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?

Views: 431

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Chritine: I most strongly agree with the paragraph on your post as repeated below. I observed at the outset that if MANexus (and Museum 3.0) are to be more than just an opportunty for gossip then there needs to be an engagement with debates about subjects such as Lohrey's article. The response has been minimal to say the least!

I recall an article in the New York Times about nine years ago in which Michael Kimmelman observed that at a major museum conference in Austria ("Museums in a Quandary: Where Are the Ideals?" New York Times August 26, 2001), "It was revealing that at the seminar, tutorials in management and finance were packed while almost nobody signed up for a session about ethics, which had to be canceled." I also recall a former director of the National Museum saying that the pages of the Financial Review were more important than those of a museum journal. I do not recall anyone challenging that. But look at what the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is saying! Is he talking about finance? NO! He is talking about audiences and understanding art.

These exhortations that directors focus on finance are nothing more than "dangerous stupid rubbish". There are several art museum directors in Australia who I know would agree with me. What about history museum directors/curators? Burrowed away in their closets, with a few exceptions, I suspect. I know that at least one group in a major museum has read and discussed Lohrey's article. Are we the general museum audience unfit to receive their words of wisdom?

"My experience may have clouded my opinion, but my perception has been that some 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."

An offering marginally related to this. I want to recommend the article by Richard Dorment in the March 25 issue of the New York Review of Books on Van Gogh's letters and the accompanying exhibition at the Royal Academy in London earlier this year. It is fantastic!
What a great concept Des, lets use MANexus for some fiesty debate and discussion! I have already gained much from reading the replies and although I have not read the article I'm gong to venture forth and say I think I agree with many of the issues raised by Amanda Lohrey.
I am a manager of a small suburban facility in Western Sydney, I've come up against a number of these challenges. My backgound is cultural tourism and I am amazed at how many times I've come across museum and heritage professionals who seem to have forgotten that these places exist for the people, not just the collections. Otherwise, we could all just be climate controlled storage warehouses right? Theres a reason why Powerhouse turned its offsite stroage into a publically accessible Disovery Centre.
Many exhibitions seem to "preach to the converted", those who will come in and engage with anything we put up, whose passion and awe of heritage is on par, if not exceeding that of the staff. However, exhibitions are a public space and we should be aiming to reach those who do not see themselves as museum goers or history buffs.
In the digital age, where the democratisation of knowledge is running full force, the tradional style of exhibition with objects as its focus and the profiessional as the "expert" providing instructive information will not engage the majority of audiences. People like to share knowledge and be involved in equitable discussions, not didatic presentations.
Sure the authentic might provide momentary novelty value, but unless it connects to a person's greater story (as the example of the moon rock shows) it will hardly hold someones interest for the duration fo their visit, much less when they leave our facilities.
For these audiences, the idea that an object has inherent value is not engaging. Trivia buffs might memorise the date and material of an object to astound their friends, but unless it connects to story they can recount around a dinner table, the communcation and significance is lost.
People visit to gain an experience. Our institutions need to look at what kind of expereince they are providing and keep in mind that we exist, not for our own interests (or only the collection's interest), but for the interests and experience of the public. Visitor experience should come first, and places like the Powerhouse, Australian Museum and organisations like Gillian's are making some effort in this regard.
Maybe we should consider crowdsourcing (although we are hardly a crowd yet) the creation of an Australian museums manifesto for today and the future? Any takers? We have the technological means at our disposal and a good range of ideas to contest the institutional status quo ...

Karen O'Donnell said:
What a great concept Des, lets use MANexus for some fiesty debate and discussion! I have already gained much from reading the replies and although I have not read the article I'm gong to venture forth and say I think I agree with many of the issues raised by Amanda Lohrey.
I am a manager of a small suburban facility in Western Sydney, I've come up against a number of these challenges. My backgound is cultural tourism and I am amazed at how many times I've come across museum and heritage professionals who seem to have forgotten that these places exist for the people, not just the collections. Otherwise, we could all just be climate controlled storage warehouses right? Theres a reason why Powerhouse turned its offsite stroage into a publically accessible Disovery Centre.
Many exhibitions seem to "preach to the converted", those who will come in and engage with anything we put up, whose passion and awe of heritage is on par, if not exceeding that of the staff. However, exhibitions are a public space and we should be aiming to reach those who do not see themselves as museum goers or history buffs.
In the digital age, where the democratisation of knowledge is running full force, the tradional style of exhibition with objects as its focus and the profiessional as the "expert" providing instructive information will not engage the majority of audiences. People like to share knowledge and be involved in equitable discussions, not didatic presentations.
Sure the authentic might provide momentary novelty value, but unless it connects to a person's greater story (as the example of the moon rock shows) it will hardly hold someones interest for the duration fo their visit, much less when they leave our facilities.
For these audiences, the idea that an object has inherent value is not engaging. Trivia buffs might memorise the date and material of an object to astound their friends, but unless it connects to story they can recount around a dinner table, the communcation and significance is lost.
People visit to gain an experience. Our institutions need to look at what kind of expereince they are providing and keep in mind that we exist, not for our own interests (or only the collection's interest), but for the interests and experience of the public. Visitor experience should come first, and places like the Powerhouse, Australian Museum and organisations like Gillian's are making some effort in this regard.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

© 2019   Created by maHub.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service