Museums in Melbourne and Newcastle, and the cultural making of community

During the last week, I’ve been visiting family in Melbourne, which provided a great excuse to go and check out the Melbourne Museum. Although I’d been to Melbourne before, I’d never had the chance to visit the museum, and so I seized upon the chance to lunch with Tim Hart and get a tour of the building and the current exhibitions with him.

It was great. Getting ‘backstage’ at different institutions is still thrilling to me, and it was super-exciting to get insight into the cool work that happens at the Melbourne Museum. There were some simple architectural features – like walls of a certain colour which indicate that collection items are stored within – that ensured the building was not only attractive, it was also functional (I love good planning).

The museum displays concentrate on both local (Melbourne and Victorian) stories, as well as more universal stories, and I really enjoyed the diversity of exhibits. Unfortunately due to a minor family emergency, I had to cut my visit slightly shorter than intended, but I can not wait to get back to Melbourne to explore the museum again. And that’s always a great sign of success for a museum… that a visitor not only enjoyed their time there, but actively wants to get back and spend more time.

In the mean time, good news for my own art gallery hit the local papers last week as well, when the Federal Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, announced that the Federal Government will contribute $7 million to the redevelopment of Newcastle Art Gallery. This has been a long-planned for redevelopment, and federal support will no doubt bring the redevelopment forward significantly (I think stage one should start really quickly). Phase one will include increased gallery exhibition spaces and storage, as well as a cafe and retail outlet. It’s very exciting news, particularly given the new life that has been given to the Newcastle Museum by its recent overhaul.

It’s a really interesting time for culture in Newcastle right now. Just over ten years ago, the BHP Steelworks in Newcastle closed down, which really impacted our city. Until then, Newcastle had primarily envisioned itself as an industrial town, and after that time, there was a real sense of depression around the region. However, in the years since, the city has slowly been remaking itself, and interesting initiatives like Renew Newcastle and festivals like TINA (This Is Not Art) have played a part in creating a very strong grassroots cultural industry. It’s credited with being one of the reasons that my hometown was named (maybe surprisingly) as one of Lonely Planet’s Top Ten Cities for 2010.

With this kind of government investment in the redevelopment of major cultural institutions such as the museum and the art gallery however, it seems that there is growing recognition in the role of arts and cultural organisations in the rebuilding of our city.

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.

New(castle) directions

My local museum has been closed for the last couple of years whilst undertaking a major move to a new site. Excitingly, it is almost ready to reopen in a new location, with new permanent exhibitions that should better showcase the region’s local history.

As a result, there have been a number of new positions advertised at the museum, but the most interesting one has just been announced… the museum needs a new Director! The current Director is retiring, and so Newcastle City Council is advertising for “an experienced operator to lead and guide the direction of the New Museum. Not just anyone, we need an ideas person. Someone who can visualise and implement. Someone who understands how a Museum operates at all levels.”

So first up, if you are (or know) someone amazing who would be great at this job, then (get them to) apply! With a new museum to play with, this could be a really interesting opportunity for the right person.

Having said that, I’m guessing that the right person is not going to be from Newcastle. One of the biggest challenges about living in this city (and I would guess, in any regional town) is that opportunities for career growth in the arts are pretty limited – and so most of the people who end up in high-end positions in our cultural institutions generally come from outside the city (and vice versa – most people have to leave to build their arts careers). Even the position selection criteria seems to imply for this, stating that applicants should have “Substantial experience in a Museum leadership capacity and demonstrated capacity to lead a small multidisciplinary Museum team” – something next to impossible to get within local area.

Yet today I was reading the AAM’s 2002 publication Mastering Civic Engagement: A Challenge to Museums. Ellen Hirzy’s report (p9) opens with the statement:

Every museum has a deeply rooted connection with its community that is uniquely its own. However far reaching its collections and scholarship or the diversity of its audiences, a museum’s particular community context anchors it, revitalizes its mission and sense of purpose, and enriches its understanding of what is possible to accomplish.

I can’t help thinking about how challenging the first months must be for a new director at a museum – particularly a local history museum – as an outsider. Not only does he or she have to try to establish him/herself in a new position, possibly within a new town, but he/she must also try to negotiate the ‘deeply rooted connection’ that the museum has with its community. Sounds like a big ask – but an interesting one. So here’s hoping that someone out there wants to come and lead at our New(castle) museum.