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.