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Martha Sear, National Museum of Australia, 18 September 2014

MARTHA SEAR: Hello everybody. Welcome to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Martha Sear. I’m a senior curator in the People and the Environment team here at the Museum. I’m one of the many people who has put together the Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story exhibition. It’s my job today to tell you a bit about what happened behind the scenes in the making of Spirited. How many people have seen the show, yet? Hands up. Good stuff.

I think it’s fair to say that Australia just wouldn’t be the same without horses. For more than 200 years they set the rhythm of everyday life here. They’ve helped us get around. They’ve helped us doing most everything. I guess Spirited tells the grand and complex story of dependence, hard work, passion, and affection that is Australia’s horse story.

The show begins with the arrival of horses in Australia in 1788 and traces how they’ve shaped Australian life in different kinds of places: the pastoral station, the road, the farm, the city, the battlefield, the rangelands, the track and the competition arena. What I’d like to do today is to take you behind the scenes of the Museum to show you how we put a show like this together.

Before I get stuck into that story, I just want to let you know that this talk is the first of a series of three talks that give you insights into the stories behind the exhibition. The next one’s coming up about a month from today, which looks at the history of horse welfare in Australia. In November, we’re delighted to have Professor Paul McGreevy with us, one of Australia’s leading equitation scientists, and he’ll be talking to us about how horses learn. So mark those in your diary.

Today, what I want to do is talk to you about the making of the exhibition itself and share some of the stories that lie behind the exhibits that you’ve seen or are about to see. Before I get started though, I really want to hear what you most want to hear about. I know what the stories are that interest me and the rest of the team. But I wanted to take a few minutes to see if there was anything in particular that you wanted to me to tell you about or tell you more about. Just put your hand up if you’ve got an idea and I can add it to my list.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello, I’m Jody Troy and I come from a horsy family. I’m not a horse person myself. I just want to know who inspired this exhibition? Where did it all start?

MARTHA SEAR: Where did come from?


MARTHA SEAR: No worries. Someone else?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Christine Clark. I just wanted to find out a bit more about the extra forensic on Phar Lap that was discovered.

MARTHA SEAR: Sure, Phar Lap. I will add that to my list.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Heidi Pritchard. My favorite is the milk carriage. I think that’s a heck of a story.

MARTHA SEAR: No worries, I can do that, milk wagon. Anything else?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: High-country brumbies.

MARTHA SEAR: Oh, yes, the brumby side of things. Any other burning questions?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I wonder how many other resources are around the country still that could highlight this sort of theme that you haven’t yet explored and might be useful for future consideration.

MARTHA SEAR: Absolutely. Other resources around the country, terrific. I’ll remember to come back to those. Just give me a prompt if I forget.

I’m not alone here today in terms of the people who’ve worked on the exhibition. There are many of them in the audience. In terms of the curatorial side of things, Kirsten Wehner worked on the project and Jen Wilson just there. Sometimes I’m telling their stories and so they may jump in and provide an even better version of the story, or they may not. They may remain silent.

There’s an opportunity to explore additional content. With a lot of the things I’m talking about, we’ve developed a website that has more images, additional stories and stuff like that. I’ve already shown a lot of you where to point your Internet browser. But if you haven’t done it already, that’s the address If you’ve got your smart-phone or your tablet then have a look there, and feel free to browse while I’m talking. I’m an obsessive Internet browser and I will not be the slightest bit offended if you’re all looking down. That is totally fine with me.

To get started and to answer your question: Where did the inspiration for this exhibition come from? The idea for the exhibition really came from a bunch of passionate horse people within the Museum: Carol Cooper, Kirsten Wehner and Matthew Higgins. They knew our collections really well and they knew that the horse story was well represented within the National Historical Collection.

They also had a sense that the time had come to recognise the role that horses have played in Australian history. The conjunction of a bunch of people who were really passionate about the horse and a really rich collection resource for us to draw on really drove the exhibition through the exhibition approvals process.

It was a nice piece of serendipity that it was launched in the Year of the Horse, but it was really the passion of those people for the horse that got it off and started. A curatorial team then set to work to develop the content for the show. I just want to name those curators who’ve worked on it. It’s a big team that pulled that giant exhibition wagon along for the course of its life: Kirsten, myself, Jen, Nicole McLennan, Laura Breen, Cheryl Crilly, Jennifer Moncrieff and Mikhala Harkins. It takes big group of people in the curatorial team to put a show together. Then we’ve been joined over the course of the exhibition’s journey by hundreds more people inside the Museum and beyond the Museum who’ve collaborated together to produce the exhibition that you can see now.

We all started working on Spirited about two years ago. We began by trying to learn about our horse history, reading all the major books that have been written - and there are a lot of really interesting books - visiting communities throughout Australia to learn more about horse sports and activities and horse collections.

That’s where I might answer that question about resources out there, because while the horse is such a big part of our collection, it is also a big part of almost all other collections in Australia. Any rural or regional museum you walk into, the particular facet of horse history that’s most important there, whether it was ploughing and working in the land or stock work, will be really well represented. So you’re absolutely right. Beyond these walls are thousands and thousands more objects that tell us Australia’s horse history.

It would be fantastic if there were impetus to start recognising the horse’s role more precisely in those collections. If it was inspired by this, we’d be thrilled to bits. What we were trying to do was build up a sense of how we might fit what was an incredibly rich history and a rich range of collection materials into that exhibition space, which seems gigantic but it’s really quite small.

I’m going to try and focus today on the stories of the objects because I find them compelling. I’ll take you through the journeys of some of those objects from wherever they were living through to their shining stardom in the temporary gallery at the moment.

Every exhibition begins with research into the objects that we might be able to feature. We began by doing a survey of the Museum’s own collections, and Nicole McLennan really kicked that off. What she found was that there were more than 5500 objects just in our collection that had a horse connection, whether they were strengths in our collection - we’re really strong in things like flat racing, horse-drawn vehicles, farm machinery, saddlery and blacksmithing, Central Australian stock work.

These were areas the Museum had been working on for many years so we had strong collections there. But we also found that there were some areas of gaps and weaknesses that were in the collection. We decided to set about trying to fill them. We didn’t have really strong collections around horse health and welfare. We didn’t have strong collections around equestrian sports or about the horse in urban areas. So we set our minds to both understand our own collection a bit better and try to selectively add to it to make the story complete.

Let me take you through a few examples of how we brought these. We had to go out and muster up all the objects - get on our own saddles and find them. The first and most unusual place that we found them - this is a striking new development for us – is that we found them on eBay and Gumtree. For those of you who like a bit of eBay shopping, you can pick up a nice pair of shoes but you can also pick up some really lovely pieces of Australian heritage. Quite a bit of historical material is now popping now on eBay, and it’s a new part of the curator’s job to keep scanning across eBay looking for things.

We had a run of things that we’re looking for all the time about horse-drawn vehicles and horse this and horse that - lots of strange things. We didn’t actually get carousel horses, but there were some treasures that we turned up that we were thrilled about. I’ll just run you through a few of those.

I have to say that Nicole McLennan was really the heroine of this search. She became known as the ‘Queen of eBay’ because she would spend her evenings sitting at home, watching the TV, and just flicking through to see what had popped up. There were numerous times that she spotted something at 9 o’clock at night. She’d already sent them an email saying, ‘Can you put this on hold for us?’ And by the morning we had yet another object to add to the National Historical Collection.

We’ll start with the Wykes horse trough just quickly, a good example of when Nicole scanning through eBay found this family from Central New South Wales. Norwood is near Wellington. They’ve used horses on the property from the 1850s until the 1990s, but their chaff shed had fallen down. It’d suffered a few too many windstorms and rainstorms and it had fallen down. The family recognised that these two troughs, which had been made from felled trees on the property, and then hollowed them out - to enable the mostly draught horses on the property, which numbered between 12 and 20 animals in the period the family were working them - to make them into feed troughs. They were just so beautiful. I’d seen feed troughs in rural museum collections, but we knew we didn’t have one in our collection. They were such a stunning example of the way in which the local environment was turned to good practical purposes.

We had two to choose from, we knew from eBay, so Jen and Nicole jumped in the car and drive over to the property to take a look, and in the end, they chose the one on the left. It’s about 4½ metres long - 4.3 says Jen. While they were there, they were not only able to choose which one we should bring in to the collection but also to document the family’s stories and to document where they had been sitting. You can see they were able to take photographs of the footings where the troughs had sat during the course of their useful life. We were very enamoured of this object. We convinced everyone else in the Museum that we should get it.

Then the work began of loading it into the Museum. The family may have helped us out with their tractor at their end, but we had to have Patrick [Baum] and his amazing forklifts to bring it in. So it came in on a truck, and Patrick put the forklift to work to drop it in. And then we put it on the scales – it weighs 687.5 kilos - which we then needed to inspect. Here is Nicole and Donna [Wilks] looking at it. The expressions on their faces sort of say it all. We really wanted to maintain a lot of this residue inside, because it had chaff in it. It spoke to what they’d been used for. Donna does pest and hazard work amongst her many other important jobs. So her job is to make sure that the little creepy crawlies that come into the Museum with our objects don’t creep and crawl into the rest of the collection.

At that moment I think Donna is thinking, ‘Hmm. I’ve got to get this into the freezer.’ So her job and Patrick’s job was to get this very heavy object into the freezer and freeze it, which kills all of the larvae and active pests, and then we could display it in the exhibition. And here it is. If you have seen the show, you will know that the trough takes an important place at the end of the farm module. This is members of the Wykes family who visited us for the opening. That’s an example of one of our more splendid eBay purchases. We have to freeze lots of massive things - vehicles, cars, anything big that you can imagine - big bits of ironwork. Anything could have a little creepy crawly inside.

Here’s another one of our treasures. This is one where we saw something beautiful when maybe others may have seen something scary. Nicole, again another evening spent in front of eBay, turned up this horse-drawn milk cart.

The advertisement indicated that it was from Tighe’s Lincoln Park Dairy in Essendon. Thanks to our friends at the National Library and Trove, the newspaper resource there, she could immediately jump on and do a newspaper search of this family and this dairy and discovered within a minute or two that we knew that there was going to be a great story behind this object. It had been in used from the 1940s to 1987. It spoke to a really astonishing sort of survival of the horse as a working animal in inner-city parts of Melbourne.

We were able to see beyond the initial photograph - this is the photograph from eBay. The wagon had been purchased by a man named Mr Buckles from the Tighes when the dairy closed and he had taken it apart with a view of restoring it. He has a passion for restoring vehicles like this so he understood its heritage significance. He was intending to spend his time to put this vehicle back together and care for it. Unfortunately, health problems meant he wasn’t able to do that, and that’s why he chose to put it up for sale.

It was in parts. Essentially the framework was fine and the parts had been stored well, so it was all in good shape. Laura Breen and members of Registration and Conservation went down and had a look at it. Our colleagues with great courage agreed that it could be put back together and they undertook to do that piece of work. Here’s another shot of it when they went and visited it for the first time. Here it is in its glory days.

Once it arrived at the Museum the work really began, firstly for Laura who made contacts with a bunch of astonishingly, fabulously, helpful people at the Essendon Historical Society, who connected us with people in the community who knew about the cart. We found Miss Dingle who’d had been an apprentice to the coach builder; we found residents who remembered it; and then we found the Tighe family themselves. It is a great example of collaborating with a local historical society to find amazing new information about our heritage.

Then Conservation had to begin the work of putting the cart back together. Here’s Conway and the milk bottles [image shown] First they had to do a bunch of work analyzing the paint, cleaning the object, and then beginning to look how to take those paint flakes, which curled up - the paint had become very dry, very brittle, it was coming loose from the surface upon which it had been applied. They had to go through this absolutely painstaking job of relaxing the tiny, tiny fragments of paint - down to 1 millimetre-width pieces - and then using steam so moisture to soften pieces of the paint, and then heat to apply them.

[image shown] If you look at the corner down here, you can see one of the conservators who has softened the paint with some steam, and then is using a heated spatula to connect the flake of paint with the wood using a small sliver of specially cut adhesive material. That’s the amount of work they had to do for every flake that needed to be put back on.

They also did a lot of cleaning, and that cleaning revealed some rather amazing hidden paintwork. When they began the object that is on the left, the back top of the vehicle looked like a simple yellow paint surface. But when Kerryn [Wagg] began doing that painstaking work of brush vacuuming and steam cleaning, a little piece of script started to appear, and she kept working and kept working. Of course, these guys are people who have trained to work with paintings. Their job is to work at the National Gallery and look after a Van Gogh. We were asking them here to work on something that we think is just as significant, just as yellow, but in entirely new kinds of circumstances. And underneath was this amazing script which said, ‘For pure pasteurised milk’.

If you are visiting the show again, make sure you pop around the back of the cart, and you can actually see it there. That spoke to a really important part of the vehicle history, because this style of cart had come into usage in Victoria because of new rules and regulations around the health and safety of milk which involved pasteurisation but also bottling and things like that. You needed a big heavy cart to carry bottles of pasteurised milk around. That was an amazing find.

[images shown] This is some more of the paint restoration of the wagon. There it is in all its beautifulness. And there’s Conway at the opening. We were very excited to have the family that had been associated with the vehicle here. That’s one of the great things about making the exhibition is that you can work with collections that are held in great regard by individuals in a community, or by a community like the Essendon community, and bring their stories to life to the rest of us.

Nicole didn’t stop there. Not long afterwards she found this amazing bakery cart for sale. That was the point where our colleagues started to say, ‘How many more flaky-paint, horse-drawn vehicles can we have in the National Historical Collection?’ We went ‘No, no, milk and bread are very different,’ and this is a very different kind of cart. This cart is much more in the style of an early twentieth century delivery vehicle - a single horse pulling a much older style of cart, but it was in use from the 1930s until the 1960s in Newcastle.

This one was sold to us by, and it was owned by, an office supply company in Newcastle. It had been part of their Christmas decorations. As you can see, it was in an office supply warehouse so objects come to us from all sort of interesting places.

Again, we had to transport it. [image shown] Here’s the cart arriving from the back of a truck at the store. Here is a similar type of cart in use in its glory days. I guess we intended to bring it back as far as we could. We weren’t aiming here to completely restore the vehicle. The paintwork is historically significant in itself. So our goal was to stabilise it and ensure that it was clean and looked great, but also that it wasn’t going to flake off so we weren’t going lose any of that heritage significance.

Again, another example of painstaking, diligent, patient work from the Conservation team who had to do the same kind of meticulous work - there’s Kerryn looking like a ghostbuster - testing and gluing things back on, which has meant we now have a beautifully preserved bakery cart from Newcastle.

These were objects that we were looking to bring in to the Museum because we had a lack. Another area where we didn’t have much strength was around the health story. So went out looking for objects particularly about equine influenza which had brought the Australian racing industry to a standstill in 2007.

We knew of this rather amazing story about the cancelled Birdsville races. In 2007 the races were cancelled because of the quarantine and travel restrictions that were placed around horses because of equine flu. So the people of Birdsville come up with toy horse racing to meet the needs of the thousands of people who were expecting a real horse race.

So we called the local Birdsville pub owner and said, ‘Did any of the horses from that race survive?’ She said, ‘Yeah, sure. They are still on the side of the pub, sticking up on the wall of the pub.’ Luckily for us, one of our curators in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program, Barbara Paulson, was visiting Birdsville just that same time. She was able to stop off at the pub and take a snap of the three horses who were in the running to join the National Historical Collection.

We picked fabulous Jackson, and here he is getting ready to race on that day [image shown] and here he is today. He’s found his forever home with us at the Mitchell store. There’s a story of Jackson online, if you want to follow up on the People and the Environment blog, which I can heartily recommend to you.

As far as other interesting efforts to try and get objects for the exhibition, we have Kirsten’s visit to the Quilty, which I’ll just touch on. Kirsten and Jason [McCarthy], one of the photographers, bravely stepped forward to cover the Quilty, Australia’s major endurance ride where competitors cover 100 miles in 24 hours, and which has the rather remarkable start time of midnight. Kirsten, how hours sleep did you get that night? None at all.

They had to work pretty much two days straight to document the race from start to finish, but also all the preparation, and then all of the wash up, the things that went on after the race. What we got out of that was not only a remarkable set of photographs, a suite of images that show you the race from start to finish. But also Kirsten was able to acquire the complete kit from Brook Sample, who is the rider there in the number one. He kindly agreed to take all of the gear that he had on that day and put it in a bag for the Museum, starting from the top of his head, all the way down to his boot, his watch, and everything, his skins. So he’s like a cricketer with his pressure suit on. And as well as that the equipment that Brookleigh Excalibur, the horse, was wearing. With that, Kirsten acquired an unbelievable suite of objects to help us tell the story of endurance in Australia. If you’ve seen the exhibition, you’ll see how stunning they are and how remarkable a job Conservation has done to make Brook look rather lifelike.

Then Jen bravely stepped forward to explore campdrafting and rodeo sports at the Warwick rodeo and campdraft Again, Jason put his body to the test, straddling the shoot and getting under the competitors. He took another suite of incredible photographs, which are also available through the website that I showed you.

Jen had the job of chasing cowboys, trying to convince them to lend us objects for the exhibition. Particularly in the sporting area, so many people in equestrian sports are either still using their equipment or it means so much to them they don’t want to part with it, they don’t want to donate it to the Museum. We were looking there at supplementing the exhibition with loans.

Jen had to talk to them about lending us their lucky saddle that they didn’t necessarily want to give up because it was the one that made sure that they won. It’s thanks to Jen that when you stand there and you look that open range exhibit with all those amazing trophies and the gear, it’s because Jen had built up a rapport, a trusting relationship with that community.

Going out and spending time with people is really the only way to do that. An exhibition like this has hundreds of relationships woven into it. Each of those is important; each of those we want to be respectful about and want to spend time nurturing. We’re grateful to all those communities for stepping up.

We also had some serendipitous opportunities. It seems like when you start an exhibition on a particular subject that immediately objects start popping up that suddenly seem interesting. We were offered this powder horn which has a kangaroo coursing scene on it from a tribal art dealer in New York, who’d actually got it from the estate of a Marine Corps soldier who’d picked it up when he was in the Pacific during World War II.

This is an example of where a curator’s research skills took an object from one level to another. We already knew it was fantastic, because it had a horse on it - naturally. But Nicole went that step further and, by putting together the puzzle of researching the heraldry of the coat of arms on the top, she was able to narrow the date of the carving to a very small date range in the 1830s.

Then she spent a lot of time staring at that ‘John Kelly E28P’ and had the brilliant inspiration that John had been interrupted in his carving, and that that ‘P’ was probably not a ‘P’, but an ‘R’, that he was likely to be a soldier and she should start looking through the musters for the 28th Regiment, which came to Australia in the 1830s. By doing that she found two men named John Kelly who were in Australia with the 28th Regiment in the 1830s. So we’ve effectively been able to pin this object down to two men, thanks to her imaginative leap and thanks to her amazing genealogical research.

I’m running out of time, do I’d better whiz through a few things here. Some of you will have met the Quail’s saddlery horse in the exhibition. It stood and displayed the wares of Quail’s Saddlery in Cooma, probably from the 1880s through until the 1970s. The Museum has a collection of many, many thousands of tools from the Quail’s Saddlery, and Nicole’s work lay in understanding how each of them was used and making a selection of them for the show.

A major piece of work for conservation was to take the display horse, which got christened Winnie from this state [image shown] to the state that you can see it in the show. Again, this is an amazing piece of paintings conservation. Winnie is effectively a three-dimensional painting. Lying underneath is a wooden form, and over that form are stretched pieces of canvas. So Chloe [Bussenschutt], who did the work - and you can see her here [image shown] - had to apply the same principles that you would apply to conserving a painting but to a three-dimensional form. Again, after many hundreds of hours of work we now have the fantastic display horse that you can see, which again is a testament to the skills and dedication of our conservation team.

That’s brings us to Phar Lap. One of the great news about an exhibition like this is that it enables us to uncover the hidden gems in our collection, and you’ll see many of them down in the exhibition. This was a hidden gem that until about four or five weeks ago we didn’t know we had - it was that hidden. You’ve probably have the story in the paper. Natalie Ison, who’s one of the conservation team, was working on these two jars, which were among those that we’d selected for the central hub area of the exhibition. She tipped it up, which we never do really – you know that Phar Lap’s heart is so fragile we can’t really move it anywhere and the same applies to all of these other wet specimens. They are very old, and every movement causes tiny particles of the specimen to be dislodged and go into the solution. You can’t attach a few atoms of flesh back together, so we don’t move them very much. We rely on the cataloging that came to us from the Australian Institute of Anatomy, which was for its time absolutely standard, but for our time we expect a lot more information.

These guys were labeled ‘horse heart wall’ and ‘horse organs, various’, which was a little bit vague. So Natalie was thrilled when she found that label on the bottom. She sent it through to me, because we were writing the text at the time, and said, ‘Oh, here’s more information. We know what organs they are.’ Kirsten and I looked at that photograph and turned to each other and said, ‘Is that a part of the horse that in anatomical language is called “the lap”?’ We didn’t think there was. So Kirsten emailed an equine anatomist who we had some contact with. He emailed back and said, ‘No, there is no part called the lap.’ We said, ‘Is it possible that these could be the kinds of anatomical material that could have been removed from the heart?’ He confirmed that that was the case whereupon we did a little dance.

Since then we’ve been investigating further both in the historical record looking at the newspaper reports about the dissection that took place at the University of Sydney, which clearly indicates the scientists investigating the pericardium, which is that squished up membrane at the top of that jar, and their considerable interest in the state of and thickness of the heart wall. That, combined with Natalie’s work of taking the specimens out of the jar and reassembling the ventricle component into the triangle that seems to fit into the other heart specimen, means that now the evidence points strongly towards these being the missing pieces of the heart. We are very thrilled to have found those.

Once we’ve chosen all the objects, then the work begins on all the important things of deciding on the design, working through with the designer, positioning the objects, both big and small, in open display areas and in showcases. One of the big challenges for us, in terms of the look of the show, was going to be, ‘How do you do a horse exhibition without the horse’s form being a major presence?’

So to end with I’m going to take you through the story of how we did the mannequins. Through the course of researching the show we’d come across the work of Harrie Fasher, who’s a significant horse sculptor who works in Oberon. Her work really spoke to us about the dynamic expressive form of the horse. We approached Harrie initially to see if she could do a sculpture for us or if we could borrow a sculpture from her. In the end, we asked her if she would go a step further and design a series of horse mannequins for the show.

We knew we couldn’t really use those fibreglass horse forms that you see outside of horse shops. They are not very expressive or dynamic but, perhaps more importantly, they don’t reflect the many different kinds of horses that are represented in Australian life and also in the exhibition itself. A stock horse and a pony are very different animals, and in each case the mannequins needed to truly be what we have called ‘elaborated object supports’.

The Springfield landau tack had very precise dimensions that needed to met. The object needed to be the primary thing, it needed to be supported, and each of those objects was the primary determinant of what the mannequins would be like. Here’s the kind of work that Harrie does that attracted us in the first place [image shown].

Then we began with the curatorial team briefing Harrie on each of the individual horses. In most cases we knew the specific horse we wanted to use. We knew Brookleigh Excalibur; we knew Marden Nicola; or else we knew the type of horse - we had a photograph of the precise horse that we were trying to represent. Jen and Nicole spent a lot of time gathering together information about those horses, and then Harrie worked up a series of concepts, or sketches, that showed the attitudes and basic forms of those horses.

Then we measured all of the components to ensure that the form that Harrie wove around the spaces that they left wouldn’t stretch or hurt them. Harrie made a maquette, a small version of the sculpture for us to get started, so we knew that it roughly was in the right posture and would work with the objects.

This is the day she delivered the first one [image shown]. We were all a bit gobsmacked the day that happened. That’s the stock worker [image shown]. It’s Bruce’s horse. Harrie had gone so far as to make tiny cardboard saddles and little bridles out of wire so we knew where the contact points would be. Here are the maquettes for the alpine stock worker and the first of the Landau horses [image shown].

Then Thylacine Exhibition Preparation out at Queanbeyan had the job of turning those one-in-six maquettes into life-sized horse forms, based on both measurements of similar types of horse and the measurements we’d taken from the horse tack itself. There is Aaron working away on the first of those ones [image shown]. They’re made in stainless steel, and later there’s a rough paint applied to them. Here’s Harrie at work. Harrie then came down and finessed them. Harrie works very instinctively, very organically with the shapes. She was able to adjust and shift the horses in order to give them the kind of form that would be accurate to the eye of someone who knew horses really well.

Here is Harrie and Nat, her assistant, working away cutting, welding and putting the horses together [image shown]. Here’s Jen, Chloe and Aaron doing the work of taking the stainless steel horse forms and fitting on the tiny now invisible pieces of wire and metal that support each of those individual pieces of tack, which Jen had been softening using humidity. Many of them become somewhat stiff, so that they had to be relaxed over a long period of time to be made supple enough to be fitted. They had to be put onto horses, then we had to mark the specific contact points, and then Aaron had to wield on tiny little pegs to hold the tack away from the metal form. We didn’t want the form and the tack to join together, because there would be a chemical reaction that could hurt the objects. Every single contact point had to be lifted up, but the supports had to be made invisible.

Jen, you told me the other day that it’s somewhat harder, and yet somewhat easier, to put horse tack on a real horse, because the horse has a real form and has some muscle to work with. But it’s easier to put this on, because you can reach through the horse’s stomach and pull something through, or through the head or something. That piece of work was really major, and Jen played a significant role in bringing these to life.

Here they are [image shown]. The tack was then attached to the vehicles to see how that interface worked. Then everything was taken off, the horses were painted. Then eventually we had to come in and repeat that process in the space of putting the tack on and attaching the vehicles. That’s been a really astonishing journey for us to get those happening.

Here is where we started and where we ended up [images shown]. Here is Marden Nicola and Mary Willsallen, and here they are. Here’s the Marden Nicola in wire or in steel rod. Here’s Brook and Brookleigh Excalibur running up the hill, and here they are in the gallery. We did human mannequins, too. Here’s Constance Faithfull in her riding habit and Constance the mannequin.

I just want to finish by showing a video of Harrie at work because I think that will givesyou a sense of how she does what she does. Here’s Harrie’s workshop, and the video will come up pretty shortly. This is to show you how Harrie made the central work, which is called ‘Silent Conversation’. There’s the maquette for it.

We commissioned Harrie to do a piece in the centre which allowed her that more free expression to communicate the central idea of the exhibition, which really is the bond, connection and communication between the human species and the equine species. We will just watch Harrie and her dog Mate and then we will finish up.

[video played]

VIDEO: I’m Harrie Fasher and I’m an artist. The sculpture ‘Silent Conversation’ is about the relationship between horses and humans. Generally I work with the horse as a representation of a human. So it’s been quite challenging to work with it in this way where there is actually a horse and a figure in one piece.

The sculpture is about the quiet connection that we have with horses, the bond between horse and rider, the unique relationship between horse and man. The figure is a woman in the piece. We keep referring to it as a horse and man, but it’s actually the horse and a woman.

For this work, I started with the horse in full scale, in a very skeletal form to work out my personal relationship with the horse. I then determined what the human figure was going to do. In order to work out where the weight was and where its balance was, I built a small maquette of the human figure.

The actual making of the sculpture goes through several phases. There’s the beginning, which is just the initial linear, skeletal form. I then start bulking it out, building out the form, building up the shape of the legs, filling out the chest area. The head’s always a bit problematic - how the head comes to fruition.

I then spend a lot of time looking at the work. A lot of time is spent walking around it, engaging with the sculpture. Nothing is fixed in stone. If something is incorrect, then we have to move it. That’s where drawing comes in as a problem-solving exercise, drawings to resolve where the weight is in the figure, where the muscular structure comes into the form.

[background sounds of grinding] It’s a battle of wills making a sculpture, cutting, grinding, and bending steel. It’s heavy work to begin with or dirty work. It’s pretty intense work, working with steel. There is a point when you are making a sculpture, which is about three quarters of the way along when you begin to see it starts coming to life, the form starts becoming real, and that’s really exciting. That’s what it’s about. Suddenly you can see your imagination in real life.

This linear line-drawn method of building results in a real energy that you don’t get with a solid mass. The horse appears to move as you walk around it. It has a life force. It has become my signature, these steel-rod horses. They’re very much line drawings in space, three-dimensional drawings.

I think that the physical form of the horse is innate. I don’t think about it; I understand it; I work instinctively and intuitively to create these sculptures. It’s my personal place that our history with the Australian landscape is integral to who we’ve become and how Australia has got the identity that has. If this sculpture can represent that and convey the importance of our relationship with the horse and the landscape to generations in the future, I think that’s a pretty special thing.


MARTHA SEAR: That’s a little film that Kirsten commissioned from Marg Hogan, who is a Bathurst based filmmaker. It really says it all about that central sculpture, which has become such a pivot around which the rest of the exhibition rotates. I’ve talked a lot so I’ve run out of time.

The work that followed those scenes that you’ve just seen is many weeks of Jen working long hours with Registration, Conservation and Exhibitions, and many, many other people in the Museum to take all of those different pieces of objects, videos, graphics and texts, shapes, forms and walls; and somehow magically, over a five- to six-week period bring them all together in the space into something that works together as a single exhibition.

I again want to reiterate how grateful I am to all those people but also to all of you who come and bring it to life by coming and visiting. I might throw it open to questions and comments now. I think I’ve covered all the things you wanted to look at except for the high country brumbies question. Do you want me to talk about that?

QUESTION: [inaudible]

MARTHA SEAR: Not so much in this talk, but in the exhibition itself. I’m happy to take you down and have a bit of look in there, both the big video wall and then the objects and texts that are there.

Any comments, observations or questions that I can answer or Jen can answer, or Kirsten can answer, or Kelly can answer, or Heidi can answer - any of us who’ve worked on the project can illuminate for you?

QUESTION: Where are all these wonderful sculptures going to come to rest, not in the paddock where they’ll be destroyed like -

MARTHA SEAR: The question is: What happens to the mannequins and the sculpture after the exhibition is finished? The sculpture we hope will join the National Historical Collection so it will become an object within our Museum’s collection. The mannequins have been built to be both specific ongoing mannequins for the horses represented in each of those objects. You notice in the permanent galleries that we frequently have to show horse-drawn vehicles or harvesters and other things like that without the horses because there isn’t enough room for us to do that most of the time.

However, this time we’ve been able to show the horse in relationship to those. Each time we show the Mary Willsallen sulky, we will have the opportunity to show it with a pony pulling it; the same with the Landau. So they will be kept and put into our collection store.

I think they are also in some cases versatile enough for us to be able to use them. For example, Bruce’s and the alpine stock worker should be versatile enough to mean that, whenever we display some of our extensive saddle collections, we could use them. They represent stock horses both central Australian stock horses and alpine stock horses. Wherever those kinds of horses and the allied saddle and bridle are being displayed, we should be able to use those again with maybe minor modifications. They’ll be kept in the Museum’s store and brought out whenever we have future opportunities to display either those objects or similar kinds of objects. We’re pretty excited about them.

This is the best moment for us when all of us in the Museum team get to see what people feel about the exhibition, because it’s very emotional. If you’ve had a connection with a horse, I think it touches on very deep memories. So we hope that those memories are brought forth by the exhibition.

There are lots of opportunities for you to tell us about those if you hop on the exhibition website, If you’ve got a horse story to tell, we would love to hear it. Just type it in, and it’ll pop up on our My Horse Story page.

QUESTION: Is there any stuff left on eBay?

MARTHA SEAR: Can you think of any, Jen?

JEN WILSON: There’s a few things we had to pass on. They wouldn’t let us buy everything.

MARTHA SEAR: We had to be a little bit strategic, because if we just kept going back to the acquisitions group saying, ‘We’ve been shopping again,’ that wouldn’t have gone down too well.

JEN WILSON: [inaudible]

MARTHA SEAR: As Jen says, it’s never a simple process of seeing something and then the next day asking for someone to sign the credit card. Objects have to pass very high thresholds of provenance and integrity and have a good story to really come into the frame for a show like this. There is quite a bit of work that goes on. Lots and lots of stuff goes through. Often fabulous objects have been very unsympathetically restored. Something that may have once had an astonishing original paint finish and someone’s got out the paint brush and painted away some of its history. That’s always a bit sad. It’s certainly something we have to keep our eyes on - to just check because there might be something amazing hanging out. You can see how many amazing things we’ve found.

HEIDI PRITCHARD: [inaudible] It’s quite addictive. I’ve found some horse-drawn thing. I’ve got nothing to do with that position, but no matter what -

MARTHA SEAR: Heidi’s right. By the time the word had got out that we were still looking for things, all of our colleagues and friends across the Museum were shooting us extra things that we should consider. We’re always grateful if that people are eagle-eyed. In the old days it would’ve been people who went to clearing sales and stuff like that, but these days people can reach a much wider audience by putting it online.

Any other thoughts or things you want to know about? You can yarn to me, Jen or Kirsten afterwards if you have a burning question.

It comes to me to wrap up and to thank you again for coming. Do visit the Museum’s horse-related website, which is There is lots and lots of stuff there. Curators can only ever say so many words on a tiny little label, so there’s lots more behind the scenes information on the website, and lots of opportunities for you to tell us your stories as a part of a national conversation about horses in your lives. Please tell us more.

Please join us in a month’s time on Thursday 16 October to hear Jennifer Wilson, curator at the National Museum, Tammy Ven Dange of the RSPCA and Karen Hood of Heavy Horse Heaven to talk about the long history of efforts to ensure the welfare of horses in Australia. Thanks everyone. [applause]

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.

The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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