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The project

The project

Experimental responses to historical material

In 2012 the Photography and Media Arts department at the Australian National University’s School of Art incorporated in its curriculum a semester long project responding to historical material from the National Museum of Australia’s Landmarks gallery. A number of exhibits from the gallery were conceptualised as ‘archives’, sets of objects, images and texts constituting evidence of the past.

Museum curators Daniel Oakman, George Main and Stephen Munro provided students with a detailed introduction to the gallery, describing the historical and cultural significance of each exhibit selected as a focus for the course. Around 40 students were equipped with briefing notes and reference images relating to the exhibits and were asked to respond creatively to these archives.

The students produced a range of fascinating, experimental visual material and at project completion a selection of works was made by National Museum and Australian National University staff for publication on the Museum's website.

Entry to the Landmarks gallery
Visitors in the National Museum of Australia's Landmarks gallery. Photo: George Serras.

Archives as accumulations of information

Students considered archives as accumulations of information; collections of data shaped by certain systems, codes and methodological approaches. Some of the questions put to students and discussed in class to develop their understanding of an archive included: ‘What is an archive?’, ‘How is it made and what were the guidelines and strategies put in place to realise it?’ and ‘How can an archive be re-presented in a contemporary context?’

In their approach to their creative practice, students considered what parameters had been established as strategies to construct an archive. They were asked to consider what guidelines one sets when working with an existing archive and how one constructs a new archive in response to an existing, institutional archive.

Students learned that an archive can be many things: a holding place of selected information, memories and knowledge, historical documents in dusty drawers, a collection of private photographs or secret files, items held by private individuals or public institutions. An archive can be truthful or it can manipulate reality, and the audience. An archive is all of these things and so much more.

Commentary from Marcia Lochhead, coordinator of the second year Photomedia program Archives and Journeys Beyond at the Australian National University School of Art.