Dr Kirsten Wehner, National Museum of Australia, 31 March 2010
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I didn’t make up this title [Curating Australian histories]; this was Dave [Arnold]’s fault. When he first talked to me about coming to talk today, I was a bit intimidated, I must say, by this title because it is a rather large subject. First of all, thank you very much for having me come along and talk today. It’s actually a bit of a passion of mine, building links between the museum and the schools. I went through school at a time before extension history existed. I must admit that’s perhaps why I didn’t become an historian, I am actually an anthropologist so I should probably confess that up front. My take on making history and working in a museum actually doesn’t come have a classic historical training background. I didn’t do history at university. I trained as a social anthropologist and then moved into museums looking at issues of representation and so on, although I had to learn quite a bit of Australian history along the way.
I understand that today is very much about the question of what is history and how museums construct history and indeed why we construct history. I would also like to discuss with you how we can think about ways in which your students can use museums and museum collections to develop their own understanding of the past and of historiographical practice. I have prepared a talk but it is quite informal. I would be more than happy to be interrupted frequently with any questions or questions for clarification. They would be more than welcome.
I am going to talk today mostly about what I do as a curator here at the National Museum of Australia but I want to draw some generalities from that in terms of a series of curatorial practices, tools, techniques and methods that I think could be of interest to your students and to you in developing extension history courses. I want to talk about what I do as a curator and then from that also talk a bit about the kinds of history that I think museums are particularly good at creating and communicating. Something I would really like to discuss because it is not necessarily very well understood is that I think museums, as Dave insisted by putting up my quote in his slide, create a very particular kind of history. It’s not the kind of history that gets created in books or in films or in compositions, it’s a very particular kind of history that grows out of the fact that museums are centrally interested and defined by their collections. I should that is not an uncontested view of museums but it is certainly my view of museums.
Just a little bit about me, I am currently the senior curator in charge of a Museum program called Gallery Development. This program was established in 2003 in the wake of what was called the Carroll review of the Museum, which was a government sponsored review to assess the Museum’s programs and activities and particularly its exhibitions. It was really at that moment, as Dave mentioned, right where the Museum got embedded into the history wars with questions about whether the Museum was appropriately representing the past.
Out of that came a decision and indeed quite a large amount of funding to redevelop among other things three of our exhibition spaces. I have been involved in working with a very large team of curators and other people across the Museum over the last six or seven years to develop those programs. They include the Circa theatre which we redeveloped completely; they include the development of Australian Journeys which is the gallery just outside this door and which I am going to talk a bit today; and also an exhibition called Landmarks which will replace our Nation gallery. If you walk through the Museum today, you will notice a very large amount of our gallery space is currently closed off and completely empty. That is because we have just de-installed Nation in order to be able to start building Landmarks. That is scheduled to open in April 2011, so you will have to come back then to see it.
What does a curator do? This is a very interesting question to try to describe. I think a curator’s role is fundamentally to try to understand how material culture - by which I mean objects or things - constitute evidence of other people’s lives. As I mentioned before, I think there is very little difference in terms of trying to understand the lives of people from the past or indeed the lives of people in the present. It’s a little bit my anthropological background, but one of the things I am really interested in the Museum is breaking down the sense of the idea of the Museum as solely the preserve of history. I am very much an advocate of William Faulkner’s fabulous quote: ‘The past is not dead. It’s not even past.’ One of the things the Museum is deeply interested in, and which I am certainly interested in, is finding ways in which we can help people connect what has happened in the past with what is actually happening in the present with their own lives. I think history is not something that is in the past that we need to learn lessons from; it is something that is very much alive and imminent and actually active in our lives today.
Curators try to understand material culture as evidence of other people’s lives as a means to try to understand other people - what they look like, what they did, how they made a living, what they hoped for in their lives, how they tried to construct their world and why they made particular choices. One way in which curators differ from other historians is therefore in terms of how we interrogate the past, what elements we use to communicate the past. Most academic historians are trained in the discipline of words and they concentrate on words still today, although it is changing a little bit. If you go through university history primarily you are encouraged to draw on things like archival accounts, manuscripts and now oral histories, and most of that work is actually promulgated in the form of books.
There are also other kinds of historians. Obviously film makers and photographers concentrate on creating images of the world and arranging them in meaningful sequences, but curators attend to objects. We look at objects as evidence of the past and try to arrange objects in meaningful ways called exhibitions.
Today I want to unpack a curatorial process and talk about how we interrogate objects as evidence of the past and I want to do that by talking about a single object. We begin this process by looking very closely at the object in question: This might seem like an obvious statement, but I actually think our looking skills as a society are rather poor. We see a lot of things. If you think about the amount of visual information that flows past us every day, it’s absolutely enormous, but we actually spend very little time looking intently at something such as an object and very little time asking what the look, the feel, the smell or the taste of an object can tell us. A key curatorial skill is the capacity to look intently and interrogatively at an object.
[Image shown] Here is an object that probably many of you will already be familiar with if you have done any work in local museums or if you have done any work on the nineteenth century gold rushes. But even if you know what it is and before labelling it, I want you to tell me what you notice about it just by looking at it.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: [inaudible] from the 1850s or 1890s.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: What you do you base that assumption on that it’s from the 1850s or the 1890s?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Bathurst [inaudible]. It’s in good knick.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: So you have noticed it’s made of timber. Anything else? What would you notice just looking at this object?
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Nothing too profound but just the way it is constructed as something that is practical and also that I think is quite aesthetically pleasing as well.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I think those things you have mentioned are extremely profound in terms of understanding the significance of this object. What it’s made from - from timber and obviously metal; the way it is constructed - is it constructed well or in an amateurish fashion, what is actually used to construct it; and how is it being used, how does it show evidence of where? These are details that arise from us asking a whole series of questions about the object and these are questions in terms of that process of looking I think sometimes we are not very well trained to do in terms of our everyday lives. These questions are, as I said: What is it made of? How is it constructed? How is it being made, modified and used? How does it work? Could you imagine how it works? Is it photographed correctly or is it actually standing on its head? I don’t know. These questions and their answers lead to a further more imaginative series of questions. Who made this object and why? Who used it and how? Why did they choose to make and use it in this way? How would I use it? What skills would I need to make and use it? Do you use it with somebody else or on somebody else? What kind of tools or helpful technologies would I need to make and use it? These are the first questions with which a curator looks at an object. If we don’t in practice know what it is, even if we do know what it is, we try to go back and try to understand these kind of fundamental things about how this object was made and worked.
In order to answer these questions curators consider individual objects in relation to many other kinds of evidence. As I have just mentioned, we analyse the characteristics of individual objects often working with our conservation or other scientific staff to investigate things such as the age and type of wood used to construct a cradle such as this and to ask what does that information tell us about how diggers on the nineteenth century goldfields constructed cradles - did they have to fell timber locally, is it a local species, or did they use timber overseas; and, if so, where did they get it from? What does that tell us in terms of how it is constructed or what kind of timber it’s made from? What does that tell us about how much money hopeful miners had to invest in order to set themselves up on the fields? And what does that then tell us about who were the kind of people actually on the goldfields?
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: [inaudible]
KIRSTEN WEHNER: That’s a very good guess and totally spoilt my point later in the talk. I will give it away: it’s actually made of Douglas fur, which is a North American species, but to all intents and purposes it seems as if this was wood that had probably been used as packing crates and had actually been brought to Australia as packing crates and then ended up on the goldfields and was constructed there, or possibly it was constructed down to Melbourne before being taken up to the goldfields. That tells us a lot about what you would do when you turned up on the goldfields and did’t have a cradle, you go and scavenge a couple of old packing crates and actually build one. What does that mean about what you actually need to know in order to create a cradle?
We analyse objects in detail but we also consider objects in relation to each other. How, for example, does this particular cradle from other cradles of similar age from different regions in Australia? How does it relate to cradles used in America, Argentina or Russia? How does it relate to other kinds of mining technology that developed on the goldfields? What does this tell us about the transfer of technology and people between goldfields around the world? What does it tell us about how mining technology was imported to Australia from elsewhere and adapted to cope with things such as the low water conditions prevailing in many parts of Australia. A gold washing cradle was absolutely dependent on having a good water supply because you needed to pour water through it in order to wash dirt. What did you do in somewhere where there wasn’t much water?
We also consider objects in relation to other kinds of what you might call non-object evidence: to evidence such as the built and natural environments with which an object has been associated, to images of the object in use, to sounds of it being made or used, to things people have said or written about it, and also sometimes to the experience of using it. Sometimes actually working an object is a really important way of understanding its history. Through this curatorial work of bringing objects into relationship with each other and with other kinds of evidence, we begin to build up a picture of how people lived in the past.
I want to draw your attention here to one of the distinctive ways in which curators interrogate history and consequently how we create historical narratives through collections and exhibitions. You will notice from the process I have just sketched out that curators are very interested in how objects can inform us about how the world looked, smelt, felt, tasted etc and how people interacted with the world to shape and be shaped by it. In other words, curators are intensely interested in how objects can reveal the material form of the world and how people interacted with it. What is the stuff in which we are deeply enmeshed?
I think objects as a form of historical evidence lead us first and foremost to consider the material condition of our and others’ lives and to ask how those material conditions interact with things such as social organisations, cultural frameworks, political ideologies and so on. This is quite different from a lot of historiography that dominates written history. Histories founded on and expressed in words are often very good at describing what people have said or thought about their experiences but – and I have to say with some very big exceptions - they are not necessarily very good at describing what it was like to live at a certain time and place. Historical fiction actually does better here with the novelist eye for trying to describe what it was like to live at a time, but there are some obvious problems with historical fiction because of the dramatic licence that novelists take.
It is also worth noting that a history built on interrogating material culture is more particular than written histories, and by that I mean it focuses on specific histories of objects and the people that were involved with them and asks what was it like to be at a particular time and place. One of the things we discovered when we were developing Australian Journeys is that we did a series of focus group discussions with people about, for example, if they saw this object what they would actually like to know about in the gallery. Almost universally the question that usually came back was people would say, ‘We want to know what it was like to be on the nineteenth-century goldfields.’ They didn’t necessarily want to know about the broader structural changes that happened in Australian society, although that is something that usually historians are very keen to communicate, what people were really interested in is actually knowing what was it like to spend your day getting up every morning and rocking this little thing back and forth while your mate carted water from the creek.
The primary focus of history in the Museum is, if you like, on what I call material history so an experience about a sense about what the material conditions of life and therefore what was it like to engage with those things at a particular time and place. The question that arises for me there is so what - what’s so great about understanding the material conditions of lives? I think it’s important because it helps us to understand the lived experiences of others: to imagine what it was like to spend all day shovelling dirt, carting water and rocking a cradle on the Victorian goldfields; to imagine what it was like to do this when you just arrived off a boat in Scotland, jumped off in Melbourne, bought a cradle, a pick and a shovel and carried it on your back to the Bendigo goldfields. This is an understanding that comes to us from imagining how we might use objects and therefore how others might have experienced using them. Just to go on a bit of a polemic here, I think this capacity to engage people with others’ lived experience is one of the most important roles of the Museum, because understanding others’ lived experience is the beginning of empathy, of people’s capacity to imagine the lives of others, to recognise that it’s different from their own, and to begin to ask why different experiences have led to different attitudes, beliefs, hopes and actions. I personally think that is one of the skills that constitute the foundation of a successful plural society. So the museum is a centre of democracy. If you don’t take anything else away today, that is what I want you to remember.
I was thinking that for the last bit we might transition out into the gallery since I want to talk about an exhibit that is out in the gallery and since we are a fairly small group. Is that OK with you, Dave?
DAVID ARNOLD: That’s fine.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I have talked a little bit about how we would go about interrogating and understanding this particular object as historical evidence and why we would do that; I want to talk a bit now about how we then take the next step and say, ‘How do we take that and how do we then try to engage our visitors with that understanding of the past and of others?’
As you came in you may have caught a quick glimpse of Australian Journeys in which this object currently resides. I think Dave is maybe going to do some exercises around AJs later in the morning perhaps. Australian Journeys is a gallery that we opened just over a year ago now. It explores how Australia is interconnected with the world. It traces the journeys of many different kinds of people to and from Australia and investigates the connections these journeys have created between places here in Australia and places overseas. If you like, the shorthand for that is that it creates a transnational history of Australia.
How did we go about developing this gallery? That is obviously a pretty enormous topic. We began by drawing on the existing historical scholarship to identify the major flows or trajectories in movements of people to and from the Australian continent. Once we had done that, we then began identifying collections that related to each of these trajectories, or themes if you like, and to ask how those collections illuminated this transnational history.
I am going to talk about one exhibit in particular which jumps off from this cradle. Of course, the nineteenth-century gold rushes were one of the key trajectories in this transnational history. It’s an amazing period in Australia’s history. A lot of people get a bit bored with it, but when you think about the fact that in 20 years the population of the Australian colonies trebled, that’s an amazing sense about a kind of period of social change.
As I mentioned, the gold washing cradle here was one of the key objects that we identified in our own collections as relating to the gold rushes. A lot of people were a bit surprised when we went into raptures over the gold cradle, because it’s an object that the Museum has held in its collection for a long time and never really made much of a fuss about. That’s because in many ways this is an object that is incredibly similar to thousands of other – not thousands but hundreds of other gold washing cradles from the same period that are held throughout Australian museums. You said that you probably had seen one at Gulgong local museum. They do occur quite frequently through regional museum collections and indeed in the larger institutions. But like many of those objects we don’t actually know necessarily a lot about this particular object. We don’t know who made it. We don’t know who used it. We know it was collected near Ballarat in Victoria and we have kind of assumed it was used on the Victorian goldfields, but in some ways the immediate story that we know about it isn’t necessarily a very inspiring one. It is not associated necessarily or immediately with some incredible individual in Australian history, although I will contest that in a minute.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: How do you verify that it is authentic and that it is not just something that someone has made for their barbecue? With provenance, how do you actually prove that is from that time?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: We certainly can prove the period from details of the metal pieces that were used. We know they are nineteenth-century handmade nails - or handmade nails exactly the same as all the other handmade nails that we have ever seen from the nineteenth century, so we assume they are nineteenth century. Similarly the wear on the timber and the kind of process through which the metal has gone through is consistent with other material that would have gone through that period. When we purchased it the vendor that we bought it from had fairly good evidence that it had been used in the Ballarat region in terms of where he had got it from and we were able to trace it back a fair way in terms of its location. It’s a very good question because we spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether something is actually what it purports to be.
Why were we interested in making an exhibit about this object? As we began investigating it, using the questions and the kind of process I described before, it became much more interesting and illuminating. As we just talked about analysis of its materials revealed it was a nineteenth-century cradle with handmade nails and metal corners as well as the wood of Douglas fur which we are pretty sure came from packing crates.
It is a functional cradle but it’s actually not terribly well made when you look at the kind of carpentry and joinery that is made in it, the corners are rather uncomfortably set together and so on. This suggests that it was constructed not by an expert craftsman or by someone who was producing a lot of cradles but rather by someone who turned up on the goldfields and possibly learnt from other miners how to construct it or purchased it from someone who was knocking them together in a tent somewhere.
The ubiquity of this cradle across the goldfields, which is suggested by their widespread presence in museum collections, suggests that the cradle was a highly democratic technology. New immigrants or people arriving on the fields could easily access the knowledge about how to build a cradle, and you could knock one together from not very glamorous materials. This meant that people who had say energy and determination, perhaps vain hope or nothing else to go to but not necessarily with very much capital or experience, could actually become miners. When you think about the fact that anybody could almost turn up and actually get a cradle, you can begin to imagine what it felt like to turn up on the fields, to put together your cradle really hopeful you might find a lucky find, and then I think probably go through a process for most miners of realising that alluvial mining with cradles meant days and days of unremitting back-breaking labour usually with very little reward.
As we researched the relationship of this cradle to other cradles, we began to discover how this very simple technology had travelled across the world. We don’t really know where the cradle as a form developed originally, but it seems to have been developed either in Borneo or in the Ural mountains in Russia or in Africa - we don’t really know for sure. But it certainly seems to have made its way to Australia via the California goldfields and in particular through the actions of one man who was the first man recorded to have used a cradle in Australia. That’s a guy called Edward Hammond Hargraves who was the sort of aspiring Australian jack of all trades who in 1849 chucked in his work in Australia and headed off to the California gold rushes, and there he learnt two essential skills, one was to recognise gold-bearing country and the other was to how to build and operate a gold-washing cradle.
In 1851 he came back to New South Wales, not having made very much money in California, and decided that he wasn’t going to make his money by actually getting gold, he was going to claim the £10,000 that the New South Wales government was offering as a reward for finding payable gold in the colony, partly because so many Australians were actually leaving to go to California and the colonial government thought, ‘Oh dear we actually need some people back.’ So Hargraves travelled to Bathurst where he had worked in the 1830s, and which he now recognised in the 1850s as looking like the gold-bearing country in California. And sure enough when he talked to local farmers they reported seeing gold specks in various creeks. Hargraves teamed up with them and importantly taught them how to make a gold-washing cradle, which he had learnt in California, which could then be used to work through enough washed dirt to establish whether those specks represented a payable find or just a little gathering of specks. That was the beginning of the gold rushes in Australia. Hargraves went on to claim the £10,000, even though the local farmers were extremely angry about it and campaigned for years to actually get some of the money back.
We have a cradle that is itself not that specific that is linked to a kind of technology that is ubiquitous in many goldfields across the world, but it is very closely linked in terms of its technological form rather than in terms of its specific history to this individual Hargraves. In Australian Journeys we wanted to invite visitors to consider this cradle in a number of ways: as a technology that had travelled across to Australia; as an integral player in the discovery that precipitated the nineteenth-century gold rushes; and one of the key technologies enabling and defining life on the fields for thousands of people. We also wanted to draw out the connections between the mundane commonality of the cradle and Hargraves’ extraordinary story and the incredible significance for Australia’s economy and society of the gold rushes.
How could we draw together a number of elements in the gallery space to explore these overlapping interpretations? I should also point out one of the real philosophies we took in Australian Journeys was not to say, ‘One of these interpretations or one of these stories is more important than the other,’ rather than be definitive about what it is that visitors should take away from the exhibit, we wanted to open up a whole series of different kinds of overlapping interpretations and stories, each of which could be of interest and of meaning to the visitors, depending on the kind of questions they brought with them. For example, some people come to the exhibit and are fantastically interested in mining technology; some people are interested in how you build the cradle because prospectors still use them today; other people are incredibly interested in the Hargraves story. We wanted to create an exhibit with enough overlapping layers so that people would be able to bring to it what they were interested in.
First of all we chose to display the cradle. This is where I am wondering if we might transform to the gallery. I don’t think it is too busy out there. It might be an experimental day. I only have this terrible image and I think we should go and stand in front of the actual exhibit.
[adjourned to examine the exhibit in the gallery and then returned]
Hopefully now you can actually interpret this photograph a bit better. I want to talk through a few of those display features and why we chose to take that approach. We chose to display the cradle not in a naturalistic mode as it would have been used but rather in this separated form where different parts of the cradle are separated out from each other. We wanted to do that because we really wanted to get visitors to begin to think about how the cradle was constituted as a form of technology and to help them, where we talked in the interpretive text about how the cradle was used, to understand what those different parts were. That is referring back to what we were talking about earlier the transferred nature of the cradle technology and what people on the goldfields might have had to know about in order to build a cradle.
As you saw, we used a series of images and sound to communicate the incredible spread of the cradles. This fantastic image [image shown], which I personally love, appears in the flipbook in the exhibit. As you can see, in the foreground you have a couple of people working cradles and, as your eye travels backwards, you realise that every few metres there’s another group of people mining away trying to strike it lucky. And as you saw, we used a sound installation to try to again give a sense in a kind of sensorial way rather than in a written or textural way - in a sensorial way to give people a sense about what the goldfields might actually have been like.
Australian Journeys is a gallery that focuses quite strongly on individual stories and that traces the particular trajectories of objects and the specific people whose lives they participated. In Australian Journeys we tried to interweave in quite an open way the interpretation of the Ballarat cradle with that of Hargraves. We tried to thread through this idea about the interweaving between people and objects even in terms of the way in which we wrote the text in the exhibit.
This is what we called the introductory story panel for the exhibition [slide shown]. You will notice a few things about it. In the title we very much tried to direct people to what we call the key object in the exhibit, which in this case was the cradle. We used the quote from Edward Hargraves - he had this fabulous turn of phrase. Then as you read through, you will notice that we do tell the story about Hargraves’ story from Australia to California, back to Australia and particularly the ways in which that connected two places in the world. On the top you have the California goldfields where Hargraves worked and where he learnt to recognise gold-bearing country. Then the Ophir diggings down below where he recognised gold-bearing country in Australia and started the gold rushes. We try right at the end of the story panel to suggest the way in which Hargraves’ story is interwoven with the story of that particular cradle.
I just had to put this in [slide shown] - this is allegedly what he said - in his book this is what he said when he discovered gold. When we read this, we thought if only his horse had been stuffed and put in the British Museum we could borrow it for the exhibition - but no such luck, I am afraid. The whole horse didn’t make it to the museum.
DAVID ARNOLD: So this is the real reason you put this in the gallery.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: It’s true. David knows I really like horses.
In Australian Journeys we try to tell particular stories and to engage visitors with the specific histories of objects and individuals. This is a well-developed and very successful museum technique. It’s been used throughout this Museum, particularly in the Eternity gallery downstairs, and is used widely in other museums as well. The reason is that visitors seem to find it very comfortable and accessible to connect first with individual stories and experiences to try to understand what it was like for somebody else. But this doesn’t mean that those individual stories can’t lead into broader considerations of how people were enmeshed in wider historical structures and processes, and we try very hard to address this from Australian Journeys.
For example, on the other two sides of the gold exhibit that you just saw, one relates to the Chinese experience on the goldfields, which was of course very different from European experience on the goldfields, and the other relates to a chap called Alexander Mussen who came to the goldfields to sort of rescue his life. He was a tear-away 24 year old and his Dad packed him off from Montreal in Canada to the goldfields to improve himself, and he promptly got shot by a bushranger trying to protect a friend’s store. It wasn’t a happy story at all; it was a very sad story. We wanted to put on the other side to the Hargraves story and start to draw out some of the broader complications around the gold rushes in Australia - and elsewhere we directly address how many people came to Australia and so on.
What I wanted to say there is that in Australian Journeys we do focus on the particular stories, particular objects and their particular histories, which as I said is a well-developed museum technique. The point I want to make is to say this is a very particular kind of museum historiography. It is developed in other places such as in written biography. But in the museum because of the way we can focus on materiality and on lived experiences, it takes on a very strong trajectory in the museum and can be a very powerful form of historiography for the museum. I would argue it’s probably the kind of historiography that the museum is best at as a form of history making - we can have a big discussion about that afterwards if you like.
To conclude I chose to talk through the Australian Journeys gold rushes exhibit today. I did mean to choose one that was actually featured in the Australian history curriculum but somehow I got side-tracked onto the gold cradle. One of the reasons I wanted to do the gold cradle because it’s an exhibit built around an object that occurs commonly in many museums around Australia.
There are thousands of objects like this - christening gowns, Aboriginal stone tools, books of water-colour drawings and agricultural equipment - everywhere. These are objects which I think could constitute for your students a tremendous resource, because each of them represents - in the way I talked about the cradle and the exhibit - a little portal through which they can interrogate and begin to understand the experience of others and certainly the experience of others in the past.
I have tried this morning to map out a few of the tools through which I as a curator undertake this work both in terms of analysing collection objects as historical evidence and in terms of how students can begin to look at museum displays as forms of historiography. One of the things I would really love to see develop is a series of projects through which students access either their local collections or collections held in larger cultural institutions, because this would be a process through which students could meaningfully contribute to the documentation and knowledge about those collections as well as developing their own understanding of the past. To go back to what was said earlier, how else are we going to train the next generation of curators when I want to retire. That’s it. [applause]
KIRSTEN WEHNER: The experience of working at the National Museum is that the questions about what gets displayed are extremely examined in a process that involves a lot of people. To talk about the process a bit, for example in developing Australian Journeys, there’s a team of curators who work on that project through time. They will make a series of decisions along the way about which themes should get addressed in terms of what the representative breadth and historical argument of the gallery should be. That is then iterated against what collections are available or what collections seem to speak powerfully, and there is certainly an element in there about how individual curators respond to individual collections. That’s not necessarily a very objective process – others might like to contribute here - but a process through which certain objects and certain collections seem to communicate evocatively about somebody else’s experiences. That can be a very powerful moment in exhibition development. Personally I think it often leads to the best kinds of exhibitions when you have a collection that feels very evocative for the curators themselves, and therefore that is something they really want to communicate to visitors.
There is then a long process of deciding which of the very many possible stories that arise out of the collections should actually make it through to the gallery. Australian Journeys has 42 exhibits in it. We started out with quite well-developed stories for about three times that number. We then went through a very long process judging which of those should go forward, both on the strength of the content but also very much on the question about this was a permanent gallery for the Museum so it had to sustain a certain kind of representational breadth. For example, we felt strongly that we needed a story about nineteenth-century journeys of Indigenous Australians. This is extremely difficult to tell because the surviving material culture around those journeys is extremely rare. We only identified three collections across the whole of the world that we could actually use: one we couldn’t borrow; another one we could only put on display for a couple of months because it was so fragile; and so we were left with not much choice if we wanted to put that in. But we felt it was very important we put that in so we included a story about New Norcia and the New Norcia mission in Western Australia.
Then that process about working through which stories go forward and how they will be told is a process that involves not only curatorial staff but also staff from across the Museum: Dave was involved in some of those discussions; public programs; historians and other academics outside the Museum. It was very much a judgment balancing up what we need to do in terms of telling a coherent Australian history that we think touches on all the important moments that will create a good exhibition, because not all subjects create a good exhibition. I have yet to know how to put together a good exhibition about the history of income tax. And also what do we actually think or know that visitors will be interested in. They are all things that come together.
When we opened the gallery of course we did quite a bit of media, and the question I got asked most of all to paraphrase it: Did you get a lot of political interference in developing the gallery? Did the government tell you what you should or shouldn’t include? And I have to say the answer to that was no. I felt very little pressure about what to include or not to include in the gallery. The biggest message we get from our visitors is that they want to hear all sides of the story. They want to know the different varieties and trajectories in Australian history. What they least want is a highly edited and controlled version of Australian history.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It has changed over time in a way. In the early twentieth century you certainly wouldn’t have displayed the things you do today.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: That is certainly true. You remember I said how much I loved that William Faulkner quote that there is no such thing as history really, it’s all about the present. Perhaps this is part of my background as an anthropologist rather than as an historian, the Museum is about things that have happened in the past but, in terms of its form and what it’s interested in addressing, it’s really about intervening and participating in the national conversation in Australia about what our society is about, what it should be like and what are the possibilities about how it could be. That is what I see as the purpose of the Museum, and I think that’s the purpose of history generally.
So yes it has changed. I think the interest about what people are interested now, what we are interested in talking about and the way in which we are interested in representing Australian society - I am very interested in representing Australian society as a diverse and plural one in which national boundaries don’t necessarily mean that much to lots of people. If you go into Australian Journeys, what really comes out is that for lots of people being Australian is a very complicated topic. Many people feel as Australian as they feel Latvian, Vietnamese or Greek - there are very strong connections. I was very interested in creating a gallery that took that on board and very strongly represented that, because I felt that was an important contribution to broader Australian public culture.
In the early nineteenth century I don’t think people would have been interested in that in that way. What’s particularly interesting about this gallery is that in many ways in terms of the object display it is quite like an earlier twentieth-century display because we tried to bring the focus back to objects. There was a big move through museology in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s to very heavily interpret objects and to contextualise them with exhibition text and images and to think about objects as illustrations of broader themes in Australian history. In this gallery we very purposefully went against that trajectory and said, ‘No, we think the Museum is about objects. We don’t really mind if the possibilities for interpretation around objects are quite open. We actually like that. We think visitors are smart enough to come and make sense of things.’ That’s why we took all the exhibition text out of [the cabinets] in order to have a very close affinity with the objects.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: One of the main changes that have been seen is that museums are no longer a depository for absolutely everything and are having a more analytic or interpretive approach and being selective about what does and and what doesn’t get displayed. You now go through that whole process of deciding what goes on instead of dumping. How many local museums do you go into and there is somebody’s funnel web spider collection and all this bizarre stuff. I am sure it tells a story but, because it is all thrown in there, you can’t actually interpret what that is.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: That is going back to the point at the end of the talk that in essence to my mind anything is interesting, but it’s a question about how much capacity there is for doing the work of interpretation around it.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: How much of your collection is on display?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: About five per cent is on display. Our previous director hated that, but I’m actually okay with that, to tell you the truth. There are big resource questions about it. What we constantly discover as curators is that objects become of interest at different points in their lives. An object that at one point was not of very much interest to anybody, suddenly 20 years down the track becomes of intense interest. I often go through collection files where we have rejected offers and I am beating my head thinking, ‘if only we had collected that.’ At one point I was developing an exhibition about the suburban back yard and I discovered that the Museum at some point had turned down a collection which was offered which was a complete collection of Yeats seed packets and seed catalogues, which would have been a fantastic resource to illustrate the changing ideas about the garden. But 20 years when it had been offered nobody thought that was actually very interesting. There is kind of a real balance. I agree that having just a whole bunch of stuff is in some ways not very useful or provocative but also sometimes just having a bunch of stuff is a wonderful resource for people to come, because suddenly there is a rash of funnel web spiders and suddenly funnel web spiders are the most important thing in the planet. It’s a very hard thing about collection management and collection development.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It is partly to do with the democratisation of our history that people want to be more involved and want to access collections. They say, ‘It’s our money, we’re the taxpayers. We should be accessing it.’
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I think that’s a great thing. At the end I mentioned that something I would love to see develop with higher level high school students is a greater relationship between them and particularly local museums. Local museums are completely suffering under the fact that they don’t have the resources to do the documentation, to figure out what’s in their collection and what’s interesting about it. I could totally imagine a scenario in which a student goes along and thinks ‘That funnel web spider in a jar is pretty bizarre. I kind of like spiders,’ and then goes off and does a whole project looking at what is this, why is there a funnel web spider in a jar in the museum; where did it come from? Who in the community could I talk to about this object? Can I contact scientists at the Australian Museum to talk about funnel web spiders. They could develop that very curatorial process saying, ‘What are all the fields of knowledge I can draw on in order to understand what this object is,’ and then to be able to write that up. That would then become a really important resource for the museum as well.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: You made reference to the fact that in some ways you have gone back to the object and the way things may have been done in the early twentieth century in museums. What appeared to me to be the obsession with interactivity that appeared to be the go perhaps 15 or 20 years ago has maybe ended recently. Is that still an element you have to bring into it when you choose things that there has to be this interactive component supposedly to make it fun? Or is it going back the other way that it seems to me there has been this obsession by some popular grandstanding by some of the forces in education that it all has to be seen to be fun and interactive. Has that pejorative word ‘interactivity’ been a component?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: It’s certainly been a very live discussion at this Museum over ten years, and also more recently. You are absolutely right: during the early 1990s there was a great drive to make museums interactive, and I think that was coming out of a number of trajectories, some good, some not so great. One of them was a recognition of different learning styles in that some people didn’t actually doing very well reading lots of text panels, which is often seen as the way in which museums communicate - although I would dispute that - and that we needed to provide a more diverse range of experiences for people which that led to a push to what is often called interactivity.
The other one that was less helpful was a kind of argument that the museum must teach people things. People must learn things when they go to the museum and perversely that was seen - people must have more fun at the museum because then they will actually come, but also they must be more active in the museum. Just standing and looking at something was not actually seen as doing anything. That is just seen as standing around being bored, which I would strongly contest. I think many visitors welcome museums as places where they can come and contemplate things, and read and understand things at their own pace. Those trajectories are still very strong in museums generally and certainly at this Museum. Over the last little while, and certainly I have argued this, we need to respect that idea that kind of intense looking is itself a form of interactivity if you like, something is going on in people’s heads even if it is not something that you can then necessarily easily measure by an exit survey when they leave the Museum. There are ways to introduce what we might call interactivity in the Museum that are extremely tied to that.
If you go through and look at Australian Journeys, one of the things that we introduced a lot of is what we call sensory stations, which are very simple forms of interactivity. If you go around the corner from the gold-washing cradle there is an exhibit about Chinese brick-making in Bendigo. We actually acquired some of the original bricks from those nineteenth-century bricks. We had some on display but we also realised one of the really significant ways in which people will connect with that is through touch so we included some bricks. You will see people standing there looking at the bricks and their hand will be moving over those bricks. That’s a form of interaction that I think is peaceful but also extremely important because it activates another sense in terms of how people interact.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: The lighting is really theatrical and I know you have to be aware of the conservation of the objects, but the mood of the gallery and the illumination - have you been to the [inaudible] ruins in the Rocks?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: No, I haven’t seen that.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: They have that stripped back at some archaeological dig in the Rocks in Sydney. They have just got a very simply presented metal platform where you walk down into the cellar. There is nothing there but there is everything there. It is so beautifully lit that it’s a theatrical experience going into it and that makes you stop and walk. The artefacts that have been excavated are on display in a few cases, again very simply laid out with a little bit of information. It’s so much information with just whatever remnants are there, and that’s part of the story too that all this stuff has been ruined. We are lucky to have these fragments of human experience. It’s really powerful.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: A really interesting question for me to ask - and Dave and I have talked about this quite often - what is it that visitors are actually getting from that experience? I personally would say they are getting something very profound and something that continues to work through their imagination and their sense of the world for a long time, but I don’t think it is something that people can necessarily easily put into words. It’s not even a linguistic kind of thing; it’s a sense about what the character of the material world is; and that is a kind of embodied experience. But that’s a whole other discussion.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Going back to that decision making between the curators about what will actually be shown, being such a sceptical person, I was wondering if there was surveillance cameras monitoring how the public apparently respond to the different exhibits, because it could go down a path or maybe even pass where no-one appears to be reacting, responding or interacting with that, so that object can perhaps be consigned to the dustbin of history. Are there surveillance cameras monitoring how people respond to these things? Is that part of the process?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Actually we would love surveillance cameras so we could see how visitors responded to the galleries but we are not allowed to actually do that. We talked a long time about it because personally I would love to see what it is that visitors are interested in. What we tend to do is talk a lot to the visitor services hosts who get to spend so much time on the floor and have this wonderful experience about how people respond to things. I have to say what people choose to focus on in an exhibit is often completely amazing.
One of the hosts told me a story the other day about how she was up there with a group of 14- and15-year-old boys from western Sydney, kids who had never been to a museum before and weren’t into the whole history thing at all. We have an exhibit in there which talks about a table which was made in the eighteenth century from the first wood sent back from New South Wales to England to establish whether there was a viable timber industry here. We have teamed it with a whole series of the tools that would have been used to make that table, most of which are now pretty much obsolete. This host told me this wonderful story. She said there was this one boy who wandered through totally bored the whole time, totally not paying attention, and then he suddenly latched onto this exhibit and was completely fascinated by it. She said, ‘What do you find interesting about it?’ He said, ‘I really love carpentry. We’ve got a tool like that but I have never seen that tool before.’ He was reading about how they got used differently. For me that was a fantastic experience. I am actually not too worried if he doesn’t do the bigger thing about understanding the table, the First Fleet and all that kind of stuff. What I am really chuffed about is he’s found a way to get into a sense about the way in which his passion has developed over time and how his craft depends on all this work that is what people have done before and how it has changed over time. That for me is about him connecting to a much broader social environment and so on. If someone told me about that visit, I would never have anticipated that is what he would have said, ‘That is what I absolutely love,’ but there you go. You put it out there and people do what they want with it.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: [inaudible]
KIRSTEN WEHNER: We do create a whole historical narrative. I think it’s important to do that because some people are looking for that, but a lot of visitors are not really all that interested in that. They’re interested in finding what it is in a direct way that connects very strongly with their experience, and our job is then to say ornithology happened in 1910 in Australia and it is still going on, the waders society and so on.
QUESTION: I was interested when you create an exhibit whether you have a target audience in mind when you are making it.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: This is a very complex question for the National Museum because basically our target audience is everybody, but we have identified a series of audiences. Traditionally, and this is true for this Museum as well, most of the visitors who come to the Museum are either families with primary school aged children, relatively well-educated adults or school students here on school visits - forced visitors - yes, we love them. That is the audience with which we primarily keep in our heads as we are developing stuff. But personally, and maybe this is just my opinion, I also recognise that we get lots of people with very little children come through, four- and five-year-olds, how do you engage a four- and five-year-old with history? I have noticed that lots of them love the Little Red Riding Hood quilt, and we created an animation of the story. If you go through there, there is often a couple of four year olds sitting there avidly watching the animation related to that object and connecting with it that way. How do you capture young 20 to 25 year olds? That is a market that the Museum has yet to attract in any meaningful numbers. We do this dual thing: we kind of know primarily who our visitors will be, which is driven by historical patterns of museum visiting, about who comes as tourists to Canberra and other kinds of things; but we are also very interested in trying to extend those audiences.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: The 20 year olds will be back in ten years when they have their kids.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: That’s right we just let them go for a while. But we also try to do - public programs does a great job about looking at trying to target very particular audiences who have been under-represented in the Museum and trying to address those as well. For example, people with visual disabilities, auditory disabilities or learning disabilities, these are all audiences we are constantly trying to think about how do we make the Museum accessible for them and also find ways to really engage them with the exhibits.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: Maybe you can SMS the information.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Do you have a Twitter?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: We have Facebook. I don’t know if we have got to Twitter yet. Have we?
DAVE ARNOLD: Yes, we have Twitter.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I am really interested in thinking about how we can use portable wireless technology in the Museum as a way to do more fun stuff.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I will tell one more story. I went to a museum in Japan a little while ago which had tried that. It was quite hilarious. You went through and as you entered various wireless zones it would let off this little beep and tell you something about the exhibit. I lasted about 15 minutes because there were so many zones in the museum, if you stood here you would hear one and literally if you changed your angle like this, you would enter another zone and there would be another beep, and suddenly you would be jumping out of starfish into maji Japan or something. It was completely insane.
DAVID ARNOLD: We had a question about how galleries changed over time. In terms of actually selecting a key theme like Australian Journeys or the new Landmarks gallery that is going to be a new gallery, how does the Museum make that kind of decision? How does it make that decision about: ‘We want to do something about transnational histories,’ as opposed to the actual decisions about what goes in it?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: It’s a very mystical process which I don’t know I can really let you in on. How I would answer that is to say it is really about the way in which people within the Museum are part of a broader public cultural discussion and a broader scholarly discussion about the ways in which history is developing and the way in which Australian society is developing. I think the decision to do a gallery about transnational history, which I have to say was made before I came back to the Museum after a break away, was a decision that picked up on a series of emerging fields of scholarship within Australian history. The then general manager and myself had a lot of discussions early on with leading historians in the field about what were the emerging fields of Australian history. That was certainly one trajectory.
The other one was that it was coming out of a series of discussions about what would be a really interesting and innovative way in which the Museum could participate in discussions about Australian culture and identity. We were at that stage coming out - and in a sense in response to the Carroll review – of a period in Australian culture which was very obsessed and interested with defining Australian identity that had led to things like the history wars and that hadn’t necessarily been an incredibly productive way for Australians to think about themselves.
So we were very interested in trying to think of a gallery theme that would step aside from those debates about: what does it mean to be Australian; you are either Australian or you are not; you are either black armband or you are white bread - those kinds of questions. Identity as a kind of topic is not necessarily a very productive focus for the Museum because of the way in which the Museum is built around collections, and collections naturally lead us to a materialistic understanding of history, material history is quite a long way from identity. I think that’s where the idea that why don’t we do a gallery that actually says, ‘Let’s not look parochially at what it means to be Australian, let’s look expansively and say “Australia is and has been always connected to the world in a lot of complex ways, and wouldn’t it be interesting to actually explore that?”’ For a long time the Museum’s mission statement was ‘what does it mean to be Australian’. We felt very strongly at the beginning that was - kind of ‘parochial’ I think would be the word - quite a limited vision for the Museum and that the Museum, and indeed Australia, could be much more self-confident about saying being Australian is like lots and lots of different things, including this incredibly productive and engaging expansion with the world and how that has created a very plural society.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: National maturity - do we constantly need to obsess about what it means to be Australian? No, we’re a bit more grown up now.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: Absolutely. Some of the discussion around Australian Journeys since the gallery opened has been very interesting. In the gallery our view was to not make a fuss about the fact that Australia is a really diverse plural society, just to accept it as a given and assume that, and say, ‘What we’re interested in is drawing out some of the different trajectories and complexities of that plurality and the ways in which it has developed in a global context.’ Rather than doing what migration galleries have often done which is to say there were Indigenous people, then there was this, then there was the white Australia policy and that was terrible - this kind of stage for a history of policies about how to govern diversity.
We just said that actually we think Australia is a diverse thing; we think the evidence shows it has always been a diverse thing; yes, those have been debates and if you look in the gallery in the detailed content those debates are all in there. Museums are not good at being ironical. They are not good at saying, ‘Here’s a piece of policy but you should recognise that it’s bad.’ They are much better at being declamatory about saying, ‘This is what Australia is like.’ So we just said, ‘We think Australia is a diverse and plural thing. We think one of the reasons for that is because of the incredible flow of people back and forth between Australia and overseas, so we are going to do a gallery representing that.’
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Can I just ask what your mission statement is now?
KIRSTEN WEHNER: I don’t actually know. What is it?
DAVID ARNOLD: It’s on the table but I haven’t memorised it.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: That’s very general, isn’t it? The mission statement is:
To promote an understanding of Australia’s history and an awareness of future possibilities by developing, preserving and exhibiting a significant collection, taking a leadership role in research and scholarship, engaging and providing access for audiences nationally and internationally, and delivering innovative programs.
DAVE ARNOLD: We would really like to thank you, Kirsten, for giving us so generously of your time.
KIRSTEN WEHNER: No, thank you for a wonderful discussion. That was really great. I enjoyed that. [applause]
Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–22. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018