Australian politics, society & culture

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The absent heart

Cover: June 2010June 2010Medium length read
 

I am 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. When I see the 1785 Boulton and Watt steam engine in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum I want to know not just how it works but its significance for the industrial revolution. Unfortunately, the museum tells me neither and the exhibit stands in a corner of its foyer like some ancient trophy no one can be bothered to explain. The Powerhouse is a magnificent building with its own industrial mystique and I remember the excitement it engendered when it first opened. In the years that have followed, so much of that excitement has leached away; the institution has not lived up to its promise.

The Powerhouse is not atypical; it exists within a broader museum culture in Australia that tends toward the lacklustre and the disjointed. So much exhibition design is pedestrian, or worse, confused and at times chaotic. 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? From directors and curators we hear perennial complaints about underfunding – claims that more often than not are justified – but beyond this there is an endemic problem with the way exhibitions are conceptualised. In other words, it’s not all about money.

For children, museums are mostly about awe and wonder. The young observer has little desire for exposition; novelty and spectacle are usually enough. Sometimes they are enough for the adult visitor, too; think of a first glimpse of the Altar of Zeus in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum or the Sepik River art in the Rockefeller wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Some artefacts have their own inherent poetry; if we knew nothing about Ned Kelly, his armour would still have the power to compel our attention. But this is not true of most exhibits and we rely on curators to endow them with a context. In order to make sense of a plough blade from the colonial era a curator must be able to tell a coherent story in a concise form. A simple exercise? Well, you would think so, but it is in this area of meaning-making that our museums are deficient.

In his influential essay ‘Resonance and Wonder’, the literary historian and critic Stephen Greenblatt analyses the museum experience in terms of two primary responses. “Resonance” is essentially about knowledge and understanding, about creating a meaningful frame for the historical artefact or, in Greenblatt’s words, enabling “the power of the displayed object to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world”. “Wonder” refers to the object’s poetic dimension, its power to evoke “an exalted attention”. This is primarily an aesthetic effect, although the word ‘aesthetic’ seems too small, just as ‘spiritual’ seems too large. However we choose to define it, I like the way in which Greenblatt approaches the museum experience as a source of potential pleasure – the pleasure of “marvelling” or “enchanted looking” and, as he remarks, marvelling at artistry is a pleasure that has no inherent politics (neither for nor against Ned Kelly the man, for instance): “It derives at least in part from respect and admiration for the ingenia of others.” The question, then, is how curators and exhibition designers can best work together to combine a meaningful context with the kind of visual poetry that gives rise to the pleasures of enchanted looking.


In April 2010, in the lead-up to the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Melbourne Cup, the Victorian racing minister, Rob Hulls, proposed that consideration be given to “reassembling” the remains of Phar Lap in the Melbourne Museum. ‘The Melbourne Story’, the museum’s gallery on the history of the city, features only the preserved exterior of the legendary galloper. His skeleton is exhibited in New Zealand’s Te Papa Tongarewa museum, while the heart – at 6.35 kilograms, much larger than that of the average racehorse – is usually displayed in Canberra in the National Museum of Australia. The NMA has declared that the heart is too fragile to move, which raises the question of why the Melbourne Museum can’t simply exhibit a model of the heart, the size of this organ being the one feature that makes any sense of the horse’s competitive edge. If you are concerned with meaning, then a model will do, but if you are in the market for fetishising objects as magical tokens – “the real thing” – then it seems that only the pallid tissue of the original will suffice. There is, however, a more important question: 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?

I think of Phar Lap as a typical trophy exhibit – it’s there because it’s there. In addition to the horse’s mounted hide there are three big glass cabinets given over to run-of-the-mill memorabilia: a saddle and saddle blanket, brushes, a commemorative apron, an indifferent oil painting, scrapbooks and miscellaneous documents. One entire wall is taken up with a screen showing old racing footage, presumably to inject a dynamic element into the display and generate some excitement. None of this – one of the largest displays on a single subject in any museum in Australia – makes much sense in terms of the social history of Australia in general or of Melbourne in particular. The horse is presented primarily as a curatorial trophy, a much-loved freak of nature, although the absent heart means it is difficult to make sense even of that.

This is a classic instance of museum myopia, of an exhibit that is all trees and no wood. Phar Lap as a popular idol is of limited interest when removed from his wider context – the role of gambling in the Australian psyche. The horse was not a product of the Australian breeding industry, he was a New Zealander. As every adult over a certain age knows, his 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. When working people were ground down by a sense of hopelessness and when blind luck seemed the only possible means of redemption, the horse’s phenomenal staying powers held out hope of endurance and survival. It would make more sense to feature the horse’s memorabilia within a larger exhibit on the theme of an Australian passion for gambling that dates back to the first settlement, and how and why the Melbourne Cup developed into the nation’s most significant public carnival. In the Phar Lap corner of the Melbourne Gallery there is indeed a display case dedicated to the Cup but it’s just another collection of tired memorabilia: a top hat, a 1956 program, a few lines on Makybe Diva, an old MovieTone poster and a 1979 fashion outfit of no distinction. As a display, it is abject. On the day I visited, a group of schoolboys on an excursion strolled by with their hands in their pockets, insouciant, disengaged. There was little in the Phar Lap display to compel their attention, to make them pause and consider their history. In the end, what they were looking at was simply a big horse.

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. The official map of the gallery shows clearly demarcated spaces pertaining to periods in Melbourne’s evolution – “1850–1880 Gold Town” – but the layout of the gallery is such that the actual experience of being there soon becomes disorienting. We begin with a separate display of a Depression racehorse that immediately throws out the time line. On my last visit to the gallery, the exhibit adjacent to Phar Lap was a temporary display of Paragon shoes, a baffling stand-alone oddity with no effort made to integrate it into the colourful history of manufacturing in Melbourne’s industrial inner suburbs. Presumably someone donated these shoes to the museum and someone else decided they would look fetching in a glass cabinet – and that’s about as much sense as they make.

This is partly a problem of how to manage a large, undifferentiated space now that the old model of museum ‘rooms’ is out of fashion. These new spaces are like aircraft hangars and present a challenge to curators and display designers in terms of how they should orient the visitor and how to create clear sightlines of chronological development and historical context. The story of Melbourne is there in the exhibition notes, which are accessible online, but if the visitor hasn’t thought to bring these along, then they are at a disadvantage. The large trophy exhibits, such as that of a nineteenth-century Cobb & Co coach, crowd the floor and begin to create an effect of jumble. Before long, the visitor is wandering along no clear path at all and the story of Melbourne has broken down into a maze of industrial banners, specimens of fauna and rocks, some old tools, vases and tiles from the Melbourne boom era, a passing reference to Melbourne’s role in the Federation movement, the entrance to Cole’s Book Arcade (no reference to literary Melbourne, just the Disneyland simulacrum), an antique newspaper press, some model ships, a large stained-glass window, which stands in for the ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ era of the 1890s, and so on and so on. I began to feel I was in a dispiriting world of itty-bitty tokenism, chaotic and trivialising, because where there is visual clutter, the meaning and significance of any particular item is occluded.

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.

There are many possible stories that circulate around a collection of artefacts and herein lies the potential for controversy. Which stories do curators choose to tell or, as they say in postmodern circles, privilege? This is a genuinely fraught issue and may account for why many curators choose to deal with the issue by telling no story at all. But museums are temples of civic virtue, existing, in part, to reflect on local identity; they are funded by the taxpayer to preserve cultural heritage and make sense of the past. The university course outlines for curatorial studies place great emphasis on the goal of meaning-making and interpretation. Certain phrases recur: “how meaning is constructed by visitors” and “the ways in which exhibitions produce knowledge”. That the politics of this exercise can be fraught seems to create a default position in Australia, namely an abdication of the responsibility of telling any story at all, a failure of nerve that is stifled by political anxieties or an inability to imaginatively encompass the passions of historical debate.

Take, for example, an item that languishes in the storage spaces of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, a large diorama of an Indigenous family: life-size models of father, mother and child roasting crayfish over an open fire against a vivid painted backdrop of Mount Wellington and the lush Derwent Estuary. Few people who experienced this diorama – and it was a great favourite with the public – came away without a feeling of being enlarged and enlivened.

Tony Brown, the curator of Ningenneh Tunapry, the museum’s new Indigenous gallery, informed me that several objections to the diorama had been made by members of the community, including that it gave the false impression Indigenous people lived by the Western model of the nuclear family and that it imparted a sense of Indigenous culture as static. These are indeed legitimate objections, but the history of an exhibit is part of its meaning so why must the value of the diorama be considered in such absolute terms? Why not restore it and provide a history of its display and the objections made to it by Indigenous people, thereby offering the visitor both the magical experience of the object and an insight into its politics and history?


The Australian War Memorial in Canberra is regarded by many as the most successful museum in Australia. Under Howard it was generously funded and you might expect that it would have an innate advantage over other museums of social history. After all, the AWM has a more straightforward project: Australians at war. As a memorial it also has a climactic element of ritual; those present in the late afternoon can conclude their visit with a formal remembrance of the dead as a bugler plays the ‘Last Post’. Aside from this, however, 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.

On my last visit, I took my 14-year-old nephew and after wandering for some time in the two large galleries given over to the Great War, his question to me said it all: Why were the Australians there? It’s a good question but you won’t find the answer in the displays at the memorial. What you get is a smorgasbord of memorabilia: oil paintings, bronze statues, a model of Anzac Cove and a Turkish field gun with a life-size model of a Turkish soldier, and a great many toy soldiers besides. There are tanks, machine guns, uniforms, saddles, swords, paintings, flags, postage stamps and old black-and-white footage on a tiny screen. Once again, we are in a trophy-land devoid of any sense of the wider world; there is no overview of the war, let alone of the home front. One of the more intriguing Great War banners on display is a form of the Australian flag, mostly red and emblazoned with the words “The Men from Snowy River”. The associations of this are strong in the minds of older Australians, but not in those of the young or visitors from overseas. Why not introduce the famous poem and the iconic role of the high-country stockmen in the national psyche? This is but one instance of a general failure to place war within the larger story of nation, of an Australia that existed and continues to exist beyond its foreign fronts.

In the end the cumulative effect of the AWM is disjointed, musty and philistine, a Boy’s Own display of gee-whizzery, not least in the big Aircraft Hall, where the exposition is on the level of primitive spectacle and the adventures of Biggles. Even in the technical domain of the museum’s attempted comparison of the scientific and technological advances achieved by the various combatants in their design and use of fighter planes, it fails to deliver. What were the comparative strengths and weaknesses of British, American, Japanese and German aircraft? Without this information, those big planes in the Aircraft Hall seem meaningless props.

The cultural historian Tony Bennett has been highly critical of the AWM. In his history of museum culture, The Birth of the Museum (1995), Bennett takes the AWM to task for mounting a series of exhibits in which Australia is virtually absent; the nation exists only to the degree that it is enmeshed in the histories of Europe. As such, argues Bennett, the displays of the AWM are still colonial in character. Like many of our big museums, the AWM has no imaginative vision of, or commitment to, a wider Australian history – and this is surprising to say the least. We take that commitment for granted in our museums and it is only when we begin to look for evidence that we find it to be thin on the ground.

For me the most disappointing aspect of the AWM is its display of what struck me as potentially its most resonant artefact. In a corner of the foyer, where it can easily be overlooked, is one of the lifeboats used to land Australian troops at Gallipoli in 1915. This boat is an exquisite object; in its spare lines, natural materials, archetypal curves and graceful relationship of form to function it has, like the Kelly armour, its own inherent mystique or ingenia. Like the Kelly armour, it is full of latent meaning, of a resonance beyond its utilitarian moment in history. On one level this artefact is just a boat, on another it can be read as a potent symbol of nation, open both to deep meaning and resonant wonder. Non-Indigenous Australians are overwhelmingly boat people: in every era of their history they have arrived here by boat; many sailed off to fight in foreign wars that defined them. The continent itself floats in the expanses of the southern oceans like a great life raft, and it is possible to conceive of a poetic display of the landing boat capturing the object’s power as symbol of a nation conceived of not as something static and essentialist but as a dynamic work-in-progress. The very spareness of the boat – no rigging, whistles, lifebuoys, canvas or radio aerials – lends itself to archetype. But for now it is shoved in a corner, just another trophy.

The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is in many ways a sad museum, having been for decades starved of funds. It does, however, have one exhibition that is a model of what the museum experience can be. The upstairs Colonial Gallery, housed in the colonial wing of the museum, is a long room with a vaulting roof and its original trusses, ironwork and skylights. The deep terracotta walls are hung with a vibrant collection of colonial paintings, including some of Indigenous people: Glovers, Piguenits and Duturreaus. There are also Benjamin Law’s magnificent busts of Truganini and Woureddy, as well as portraits of colonial families by Knut Bull and Thomas Bock, works by William Buelow Gould of Tasmanian flora and fauna and several pieces of colonial furniture in cedar, Huon pine and English mahogany.

At the centre of this space is a mysterious presence, a life-size statue of the young Medusa in white marble by Franklin Simmons (1839–1913). Seated high on her tomb-like base, also of white marble, the maiden gazes at a lock of her hair, caught in the moment of realisation that she is cursed, that her tresses are turning into serpents. There is no reason for the curators to retain this statue in the Colonial Gallery – Simmons is an American – but I like to think they keep it there because of its deep potential resonance. Surrounded as it is by portraits of Indigenous people, it may be read as an emblem of empire, of the project not simply of imperial commerce but of a civilising mission born of Hellenic values, a mission that had both a beauty and a potential to wreak havoc; a European gaze that all but turned the local inhabitants to stone. Here, then, is an exhibition where the elements combine to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, offering us an affecting experience of the colonial sensibility and its symbolic order.

The question remains of how to put an end to trophyism. Until their displays of social history are more imaginatively conceived, our major 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.

About the author Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is a writer. Her books include Reading Madame Bovary, The Philosopher’s Doll, The Reading GroupCamille’s Bread and A Short History of Richard Kline.

 
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