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Collections symposium 2009

From collections to exhibitions - Friday, 27 March 2009

Missed the symposium?

The audio and transcripts from the symposium are now available in our audio on demand section.

Go to Collections symposium 2009 audio on demand

The National Museum of Australia continued its tradition of holding an annual 'Collections Symposium', which brought together museum scholars, professionals and students to discuss the nature and uses of museum collections. This symposium explored the topic 'From collections to exhibitions' with speakers from across Australia discussing how collection material is used in exhibitions.

Speakers and abstracts

Mary-Elizabeth Andrews

Following an Honours degree in Film Studies at Flinders University Mary-Elizabeth spent ten years in the film industry working as an Art Department and Set Construction Coordinator for both Australian and American film and television productions. In 2006 she returned to study and last year completed her Master of Museum Studies at Sydney University. In 2008 Mary-Elizabeth also received a scholarship through the Goethe Institute to attend language classes in Germany. This year Mary-Elizabeth commenced a PhD focusing on museum development in central Berlin. Mary-Elizabeth attended the 2008 Collection Symposium as a student bursary recipient.


Online exhibitions

One aspect of museum exhibition practice that is becoming more and more important is the online exhibition. Online exhibitions can take many forms, from simple extensions of marketing programs to stand-alone exhibitions developed specifically for the web. Often they extend the interpretive material on offer in the exhibition itself, but they can also be used to enable greater access to collection material long after an exhibition has come and gone.

The use of the web as a medium for museum exhibitions does, however, raise some interesting questions with regard to the presentation of different types of collection material. This paper looks at the issues involved with the use of personal photographs, mementos and oral histories online for an exhibition exploring the experience of WWII Australian-American war brides. The study reveals how both technical and moral concerns influence the development of exhibition narratives within the medium, and how online exhibitions can offer a chance for museums to re-connect with the communities that have informed their collections.

Jay Arthur

Dr Jay Arthur is an exhibition curator with the National Museum of Australia, in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program. Her interest in this area lies in post-occupation history, in particular in the role of institutions such as 'missions' and children's Homes in the colonisation process. She was one of the curators on the recently opened Resistance module and is at present working on an exhibition on the struggle for Aboriginal civil rights, 1920-1970, to open this September.


Before the badges, before the t-shirts, before the flag.
Creating an exhibition on the struggle for Indigenous civil rights,

This paper will explore the issues involved in selecting objects to tell a story that is largely unknown to non-Indigenous audiences and even some Indigenous visitors; and on developing an exhibition that at the same time expands the stories in the Collection.

Everybody knows what you would find in an exhibition on Aboriginal protest. Badges, t-shirts, posters – lots of black, red and yellow. Lots of colour. The visitor into the space has a sense of recognition, a welcoming congruence between their expectations and the exhibition.

But t-shirts and badges and screen-printed posters are the product really of the 1970s. So Aboriginal protest must have begun then. Because the objects tell us so.

But what about the fifty years 1920-1970? What objects tell that story? How do you present an exhibition about a story that very few know about, or only know of disconnected fragments? What objects will create the story for the visitor?

The moment of recognition is most likely absent. The objects may not be recognised as belonging to a protest story. There may be objects which only become protest items when viewed through the prism of the exhibition or by the contiguousness of other objects.

In this case not only were the objects ones that often did not fit the shape of protest items, but they were objects absent from the Collection. The process of creating the exhibition about a significant story in our common history had to begin with creating a collection.

Michael Cathcart

Dr Michael Cathcart is a historian and broadcaster. He teaches Australian studies at the University of Melbourne and is a well-known voice on ABC Radio National where he has presented such programs as Arts Today, Bush Telegraph and Late Night Live. On ABC TV, he presented the 15-part history series Rewind. His two-part documentary Rogue Nation screens on ABC 1 during March this year. Michael is also the abridger of Manning Clark's epic, A History of Australia. His most recent historical research has been concerned with Australian exploration and the colonial perception of country. His book Water Dreamers: How Water and Silence Made Australia will be published by Text later this year.

Brian Crozier

Brian Crozier, with his wife Faye Schutt, is a principal in the museum, heritage and historical consultancy business Crozier Schutt Associates, based in Brisbane. He took early retirement from the Queensland Museum in June 2008 after 17 years as its Senior Curator of Social History. Brian has a longstanding interest in the theory and practice of museum work, with a particular interest in exhibition development, following a long series of major exhibitions for the Queensland Museum, including most recently, 'The courage of ordinary men: three stories of the Victoria Cross'. Brian holds the degrees of MA (Melbourne) and PhD (Cambridge).


What it was like: a perspective on history in museums

Museums have tended to be described in terms of their history rather than of their essential purposes, which have changed from scientific research based on collections to include a heavier and heavier engagement with a popular audience. History has been a latecomer to museums and has lacked the philosophical foundations of the pre-existing museum scientific disciplines to set against the demands of entertainment and a popular audience. At the same time, its focus on material culture has cut it off from the orthodoxies of academic history, which has traditionally drawn its evidence from documentary sources, an emphasis which provides little guidance for a form of history based on collections. There are important issues here about what kind of propositions can be made through material culture and what values are inherent in collection-based historical production. This paper makes some suggestions about the cultural contributions open to history in museums, and the principles that might underpin history carried out through material culture and for a popular, rather than an academic audience.

Bronwyn Dowdall and Jennifer Wilson

Bronwyn Dowdall came to the Museum in 2005 after working for many years in the audio visual industry, in broadcasting and at the National Film and Sound Archive. The Circa exhibition allowed her to immerse herself, sometimes literally, in audio visual collections around Australia and beyond in an attempt to tell the story of the objects featured in Circa.

Bronwyn has an honours degree in Women's Studies and is currently enrolled in a Master of Arts in public history, researching the connections made between women outside their homes in the new suburbs of 1930s Sydney.

Jennifer Wilson is a curator in the Gallery Development team at the National Museum of Australia. She previously worked as curator of the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Qantas Founders Museum in Longreach. Since joining the Museum in 2005, Jennifer has worked on a variety of projects in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program, the new Australian Journeys and Creating a Country galleries, and the Circa Refurbishment Initiative completed in December 2008.


A cast of thousands: Circa: A new way to explore the origins and breadth of the National Historical Collection

Circa is a rotating theatre located at the entry to the National Museum of Australia's permanent exhibitions. In 2004, the Museum initiated a series of projects to redevelop and refurbish some of its permanent galleries and programs, including Circa. As a 'transition zone' for visitors entering the Museum, Circa conceptually orientates audiences to the themes represented in the galleries and the Museum's object-centred approach to interpreting Australian history.

The aim of the new Circa program was not to include all the themes, events and trajectories in Australian history but to represent the breadth and interest of the Museum's collection. The Circa narrative presents objects from the National Historical Collection in their various contexts; combining objects, places, images and sounds in a chronological format from deep time to contemporary Australia. Pieces of archival footage, sound and images, often relegated to a supporting role in exhibitions, offer context but also emotion, complexity and momentum in the intimate theatre environment. The selection and final assembly of diverse pieces of historical evidence was made so that the objects were both the subject of the story and the storytellers, inviting visitors to ask how collection objects, within their historical contexts, can generate narratives about Australia's past.

Bruce Ford and Nicola Smith

Bruce Ford is a consultant Conservation Scientist. He has a background in chemistry and has worked for a number of national cultural institutions over the last 20 years. Areas of specialisation include Rock Art Conservation. Since 2006 he has been working with NMA Conservation staff to develop a risk management approach to exhibition changeovers.

Nicola Smith is Deputy Manager, Conservation at the National Museum of Australia. Nicola's areas of interest include conservation of Indigenous and archaeological material. She has been involved with exhibition changeovers since 2002 and has been investigating known light-fading data and ways to extend exhibition lifetimes without placing objects at undue risk.


Into the light

Light levels and light driven object changeovers are an on-going and costly issue for museums, straining conservation and exhibition resources and curators' ability to find and interpret replacement objects, often several times over the course of a typical permanent exhibition.

At the core of new conservation lighting guidelines is the common-sense idea that objects with a low probability of display do not require the same recommendations for light exposure as the Museum's most significant and therefore most frequently displayed material. The combination of taking into account how often an object is likely to be displayed in future, and a recent technical advance allowing the rapid and practically non-destructive estimation of the light-fastness of real objects, will substantially reduce costs and labour associated with past practices. The proposed guidelines mark the introduction of systematic significance and risk management assessments into collection management at the NMA.

Liz Gillroy and Debbie Sommers

Liz Gillroy is the Regional Museum Curator at Port Macquarie-Hastings Council working with the ten local community managed museums and heritage groups in the local government area. She has many years experience working in the museum sector including working as Assistant Curator Social History at the Powerhouse Museum Sydney and Curator at the Newcastle Regional Museum.

Debbie Sommers became a museum volunteer in 2002 when she moved to Port Macquarie on the Mid North Coast of NSW and was simply looking for a way to meet people. She has a background in accounting, health financing and managing business relationships. She worked in a major metropolitan Public Hospital and then for a government statutory authority and private health insurer before retiring early to become carer for her Vietnam Veteran husband.

She has developed a keen interest and passion in researching and assessing the significance of objects in the collections she works with at the Port Macquarie Historical Museum and Roto House.

'I enjoy researching and documenting the stories behind our objects. Many of them are special and you don't know this until you unlock their unique stories. Documenting their stories is very important, not only because it allows better interpretation which makes the object much more interesting, but also to ensure that the object's story and significance is not lost to future generations. I guess this also allows me to utilise the research, analytical and documentation skills I developed during my working life.'


Objects to Stories – Using thematic studies to develop exhibitions at volunteer museums in the Port Macquarie – Hastings Region – A case study

This substantive paper will present the case study of three thematic studies conducted by the Port Macquarie Hastings Museums Working group since 2002. The studies focused on documenting local collections through to presenting new exhibitions. All participating museums are entirely volunteer operated. This paper outlines the methodologies used to progress these studies including education and training of museum volunteers, exhibition planning and development and interpreting old collections in new ways. The paper addresses in particular the challenges and constraints facing volunteer operated museums and how the wider museum sector can contribute to ensuring community collections are viable, relevant and continue to be exhibited to the public in stimulating and interesting ways.

Themes and Topics

  • Aims and objectives of the Port Macquarie-Hastings studies
    o Researching and documenting old collections
    o Uncatalogued collections - challenges and constraints
    o Valuing and re-evaluating collections
  • Methodologies
    o Contextual histories – advantages, disadvantages
    o Education and training
    o Other
  • Object files and statements of significance
    o The carrot and the stick, encouragement
    o Importance of documentation
    o Significance – the key to successful story telling and exhibitions
  • Linking objects to themes and stories
    o Thinking outside the square
    o Exploration - identifying people, places, organizations and events
    o New interpretation
    o Telling the stories
  • Developing and presenting new exhibitions
    o Old dogs, new tricks
    o Grants and 'making do'
  • Outcomes
    o Fresh looks
    o New skills
    o Wider networks

Liz Marsden

Liz Marsden graduated from Museum Studies at Sydney University in 2000 and worked briefly in Sydney and Regional NSW before spending five years in the Netherlands. She has worked at the Victoria Police Museum since 2006 and as Collections Manager since 2007.


Victoria Police Museum – Collecting Crime

Murder weapons, graphic photographs, human skin remains as well as the crumpled shell of the Russell Street Car Bomb form an important part of the Victoria Police Museum collection and reflect the history of policing in Victoria.

The museum's main objective is to promote the history of policing in Victoria. Apart from the obvious uniform and policing paraphernalia held within the collection, many objects have been collected by detectives investigating serious crimes, such as murders and acts of terrorism. Together they demonstrate the development of Victoria Police and also crime investigation in Australia.

The telling of tragic stories in museums is nothing new. What is different about some of the displays in the Victoria Police Museum's is that there are often ample survivors, families or friends of victims still alive to whom some displays could cause distress. The display of such emotionally charged material raises issues over appropriateness of display, the importance of context, and if such material should be displayed or collected at all. The development of the Victoria Police Museum's collections and its display of emotionally charged objects shall be discussed in this presentation.

Howard Morphy

Howard Morphy is Director of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the ANU. He is an anthropologist and curator. He has published widely in the anthropology of art, aesthetics, performance, museum anthropology, visual anthropology and religion. He is presently completing a biography of the Yolngu artist Narritjin Maymuru.

Jenny Newell

Jenny is a historian and curator, until recently working in the British Museum's Oceanic section (2001-2008). In mid-2008 she took up a research fellowship at the National Museum of Australia's Centre for Historical Research, focusing on the rich history of exchanges between Australia and the Pacific. Her current project draws on objects in museum collections as well as documents, visual sources and oral histories. She is particularly interested in environmental history, the history of ideas, and cross-cultural engagements in the Pacific. Her first book, Paradise Exchanged: Tahitians, Europeans and the trade in nature, will be published by the University of Hawai'i Press in late 2009.

Jenny has a PhD in Pacific history from the Australian National University (2005).


No presence in the case: Looking for Tahiti in world museums

Of the many thousands of objects from Tahiti in collections around the world, only a tiny fraction have ever been exhibited. European collecting started early in Tahiti, in 1767, and the island provided a hub for the excitement surrounding the Cook voyages. However, once the frisson passed, Tahitian collections typically became long-term, undisturbed residents of museum storehouses. The collections of any one country can only ever be exhibited in minute proportions, yet it is clear that, over time, political allegiances and perceptions of popular appeal have weighted museums' selection of exhibition subjects to favour a relatively narrow selection of cultures.

In the case of Tahiti, brief instances of being represented in the wider world through the productions of the island's own people have been swamped by the visions presented by Gauguin and the makers of the Bounty movies. Few museums have exhibited their objects from Tahiti with any context, and many have failed to exhibit them at all.

In the recent renaissance of Society Islands culture, a handful of known images and sculpted forms from the region are drawn upon year after year by Tahitian students, craftspeople and artists. With a few exceptions, most notably Chicago's Field Museum, Tahiti's collections remain unnoticed, unknown and un-accessed by Tahitians and general museum visitors. This paper surveys the presence and absence of one culture in world museums and suggests some fruitful ways forward for reinvigorating collections and reconnecting to source communities.

Libby Robin

Libby Robin is an environmental historian at the Centre for Historical Research, National Museum of Australia and at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University. She developed an interest in the uses of animals in European museums whilst based at the Danish National Museum's Research Centre for six months in 2008. Her latest book is an edited collection: Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country (2009, CSIRO Publishing).


Dead museum animals:
from 'order of nature' to chaos of culture

This paper reviews the uses of collections of dead animal in museums from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first. Dead animals were initially collected and displayed in museums to show the 'order of nature' of scientific taxonomy.

As the science of ecology emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, museums developed 'dioramas', surrounding pictures of habitat to display with their zoological specimens. Taxidermy, the preparation of dead animal and bird specimens for representation as 'lifelike' in these displays. Taxidermically treated specimens gradually became art in the context of museum dioramas.

Dead animal collections continue to function at the junction between science and art in the twenty-first century, as taxidermic specimens and skins are used to explore ethics and concerns about animal rights. Dead animal collections are moving out of natural history museums and into social history and radical art. Artists are seeking ways to restore dignity to collected animals decades after they were stuffed for display. Art and science mirror each other, and museum collections are at the heart of this enterprise.

Martha Sear

Dr Martha Sear is a Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia, where she leads the Australian Journeys gallery team and is also working on the forthcoming Creating a Country gallery. Before joining the Museum in 2005, Martha was Community Curator in Hay NSW, and a curator in social history and health and medicine at the Powerhouse Museum. Martha's research interests include the history of international exhibitions, nineteenth century feminism and the display of women's work, and using drawing to engage museum visitors with objects.

Charlotte Smith

Dr Charlotte Smith is Senior Curator, Public Life & Institutions at Museum Victoria. She was the curator responsible for the Little Lon recreation in Museum Victoria's new exhibition The Melbourne Story. Charlotte is a historian with over 15 years experience working in museums and universities in England and Australia. Currently she is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage grant recipient (with Prof. Tim Murray, La Trobe University) researching the historical archaeology of the Commonwealth Block.


A Load of Old Rubbish: displaying archaeology of the modern city

Museum Victoria has an immense collection of archaeology of the modern city, the most significant assemblage being that uncovered from 'Little Lon', a nineteenth century, working-class area in inner-city Melbourne. This assemblage totals almost 500,000 broken, mundane, ordinary, and fragmented pieces: to quote the museum's education department 'A Load of Old Rubbish'.

In developing Melbourne Museum's recently opened exhibition Melbourne Story, curatorial staff were faced with the question of how to display this 'rubbish' in a way that gave meaning to the objects, and allowed the telling of some of Little Lon's complex stories.

Evaluation of the museum's previous Little Lon exhibit indicated that though visitors enjoyed the stories, they didn't understand the relationship between the archaeological material and the narratives, and they wanted a more interactive experience. Marrying these findings with contemporary trends in exhibition practice, it was decided to recreate a corner of nineteenth century Little Lon.

This paper will describe the new exhibit and explain how the archaeological material informed the recreation, dictated themes, and identified the selection of personal narratives that present a snapshot of life in late-nineteenth century Little Lon.

Kirsten Wehner

Dr Kirsten Wehner is a senior curator at the National Museum of Australia. She has recently led curatorial teams developing the Museum's Circa theatre and Australian Journeys gallery and is currently directing the team developing the new Creating a Country gallery. Kirsten has engaged Australian history and representational practice in text, film, collection and exhibition and her current interests include the phenomenology of museum visiting, histories of photography and practices of landscape design and horticulture.

Adele Wessell and Alison Wishart

Adele Wessell is a historian at Southern Cross University in Lismore. She has published on historiography, teaching and community engagement and food history. Her forthcoming book is titled First Course: An Introduction to Food History. She had a Visiting Fellowship with the National Museum of Australia in November 2008 and is currently working with Curator Alison Wishart on one of the books in the Museum's collection, Our Cookery Book, which may shed light on changing domestic roles, women's position in Australian society and issues such as citizenship and home.

Alison Wishart has worked as a curator at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, the State Library of Queensland and the National Museum of Australia. She has a B.A. (Hons) through the University of Queensland and hopes to finish that Masters in Museum Studies this year!


Flora Pell – Australia's First Domestic Goddess

Displaying rare cookbooks in a museum setting is often problematic and frustrating, for both visitors and curators. This is partly because cooking is a multi-sensory experience. Visitors want to read the recipes, taste the ingredients and smell the food. Curators want visitors to know that a cookbook can tell us so much more about ourselves and our history than how to bake a cake.

Flora Pell's Our Cookery Book epitomises this dilemma. To display the front cover is to do its history and museum visitors an injustice. First published in 1916, Our Cookery Book became a primer for girls studying domestic arts, as home economics was called then, and a culinary bible for women in the home. This influential cookbook was re-printed in over 20 editions up to 1951 (and a copy is held in the NMA's National Historical Collection).

This paper will briefly explore the history of Our Cookery Book and ways to display it to best communicate its significance to a museum audience.

Elspeth Wishart

Elspeth Wishart has worked with cultural heritage collections for nearly 30 years. After being appointed the first curator at the Port Arthur Historic Site she has continued to "do her time' in Tasmania with 15 years as Curator of History at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston focusing on social history and industrial heritage collections. For the past 8 years she has held the position of Senior Curator History at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and in the past year has taken on the additional responsibility for the Antarctic and Southern Oceans collections.


From Flat things Big things grow!

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is currently reviewing its historical collections and their associated research in an attempt to review and revisit the stories that the artefacts can tell for the potential new exhibitions in the proposed redeveloped Museum. As we examine these collections we realise that a number of key items that we wish to feature are two-dimensional usually with considerable constraints on their display potential. The stories they have to tell are often complex and moving but we are grappling with the challenges in how we bring out these multi-dimensional aspects to the best advantage for both the public and the artefact.

This will be highlighted by two case studies, one a Gallipoli Red Cross flag, the second a letter written to a convict woman by her husband from Ireland in 1843.

There are no right or wrong ways but I would be eager to engage with colleagues who have approached similar instances and how well these have been achieved.