Social History exhibitions - trophies or reflections of the meaning of Australia

Are social history exhibitions in our museums still collections of
trophies without reference to their past and what they have to tell us
about Australia and Australians?

(Cross posted in Museum 3.0)

In the June 2010 issue of the magazine The Monthly, Amanda Lohrey has an article “The Absent Heart” about Australian museums. It is critical of several social history exhibitions in some major museums. The essay deserves a response from relevant sections of the museum community. Lohrey is not some superficial journalist required to put together some words to fill space or meet an immediate interest of no lasting importance. The Monthly is an influential magazine published by Black Inc.

Lohrey’s essay recalls “Knights at the museum” by Elizabeth Wynhausen in The Australian of September 22, 2007. After all commentary and serious criticism of museums, other than art museums, in the Australian print media especially is hardly intellectually challenged or well informed. Wynhausen, amongst other things, commenting on changes to the way museums, initially the Western Australian Museum, developed exhibitions (quoting Louise Douglas at the National Museum),  “By hiring a historian and developing displays from a social history perspective, a museum was essentially saying that it was committed to using objects to tell the stories of individuals and communities, and to exploring topics -- such as domestic history, labour history and migration history -- not previously found in museums."

Amanda Lohrey is an award winning novelist and essayist. She completed her education at the University of Tasmania before taking up a scholarship at Cambridge University. She has been a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney and University of Queensland. She now lives in Tasmania.

Lohrey does confess that she is a “restless and disgruntled visitor to museums, not much interested in the engineered detail of an artefact but more in how it fits into the big picture”. She is “not interested in miscellaneous collections of relics displayed with brief notes on their provenance” but “exhibits that are enlivening, that deepen my understanding of both past and present, and enlarge my sense of what it means to be an Australian”.

Lohrey observes, “Mostly, however, I come away with the impression that our curators are more concerned about the preservation of the artefact than they are to give any account of the history that produced it.” She complains that too often objects are exhibited as trophies.

The essay discusses exhibitions in the Powerhouse Museum, the Melbourne Museum – with particular comments on the exhibit of Phar Lap – and two major museums in Canberra, the National Museum and the Australian War Memorial. She concludes with discussion of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.

Amanda Lohrey concludes, “The question remains of how to put an end to trophyism. Until their displays of social history are more imaginatively conceived, our museums will remain lacklustre models of fragmentation and perfunctory exposition. There is a metaphorical heart missing from this frame, a manifest passion and flair, for the telling of our history.”

If MANexus and Museum 3.0 are of value, not just forums for exchanging simplistic observations of the kind that occupy much of the blogosphere, tweetland and SMSs, then surely participants will see commenting on Lohrey’s article to be essential. A good start would be a response from some museum directors and social history curators and exhibition programmers.

So what do you want to say?

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This article was briefly discussed on the CAN-talk list, but didn't provoke anywhere near as much discussion as I thought it would. I think the article challenges a lot of assumptions and I'd be interested in what colleagues think - is Lohrey a lone dissenter, or is the emperor indeed naked in some areas?

For instance:

- Have we reached the limits of constructivist thinking in letting people 'make their own meanings'? How much evidence do we have that this works? And in some cases is 'let visitors decide' being used as a convenient fig leaf for avoiding controversy and not venturing an opinion?

- From the point of view of storytelling, how important is the 'real' object? Lohrey makes the point in relation to showing the size of Phar Lap's heart: "if you are concerned with meaning then a model will do, but if you are in the marked for fetishings objects as magical tokens - "the real thing" - then it seems also the pallid tissue of the original will suffice" Here I could easily present a counter example: the Apollo capsule in the Smithsonian would be nowhere near as compelling if it were just a model, and not the scarred and burned vehicle that safely brought three men back to Earth after an incredible journey. But all this proves is that the value of the object is completely dependent on the point you're trying to make.

- There seems to be an implicit assumption in the essay that an exhibition should follow a single specific narrative (at one point Lohrey observes that "the visitor is wandering along no clear path at all . . . " Is this the prejudice of a novelist, whose chosen medium is by definition very linear, or is it of wider concern to visitors in general? Is it unrealistic to expect that a three-dimensional environment will easily lend itself to a single linear narrative?

Bottom line is that this article raises several legitimate questions, and I'm not sure how much evidence we have as a sector to properly address these questions. More research into how different audience groups relate to the exhibition environment is definitely needed.
It should not be thought that all the running on what makes a good museum is made by media commentators, journalists or even respected and award winning writers. Three interviews/talks with/by directors of major museums have appeared in the last week.

Andrew Sayers, the new director of the National Museum of Australia, is interviewed by Rosemary Sorensen in The Australian.

Thomas Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is interviewed in the Financial Times - note his repudiation of some of the superficial media comments!

MOMA director Glenn Lowry’s talk, in the grandly titled symposium, “Museums the 21st Century” at ACMI is followed by a discussion with MCA director Elizabeth-Ann Macgregor (not wearing her tartan Doc Martens so far as I could determine) and others. Lowry was interviewed on Artworks on Radio National and by Margaret Throsby on Classic FM Morning interview last Friday.
Thanks for the links - I hadn't spotted those. But I'm not sure I'm understanding your point. Do you not think there is a role for non-museum professionals in the debate?

Maybe we looked at the original article from different perspectives. I've mostly worked in exhibition design. And if a visitor does not 'get' what we had set out to say, then the assumption is that it is our fault, not the visitor's. From that perspective all intelligent criticism is valid criticism (not that you can always please everyone).

In exhibitions there are often gaps between what we set out to do and what we actually achieve and I saw the article as a starting point for exploring some of those.
I am pleased to have your comments. Apart from a comment on the Australian Museum website by Lynda Kelly there have not been any responses to my invitation to address this issue. I know that people are deading it because they have told me. But like some other important and complex issues, it seems they wish to be not widely heard.

I should clarify that my listing of various other talks etc was a follow up to my post and not a response to your response Regan.
Thanks for the clarification! The relationship between visitors and exhibitions is something that fascinates me (to the extent that I'd like to use it as a subject for postgraduate study of some sort). Which is why I wish this article had triggered far more lively discussion.

Maybe this is the naivity of an 'outsider' speaking (I don't work for a museum and being based in Adelaide, I'm somewhat removed from the inner machinations of the Big Nationals), but I confess I don't fully understand what there is to dread (as you describe). It could even be said that silence helps make one of Lohrey's points for her (i.e. that museums are afraid of standing for anything).
Regan, I meant people are reading it, not dreading it. However, some of them may be dreading it but I haven't been told that.that
Lohrey's article is both stimulating and provocative, and in my view a welcome jolt to an industry whose practitioners don't seem to engage in a great deal of critical discourse about their practice, at least not in public. The thinking in this regard may possibly be summed up as: don't rock the boat!

What I find particularly interesting are Lohrey's comments about a lack of provocation that she thinks is clearly evident in the examples to which she draws our attention. While undertaking my graduate diploma in museum studies at Deakin a few years ago, one of the key lessons I drew from it was that exhibits (and public programs in general) should not be inert. They should seek to interpret, engage and provoke the audience to an experience that helps them make new connections, to think about what they are seeing, and to contemplate the meaning of what they are being presented with. This should ideally be a form of education that involves more than the transmission of a few bits of information on provenance or descriptions about what is plainly in view.

I am not so much concerned about the fragmentariness of the exhibitions to which Lohrey draws our attention. It's not the lack of a single narrative that worries me - multiple narratives or themes should not be a problem if done well. Instead, what I found resonated with my experience is that often enough exhibitions tend to be inert - they almost seem to aim for a form of neutralisation of the potential for any kind of controversy lest the political masters (or their minions in the popular press) react in a hostile manner. I am not sure whether this is something that is limited to Australia - I suspect not. Here, I presume that the problem may have started (or progressed) during the Howard Government and which had a particularly virulent penchant for crusading against cultural enemies.

In a way, the trend seems to be drawing the big institutions closer to the kind of experience that is common in historical societies and smaller museums across the country. The emphasis is on the oldness of the artefacts, and if resources permit, some effort is made to describe or attribute provenance, but as to interpretation and leading visitors to contemplate some kind of big picture ... well who knows ... is there one? What matters more is that people come, spend some time looking at things together, and talk. Do they actually have an appetite to have the way they look at these artefacts augmented or challenged in any way?
Interesting article that raises a few good questions. However given her frequent references to his armour I can't help but wonder whether she has actually been in to see our display of Ned Kelly's armour here at the State Library of Victoria?
Sebastian Gurciullo said:
Lohrey's article is both stimulating and provocative, and in my view a welcome jolt to an industry whose practitioners don't seem to engage in a great deal of critical discourse about their practice, at least not in public. The thinking in this regard may possibly be summed up as: don't rock the boat!

What I find particularly interesting are Lohrey's comments about a lack of provocation that she thinks is clearly evident in the examples to which she draws our attention. While undertaking my graduate diploma in museum studies at Deakin a few years ago, one of the key lessons I drew from it was that exhibits (and public programs in general) should not be inert. They should seek to interpret, engage and provoke the audience to an experience that helps them make new connections, to think about what they are seeing, and to contemplate the meaning of what they are being presented with. This should ideally be a form of education that involves more than the transmission of a few bits of information on provenance or descriptions about what is plainly in view.

I am not so much concerned about the fragmentariness of the exhibitions to which Lohrey draws our attention. It's not the lack of a single narrative that worries me - multiple narratives or themes should not be a problem if done well. Instead, what I found resonated with my experience is that often enough exhibitions tend to be inert - they almost seem to aim for a form of neutralisation of the potential for any kind of controversy lest the political masters (or their minions in the popular press) react in a hostile manner. I am not sure whether this is something that is limited to Australia - I suspect not. Here, I presume that the problem may have started (or progressed) during the Howard Government and which had a particularly virulent penchant for crusading against cultural enemies.

In a way, the trend seems to be drawing the big institutions closer to the kind of experience that is common in historical societies and smaller museums across the country. The emphasis is on the oldness of the artefacts, and if resources permit, some effort is made to describe or attribute provenance, but as to interpretation and leading visitors to contemplate some kind of big picture ... well who knows ... is there one? What matters more is that people come, spend some time looking at things together, and talk. Do they actually have an appetite to have the way they look at these artefacts augmented or challenged in any way?
I am most impressed by Sebastian's response.And I am pleased to have Regan's response. But I continue to be disappointed that so few people have responded to this issue. I recall a comment at a museum conference in the US some years ago. "For a field that is so self-absorbed, our limited capacity for self-reflection is extraordinary."

Amanda Lohrey is a distinguished writer and The Monthly is an increasingly widely circulated and read journal of considered opinion. The points raised by Lohrey are singificant. Yet not one social historian or museum director has seen fit to comment.

Is it imagined that museum practice will advance simply by continuing to do what we have done in the past in the hope that eventually the public will realise just how valuable we are and how right our practices are? I don't think so!

One of my ongoing impressions is that many people in many professions just don't bother to read much of what anybody else writes unless it is in their own field and by someone whose opinions they agree with. Intellectual progress does not result from that!
Des, I agree with you - it does seem odd that the subject seems to generate no discussion. You would think that among the 450 members of this ning there are only a handful of people who think that this is a topic worthy of discussion. Perhaps the social historians and directors connected with the institutions and exhibitions mentioned in Lohrey's article aren't paying attention to maNexus, or worse, consider this kind of discussion to be beneath them and outside the ambit of their professional duties. Perhaps most practitioners conclude that this kind of professional public discussion and thinking can only lead to trouble - best to ignore it and hope that it all goes away! In the defeaning silence, we can only speculate...

So, I'm left to wonder whether the questions and issues posed by Lohrey may have already been dealt with and sorted out elsewhere in a forum of which we poor souls are unaware. If only someone would tell us!!!

We could always write a reply to Lohrey and submit it to The Monthly in the hope that people outside the industry have an appetite to continue the discussion.
In an effort to get a response, here are some extracts from Lohrey's essay. I think they indicate the theme.

“I am not interested in miscellaneous collections of relics displayed with brief notes on their provenance. What I hope for are exhibits that are enlivening, that deepen my understanding of both past and present, and enlarge my sense of what it means to be an Australian. Mostly, however, I come away with the impression that our curators are more concerned about the preservation of the artefact than they are to give any account of the history that produced it. Where is the passion for meaning, for making sense of the world? Where is the desire to create an experience for the visitor?”

On the Melbourne Museum and the exhibition of remains of Phar Lap: “why would we bother to exhibit a racehorse in the first place or, rather, why would we exhibit it outside of a sports museum? Does it tell us something about who we are or is it a mere freak of nature? ... [Phar Lap’s] significance to Australians derived from the fact that he was more than an exceptional racehorse; he was also an inspirational figure during the Great Depression... The Melbourne Gallery is a medium-size exhibition space crowded with objects of great variety and intrinsic worth, but the visitor will seek in vain any rationale behind the confusing miscellany.

On the Australian War Memorial: “the AWM’s exhibits reveal a lack of coherence if not equal to other major museums then certainly of a similar character. Critics have complained of the museum’s glorification of war, but my objection is more fundamental: it doesn’t even begin to tell the story of war. It’s not that the AWM is telling the wrong story; it isn’t telling any story.”

Responses anyone? Or should we be entitled to assume that those repsonsible for these exhibitions don't really care what visitors think.

I would make a further point. Having in mind that some of the major universities for instance, did not consider that Australian history shoud be taught as a subject until around 1958 and that exhibitions of Australia's history in museums developed relatively recently, unlike the situation in the U.S. and many other countries, is it that there has been insufficient experience in this area in museums? The Pigott Report had important things to say about social history exhibitions. This is after all an extremely important area. Remember that in one state, the treatment of Australian history post 1788 has reverted to a few brief and grizzly visits by Dutch pirates after a brave effort by a group of social historians to broaden the agenda to portray and interpret the entire post European arrival in that state. There are some who would say the effort has been hampered by a rather myopic view of the relatively dominant natural history scientists.

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