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Objects to Stories: Using thematic studies to develop exhibitions at volunteer museums in the Port Macquarie-Hastings region - a case study

Liz Gillroy, National Museum of Australia, 27 March 2009

LIZ GILLROY: First I’d just like to acknowledge my colleague, Debbie Sommers, who’s not able to be with us today because of social engagements in Port Macquarie, which are far more important than being here.

I also would like to acknowledge the fact that she’s done most of the work on what I’m about to read to you with the slide show. So I’ll just get that set up.

[Image shown] That’s just a location map to let you know where Port Macquarie is. We’re sort of halfway between Sydney and Brisbane on the beautiful mid-north coast of New South Wales.

[Image shown] The initial thematic study called Timber Stories was a study of timber collections and heritage resources in the Hastings during 2002-2003. And it was designed to document and interpret local collections, identify significant objects, build museum volunteer skills, underpin new interpretations in participating museums and promote new cultural tourism opportunities connecting the area’s forests, places and collections.

[Image shown] Subsequent studies, Her Story, which was carried out between 2004-2006 and Harvesting the Hastings, which is presently being carried out, 2007-2009, continue the same aims; better documenting, interpreting and exhibiting local collections. These studies have received funding from Arts New South Wales under the now defunct Museums Program, the Heritage Office of New South Wales and significant contributions from the council where I’m employed, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council.

[Image shown] Our experience has shown that uncatalogued objects in collections can still be researched with rewarding outcomes. Personal recollections, personal photographic collections, interviews and old Historical Society minute books can shed light on the history and provenance of uncatalogued objects. A good example is the ‘convict table’. The table was at the Port Macquarie Historical Society and Museum collection for many years. And it was moved from pillar to post, never really having had a permanent display space, and it’s interpretation consisted of a sign that said, ‘a convict table’. So it’s true.

During the research phase of the Timber Stories Study it was used by a volunteer as a work table - leaving a saw cut part way through the top plank, which was one of the two original planks. It wasn’t catalogued, but it has turned out to be a very significant object.

[Image shown] Valuing it and re-evaluating local collections has been an important outcome from our three thematic studies. Some objects once considered valuable are now less so, whilst others have risen on the scale of importance and significance. At the Port Macquarie Historical Museum most of the collection was already catalogued, however, further collection research for the studies uncovered that some objects had been catalogued several times and some of the most significant objects, so far, had never been catalogued at all.

The chiffonier at left was always referred to as the ‘Cross Chiffonier’ belonging to the Reverend John Cross, the first chaplain at the convict-built St Thomas’ Church assignation of significance by association.

But research proved this incorrect. The sideboard at right turned out to be a very significant piece made in England of local Port Macquarie timbers.

[Image shown] All participating museums are entirely volunteer-operated. I work with ten local heritage groups and museums just within my local government area, which has a population of about 75,000 throughout the whole local government area. Bit of a quirk of nature. I’m not sure why we have 10 when Coffs Harbour has one. But it certainly makes my job very interesting. And the studies are rolled out with everybody. I meet regularly, bi-monthly, with what I call the Museums Working Group, which has two representatives from each of those organisations, that work alongside me. And we do the research phases together, which I’ll just go into now.

Some museums come onboard really quickly. Some thematic studies don’t particularly interest some of the museums or historical societies and therefore they don’t participate. They still come to the meetings, but the amount of work that’s done just depends on the interest and the availability of the museum volunteers at the time.

It was thought that spitting the thematic studies into stages would assist in managing and delivering the desired aims and objectives and, most importantly, assist museum volunteers in learning new skills in object and collection research and documentation. Early stages provided time to research objects and consider how they fitted into the thematic study and sub-themes.

[Image shown] Stage one of each of these thematic studies has been the commissioning of a contextual history. As for each theme there was little consolidated local documentation. Those groups have always worked independently of each other before my employment - about seven years ago. So they saw each other as opposition and competition before we actually got this cooperative working environment happening, where now we’re happy to share information between us.

Yes, the first stage is development of a contextual history. As for each theme there was little consolidated local documentation. These have been helpful to a degree, but the three commissioned so far have fallen short of assisting collection research. Perhaps our choice of researchers has left us feeling short-changed, and we would recommend that any contextual history commissioned to assist collections research be carried out by someone who understands objects, collections and significance rather than simply history. In regional areas with a reflective budget this, I fear, will be almost impossible.

The sharing of research resources - this is my plug - between national, state and community organisations could benefit everybody.

[Image shown] Education and training of museum volunteers has been a primary aim in the thematic studies. Group and individual training was conducted and continues in everything from significance assessment, care of textiles, care of paper-based objects, collection management, exhibitions on a budget, and care of timber and metal objects.

Expert advisers, mostly sourced through the wonderful Powerhouse Museum Regional Services Program have provided training and one-on-one consultations as required. Debbie Sommers received a Powerhouse Museum Internship in the care and management of textiles. She’s now become a trainer. She teaches other museum volunteers her newly developed skills, and is presently working with the Powerhouse Museum as a regional rep on the Australian Dress Register Project.

Her training and significance assessment is utilised by the Queensland Museum Development Officers and the Powerhouse Museum recommend her to regional museums close by to Port Macquarie.

[Image shown] At first, regular Museums Working Group and Collections Research Group meetings were held. However, the diversity of collections and museums has resulted in a more individual management approach to ensure the needs of each museum are best served.

The Museums Working Group continues to meet four times a year, and the Collections Research Group is gradually being replaced in other ways with the recently reformed Museums Australia Mid-North Coast chapter.

Port Macquarie-Hastings Council won the inaugural Imagine Award for Innovation and Leadership for the process of bringing these ten museums, historical societies and heritage groups together to work collaboratively.

[Image shown] To the informed, there’s little doubt that significance is the key to successful story telling and, therefore, exhibitions. To the hard-working museum volunteers significance can be viewed as a lot of time consuming hard work which does not assist in paying the bills or manning the front desk. Their capacity for taking this concept on board is doubtful without great assistance and support from the professional sector.

Significance assessments produced by professionals through Community Heritage Grants and the like are not always useful either. Linking community museums into a better coordinated state and national collections significance structure is another hurdle.

[Image shown] The carrot and the stick method was used to encourage museum volunteers to document their collections. Museums were offered money as an incentive to produce object files and statements of significance. Port Macquarie Historical Society and Museum accepted the challenge and continued to write object files and statements of significance for their significant objects and collections.

Others did not necessarily see that the workload justified the payment. At these museums collection documentation remains poor and new exhibitions and displays are rare.

[Image shown] The single biggest gain from these projects has been that Port Macquarie Historical Museum’s growth in terms of understanding significance and how it can be used to link objects to stories and how to tell stories using objects. This has resulted in new exhibitions and displays, fresh looks and enhanced or new interpretation. Previously there, but was with little interpretation. Changing from the folk museum display of like-objects with like-objects to using a variety of objects to tell stories within topics and themes.

The thematic approach also works well across all the organisations, in mounting distributed displays and producing small publications, which all have a project branding.

[Image shown] This museum has learnt the benefits of researching its collections, identifying significant objects, researching the people, places, organisations and events associated with those objects, and telling stories using them.

They have learnt that an object can be interpreted and exhibited in different ways to tell different stories. They have seen the benefits of this information for guiding and hosting education programs.

[Image shown] Even at volunteer-run museums project management is vital in presenting new exhibitions. For many older volunteers this sounds like too much hard work. Engaging consultants to assist in graphic design in production goes some way to producing professional outcomes, however, the real key is understanding objects and collections and how they can be utilised to tell interesting and unique stories.

This can only come about from researching collections and giving them historical and social context within the wider history story. The convict table is a good example of an object that has been utilised in different ways in different exhibitions. It’s currently exhibited in Port Beginnings, which tells a story of the British penal settlement in Port Macquarie.

[Image shown] Many museum volunteers are not interested in researching the collection, but volunteer for other reasons. Some are handy, so they build multifunctional plinths and cabinets for display spaces, others require more of a social benefit and increasingly, many have to be there to qualify for their Centrelink payment.

Museums are also using their new skills to obtain grants to assist in exhibition development and collection interpretation. Hundreds of volunteer hours have gone into the three studies to date.

[Image shown] Some are benefiting from the work they are doing, however, not all are willing or in some cases able participants. For some, it’s not a matter of training or education. They need on-the-ground assistance to document, care for and exhibit their collections to ensure that the collections remain viable, relevant and publicly accessible.

[Image shown] Overall thematic studies in the Port Macquarie-Hastings region over the past seven years have generated some great object research and collection documentation, given new skills and enthusiasm to volunteer-run museums and resulted in some high quality exhibitions, telling local, state and national stories in local communities.

The ongoing support of the professional sector is vital in continuing and adding to these achievements.

GUY HANSEN: Thanks, Liz. We’ve got lots of time for questions. And there’s one halfway up the left-hand - we are just waiting for the microphone. Just while we are waiting for the microphone can I say, thank you for keeping to time. Obviously that’s my preoccupation. But this is not the first time that the Port Macquarie story has been told in this Museum and I must say, the energy and activity that you have shown is exceptional.

LIZ GILLROY: It’s the drugs.

MIKE PICKERING: You’re probably here because of Centrelink as well.

LIZ GILLROY: Probably.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Susan Gibson. I’m a Museums and Collections student. Has the focus to researching at the volunteer level changed the nature of your volunteer recruitment? Do you find that you are getting a different type of volunteer who’s interested in research or are you still getting in the regions the same kind of retiree and the same kind of version?

LIZ GILLROY: Yes, we are. Yes, we are getting the same kind of retiree volunteers. There is, especially at the Port Macquarie Museum a whole process now, which Debbie of course runs. Debbie runs the Port Macquarie Museum. There’s a whole process that Port Macquarie Museum now uses in orienting new guides or new volunteers. From that Debbie will take them through the processes, the different kinds of aspects of how they can volunteer and where they can volunteer. Very few of them put their hand up with an interest to do any object research.

Debbie herself is exceptional. If Debbie wasn’t there I’m not sure how successful the whole thematic study would be without her driving it, alongside me as a colleague.

The majority of the new volunteers these days are Centrelink-based. Truly, the average age of our museum volunteers would be seventy to seventy-five. And there’s no-one coming up to address that at the moment.

QUESTION: Eva Castle. I’m a student at Sydney Uni. Hello. And formerly museum development officer.

I’m just interested in the issue of significance. How do you communicate that or train the volunteers in significance and the process of assessing significance, or is that done by professionals?

LIZ GILLROY: No, actually Debbie does it alongside me. She’s developed ‘Significance for Dummies’, as she calls it, which she delivered as a paper as the Museums Australia Conference in Brisbane some years ago, which is how the museum development officers got onto her. And it’s a fantastic very basic simple process of explaining significance. Debbie ‘gets it’. There’s no doubt about that. Not many of the other people that she speaks to ‘get it’. Not many of the people that I try to explain significance to get it. And if they do get it they haven’t shown any interest in taking it further than understanding the concept. It’s just too difficult.

The professionals that we have had through the community heritage grants to write statements of significance of two of our local collections are in fact Rosslyn Russell from here - she is coming to do one on the Port Macquarie Museum towards the end of the year - but the other one I’ve had for the Maritime Museum has not been particularly useful because it’s not really object based. There seems to be significance that I don’t - we may have chosen a person that didn’t have the right skills. But it wasn’t the outcome - it was an outcome, and there is a statement of significance of the collection, but it’s not as useful as I had hoped.

PETER STANLEY: Thank you very much, Liz. Please convey our thanks to Debbie as well.

Date published: 18 May 2009