the second in 2003 after the fifth and final excavation of the site. Because the archaeology comes from a modern city - ie a post-industrial site - it contains predominantly mass-produced, ordinary, generic material. Almost all the artefacts are damaged. There are literally hundreds of thousands of fragmented - and at time unidentifiable - pottery sherds, glass fragments, bits of bones, shells, metal fragments etc. Many of the finds came from cesspits that were filled in during the mid-1870s when the sewerage systems were changing. So the assemblage is quite literally - and here I quote the museum’s education department - ‘a load of old rubbish’.

Large archaeological assemblages like Little Lon present very real challenges to museums in terms of how to best manage, curate, access, research, display and interpret them. As Guy [Hansen] said, I am currently working on a three-year ARC [Australian Research Council] funded project to look at the collection management of large-scale assemblages but from a curatorial perspective as opposed to from the registration perspective. But it is the curation, display and interpretation of this type of archaeology that I am going to address today.

Following on from what Brian [Crozier] was just saying, as museum curators, we are obligated to interpret our collections in ways that will inspire and inform our visitors. In the post-post-modern museum world, one of the most common interpretive approaches used to inspire and inform is linking the material culture of the past to personal stories. It is hoped that these narratives will create empathy among visitors enabling them to connect with the past. It might seem impossible to consider applying this approach to an assemblage of 500,000 objects, but that is what we have done at Museum Victoria, and I believe the same approach is possible with other large archaeological assemblages of a modern city.

Because we are talking about the modern city, there is a wealth of archival material documenting people’s lives: photographs, deeds, post office directories, telephone directories etc. If we marry trench locations with these documents, we can identify specific individuals or businesses that reside at a site. And from there we can start to make connections between the artefacts and the people that occupied the site. It is highly unlikely that we will ever be able to say this object belonged to Mrs X, but we can say that Mrs X would have had an object similar to that excavated on the site where she once lived. The archaeology that started life as rubbish becomes a signifier of the past.

When Melbourne Museum first opened in 2000 there was a display of the archaeology from the Little Lon in its Australia gallery. ‘Stories from a City: Little Lon’ combined archaeological material, some in drawers arranged by type, together with a recreated archaeological core and archaeological tools of trade. Audio recordings of contemporary newspaper accounts, contemporary fiction and oral testimonies were positioned between display cabinets, and contemporary artefacts were displayed alongside archaeological artefacts to contextualise the finds.

[Shows image] In the images on your top right you can see there is a tabletop display cabinet. Underneath that were drawers with a whole lot of typologically-arranged materials. On the far right-hand corner is the archaeological core. In those tabletops there was a description about the conservation process of archaeology and the actual process of archaeology. You can also see we have used a lot of archival photographs, text panels with photographs in them, and then cabinets full of materials of type to give a sense of the finds that we uncovered.

Summative evaluation found that ‘Stories from a City: Little Lon’ was fairly well received by visitors. They enjoyed learning about parts of Melbourne’s history that were unusual, interesting and colourful. They liked seeing a rich collection of archaeological material and they liked the combination of stories, photographs, objects and archaeological methodology.

However, evaluation identified some problems with the display. It was found that many visitors didn’t understand the relationship between the archaeological objects and the story of Little Lon and therefore missed the relevance of the story. Also there was a desire by many of the museum’s visitors for the drama and mystery of Little Lon to be presented in a suitably atmospheric or immersive design. I will just point out in the top right of the slide right in the far corner is a recreated walk-in schoolyard. It was that space within the gallery that our visitors responded to with the greatest enthusiasm.

So when we were developing our new exhibition, The Melbourne Story, the decision was made to create an immersive environment in which to tell the complex story of Little Lon. The Melbourne Story opened in March last year and in one corner of the gallery we have recreated a piece of nineteenth-century Little Lon.

[shows image] The new installation includes two cottages, a laneway to the side, and an outer gallery with display cabinets, text panels and a video presentation. In the lower slide you can see there is a little more typologically arranged material.

The cottages present two types of lived experience: one has been displayed to show extreme poverty - and this is the house of extreme poverty. I should say that the cottages all have the same layout and are based on historical archaeology. There are two rooms, one living space and one bedroom. The second cottage shows the home of a poor working-class family who lived with some material comforts also has a small kitchen established. Unfortunately, it is such a small kitchen that we can’t actually get in to it to photograph it in any meaningful way. The cottages have an adjoining backyard and outside toilets. You can see in the toilet down below we also have a collection object in there not only to get as many of our objects out but also to show the sanitary pan arrangement.

The cottages are completed dressed with props so visitors are encouraged to touch everything, sit on furniture, lay on beds, feel the roughened walls. The floors creak, the cottages smell of polish and carbolic soap, and light levels are dim.

Four hundred artefacts, so that equates to about 0.08 per cent of the Little Lon archaeological collection, are displayed in the cabinets on the periphery of the space and in nineteenth-century cabinets in one of the cottages. Our selection of artefacts was informed by a well-defined curatorial rationale for the exhibit. As I have indicated, the decision to create a corner of Little Lon was determined by the findings of summative evaluation. The content - objects, text, audio and AV - was directed by four objectives: first, to challenge the myth that Little Lon was a slum riddled with poverty, prostitution and drug addiction; second, to people the display with real stories, not stereotypes; three, to create a ‘dream space’ where imaginations and memories converged, encouraging empathy among our visitors for the residents of Little Lon; and, four, to create an exhibit that gave context to the artefacts in terms of how they were used, not how they were found.

We identified a number of themes to enable us to meet these objectives. These themes - food and eating, alcohol and drinking, childhood, work, smoking, leisure, personal hygiene, jewellery and ornamentation, and cultural diversity - were selected to illustrate the daily life in nineteenth-century Little Lon for all its residents, whether child, immigrant family, prostitute or business. The findings of various research projects over the years informed our understanding of each of the themes addressed and confirmed our ability to comprehensively represent the themes using artefacts from the collection.

We then selected material to illustrate the themes. Our selection was not based on beauty, monetary value or rarity, though obviously rare, valuable and aesthetically pleasing objects were included in our selection. When presented with examples of type where one was in obviously better condition to the rest, we frequently chose that one. I am not going to pretend that the curatorial eye doesn’t come into play in some way when you are selecting objects for an exhibition.

The objects have been displayed accorded to identified theme. These themes are clearly articulated on labels that describe the material and place it in context culturally, socially and politically. I am giving you a sense that these are some of the text panels we have up and some of the material that will be on display around them.

Text panel for Childhood in Little Lon Text panel for Smoking

The stories of five individuals - representative of Little Lon’s diverse population - are told within the houses and laneway through audio and text panels. The five are Anne Cunningham, an Irish immigrant, widow and mother of three; John Maloney, an unmarried labourer also born in Ireland; Carlo Bracchi, an Italian immigrant who started life in Melbourne hawking ice-cream from the streets and lanes and then went on to build himself a two-storey house and factory that thrived; Sister Esther, an English-born Anglican nun who worked for the Mission to the Streets and Lanes; and Marie Hayes, a third-generation Australian born and raised in Little Lon in the 1920s and 1930s.

Anne, John, Carlo, Sister Esther and Marie were selected to complement some of the identified themes. They were also chosen because they challenged the slum myth. Four of the five were owner-occupiers. They all worked or studied in Little Lon and they show how important familial, culture and religious networks were to them and how ties kept them loyal to Little Lon.

Three of these characters - John Maloney, Marie Hayes and Sister Esther - had been presented in ‘Stories from a City: Little Lon’. At that time John Maloney was portrayed as a stereotypical Irish drunkard because of the large quantity of alcohol bottles found in the site linked to the house he occupied. However, this reading failed to take into account that the site excavated was a cesspit, so would have been filled in with rubbish from nearby houses and pubs. We now present John as an owner-occupier and part of a large extended family that lived in the area.

Text panel about John Maloney

Close analysis of the archaeology of Little Lon conducted by historical archaeologists and curators in the late 1990s brought to light the personal stories. Trench locations were matched with plans, rate books and post office directories allowing us to identify specific individuals, families and businesses. Little Lon’s very poor tenants and the regular visitors to Little Lon - those passing through Little Lon on their way to work, to visit brothels or to drink in pubs - cannot be identified by marrying archaeological trench data with records. But their lived experience can be told through the archaeological record, as we have done at Melbourne Museum. We have dressed one of the houses to illustrate the living conditions for the very poor, and the audio of Sister Esther which plays in this house refers to real characters that she tended to and wrote about in her day book.

The Melbourne Story has been open one year now, and evaluation of Little Lon exhibit has been incredibly positive. Visitors respond really well to the immersive experience. As hoped, they read the two houses as very poor and aspirational. They understand the connection between archaeology and display; and they are getting the message that Little Lon was more than a slum for the hundreds of people who lived there.

Though 400 objects is a tiny sample of the complete assemblage, the considered selection of artefacts has allowed us to illustrate the themes identified, and thereby redress previous perceptions of Little Lon as a slum. For those who like figures, I will just tell you that 400 objects is about a third of the total of objects that are on display in the whole Melbourne Story exhibition. What the small selection of archaeology doesn’t allow us to show is the sheer quantity of material excavated nor the physical condition of many of the artefacts. Though this is not vital to the telling of the story of nineteenth-century Little Lon, we do recognise that some of our visitors will be interested in this information, so we describe the excavations that took place in Little Lon in a graphic panel and video presentation. [shows image] You can see the graphic panel on the right, the red one, and in the far corner you can see a black-and-white blur, and that is the video presentation.

The success of the Little Lon recreation can be credited to three factors: firstly, the financial and intellectual support of my institution Museum Victoria; secondly, rigorous and ongoing research of the assemblage. Such research has enabled us to identify individuals whose stories represent the lived experience for many people in Little Lon. It also allowed us to articulate a clear curatorial rationale for the exhibition. Thirdly, the construction of a historically credible environment, enabling the artefacts to be contextualised.

Little Lon as presented at The Melbourne Story is a creative response to displaying the archaeology of the modern city. We have used the mundane, mass-produced and broken artefacts to inspire, illuminate and inform our visitors about life in nineteenth-century Little Lon. Thank you.

GUY HANSEN: I might kick off with one. The paper followed very well from Brian’s. I thought there was a sense where Brian is talking about enactment and how visiting a place like the Little Lon exhibit is a sort of visceral experience. I wondered whether that was perhaps what Brian was thinking and perhaps what you think as well.

CHARLOTTE SMITH: I was assuming when Brian was giving his paper that almost he was leading towards the immersive experience. It doesn’t …for everything. You can’t use it in every environment.

BRIAN CROZIER: I do think that what you have done is very consistent with what I was talking about. The idea of placing people in an environment is a very powerful technique and surrounding them with the objects that were characteristic of that environment is obviously the way to create a context for those objects. The atmospherics that you have produced in this exhibition are as close as - I haven’t been to it but from what you have been telling us today -- I get the feeling that this is a very evocative way of immersing people in the experience without actually the use of a tardis (?).

CHARLOTTE SMITH: I should add that I am in a privileged position that I work for a large institution that can afford to do this sort of installation too, because to do this installation you have to do it with some sort of historical credibility. It can’t be a pastiche. (?) I think that what we have done is pretty historically credible. Marie Hayes is still alive, she is 89 now, and she came to the opening of the exhibition. She actually cried and said, ‘I am going to go home and dream of home.’ For me that was incredibly rewarding as a curator to think okay, it worked at that visceral level.

I have been to a lot of recreations around the world which haven’t worked so successfully and I think that is because they have not been done with that same insistence upon historical credibility, and that often comes down to finances, to be perfectly honest. I am not putting that in to say that Museum Victoria is wonderful, but having institutional support financially as well as intellectually is very important to make this work.

QUESTION: Andrew Ulitt - I am a student at the University of Canberra doing cultural heritage studies. In the reconstruction of the houses, I take it you mentioned that they followed the floor plan of places that had been excavated. What other materials did you use or information did you use to determine the layout, colour schemes, decoration inside? And were the properties actually identified as being reconstructions?

CHARLOTTE SMITH: The last point first: yes, they were identified as recreations. Outside the front of the house to the left there is a panel telling you that you are going into recreation so they are identified as being recreated spaces.

Yes, we used the archaeology that gave us the floor plans. Other documentation we used - there were actually drawings of houses. The slum reclamation board in the early twentieth century provided wonderful information about the types of houses and the slums that they were visiting. They give us really detailed accounts including things like the heights of walls, the size of the spaces and the finishes of the walls.

Then we used other things like photographic evidence and other written accounts. People like Sister Esther who were living in the streets and lanes and attending to these places would not necessarily but were recording their visits to these sort of places. Obviously nineteenth-century newspaper accounts too, which you have to take with some consideration given the types of people that were going in and writing about the people living in these areas because they were always presented as slum dwellers. They never focused upon them as being a community or family members or the people having homes and raising families in them.

What other information - this is why doing archaeology of a modern city you can do this sort of recreation because there is that wealth of additional archival information that you can use to support the recreation. We used things like trade catalogues in terms of the windows, the doors and door latches, and painting catalogues for the types of paint that was available. The Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales has done fantastic research on lino, wallpaper, paint colours and so forth. So obviously drawing upon research done by other colleagues of mine.

QUESTION: Ron Kerr, volunteer here at the Museum so I am speaking as a layperson. I have seen a few of these reconstructions and recreations - your Vic, Oxford Story and a few others. Speaking as a lay person I think it’s a superior way to go to present history and this sort of thing to the general public. I appreciate there are restrictions but when you consider objects in glass cases it can’t compete. That is all I wish to say.

GUY HANSEN: Thanks very much, Charlotte. That was a great paper.

Date published: 4 May 2009