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Michelle Hetherington, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia, 21 November 2014

FRANCES BALDWIN: Good morning, everyone. Firstly, thank you all for coming. For those of you who haven’t met me before, I am Frances and I am looking after the Friends. Many of you I have met before. This is our last Landmark Women talk for the year, and I wanted to thank all of you who have been regulars and those that have come spasmodically, as time allows. We have really appreciated your support, and I hope you’ve enjoyed the program. Just to reassure you that we are locking in the program for next year. We have some people lined up already for February, it’s actually the ladies from the Handmade Markets which should be interesting. I will be sending out an email next week about that.

Before I introduce our speaker just a little bit of admin: for those of you who come regularly will know that we will be recording the session. So if you have any questions, please wait for the mike so we can capture your questions. And if you could turn your mobile phones off.

A little bit of a sales pitch. The shopping night is coming up on Friday, 5 December. That is one of our most popular events. It will be starting at 5.30. An e-card has already gone out. So if you haven’t booked in already, give me or Wendy a call or go on to Eventbrite and book yourself in. It should be a lovely night. We are expecting a big crowd too.

So on to today’s event: unfortunately our scheduled speaker Maureen Cane broke her knee so at the last minute had to pull out. I have advised most of you but, if you didn’t know, I apologise. So the lovely and distinguished Michelle Hetherington, one of our senior curators, has stepped in at the last minute with grace and dignity so thank you, Michelle.

Michelle is one of the senior curators here at the National Museum of Australia in the Australian Society and History program. She has researched and developed a number of major exhibitions for both the National Library of Australia and the National Museum, including Paradise Possessed: The Rex Nan Kivell Collection; The World Upside Down: Australia 1788 to 1830, which was a winner of the Centre of Australian Cultural Studies Award in 2000; Cook and Omai: The cult of the South Seas; and Exploration and Endeavour: The Royal Society of London and the South Seas. Michelle was lead curator on Glorious Days: Australia 1913, which I hope many of you came to in 2013 and which was the Museum’s contribution to the Canberra centenary year. She was also commissioning editor of the book of the same name.

Michelle’s numerous publications reflect her interest in European voyages of discovery, the eighteenth century and the cult of celebrity, and the work of Australian and British artists. She is the co-editor of Discovering Cook’s Collections and is a contributor to Celebrity: The idiom of a modern era 2013, which all sounds very interesting.

Please thank Michelle for stepping in at the last minute and welcome her to Landmark Women this morning.

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Thank you very much, Frances, and thank you all for coming - welcome and good morning. I am Michelle Hetherington and I have been thinking about what was the best way to approach the honour of being invited to speak as a landmark woman. I decided that perhaps I could dilate upon the importance of following those things that are of most interest to you rather than the things that appear to be the normal path to achieve your heart’s desires.

I was born in Perth in 1959 and I had a fairly unusual route to get to the University of Western Australia [UWA]. My parents took me out of school at the age of 16, despite the fact that I desperately wanted to go to university, and put me in the Public Service as clerical assistant, the lowest of the low. It was dreadful, as I am sure they knew it would be, and it encouraged me to go back to school and sit my university entrance exam. I then tried nursing briefly and discovered that I did not like being told what to do by other people very much.

So I went to UWA and I had a marvellous time. UWA back in those days was like a giant garden on the edges of the river, very comfortable, very quiet, very beautiful. I am not sure I worked quite as hard as I should have, but I got through. I met my husband there, and he did his PhD there too. As a result of discovering a great passion for art, I actually took a break from being at university just before I had finished my degree – and this was something that I hadn’t really planned. As a small child I had loved painting and drawing but had never really thought it was something that you could devote yourself to. But I ended up studying art part time for two years before spending three very happy years full time at the Claremont School of Art, where I then taught for a year whilst waiting for the birth of my second child.

When that child was nearly three, my husband got a position at the National Library of Australia. We, of course, went across and joined him. We had been in Canberra for about nine months, when I got my first job here, also at the Library. It was a wonderful little six-month contract. I was very sad when it came to an end. But it had been really worth while having a job, partly because when I came to Canberra everybody would say, ‘And what do you do?’ If I said, ‘I am looking after my young child,’ they would just sort of glaze over and turn to the next person in the hope they might have something interesting to say. I worked as the executive officer of the TDK Audio Book Award, which was lots of fun and an enormous education for me. I had to learn to use a computer, about which I knew nothing, but that was okay because nobody else really knew how to use one either.

Throughout my time at the Library, 13 and a half years in all, I repeatedly found that, if you follow what you are interested in, interesting things will happen to you. I had arrived in Canberra with a degree in English Literature and History, and a Diploma in Fine Arts majoring in sculpture, neither of which appeared to have much to do with learning to use a computer. But I persevered and I had a lovely time in the Library’s Education section. Before that I was also before that the Executive Officer of the Friends of the National Library for three and a half years. In fact, I am sure I met some of you there during that time – it was a very hard job. We should all be deeply grateful to people like Frances who are prepared to undertake it.

Whilst there I thought: ‘I need to do something that links the two qualification that I have achieved so far,’ so I undertook a Postgraduate Diploma in Art History and Curatorship at the Australian National University [ANU]. This is the very beautiful view just outside the AD Hope Building where I did most of my studying. Art History and Curatorship was an inspiring choice because it turned out that I had great lecturers and tutors. The fact that I could write clearly, knew something about history, knew some grammar and also understood fine arts set me up perfectly for being able to research the history of art and write about it with a degree of coherence.

The curating part of the diploma was very theoretical, and I think the idea was to prepare us all for a job as a curator. Given there were lots of us wanting such a position, I am not sure how many of us were actually going to achieve that desire. Whilst the course did not prepare me to curate, it gave me the piece of paper that allowed people in authority to decide that I would be capable of doing such a thing - and that happened for me at the National Library in 1998. I had been for some time putting together those lovely displays in the big glass cases in the Library’s Visitor Centre. My very favourite display featured the Christmas cards that were sent to Prime Minister Menzies and Dame Pattie Menzies by the Royal Family. They were wonderful. The only problem was that people kept banging their heads on the glass plate windows as they tried to read the inscriptions. So I had done those sorts of small displays.

As one of my final bits of work for my postgraduate diploma I was required to curate an exhibition on paper and I decided that I would curate an exhibition about this man: Sir Rex de Charembac Nan Kivell. [image shown] This is a picture of him in 1959 at Australia House in London handing over a sizeable chunk of his amazing collection to the High Commissioner. You can see a painting by the artist of the third voyage to the Pacific under Cook – John Webber – in the background. Rex is holding the albums in which he has pasted photographs of all his paintings. He was trying to organise what was an unruly and somewhat distributed collection so that he could manage it and so other people could know what he had.

Rex’s passion was eighteenth century voyages of discovery, a passion that I soon grew to share with him. But the idea behind my little exhibition was that it was going to be called ‘Portraits of a collector’ because he also had a huge interest in portraits. The only book that Nan Kivell really published was called Portraits of the famous and infamous and he did say in a letter, ‘I’m never sure who should be the famous and who the infamous. I never did much like missionaries.’

I put forward my proposal and my boss at the Library at that time said, ‘Well, you can have a little bit of time to work on this proposal if you agree to do it for the Library as a real exhibition, not just a thoretical exhibition.’ That was great. I did all the work and suddenly was told, ‘Oh we have decided that, as it is Rex’s centenary coming up, we need an exhibition. But we don’t want that little one that you’ve thought up, we want a big one.’

So at the age of 39, having never curated a major exhibition in my life and having no idea what it really involved, I said ‘yes, of course’. Saying ‘yes’ has got me into lots of trouble throughout my life, but it has also brought me many wonderful opportunities. So I spent the next six months working away putting together an exhibition that became known as Paradise possessed: The Rex Nan Kivell Collection http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/37306/20030822-0000/www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/nk/index.html. It was magnificent from my point of view. I discovered the joy of just working hard from 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock at night. I had lovely people to work with and the most amazing collection to get to know.

I knew that I was pushing it a little hard the time I dreamt that Rex Nan Kivell spoke to me and said, ‘You’ve forgotten the second voyage.’ I woke up in the morning and thought: ‘Oh my God, I have forgotten Cook’s second voyage.’ So I think when somebody who has been long dead speaks to you in your dreams, you know that you’re on a certain wave length.

[image shown] This is the self-portrait that Rex that he commissioned. Whilst his passion was seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century art and artefacts, he earned his living as a purveyor of fine art, modern art, so he had a modern artist portray him in this way. And this one I did put in the exhibition.

This was the cover for the book, and this was another thing that I discovered once I became a curator - as I could call myself having done this particular exhibition. Exhibitions are ephemeral; they will disappear. In fact, when I was racing to put together this PowerPoint display, I discovered that a lot of the material that was once on the web about the exhibitions I have created - has gone. You need to have a book so that people can remember the exhibition and so that you can express your thoughts about what it was that you were thinking at the time.

I wrote the introductory essay, and we were able to put together a selection of essays by really interesting people. Fortunately, my husband was at that time the publisher of the National Library of Australia. I don’t think it’s nepotism as such, but it was certainly very helpful. The book sold well and set in train a habit for the library of producing beautiful exhibition catalogues. That exhibition was only meant to be up for three months, but they kept it up for six because there was such interest - and of course that was very gratifying.

But as I had been working on the Nan Kivell collection, I kept on discovering these amazing things about the early history of Australia - things that might be considered the eyewitness view to history. So I put forward a proposal to do my next exhibition which I wanted to call The World Upside Down which would look at how the Europeans, on their first arrival in Australia and up to the death of George IV, had seen the country. It was a fantastic exhibition to do.

Sorry, I have got ahead of myself. I have to quickly go back. This painting was one that I put into Paradise Possessed [image shown]. It is by George Carter titled The Death of Captain Cook. Its date is about 1780 or 1781. News of Cook’s death, which had happened in 1779, reached England late in 1780 and a number of artists, including John Webber – who had actually been with Cook at the time of his death, made paintings of the event. This painting had been purchased by Rex during the Second World War.

Rex was a great raconteur and embroiderer of his own life, which I think is an admiral thing to do. It’s quite creative as long as you don’t go too far. He, of course, had the wrong birth date included on his funeral headstone. That was because he wished to hide from the world that he was illegitimate, which at that time was a dreadful blot on your future. So no-one can really blame him for that. But having changed the date, he also re-invented many of the circumstances of his life, making it much more exciting and interesting, and then he actually lived a much more interesting and exciting life having created for himself this back story that made him acceptable to the upper class English clients for whom he sourced art.

Anyway, this painting was being sold during the Blitz in London. The auction house had already been bombed out of their normal building, so they were holding the auction in new premises that unfortunately had a glass ceiling over the atrium where the auction was being held. The sirens began to sound; everybody started to race out of the room for the safety of the shelters; and the auctioneer turned to Rex and said, ‘Shall we repair to the shelter, Sir?’ Rex said, ‘No, no, please continue.’ He refused to go until they had finished dealing with this painting, this lot. He got it for a song, not surprisingly. I felt that this was an essential painting to have in the exhibition because of the way it was acquired and the way it was so absolutely in keeping with Rex’s approach to life but also because it was a painting of one of his great heroes.

[Captain James] Cook came from very undistinguished origins. One would not normally have expected a man without money or family connections, to do well in the eighteenth century. Yet he had managed through dint of hard work and skill to become a captain in the Royal Navy and to have an amazing career. I think Rex identified with him and saw him as a bit of a hero. This was really my first interaction with Captain Cook and we have sort of been working together ever since, as you will see.

This was The World Upside Down exhibition that then followed on from Paradise Possessed and was a delight to do. I really enjoyed it. This one is still up on the web, as you can see http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/36381/20030707-0000/www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/upsidedown/index.html. I am not sure how many of you are fascinated by the art of early Australian history - white Australian history - but it is really extraordinary. That one went very well, and we won a prize for it.

I did a number of other exhibitions at this time, including Cook and Omai: The Cult of the South Seas http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/36336/20030703-0000/www.nla.gov.au/exhibitions/omai/index.html - Cook had come back into my life. This time I had lots of time to learn all about him and found it absolutely fascinating. This was an exhibition that I curated in conjunction with the Australian National University. So I got to meet lovely people like Iain McCalman and others from the Centre for Historical Research at that time. It also introduced me to Omai, who was the first Polynesian to reach London where he became an extraordinary celebrity, and Nan Kivell again had collected widely on Omai’s life. The National Library has one of the best collections relating to Omai in the world. This exhibition was at about the time that I moved from being a curator into the Pictures branch, about which we won’t say much but I did learn a lot there. And then in 2005 I came to the National Museum of Australia.

Whilst I was in the Pictures branch, I had a little bit of time to recover from all the hard work of being a curator, and this was a painting I had displayed in the Cook and Omai exhibition [image shown] and I was asked by somebody, ‘So you have worked out the provenance of that painting, have you? We have always wondered who’s actually in it.’ In my naivety, I had read the label on it and thought ‘Oh great - Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Lord Sandwich – excellent. I will just pop it up on the wall.’ It turned out that none of these details had been clearly established with proper research. It was hearsay, as it were. It had also been thought to have been painted by [Johann] Zoffany at one point. So it was a somewhat problematic work.

I spent about a year doing very detailed research into the painting’s background and I was able to do it all from Canberra using the National Library’s collections and resources. When the paper was finally published in 2003 in the British Art Journal, I had learnt a vast amount about researching paintings and I had discovered in fact that the man standing in the middle is Captain Cook; the man sitting on the bank is Joseph Banks; the man standing behind him is Daniel Solander; the fellow leaning with such an air of nonchalance on the sculpture is Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty; and the fellow in the shadows is John Hawkesworth, who was the editor of the publication of Cook’s first voyage. It took a lot of work to do all of that, and there are some people who still don’t agree with me. I don’t care. As far as I am concerned, this is the earliest portrait of Captain Cook yet discovered.

But what I discovered when I was discovering Cook was that you can learn to interpret a painting in such an interesting way. I won’t go into it at length here, because otherwise we will run out of time, but the centre of the painting, whilst it appears to be Cook, is in fact Lord Sandwich. You will notice they are all looking at Sandwich, apart from Dr Hawkesworth. While Cook doesn’t actually appear to meet Lord Sandwich’s gaze, he is actually making a bow to him. He has taken off his hat. It is a piece of hat honour, such as a man of lower status owed to a man of higher status, a son to his father, a subject to his monarch, and Cook is doing it in the approved form. The way he’s holding his hat is the approved form. It’s a very genteel and courteous act, and he is saying, ‘I am paying my respects to the First Lord of the Admiralty.’ Not surprisingly, it was the First Lord of the Admiralty who commissioned this work. Interestingly enough, it would be inappropriate if Cook were to be actually meeting Sandwich’s gaze. It is not his place to do so.

I ended up writing a paper called ‘Knowing one’s place’ as a result of this because I became absolutely fascinated with the whole idea of the hierarchical structure of British society at this time and how we make so many mistakes in trying to understand the history of that period if we assume that our culture mores are theirs.

As a result of all the work I had been doing on Cook, I got an opportunity to come and work here at the National Museum. It started out as an 18-month contract and then, when I was offered another 18 months, I asked the Library if they would let me stay and they said, ‘No, come back or resign,’ which was a bit sad because it was right on the evening of the opening of my next big exhibition here. So the Museum very kindly transferred me across, which I thought was fantastic, and I have been here ever since having a great time.

The Museum encouraged me to move here in the first place because they needed somebody to work on Captain Cook. I don’t know if any of you remember the 2003 Carroll report into the National Museum. There were elements of it that suggested that Captain Cook should have a higher profile here and also that there should be more about sport. In response to the report, the Museum said, ‘Certainly. We will do another new module which looks at Cook and a new module on sport,’ and I was brought in to work on Cook.

Just outside this theatre we had the opportunity to do a module called ‘Encounters’, which is not the same as the big exhibition that is opening here next year. It was an exhibition that looked at the points where cultures have encountered Australia, the continent. So, of course, it began with the Indigenous people and their extraordinary knowledge of the continent over so many thousands of years. Then we looked at the early voyages by the Dutch, the French and the English. Then we looked at Captain Cook of course, and then we looked at the early encounters between Europeans and the Indigenous people at Botany Bay and then at Port Jackson. It was lots of fun.

What I am showing you at the moment is the artists’ layout for the design for one section of the module [image shown]. When we start curating, you have a rough idea of the parameters of what you are trying to achieve - in this case the moments of encounter in the history of Australia. Then you look for the objects: What have we got? What can we use? If the objects aren’t in this institution, are they somewhere else; can we borrow them? You have to write a lot of loan letters as a curator. What images can I use? Can I borrow paintings or do I have to use graphic images?

Then you have to create a narrative. I am a great one for following a narrative because I think that that’s a great way to allow people to enter in to an exhibition. It’s just telling a story in a particular way. It doesn’t always have to be a linear narrative, but that often helps. Depending on how much space and time you have to devote to the analysis of your thesis, a linear narrative will often do much of the work for you, because your audience is always intelligent and always able to piece the bits together if you give them enough information to go on.

This image shows the section about the First Fleet and the establishment of the colony in Sydney. When we have put all of those elements together, we have a designer who says, ‘Okay, this is how I think we should lay it out.’ So there is quite a lot of interaction: ‘no, that needs to go here; oh I think that’s nice’. It’s always a good idea to find out what your designer has in mind because their ideas may well be better than your own.

This was the exhibition that I was working on when I moved permanently to the Museum - Cook’s Pacific Encounters http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/cooks_pacific_encounters/home. This was an opportunity that Cook again brought me. There was an exhibition being shown in Hawaii of the ethnographic material that had been collected by Captain Cook and the men on each of his three Pacific voyages - and that had ended up at Göttingen in Hanover, which is where King George III was still the Elector at the time of Cook’s voyages.

A man called Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, an early anthropologist, I think we would probably call him, who was fascinated by the Pacific and wanted to acquire a collection of objects to explore the nature of human societies. That material was preserved extremely well by the Germans for over 200 years. In 2005-06 it travelled to Hawaii, returning items that had been collected there in 1778 and 1779 for the very first time. This is incredibly important, because those Cook voyages transformed the Pacific. People who had previously not known metal, people who were living with stone tools were suddenly exposed to a completely different culture, completely different tools, new and unfortunate diseases, and weapons that completely disrupted the existing hierarchy.

I got a chance to go to Hawaii to see this exhibition, because we thought we might like to bring it to Canberra. I am not sure how many of you got to see it but I think it looked even better here in Canberra than it had in Hawaii, because we were able to provide it with a preface for Australian audiences that allowed them to see how this material fitted into the European exploration of our own region. The feathered figure [image shown] is the depiction of one of their rather terrifying gods. When you are actually in the presence of this strange object made of wicker and feathers, it is incredibly powerful; it is such an extraordinary experience, one that you wouldn’t really expect. It is also very scary.

My next big Cook exhibition was not so much about Cook, but we had to use Captain Cook as a sort of hook to get audiences to come. We were all asked: who would like to curate an exhibition for the 350th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Society of London? I went ‘Me’, and it was wonderful. I got to go and work in the reading room of the Royal Society for a week in London. A selection of objects had already been identified that we were welcome to borrow if we wished. So using those as the basis, I then worked out what else we might need and had a chance to go through their extraordinary collection of letters and documents.

The Royal Society from 1660 really transformed the Western mind, I think. It taught people how to save information; and showed how you can retrieve information so that you don’t have to constantly re-invent the same set of discoveries, which is what had been happening for quite some time. Captain Cook did feature quite strongly in the exhibition, but it also allowed me to work much more strongly on Joseph Banks, who is sometimes portrayed as the sort of wealthy playboy in the Pacific on Cook’s first voyage. But the more I got to learn about the Cook voyages, the more I understood the incredible significance of Banks’ role and the role he had in Cook’s fame and in that of Omai, amongst many others. Joseph Banks, of course, became the longest-serving president of the Royal Society from 1778 until his death in 1820. That was another one of the exhibitions here that was so much fun to put together.

So we get to Banks. One of the great things about being a curator, apart from the fact you get to travel a lot and do a lot of reading - I occasionally have people go past my office and say, ‘Are you doing any work?’ because I am sitting there reading a book. But that is my work, and it’s very enjoyable. One of the things we have to do is huge amounts of research and we are very fortunate to have a Research Centre here at the Museum. I had the opportunity to go and spend some time in the Research Centre after working on the 1913 exhibition Glorious Days. My topic was to look at the unauthorised satires against Joseph banks.

Lest you think that I have a sort of fixation on powerful dead men, I am actually very interested in how they fit in to their society and the things that make them real for us at this stage more than 200 years later. It is the satires that were published against Banks that are so revealing of his society, his place in it, and the difficulties that people experienced at the beginning of celebrity culture.

We have the Kardashians and all sorts of nonsense on the television and in all those newspapers and magazines. Those are an example of early 21st century celebrity culture. But celebrity culture has been around for an awfully long time and took on its modern form in Britain in the 1760s. It is a congruence of mass consumption, mass communications and mass distribution. So the Press was taking off; people had quite a lot of disposable income at this time; and there was also that business where a previously fixed social hierarchy was beginning to break down under the fact that, if you could look like a gentleman and you could act like a gentleman, you could be accepted as a gentleman. It only cost a shilling –which was the bar that would keep the hoi polloi out – to get into the various gardens, concerts, art galleries, displays and musical performances that were the favoured venues of the English Aristocracy and Gentry – and, increasingly, members of the middle class had that shilling to spend.

People from other parts of Europe who visited London would complain that it was so hard to tell who was a gentleman and who was not. But, of course, what it meant was that people were enormously interested in how you rise up the social scale. They wanted to know: how do you improve your status? So they became very interested in celebrity because in celebrity there were two paths for advancement: one is basically you are born into status – for example - the king, a member of the Royal Family, one of the nobility - you have ascribed celebrity as a result of your birth and blood.

But from 1760 there was also another category, although of course it had been around for a long time, of achieved celebrity. This is where you become a celebrity on the basis of your skill, your remarkable beauty, your physical strength and your achievement of extraordinary undertakings, like Cook, like Omai. People began to read about these celebrities so they could ape them; they could become like them; they could learn how to enhance their own status.

Now Bank already had status as the son and heir of a wealthy landowner but he enhanced his own status even more as a result of his voyage to the Pacific. He became the confidant of the King after spending two weeks showing him all the marvellous things he had collected in the Pacific – the artworks and such – and he used his early scientific collections as a form of leverage to achieve permanent rank. Once he had the status of being the President of the Royal Society, he was less interested in being a celebrity and in fact tried to keep the Press at arm’s length. They tend not to stay at arm’s length once you have let them in. Banks had lots and lots of trouble with the Press, which brought me to the issue of the satires because they were the unauthorised portraits and unauthorised statements made about Banks in the press.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with ‘the macaroni prints’ of Joseph Banks. It was that alternative side, the dark side of celebrity that I was spending my time working on. The paper that I presented earlier this year in London was called ‘Fame’s dark twin: Joseph Banks and celebrity’. These are all the sorts of things that are part of my work as a curator, part of the work that I do for the Museum and will no doubt form the basis for the next exhibition that I desperately want to work on, which will be on the life of Joseph Banks - but it will be the unauthorised biography. I hope people will come and see it. That’s 40 minutes to the dot. If you have any questions, I would be more than happy to answer them. [applause]

FRANCES BALDWIN: Thank you very much, Michelle. Do you have a clock down there?

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I do.

FRANCES BALDWIN: Well done. Does anybody have any questions for Michelle?

QUESTION: Thank you. I am sorry I was a bit late. I was held up with the traffic so I missed the beginning but I did see a lot of your exhibitions. I found your putting it all together was like a television series. Have you ever thought this is what could happen with all of this that you have put together? You are a very good researcher, and I have really enjoyed your work. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I have this morning. So thank you.

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: That’s very kind of you. I would love to do something like that. Everything I have worked on does to my mind seem to fit together - the next piece, the next piece. It’s all just been a giant voyage of discovery for me working on these sorts of materials. I am not quite sure how I would go about it, but it is something I would love to do. There is a book that I want to publish but that’s going to be a real slog.

FRANCES BALDWIN: Michelle, you and I can talk because I am an ex-television curator and I can tell you, you can get that up. Go and get funding from Screen Australia – absolutely - which doesn’t cost the ABC so much. Just put in a proposal. You just need a producer so talk to me later.

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I will.

QUESTION: What about an e-book?

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: That’s a thought.

QUESTION: My question is actually about the exhibitions themselves. I wear glasses and I have a bad back. When you put the labels - and I read everything - down low, I come out with a dreadfully sore back. Can we either have larger fonts or place them higher up please?

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: This is an argument I have been having with designers since my first exhibition. I can remember - I was very fortunate to go to Rosemary Dobson’s 80th birthday where John Mulvaney said, ‘I can’t read your captions.’ I said, ‘I know.’ And of course my own eyesight is at the point now where it is glasses on, glasses off.

My most recent exhibition is actually at Macquarie Bank down in Sydney – [Governor Lachlan Macquarie http://www.nma.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/now_showing/governor_lachlan_macquarie] - where we think we might have found the solution. This exhibition is in a tiny little space, 25 quare metres. It’s sort of like a big marble bathroom. There is a lot of light coming in and not a lot of space. So we have used iPads on nice big tall stalks to contain the text, iPads that you can actually pick up and read, and iPads that allow you to stretch the text to make it bigger. It has also meant that I can put so much more information.

We are always in a bit of a bind, because there is only so much space in an exhibition. Designers assume that it’s the objects that people have come to look at. But, of course, if you don’t know what you are looking at, perhaps that thing that looks like a stick is just a stick. So we always have this huge battle with our designers. We also have a battle with people who think that the public aren’t interested in reading. When we do surveys – and you will sometimes see somebody wandering along behind you with a little clipboard - they are measuring how long you spend at each point. There are some people who walk in and go ‘Hmmmnn’ and walk straight out - ten minutes on a display is pretty standard for your average museum visitor.

We get told that people don’t want to read long things. That is another reason why I have always wanted to do books rather than just do the exhibition. But now that we have the opportunity to use new technology, I will do my best to encourage people to have more text. If you only want to read the title, that’s fine, that will be there for you too. But if you are interested in that deeper level, it will be there.

These days, too, we put things up on the web. I suppose you could walk around with your own iPad checking out what’s on the web while you are in the exhibition - and some people do that - but it also means that it makes it accessible for people who can’t actually get into the exhibition, which as a national institution we are very keen on making happen. But, yes, I share your pain.

QUESTION: I have just been at the South Australian Museum and they address that problem where, as you walk into each room, there are a lot of sheets with very large font that you can pick up and you look at each painting and it’s written on it. For people who are not technology savvy, that’s an old-fashioned way of looking as well. Then people are not standing right in front of the exhibition reading it so nobody else can see.

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I will remember that one, too, because that’s an excellent solution.

QUESTION: I would just like to follow up on that comment, because the National Library have a series of big print little booklets with the exhibitions they put on in their Treasure Room. So you can pick that up and read where you are. You don’t have to stand in front of the picture necessarily, but it’s good to see that very big print and you can just take your time using it.

The other question I have is: Are your catalogues still in print? I like the original books.

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: I am not sure how many of them are still in print. I think that we sold out of The World Upside Down very quickly. When I was in London late last year, I found a copy of my Cook and Omai catalogue for sale for £2 in the British Library. I was tempted to buy it - I thought that’s not a bad price. I am not sure. I have copies of my own, of course. They are in libraries, and I gave copies to our library here. There are copies in libraries, but I am not sure if they are still available to buy. If they are available, the National Library will be selling the ones that relate to those exhibitions, and the ones that I have done for the National Museum I think are still available here at our shop.

FRANCES BALDWIN: Michelle, I introduced you as being in the Australian Society program but they might be interested in, other than the Banks work, what else you might be working on over the next year or two.

MICHELLE HETHERINGTON: Yes. I told you that I can’t say no. I was asked: would I like to work on the ‘Defining Moments of Australian History’ project? When they told me I could have Anne Faris to work with me, I said, ‘Yes, I will.’ This is the big program that was opened by Tony Abbott on 29 August this year at the Museum. There is information about it in the foyer at the moment. http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments

Quite a little while ago a group of eminent Australian historians got together to define and make a list of 100 moments of Australian history that have been so significant in forming who we are. This is a list that is open to discussion, and that is actually what we want. We want to engage people with the list and for them to tell us what they think are the most significant moments. Is there something missing from the list that you think should be there? Is there something on the list that you definitely think shouldn’t be there? Is there a personal moment that you know about that is for you one of the defining moments of Australian history?

We are going to be using this project to do all sorts of fantastic things. There is going to be an international conference next year. We are going to have a history week. There are so many things going on that I can’t actually remember them all, because I only agreed to do it at the beginning of this week. But it is a way for the Museum to move into greater conversation with the Australian public, and that’s what we want to do. We want to make resources available to people, so there is a lot up on the web.

This is going to tie in very nicely with another project that is happening at the moment, which is the Google cultural institutions project. Google have offered to record the outside of the Museum and the inside of the Museum. The fellow walks around with this weird camera on his back, and then the images it takes are loaded onto the Internet and you can take a virtual tour of the museum and the objects that you see, you can click on and all the beautiful information that curators like me have been working on for years becomes available. I have seen the one on Angkor Wat and it’s just fantastic. I don’t know that I will get to Angkor Wat but at least I now know what it looks like to walk through, and it is extraordinary. It’s that whole business about increasing people’s access to the Museum and making the work that we do available. These are hard times for cultural institutions. I am sure there have been times that have been worse, but this one does feel like a particularly hard time. We need our Friends and we need to have a presence - the Defining Moments project will help with both of those things.

FRANCES BALDWIN: Well said, Michelle. If you could join me again in thanking Michelle for stepping in, fond farewell and happy Christmas to you all, and please thank you Michelle once more. [applause]

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Date published: 18 December 2014

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