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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So many ideas and angles raised here. It would be good to see some real evidence about visitor experiences. I have a couple of points that draw on qualitative visitor research and my own observations.

Firstly, it is true that a good proportion of visitors seek a coherent narrative in social history (and other) exhibitions. Many exhibitions could do more to use narrative devices to strengthen their communication. For most visitors, the object alone is not enough -- they want the back story and they don't want to work hard to get it, after all they are not curled up comfortably with a book and a glass of wine, they are on their feet. This is the problem of the object-centred exhibition. Not enough story. Without a story, modest objects are just 'stuff' and only the high-profile icons transcend this.

Second is an observation from visiting several museums in Hong Kong this year. Some major heritage museums there have put the story first and in at least two cases the building was designed around the story. I was surprised to see again and again that object labels included the word (replica). So, not a real fossil tooth - a replica. My response was to lose some interest in the objects -- after all they weren't real. This is the problem of the story-centred exhibition. Not enough authentic objects.

I don't agree that real objects in museums are fetish-like. There's power, mana, in the authentic. Art museums know this.

The power of the authentic is in the real object, not the replica. And it is also the case that true stories carry a power that fiction can't match.
Gillian Savage said:

The power of the authentic is in the real object, not the replica.


This would be taken as axiomatic by most museum professionals. But is that how people at large see it? A colleague recently told me about a focus group where the participants said that they couldn't care less whether the objects were real or replicas. This might be a rogue data point, and I don't know what questions were asked and in what context, but it did make me wonder....
My experience in researching museum audiences is that most people assume that the objects are authentic, and they value this. In many cases real objects evoke strong feelings of amazement and wonder. In focus groups people often struggle to communicate the enormity of their experiences in front of real objects. I still recall a man who was gob smacked years later by the wonder of seeing a piece of real moon rock at the Melbourne Museum. A dull grey rock under glass -- but from the MOON! He recounted how he put his finger on the glass and just stood there -- an existential experience of simply being there.

It is also true that the hundreds of volunteer-run community museums across Australia are motivated to collect real objects. Dedicated volunteers spend years collecting and caring for real things.

There may be some isolated instances when a replica is as effective as the real thing, depending on the topic under discussion, and that may have been an example that came up in a focus group you heard about. I would see that as a rogue data point, as you say.

Regards
Gillian

Regan Forrest said:
Gillian Savage said:

The power of the authentic is in the real object, not the replica.


This would be taken as axiomatic by most museum professionals. But is that how people at large see it? A colleague recently told me about a focus group where the participants said that they couldn't care less whether the objects were real or replicas. This might be a rogue data point, and I don't know what questions were asked and in what context, but it did make me wonder....
Des, you could ask Andrew Sayers for a response to the article on his blog?

What did Lohrey say about the National Museum?

Thanks for starting the discussion here,
Cath
Catherine Styles said:
Des, you could ask Andrew Sayers for a response to the article on his blog?

What did Lohrey say about the National Museum?

Thanks for starting the discussion here,
Cath
Lohrey's comments on the National Museum of Australia are as follows" "Like the Melbourne Museum, the NMA gives every appearance of being pre-eminently a showcase for the vanity of its architects. Both buildings have been described as cathedral-like spaces and both exhibit vast atriums that are a waste of valuable space, a pointless grandiosity in which meaning is hollowed out. In the vaulting foyer of the Melbourne Museum, with its industrial steel walls, is a tall Sepik River column, which, apropos of nothing, backs onto an air-conditioning unit. Instead of inspiring curiosity or wonder, the column is lost in a no-man’s-land of space. In the NMA, the cathedral entrance serves only to encompass the museum shop and cafe, as if commerce were indeed the focal point of the modern museum experience. Inside the body of the museum are ill-defined spaces of confusing sightlines, dim nooks and crannies and a plethora of signs and posters with disjointed gobbets of information. The overall effect is of pervasive and claustrophobic ugliness, a warehouse of visual and aural cacophony in which significant items such as the Citizens’ Arch appear to have been plonked down at random by impatient removalists.

"The fact that it is easy to get lost within the spaces of the NMA – literally – is symbolic of a museum that appears to have no clue as to what its project is. In almost every area, its curators seem both literally and metaphorically myopic: they can’t see beyond the object to its world, nor tell a story. Given this state of affairs it is baffling to contemplate the vehemence of the culture wars surrounding the NMA and the accusations of too much emphasis on Indigenous culture. Within the counsels of the opposing factions, the bitter recriminations may have meaning, but for the casual visitor the building is so badly designed and the displays so inchoate that it’s impossible to discern any dominant ideology or narrative, black armband or otherwise."
I understand that the organisers of the Museums Australia conference may be trying to get Amanda along to a session at the conference. Keep an eye out to see if that comes together.
I think that the Melbourne Museum works very well for visitors. It is easy to navigate and allows for multiple pathways without back tracking. This gives visitors a lot of flexibility. Yes, it's a bit empty at present, but I think it was built for the future and it will accommodate a growing collection for a while yet. It provides an excellent backdrop for a variety of interesting presentations. I think it will still be working well in 100 years time.

In contrast, the National Museum is lumbered with a building that is hard to navigate and confusing for visitors. It lacks discrete exhibition areas and requires that visitors back track if they want to choose alternate pathways or try to see most things. Worst of all, it is already too small. The redundant second cafe is being converted into staff offices. Curators struggle to create coherent exhibitions in spaces that flow into each other and across levels, or meander along narrow passages that are just wide enough for the machines that change the light bulbs.

I see the finger prints of architects' vanity all over the NMA building. The Melbourne Museum architects had the benefit of working on the fitout of the Australian National Maritime Museum -- another monument to architectural vanity. I believe that this lesson showed them the benefit of a simple floorplan!

Don't get me started on the dysfunctional and ugly 'Garden of Aust Dreams'. I just hope somebody funds a total reworking of it -- maybe a roof a la British Museum? Soon, please, before someone lists it as a heritage item.


Des Griffin said:
Lohrey's comments on the National Museum of Australia are as follows" "Like the Melbourne Museum, the NMA gives every appearance of being pre-eminently a showcase for the vanity of its architects. Both buildings have been described as cathedral-like spaces and both exhibit vast atriums that are a waste of valuable space, a pointless grandiosity in which meaning is hollowed out. In the vaulting foyer of the Melbourne Museum, with its industrial steel walls, is a tall Sepik River column, which, apropos of nothing, backs onto an air-conditioning unit. Instead of inspiring curiosity or wonder, the column is lost in a no-man’s-land of space. In the NMA, the cathedral entrance serves only to encompass the museum shop and cafe, as if commerce were indeed the focal point of the modern museum experience. Inside the body of the museum are ill-defined spaces of confusing sightlines, dim nooks and crannies and a plethora of signs and posters with disjointed gobbets of information. The overall effect is of pervasive and claustrophobic ugliness, a warehouse of visual and aural cacophony in which significant items such as the Citizens’ Arch appear to have been plonked down at random by impatient removalists.

"The fact that it is easy to get lost within the spaces of the NMA – literally – is symbolic of a museum that appears to have no clue as to what its project is. In almost every area, its curators seem both literally and metaphorically myopic: they can’t see beyond the object to its world, nor tell a story. Given this state of affairs it is baffling to contemplate the vehemence of the culture wars surrounding the NMA and the accusations of too much emphasis on Indigenous culture. Within the counsels of the opposing factions, the bitter recriminations may have meaning, but for the casual visitor the building is so badly designed and the displays so inchoate that it’s impossible to discern any dominant ideology or narrative, black armband or otherwise."
Gillian Savage said:
I think that the Melbourne Museum works very well for visitors. It is easy to navigate and allows for multiple pathways without back tracking. This gives visitors a lot of flexibility. Yes, it's a bit empty at present, but I think it was built for the future and it will accommodate a growing collection for a while yet. It provides an excellent backdrop for a variety of interesting presentations. I think it will still be working well in 100 years time. It has good 'bones'.

In contrast, the National Museum is lumbered with a building that is hard to navigate and confusing for visitors. It lacks discrete exhibition areas and requires that visitors back track if they want to choose alternate pathways or try to see most things. Worst of all, it is already too small. Curators struggle to create coherent exhibitions in spaces that flow into each other and across levels, or meander along narrow passages that are just wide enough for the machines that change the light bulbs.

I see the finger prints of architects' vanity all over the NMA building. The Melbourne Museum architects had the benefit of working on the fitout of the Australian National Maritime Museum -- another monument to architectural vanity. I believe that this lesson showed them the benefit of a simple floorplan!

Don't get me started on the dysfunctional and ugly 'Garden of Aust Dreams'. I just hope somebody funds a total reworking of it -- maybe a roof a la British Museum? Soon, please, before someone lists it as a heritage item.

I predict that the NMA will be re-vamped, refurbished, rebuilt, re-designed, etc, several times over the next 100 years. It's got poor 'bones' and will need major surgery. This has already started with the redundant second cafe being converted into staff offices.


Des Griffin said:
Lohrey's comments on the National Museum of Australia are as follows" "Like the Melbourne Museum, the NMA gives every appearance of being pre-eminently a showcase for the vanity of its architects. Both buildings have been described as cathedral-like spaces and both exhibit vast atriums that are a waste of valuable space, a pointless grandiosity in which meaning is hollowed out. In the vaulting foyer of the Melbourne Museum, with its industrial steel walls, is a tall Sepik River column, which, apropos of nothing, backs onto an air-conditioning unit. Instead of inspiring curiosity or wonder, the column is lost in a no-man’s-land of space. In the NMA, the cathedral entrance serves only to encompass the museum shop and cafe, as if commerce were indeed the focal point of the modern museum experience. Inside the body of the museum are ill-defined spaces of confusing sightlines, dim nooks and crannies and a plethora of signs and posters with disjointed gobbets of information. The overall effect is of pervasive and claustrophobic ugliness, a warehouse of visual and aural cacophony in which significant items such as the Citizens’ Arch appear to have been plonked down at random by impatient removalists.

"The fact that it is easy to get lost within the spaces of the NMA – literally – is symbolic of a museum that appears to have no clue as to what its project is. In almost every area, its curators seem both literally and metaphorically myopic: they can’t see beyond the object to its world, nor tell a story. Given this state of affairs it is baffling to contemplate the vehemence of the culture wars surrounding the NMA and the accusations of too much emphasis on Indigenous culture. Within the counsels of the opposing factions, the bitter recriminations may have meaning, but for the casual visitor the building is so badly designed and the displays so inchoate that it’s impossible to discern any dominant ideology or narrative, black armband or otherwise."
Could you tell me what exactly you mean by the "redundant second cafe"? Redundant to whom? If you mean the restaurant that overlooks the lake where I have enjoyed some wonderful luncheons, I would think that was a great sadness. Offices have no place in such a position. The ambience was wonderful.
Christine Dauber
PH D BA BA Honours (Art History)

Gillian Savage said:
Gillian Savage said:
I think that the Melbourne Museum works very well for visitors. It is easy to navigate and allows for multiple pathways without back tracking. This gives visitors a lot of flexibility. Yes, it's a bit empty at present, but I think it was built for the future and it will accommodate a growing collection for a while yet. It provides an excellent backdrop for a variety of interesting presentations. I think it will still be working well in 100 years time. It has good 'bones'.

In contrast, the National Museum is lumbered with a building that is hard to navigate and confusing for visitors. It lacks discrete exhibition areas and requires that visitors back track if they want to choose alternate pathways or try to see most things. Worst of all, it is already too small. Curators struggle to create coherent exhibitions in spaces that flow into each other and across levels, or meander along narrow passages that are just wide enough for the machines that change the light bulbs.

I see the finger prints of architects' vanity all over the NMA building. The Melbourne Museum architects had the benefit of working on the fitout of the Australian National Maritime Museum -- another monument to architectural vanity. I believe that this lesson showed them the benefit of a simple floorplan!

Don't get me started on the dysfunctional and ugly 'Garden of Aust Dreams'. I just hope somebody funds a total reworking of it -- maybe a roof a la British Museum? Soon, please, before someone lists it as a heritage item.

I predict that the NMA will be re-vamped, refurbished, rebuilt, re-designed, etc, several times over the next 100 years. It's got poor 'bones' and will need major surgery. This has already started with the redundant second cafe being converted into staff offices.


Des Griffin said:
Lohrey's comments on the National Museum of Australia are as follows" "Like the Melbourne Museum, the NMA gives every appearance of being pre-eminently a showcase for the vanity of its architects. Both buildings have been described as cathedral-like spaces and both exhibit vast atriums that are a waste of valuable space, a pointless grandiosity in which meaning is hollowed out. In the vaulting foyer of the Melbourne Museum, with its industrial steel walls, is a tall Sepik River column, which, apropos of nothing, backs onto an air-conditioning unit. Instead of inspiring curiosity or wonder, the column is lost in a no-man’s-land of space. In the NMA, the cathedral entrance serves only to encompass the museum shop and cafe, as if commerce were indeed the focal point of the modern museum experience. Inside the body of the museum are ill-defined spaces of confusing sightlines, dim nooks and crannies and a plethora of signs and posters with disjointed gobbets of information. The overall effect is of pervasive and claustrophobic ugliness, a warehouse of visual and aural cacophony in which significant items such as the Citizens’ Arch appear to have been plonked down at random by impatient removalists.

"The fact that it is easy to get lost within the spaces of the NMA – literally – is symbolic of a museum that appears to have no clue as to what its project is. In almost every area, its curators seem both literally and metaphorically myopic: they can’t see beyond the object to its world, nor tell a story. Given this state of affairs it is baffling to contemplate the vehemence of the culture wars surrounding the NMA and the accusations of too much emphasis on Indigenous culture. Within the counsels of the opposing factions, the bitter recriminations may have meaning, but for the casual visitor the building is so badly designed and the displays so inchoate that it’s impossible to discern any dominant ideology or narrative, black armband or otherwise."
Hi Christine,

I think the lakeside restaurant is safe! It is the little cafe tucked away on the lower level beside the 'Garden of Dreams' that has closed.

We conducted a Food and Beverage study when the building was being designed. The F&B specialists we consulted recommended a 'good' restaurant overlooking the lake plus a flexible cafeteria-style outlet that was welcoming and accommodating to all. They thought that additional outlets would not be economic. So I am not surprised to see it has not lasted.

Sorry for any confusion.

Cheers,
Gillian


Christine Dauber said:
Could you tell me what exactly you mean by the "redundant second cafe"? Redundant to whom? If you mean the restaurant that overlooks the lake where I have enjoyed some wonderful luncheons, I would think that was a great sadness. Offices have no place in such a position. The ambience was wonderful.
Christine Dauber
PH D BA BA Honours (Art History)

I have been following this debate with some interest but have been hesitant to respond as I have not read the particular article which provoked the discussion. However, by way of credentials to engage, I was awarded a doctorate from the University of Queensland in 2007. My thesis examined the way in which the inclusion of the Gallery of the First Australians inflected concepts of the national in Australian cultural life, as shown by the museum. Most specifically my work examined curatorial outcomes of exhibits in both the Gallery of the First Australians and the settler galleries and delivered an analysis of the architectural comportment of the museum as I believed that the architectural metaphors about the nation could not be divorced from the statements of the exhibits within the museum. As the history wars debate was at it fiercest, its impact on the museum was also included. Ultimately my thesis provided a critical engagement (which is not the same as criticism) with the controversial nature of the museum. My thesis received a Dean’s Honours Award from the University (the highest award for a Ph D thesis).
I attended the M A conference in the June of 2007 as I had been specifically invited to deliver a paper on the controversial nature of the museum. It was my understanding that this was to have been central to a panel discussion and I had prepared a twenty minute paper. Ultimately the time given to the panel speakers was greatly reduced and another speaker whose paper was not related to the matter in hand was given a lengthy place on the agenda. At the very last minute, we were told to send our papers to two respondents (staff from the museum) so that they could both respond/critique each of our commentaries. Even if time had allowed, given that we now had to amend our own papers, we were not to be given the corresponding courtesy of seeing their responses prior to the session. It may be common practice to have a respondent at such events, but this should surely be agreed at the outset. Just prior to the “debate”, I was asked by a highly respected member of MA “What do you think you are doing?”
Despite these matters, the “debate” was exceptionally well attended with standing room only. Question time was lively and continued well after the allotted time…. Interesting, as it was the last session on Friday afternoon. Many of the attendees took the time to offer me their personal congratulations on what, some felt, was a “brilliant paper”. This is not meant to be boastful but rather points to the interest shown.
Please understand that whilst I welcomed engagement with my arguments and the opportunity to publicly present this material, I was in no way seeking the approval of the staff of the museum. My doctorate had been awarded, my thesis had already been examined by two examiners (both full professors) and by my two supervisors, one of whom was also a full professor, and approval to undertake my research at the NMA had been generously given by the then director Dawn Casey. At the time of the debate, neither respondent held a Ph D. Whilst this in no way precludes their right to respond, it may have been more helpful to have one respondent from a critical museum studies or cultural studies background, as the gesture to include two respondents from the NMA would not have seemed so “protective”.
At another time I submitted an abstract for a seminar relating to how museums deal with controversy but my paper was declined. This was surprising, given my credentials, as I had delivered a number of papers (at MA conferences and elsewhere) on the museum prior to having my doctorate awarded.
My experience may have clouded my opinion, but my perception has been that some members of the museum fraternity are reluctant to consider what is well thought out, researched and documented engagement with their work. This can be disappointing as curatorial outcomes (i.e. exhibitions) exist in the public domain and if they do not invite debate and engagement from both an educated public and a highly educated and informed academy, then they have surely defeated the purpose for which they were intended. This seems to be especially so in areas that are indeed controversial and that engage with social history.
I would be delighted to attend a seminar and deliver a more “extended” paper around this topic, should this occur in the future
Christine Dauber Ph D (Dean’s Honours) BA BA Honours (Art History)


Des Griffin said:
Lohrey's comments on the National Museum of Australia are as follows" "Like the Melbourne Museum, the NMA gives every appearance of being pre-eminently a showcase for the vanity of its architects. Both buildings have been described as cathedral-like spaces and both exhibit vast atriums that are a waste of valuable space, a pointless grandiosity in which meaning is hollowed out. In the vaulting foyer of the Melbourne Museum, with its industrial steel walls, is a tall Sepik River column, which, apropos of nothing, backs onto an air-conditioning unit. Instead of inspiring curiosity or wonder, the column is lost in a no-man’s-land of space. In the NMA, the cathedral entrance serves only to encompass the museum shop and cafe, as if commerce were indeed the focal point of the modern museum experience. Inside the body of the museum are ill-defined spaces of confusing sightlines, dim nooks and crannies and a plethora of signs and posters with disjointed gobbets of information. The overall effect is of pervasive and claustrophobic ugliness, a warehouse of visual and aural cacophony in which significant items such as the Citizens’ Arch appear to have been plonked down at random by impatient removalists.

"The fact that it is easy to get lost within the spaces of the NMA – literally – is symbolic of a museum that appears to have no clue as to what its project is. In almost every area, its curators seem both literally and metaphorically myopic: they can’t see beyond the object to its world, nor tell a story. Given this state of affairs it is baffling to contemplate the vehemence of the culture wars surrounding the NMA and the accusations of too much emphasis on Indigenous culture. Within the counsels of the opposing factions, the bitter recriminations may have meaning, but for the casual visitor the building is so badly designed and the displays so inchoate that it’s impossible to discern any dominant ideology or narrative, black armband or otherwise."

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