Newcastle Museum: A quick review

"Anti-war protestors" at the Newcastle Museum opening

Last week, my local museum reopened in a brand new location. The old museum had closed about 4 years ago in preparation of the redevelopment, so I was very exited to see the new museum. The new building, which cost $23.5 million and is the biggest project undertaken by Council in recent years, will house three permanent exhibitions as well as semi-permanent displays.

First impressions:
On opening weekend, the new museum was teaming with life. It’s located in some refurbished woolsheds only a couple of hundred metres back from the harbour, in an area that’s undergone significant new development in the past decade. The area is filled with restaurants, gyms, apartment complexes and people, and the new museum fits into its new home incredibly well – integrating the past and the future.

The museum had hired young actors to dress in historical garments for the opening, which instantly connected the new with the old, affirming the museum context. These living displays brought a very lively presence into the museum, which made for a great first impression.

My favourite caption!

The new museum has a lot going for it. It uses colourful inbuilt wall displays to show images that give context to artefacts without requiring long periods of reading. It has a huge interactive kids exhibition as one of the three permanent spaces (the predecessor of which was my favourite thing at the old museum when I was a kid). TV screens have been incorporated into displays to show changing historical images, though I didn’t see any other real use of technology. I was only aware of one interactive display outside the kid’s area (and it was for kids too). There were no hands-on experiences for adults, which is a shame since I still want to touch things in the museum just as much as I did as a kid.

The museum has some cool objects – including an the old rusted Model T Ford, which was given contextualisation by text panel that explained a number of different interpretive premises for the object’s inclusion in the “Newcastle Story” exhibition (including one paragraph on ‘museological choices’, which is a little more meta and self-reflexive than most museum panels). The old car had wooden spokes for wheels, and still had a hand-written message scrawled in the dust on the dash. To me, it spoke of the history of technology and human nature all tied up in one artefact.

My other favourite object was a biscuit wrapped in cloth that had survived from the trenches of World War II. It was a hugely affective piece for me, because my mouth could immediately taste the biscuits, and my imagination grappled with thoughts of what living through the way might have been like. The bodily sensations that I experienced looking at that one object really affected me far more than other objects, which were simply pretty or interesting. My PhD supervisor Dr Kit Messham-Muir has done work on affect in museums, and wrote about this in a 2008 exhibition essay. He writes:

The physicality of objects and sites, their smells, tastes, textures and presence can trigger intense sensory memories. Importantly, sensory memory is different from the remembering of linear narratives; sensory memory involuntarily conjures vivid past events into the present.

This is absolutely what I felt when seeing the WWII biscuit.

Having said that, although some of the objects were pretty cool, there didn’t seem to be a lot of objects. Both my husband and I walked away feeling that we hadn’t really seen much. There was a big space, and it seemed like we should have had lots of exploring to do… but in a short time, we felt like we’d seen everything. Now, maybe that was the busy atmosphere, so we didn’t really take time to read all the panels and look at the displays with the depth we would have with fewer people in the museum. However, for all the prettiness of the displays, I wonder if there wasn’t a conscious choice on some level to use images instead of objects. If so, I would love to know the reason why. The large colour wall displays were great – but not at the expense of more tangible objects and stories. Pictures might seem more self-explanatory, and they can certainly add context… but I’m not sure that I respond to them as a replacement, instead of an addition.

Image-driven displays - pretty, but sadly lacking in objects

The new museum does have a very large external space that looks perfect for family outings and activities, and on the weekend it was brimming with laughing kids – so that’s a great start. Having chatted to the museum’s public programs officer a couple of weeks ago, I think they have grand plans for building the space into a very active part of Newcastle’s cultural life, which will be fantastic. But it will be interesting to see whether the museum’s emphasis on events can sustain it when its objects are fairly sparse.

How do you guys feel about museums that (seem to) put an emphasis on events/displays over objects? Are they sustainable? Effective? It seems to me that this will be able to bring a sense of life to history – but maybe not the same sense of connection… But that’s an intuitive answer, and I’d love to hear of people’s actual experiences of this split between the two.

And you never know – when I go back to the museum on a day that’s less frantic, I might have a different impression. But my first sense of the place is that it’s fresh and active – just with fewer artefacts than I expected, and maybe that I would have liked. The experience has made me realise just how much I do love/want objects in my museums.