Introduction to Creating a Country: located histories
Dr Kirsten Wehner, National Museum of Australia, 11 March 2009
CAROLYN FORSTER: Tonight we are very lucky that Kirsten Wehner is going to speak to us tonight. The National Museum is currently developing a new permanent gallery that is going to be called Creating a Country and is scheduled to be opened in late 2010. Creating a Country will trace a broad history of Australia exploring significant themes in the nation’s past through stories of Australian places and their peoples. That’s a lovely broad title. We are very lucky to have Kirsten here this evening, because she will flesh that title out a little bit further for us.
Kirsten is a senior curator with the National Museum. She will outline plans for the new gallery and discuss how the curatorial team has approached the creation of a place-centred history of Australia. Please welcome Kirsten. Thank you so much for coming to talk to us tonight.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Thanks to Carolyn and the Friends for inviting me to come along and give a talk to you tonight. This is the beginning in a whole series of talks that you will be incredibly tired of by the end of them. They will be running over the next two years through until the opening of Creating a Country towards the close of 2010.
My job tonight as the senior curator on what’s quite a large team of curators is to try to give you a bit of an introduction to the new gallery called Creating a Country. As Carolyn’s introduction made clear, Creating a Country has quite a broad mandate, I think you would say: it is tasked with developing and presenting a general history of Australia.
The question I always get asked when I explain this is ‘How much room have you got?’ and I say ‘about 1200 square metres of exhibition space’. Everybody always asks me how do you decide from the great infinity of stories that is the Australian past and is the Australian experience, what do you choose to include? I am going to focus on that a little bit tonight. I will welcome your questions at the end about why we chose to put some things in and didn’t choose to put other things in. I am sure you will have them.
As Carolyn said, Creating a Country has been in development for quite a little while now and has been in development for about three years from the curatorial perspective. We are currently shifting gear as we move into the design phase of the project. That phase will continue through this year into early next year, and then we will be into the fabrication phase where we are actually building the gallery.
Creating a Country is going to occupy the space in the Museum that is currently taken up by the Nation gallery, which I am sure you will all know very well. That is both the large ground floor area that is currently taken up by Nation and then also the mezzanine up above it. All that area will basically be emptied and rebuilt from scratch. So you can see it is quite a big construction project as well as quite a big curatorial and intellectual project.
Creating a Country is tasked with presenting a general history of Australia. It will explore the distinctive social, economic and political conditions that have evolved in Australian society since European colonisation in the late eighteenth century, while also attending to the features of everyday life and popular culture as they have evolved over this time. As you know, all the exhibitions within the Museum explore histories of Australia. Together they create a variety of frameworks and perspectives on the past. But I do think that we can expect, drawing particularly on our experience of how Nation has been understood over the last five years, that many of our visitors will interpret Creating a Country as the Museum’s major statement on our national history. This, I have to say, is no small task within the amount of exhibition space we have - it is probably no small task in the context of any exhibition space.
This evening I would like to talk about how the curatorial team have been developing Creating a Country. I will look particularly at how we have interpreted this ambition to create a general history of Australia and how we have gone about selecting the stories to realise it from among the infinity of stories that constitute the past. I will introduce you to some of the people, places and especially some of the objects that we hope to include in the gallery to realise these stories. I must say this is probably their first airing in a more public environment beyond the Museum staff so it will be interesting to get your reactions.
All good exhibitions, including I think all good histories, begin with the question about the nature of human experience in the past. For Creating a Country, we began by asking how people have responded to the challenges of living in the Australian continent: how have people encountered Australian landscapes, adapted to new physical and cultural realities, and developed distinctive social, political and economic practices. We want to understand how people have experienced and are experiencing living in Australia and how they have sought to make their lives in the continent. We want to do this in a way that captures both the breadth and diversity as well as the continuities in these experiences.
We began this whole process about what Creating a Country was about by asking: what did we mean by ‘a general history of Australia’? It is no easy thing to succinctly describe and categorise Australian history. How can we structure the past? How do various structures privilege the experiences of certain Australians over others? What events do you count as key and significant, and which are less important to basic historical understanding? I think if you asked one hundred people you would probably get one hundred different answers. We did draw on a lot of work that had been done outside the Museum on trying to basically structure an Australian history.
We drew on this to develop a thematic structure for the gallery. We decided quite early on in the exhibition development to structure Creating a Country around ten key themes. We envisage that each of these themes would eventually find a physical reality in the exhibition as a module on the gallery floor allowing the conceptual structure of the exhibition to map to the architectural structure of the display.
We conceptualise Creating a Country structure around the following ten key themes, which I am pretty sure when you get to see the gallery you will recognise as modules in the gallery space.
1. On the edge of the world which examines moments of colonial foundation and the cultural encounters these precipitated, particularly those encounters in those early settlements between both European settlers and Indigenous people and between free settlers and bonded individuals within those societies.
2. The colonial gaze exploring practices and processes of exploration and settlement in the early phase of colonisation.
3. Never enough grass tracing the expansion of the pastoral industry, not the development of the marijuana industry.
4. Gold and chartism looking at the nineteenth-century gold rushes and the impact of mass immigration on changing social patterns.
5. Land of opportunity exploring efforts to realise social justice and equal opportunities for all Australians.
6. Extending the farmlands looking at agricultural development and innovation.
7. Connecting the nation - not surprisingly - communication and transportation networks.
8. A spirit of inquiry looking at practices in science, education and ideas.
9. Post-war economies tracing the diversification of the Australian economy after the Second World War and particularly the growth in the manufacturing, mining and finance industries.
10. The Australian city examining the growth of cities as sites for housing, work and leisure.
Pretty broad topics. Once we had come up with these themes then we had to think through what they actually meant. We tend to see each thematic title not as a descriptor of a period or a topic in Australian history but rather as signifying an idea. By that I mean an ambition or a philosophy or a problem that has impelled people in their approach to living in this country. What did they actually want to do in Australia? What kind of society did they want to build? We envisage the exhibition as exploring how people have actively sought to make their lives in the continent, how and in pursuit of what goals they have acted in order to shape their places and their communities.
The extending the farmlands module, for example, traces the development of agriculture in Australia, but it does so through a particular philosophical lense. It asks how the trajectory of agricultural practice has been shaped by the yeoman ideal; that is, by the belief that was imported to Australia by very early British colonists that the path to a stable, prosperous and moral society lay through the settlement of men and their families on small farms.
This is actually a fascinating idea in the history of Australia. It’s an idea that we can trace as shaping agricultural policy in the Tasmanian northern districts in the 1820s, in the impact of the selection Acts in the 1860s, the funding of soldier settlement schemes in the wake of World War I and World War II, right through to the corporate driven agricultural development schemes, the big science schemes of the 1950s. I think today we can continue to find the ideal of the yeoman farmer still informing our ideas about agriculture and about society when we look at ideas about giving drought relief to farmers to keep them on the land and in contemporary anxieties about the depopulation of rural areas.
You might have noted that so far I have talked very little about interpreting national identity or about telling a national history and I don’t actually intend to start now. The Museum is often understood as existing to define what it means to be Australian or that its job is to represent a national history or the story of Australia. I have to say that these aren’t really frameworks that we have found particularly useful in developing Creating a Country.
We decided early on that we wanted to avoid the kind of contested and circular discussions that often develop when you start talking about trying to define an Australian identity or a national character. We felt that this would lead the exhibition to representing concepts of Australianness that were singular and narrow and about which was impossible to achieve consensus. Similarly, while we wanted to look at historical experience across the continent, we wanted to avoid creating historical narrative that featured an abstract nation as its protagonist or that suggested the unfolding of an ahistorical national genius. In other words, we wanted Creating a Country to tell a general history but not a generalised one. We wanted to avoid elevating particular experiences into abstract symbols of a shared homogenous national experience.
We identified place or locale as a powerful frame through which to explore historical experience in Australia. Rather than Creating a Country describing a national reach through defining or representing a national type or identity, we envisage the gallery as bringing together a series of located histories. Indeed, that is the subtitle of my paper which I never told you - it is called located histories.
Each located history in Creating a Country will explore the conjunction of ideas, people and landscapes in particular times and places. In a sense we are bringing together in Creating a Country a series of small histories that together suggest the sweep and variety of historical experience in Australia.
Creating a Country will be structured by ten key themes each exploring an idea or an ambition that has shaped people’s choices and actions. Each theme will be interpreted through exhibits that explore historical experiences in three or four particular places. We will pay particular attention to the diversity of people encountering and engaging with each other at each place and keep an eye on ensuring that places are drawn from across the continent. Taken together, these located histories will draw out continuities but also differences of experience across the continent and across time creating a national conversation but not a singular national history.
Let’s talk that through a bit using an example. Never Enough Grass, which as I said looks at the development of pastoralism and particularly the drive for pastoral expansion through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, will be explored through four places. The first of those is Springfield station near Goulburn in New South Wales and probably many of the Friends are familiar now with Springfield station, because the owners of Springfield made a really significant donation to the Museum a couple of years ago of objects from their family. Then there is Bowen Downs up in Queensland; Springvale station which is near Katherine in the Northern Territory; and Derby in the west Kimberley ranges in Western Australia.
After we decided we are going to have ten key themes and we are going to have three or four places per theme, then we thought how do we decide what scope of history we are going to address in each place? To begin with we envisaged that our interpretation of each place would focus on a specific moment in time as well as the particular place.
To return to Springvale for a moment, we initially planned to focus interpretation on the founding of the station in 1879. 1879 is the year in which veteran overlander Alfred Giles arrived in the area after a long journey bringing 12,000 sheep and 2,500 cattle from South Australia. That’s a long trip. [image shown] This is Alfred Giles with some of his family and workers outside the Springvale homestead which they built in 1879 and then in 1894 abandoned, defeated by Aboriginal resistance to their being there but also the cattle tick, grass seeds and white ants which basically drove them from the homestead.
As we worked on Creating a Country, our initial intention to focus on a particular time has blurred and dissipated. Over the last couple of years members of the curatorial team have been travelling across the continent visiting the places that we have identified and talking with the communities that we anticipate featuring in the gallery. This has been an incredible privilege for the Creating a Country staff to be able to invest the time and resources to go out and connect with the communities we anticipate representing.
What has emerged from these encounters and from the discussions that have arisen out of those visits is a strong sense of how experience in place is connected across time and how it is possible to read in contemporary communities the legacies of past choices, ideas and challenges as well as the ongoing power of the land to shape human action. Curator George Main, who will talk to you next month, visited Springvale about 18 months ago now. Talking to people there he discovered a number of stories that connect the present in Springvale very deeply and completely to the past. In the contemporary landscape at Springvale traces remain of Giles’ encounter with the local environment.
George, for example, collected a timber fence post which has basically been eaten through by descendants of the white ants that attacked Giles’ door house. He also collected a series of examples of incredible spear grass seeds that basically ruined Giles’ cattle and sheep. As the cattle and sheep moved through them, these incredibly tough seeds which have little spirals on them would work in underneath the animal’s wool or hair and penetrate the skin and actually kill them internally - it’s quite horrific and not at all expected by Giles when he went that way.
Materials like this will feature in Creating a Country both evoking the landscape around Springvale and bringing into the present some of the local factors that so profoundly shaped Giles’ historical experience. In Springvale, George also explored remaining evidence of Alfred Giles’ unhappy encounters with the local Jawoyn and Dagomon people. [image shown] This is the door to Giles homestead complete on either side of the doorway with gun ports included by Giles to enable defence of the building against Aboriginal attack. However, the story of the relations between settlers and local Aboriginal people is also not one that remains in the past. These relationships have evolved over time and of course some forms of accommodation and cooperation have emerged.
Elsey station, for example, was settled just to the north of Springvale in 1881 and Alfred Giles’ son Harold became its manager in 1928. Mangarrayi woman Amy Dirngayg worked in the homestead as a cook, and this glass-beaded armband [image shown] which is quite tiny that she made in the 1930s suggests her attachment to both Elsey station and to her own traditional cultural practices. This is the type of object which Amy’s people made for boys to wear during initiation ceremonies, so a specific kind of cultural object but its design features HTT which is the Elsey brand. This object, which has been very kindly donated to the Museum, is one of those objects that will come into Creating a Country to represent complexity of encounters in that place.
Through objects such as this and their stories, Creating a Country will ask visitors to imagine experience in a particular place and to consider how the experiences of many different people living in a place are connected through time. In many of the exhibits visitors will be invited to explore the history of the locale backwards and forwards in time, perhaps beginning at an especially historically significant or just plain dramatic moment, such as Giles’ arrival at Springvale in 1879, but then also tracing how this moment emerged out of and fed into longer social and environmental histories.
As I described earlier, each theme or module in Creating a Country explores the history of three or four places. In never enough grass we have those four places, and visitors will be able to explore how the drive to expand Australia’s pastoral industry brought settlers into close engagement, although they were all after the same thing, as they engaged with very different environments, animals, plants and peoples they had very different experiences and developed very different kinds of responses. We hope that visitors will be able to recognise the particular conditions of experience in places but also consider similarities and differences in experience between different places.
So far, rather strangely for a curator, I have talked in rather a conceptual manner about developing Creating a Country, but in a sense this has misrepresented our process for developing the exhibition. Exhibitions, of course, are not books. They are not anything except exhibitions. They are very distinctive forms of history making defined by the purposeful arrangement and display of objects in three-dimensional environments. Meaning in an exhibition, history in the sense of being in an exhibition, is made as visitors move through the display space encountering evidence of the past, connecting together objects, images, sound and text and asking what these artefacts can tell us about the experiences of other people. You really make this meaning in the exhibition.
I believe a focus on objects in place will allow this sense about meaning making in the exhibition to come into its own. Objects embody in many ways information about the past that is highly specific to their own particular histories of manufacture, use and circulation. You can display objects as talismanical hooks for more abstract general themes but I think this tends to obscure the communicative power. It is really only when we attend to the particular history of an object that we begin to understand and feel how they illuminate the past.
This, for example, is a stream anchor [image shown]. It’s a lot bigger than the picture makes it seem. If you look very closely you will notice that elements of it - it is not in very good condition. It’s weathered and flaking, and at one end is the remains of a cable which has evidently snapped off. The question is: why does it look like it does? It is basically because it’s been 170 years at the bottom of the sea.
In May 1803 Matthew Flinders, en route around the continent in the Investigator, put into Middle Island in the Recherche Archipelago of what is now Western Australia. He had four peaceful days resupplying the ship, and then unfortunately a gale blew up and Flinders was obliged to cut loose both his stream and his bow anchor to prevent the Investigator being wrecked against the rocks. This anchor, the stream anchor, then remained - and the other one as well - on the seabed off Western Australia until 1973 when they were recovered by members of the Underwater Explorers Club, personally I think the best named club in the entire history of the planet.
The materiality of this anchor, something about its condition and when you look closely at it can embody its history, Flinders’ experiences and something of the nature and history of the Recherche Archipelago. As visitors begin to engage with the mystery of the anchor’s appearance they can begin to imagine Flinders experiences on the wild swells of the Southern Ocean. They might ask: Where was he? What was it like there? What was he doing there? Who was he with? Was he the first European to visit these shores? Did he meet the locals? What did he take away with him?
In Creating a Country we are going to be displaying Flinders’ stream anchor in the colonial gaze module. This module focuses on practices of exploration and settlement in the early colonial period, but through located histories linking objects to place we can also ask visitors to consider how practices of exploration of 170 years ago still resonate today. The stream anchor, which has actually been in the Museum’s collection for quite a long time but until recently has been on sabbatical in Western Australia, directs us to the fabulous landscape of the Recherche Archipelago.
When we look more broadly, more ethnographically if you like, at Flinders and his crew’s actions in the archipelago in 1803, we can begin to understand how his voyage was about exploration but also how it was about mapping and natural history, empire building and the trade in sea oil. In the Investigator we find not only Flinders but also naturalist Ferdinand Bauer and Robert Brown, mineralogist John Allen, landscape painter William Westall, marine Benjamin Morgan and seaman Jack Wood, not to mention Trim the cat. If we look more broadly at who was it that was visiting the Recherche Archipelago and indeed who was it that had to participate in that decision to cut loose the anchor, a rich variety of material culture emerges from that moment in time. Here is a few of the items that come - the stream anchor, Flinders’ fantastic atlas of mapping the coast of Australia, specimens and eventually drawings by Brown and Boyer of the flora of Australia, and I have always loved the memorial statue of Trim - those of you who have been up to the State Library of New South Wales which is where the original sits.
Drawing on our focus on place, we can move in Creating a Country out from Flinders’ encounter with the Recherche Archipelago to explore how the ambition to explore has shaped human interactions with the archipelago more broadly. We might begin the exhibit narrative, and I think this is what we are going to be doing, around the archipelago with material from the 1803 expedition, such as this original botanical specimen which was collected by Flinders’ companion Robert Brown, which is actually in the National Herbarium in Victoria but they are very kindly going to lend it to us. We might invite visitors to consider this Cape Barren goose specimen, which was actually collected 100 years after Flinders in a collecting expedition sponsored by the Western Australian Museum. And then perhaps we might also include material relating to the 2002 project called Marine Futures in which a local community organisation called the Recherche Advisory Group began working with the University of Western Australia to create a comprehensive record of the sea flora of the archipelago. This is really the contemporary way of collecting in the archipelago - not to shoot things and take them home and stuff them but rather to use an underwater camera which has come into the collection to create the footage from which this still is taken.
Creating a Country will live and breathe through its displays of collections, and the process of identifying collections to use in the exhibition has strongly informed the choice of which places we will feature in the gallery. In truth, any place in Australia could feature in Creating a Country with many able to find a home in many of the themes, but we cannot tell the story about a place if we have no artefacts to display.
How many have we chosen and which places will feature in Creating a Country when it opens in 2010? It is important that the exhibition includes at least some of the more recognisable and well-known places, events and moments in Australian history. A significant portion of our visitors expect that when they visit the Museum they will learn about events such as the British landing at Port Jackson in 1788 or the Eureka uprising in the 1850s. Others will expect treatments of significant projects such as the trans-Australia railway and the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, or powerful social movements such as the struggles for female suffrage or equal pay for Aboriginal Australians. Obviously we can’t include at any one time - and I say it now - all the better known historical landmarks that some visitors will expect but we certainly plan to include plan to include some of them and include more of them over the ten-year life of the gallery. We do hope, however, to provide a fresh take on these recognisable events through asking how they emerge from the encounters between different peoples and place.
The Snowy Mountains Scheme, for example, is often interpreted as either a triumphal tale of national infrastructure development or something of a workers’ paradise populated by new migrants. Exhibitions about the Snowy Mountains Scheme often include objects such as this model of the Snowy Mountains Scheme [image shown], which I think is fantastic. This is a model that was presented to Prime Minister Ben Chifley at the opening of the scheme. You can actually plug it in and little lights light up to show you where the dams are. Or this workers helmet which comes from a worker who worked on the scheme [image shown]. You can see the fantastic images that go along with that give a sense about the great majesty of the worker within the scheme. Engineering and labour are certainly strong aspects of the history of the Snowy and we will be including objects such as this.
But when we look at the complexity of the located history of the Snowy we also discover other stories. Histories of loss and longing, for example, that were lived by the residents of old Adaminaby who were obliged to leave their home to make way for a lake. This is obviously a picture of Adaminaby before the flooding [image shown] and a tiny collection of rusted toys that were actually somehow left behind when residents left and were then recovered by residents who moved from old Adaminaby to new Adaminaby perhaps 30 years after the lake was flooded.
There are also histories of scientific ingenuity and frustration that emerge from the backroom work of building technology such as Snowcom, the Snowy computer, which is in the Museum’s collection. This is it gloriously in storage [image shown] because we haven’t managed to set it up yet but a great photo of it actually in use. Snowcom was built to work out much of the engineering parameters around building elements of the Snowy scheme.
Creating a Country will also feature places that were suggested by the thematic structure for the gallery. As I have already mentioned, extending the farmlands module explores the yeoman ideal as it has shaped agricultural development in Australia. We know from historical scholarship that the influence of this ideal could be strongly identified in the 1860 selection Acts that sought to break up large pastoral runs and impose World War I soldier settlement schemes. So we saw places in Australia in which these policies had had a strong impact, eventually settling on Wagga Wagga in central western New South Wales and Carnamah in the wheat belt of Western Australia. Three years ago the Museum didn’t hold very strong collections relating to these places in the context of this theme, but curatorial engagement with these communities is generating new material for the exhibition.
To talk again about George Main who has been working on the exhibition for a long time, George, for example, visited Carnamah some months ago talking there with descendants of soldier settlers, some of them still working their ancestors’ farms. [image shown] This is Bruce White who still works Rosedale, a property settled by his grandfather after World War I. We hope to borrow from these families a range of small rather personal and touching items that reflect their experience of life on a soldier settlement farm and particularly their experience of them being soldier settlement farms. What is interesting about these families is that very many of them have kept similar kinds of objects, for example, World War I medals feature large but also photographs such as this wonderful one of Tom White [image shown] and a piece of well-travelled shrapnel which came back with Bruce’s grandfather from the First World War. It stayed in his foot apparently for quite a long period of time.
As I said, many of these people on Carnamah properties treasure objects such as these medals and photographs, the rather everyday objects which talk about memory of family and land. We hope to display a series of these collections, together with weightier objects such as farming technology that shaped everyday labour in the post-war period and sporting equipment that speaks to community life. We believe this approach will invite visitors to engage personally with the farmers’ experiences and also consider the larger forces which connected these people with the land in this place.
We also decided to include a number of places in Creating a Country simply because there existed a strong resonance between the thematic structure and the Museum’s existing collections. This is my favourite moment in the talk, the moment for the mystery object question. I am referring to this object in the foreground of the photo [image shown]. Does anybody want to take a guess about what this is? Printing press - not bad. Giant waffle iron. Lino type setter - not for printing.
This is actually a knitlock tile making machine. The Museum has held for quite a long period of time two knitlock brick and tile making machines which were designed by architect Walter Burley Griffin in the 1910s and used in the 1920s as Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony tried to establish their suburban vision at Castlecrag in Sydney. The aim of these knitlock machines was to provide the means for landowners to cheaply build their own homes on Castlecrag blocks. Essentially this was meant to be a machine where everybody could learn very quickly how to make your own bricks and tiles so you could build your own house. We decided to include Castlecrag in Creating a Country precisely because of the opportunity to display and interpret and indeed to assemble these intriguing machines, which is quite interesting conservation work, and use them as a way to explore the vision of a democratic urban community.
Curator Daniel Oakman, who will be talking to you in a few months, has been working with Castlecrag residents talking about these machines and so on, and in response the Museum’s holdings have really grown related to them. For example, we now own a fabulous set of French windows which are from this house [image shown]. This is an old photo of the house and the French windows were being removed because it was being renovated. This is a house called the Duncan House and the Duncans were a family who moved into Castlecrag when Griffin and Marney were there. They built a knitlock house but they didn’t really enjoy it all that much because apparently it leaked continuously. It became a characteristic feature of these houses that you had to be prepared to live in a swamp essentially is how one of the sons described it. But it is quite beautiful, I think.
We have acquired some of the interior fittings of the houses as they are being renovated. We have also, through forming a fantastic relationship with the community, been given the opportunity to borrow for the exhibition these large puppets [image shown] which you can see in the bottom slide, which are puppets representing Walter and Marian. They have been used over quite a long period of time by Castlecrag residents demonstrating against redevelopment of the suburb. They are very much about a continuation of about suburban life. They are paper mache things which I think will freak people out in the gallery, which is great.
There is a lot of sifting around that help us decide what Creating a Country is going to look like. From one perspective, we are negotiating these intersecting demands to address recognised themes and milestones in Australian history. We want to provide a fresh take on the past and to avoid a generalised and abstracted national history. We also need to maintain a representational breadth in the gallery in terms of its geographic and temporal coverage and - definitely closest to my heart - display collections that we think will captivate, provoke and move our visitors.
These complex claims on the gallery reflect the realities of working at the National Museum. The Museum is a place for all Australians, and we really try to engage with a wide range of different audiences: from the young to the old, from the well educated to those who have little knowledge of history, from those attending as part of a broader school program to folks who simply turn up for an afternoon while they are on holiday from Korea.
Our hope in Creating a Country is to provide a number of different ways for visitors to engage with the content. Some may choose to follow the basically chronological path through the gallery that is established by the thematic structure and that shapes each module. Others might wander around enjoying encountering different places; while others still might pay more attention to exhibits that speak to their own experiences as urban dwellers, wheat farmers, suburban developers or the children of miners.
From another perspective, and this is really strongly shaping the gallery, Creating a Country is developing as we engage with people around the country talking to them about their places, about their communities, their families, their landscapes and the artefacts that embody and express these histories for them.
Over the next months curators from the Creating a Country team will be presenting a series of Friends talks that describe each of the modules that they have been working on. We are going to focus in those talks on talking about the process about research, about how we actually develop those modules and select certain things to finally appear in the gallery and figure out what we want to say about them. So I hope you will be able to make it along to some of them.
We often find it helpful to imagine Creating a Country as offering visitors something of an imaginative tour of Australia, a tour in which visitors can encounter new and known places and engage with the objects that record and evoke how people have lived, engaged and sought to use, shape and build places. I thought I might conclude, rather than giving you an officious conclusion, by take you on a quick tour of most of the places that will feature in Creating a Country when it opens. [image shown] That is all from me. I will be more than happy to answer any questions or if you want to know any more about what objects we are thinking about in relation to any of the places you have just seen. Thanks.
QUESTION: My question is about how you envisage designing the exhibition. I want to make a comment about Australian Journeys and how the stories are lovely but when there is a group in there it is quite difficult. I visit quite a lot with small to medium sized groups and when there is already a group between two of the shards, if you like, it is quite hard to then move other people around. It is quite cramped.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Do you want me to comment on that or on how we are going to design?
QUESTION: How do you see that?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Something we are always aware of is how we cope with the fact there are times when the gallery is crowded and times when the gallery is empty. Australian Journeys is a very intimate exhibition. The content is intimate, and the intent is that it was designed to be a rather encompassing, enclosing exhibition in term of its design, which we feel suited the content - these particular intimate stories. It was designed to create a sense that there wouldn’t be too many people between the exhibits. I completely agree that that does create a problem when you have numerous groups in that space. But I would say equally that, if we hadn’t designed that way, if you were in there when there weren’t a lot of people in there it would incredibly cavernous and wouldn’t work very well at all.
What we are moving towards in the Museum and what we are focusing on is trying to ensure that, as the exhibitions are redeveloped, there is a strong sense of a different design experience in each exhibition. Creating a Country is an exhibition that is much more expansive in feel than Australian Journeys. It will have lot bigger objects with more space around them. So I suspect that what you may find is that Creating a Country is an easier exhibition to move visitors through. Creating a Country will evoke a different kind of experience. When I have been looking at how children react around large objects, they like to run around and jump up and down and measure themselves against them and so on, and indeed adults like to do that quite a bit. So we are designing Creating a Country with more the sense this will be a different kind of physical experience in that space. I suspect that will mean it is easier to move numerous small groups around.
Creating a Country is also about three times the floor space as Australian Journeys. Australian Journeys is a small space that had a strong pressure on it, particularly at opening, to cover a certain scope of Australian history, and that has also contributed to us deciding on that design solution.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could explain something: you said this was a fresh take and it was also going to be provoking. What exactly is fresh about it and where is the provocative nature of it?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: It is fresh because I think a focus on place - we haven’t invented looking at place as a framework for understanding history; it is quite strongly developed in heritage fields and so on - has been less developed in museum exhibitions and particularly museum exhibitions that are tasked with encompassing a national history, if you want to talk about it that way. It is fresh in that we are trying not to do a kind of national history. We are trying to bring a particularity of focus and a precision in our focus and understanding different experiences across Australia and trying to look at the way in which the accumulation of those located histories can be understood to constitute a history of Australia. I don’t think that’s been done extensively in museum exhibitions or, indeed, I would argue in written history.
The provocation comes in in what happens when you look at the different ways in which different groups of people have encountered each other in places. To take the most obvious example, in almost all of the exhibits, issues about relationships between Indigenous and settler relationships comes up in quite a complex way. What we have tried to do is be very precise about when those relationships are contested or when they are a response to conflict on the frontier or when they are a response to different competing ideas about what should be going on. It is that idea about trying to be precise and open to enable different groups engaged in a similar place are often going to have very different ideas about what should be going on: for example, should we be clearing the 90-mile desert and try to turn it into farm land? Yes, it is bad if you want to think about agricultural development; no, if you want to think about some of the ecological consequences of that. We are trying to allow in that example both of those perspectives and experiences to come out and sit together in a way. Personally I find in my experience from exhibitions when you allow that to do in a precise but open way, that enables people to feel provoked into asking how are these people relating to each other and what does that mean in terms of our bigger relationship to place.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your talk this evening. I think you got a sense of place and that’s going to come through with your various exhibits, but the sense of time - if you are not going to have major historical time pieces, could you perhaps have an overview, a theme running around the whole thing, maybe a circuit of time that says ‘parliament was formed here’ or ‘the Constitution was here’ or whatever. So people could look at the objects and their own little time trees, if you like, and then look up at something and say ‘that was when this was going on’ so it would give an overall sense of time that this small piece of country was developing and why it was developing like it did.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I don’t want to give the impression that we won’t be providing context for what’s happening in each of those places. There are different ways to do that. It would be tricky to develop a single time line for how everything fits together in the gallery. However, I certainly don’t want to give the impression that we would want to provide the information that allows visitors to understand why, if you have a particular thing happening in Wagga Wagga such as the breaking up of pastoral runs or the arrival of the railroad, we can’t provide the information for these people who are looking for it to understand why that was happening then in a somewhat larger context and to understand that Wagga Wagga is one way of understanding a process that is going on more broadly. Providing context - you can do that quite efficiently because generally people are looking for a quick something to read to allow them to set it up and slot it into their sense about a broader historical framework. I don’t want to give the impression that that is not going to be there in the exhibition. It is just that giving a chronological timeline structure of Australian history is not the overall structure of the exhibition as it is developing.
QUESTION: I commend you for tackling the job of bringing it down to ten themes. That must have been a really interesting exercise.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: We have another ten as well.
QUESTION: I would like to address one that jumps out at me as missing and perhaps you are covering in a different way or, if I can ask a second type of question, perhaps you are leaving some of these things to other institutions. The theme that I am picking on is the evolution of Australian government where we have a unique Federation which we arrived at by a very torrid process in which a number of places actually featured very strongly - and I am thinking of the Murray River areas. I wondered if you could comment on are we going to see that theme come through subliminally or have you left it to someone else?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: It is one that other institutions do strongly pick up, particularly Old Parliament House is now very strongly defining itself as a museum of political history. However, it certainly does play through Creating a Country and indeed other exhibitions in the Museum. For example, the way we decided to think about Federation is rather than doing an exhibition on the process of Federation and then the evolution of the Commonwealth government out of that we have decided to look at what some of the broader effects of that were. For example, the exhibit in the gallery that centres on old Parliament House really looks at old Parliament House as a site of parliamentary democracy and what that actually means and what people’s ambitions for that have been in Australia. It looks at the development of a kind of Commonwealth parliament seat following the process of Federation and the decision to create a particular kind of Commonwealth parliament and then looks at that place as a focus for efforts of various groups of Australians to address issues around representation, rights and those kinds of struggles. Rather than say this is the process about the evolution of parliament and government we have tried to say this is a physical manifestation of this ambition and this is then how people have participated in shaping it and, by extent, shaping the parliament and governmentary process.
QUESTION: One more quick question and this is general to the Museum - perhaps you can answer it: will the referencing, providences and links for your research will be available on the Internet?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: This is a question for the Museum more broadly. This is certainly something we are moving towards as fast as we can. For example around Australian Journeys, we are looking at a number of ways and trying to implement some of them as quickly as we can to make the deeper research and, as you say, the links to the sources and so on that have shaped the gallery more readily available for those people who want to go away and read more or locate more. There are a number of ways we are looking at that. The web is certainly the major way although we are also looking at the way in which we might produce certain kinds of publications that carry some of that material.
We are trying to bring that material out and have that material up on the website more quickly. Also the other sections of the Museum such as our education section are working towards building programs and making material available online that grows out of the permanent galleries, which are a better investment for us, frankly. If you have a gallery up for ten years it is worth while doing all these anciliary products; whereas if you have a temporary exhibition up for three months it is not such a great investment. But if you have ideas about how you would like to see that material delivered, that would be really good to communicate to the Museum.
QUESTION: Thank you for your presentation. Will the notes you used be available at any time?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Yes, I can make them available if you like. You can listen to it all over again on the website along with the transcript.
QUESTION: When will the Nation gallery be closed down?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: The date for this is still a bit tentative. We are currently looking at the end of this year, beginning of next year, but I have to stress that is a little bit tentative because if you think about how you schedule building an exhibition, we have to do the design work first to figure out exactly what we are building before we know how long it is going to take us to build it. Once we know how long it is going to take us to build the new gallery then we can figure out when we need to close Nation in order to do that. It is currently scheduled for early in 2010.
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
Date published: 6 May 2009