Tag Archives: art

On Australia Day – how museums can use the power of interpretation? Bungaree -the exhibition in my head.

coverbungaree

Bungaree’s breastplate from http://budawagroup.com/history/

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blogpost may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.”

Before Australia Day, there is always discussion about the date, 26th January, what it means to every Australian and the conversations are quite thought provoking. I don’t believe that you can change history, but you can certainly change the way you look at the facts and think more critically about them. Australia was not the only country to be colonised by the British. I am certain that had it not been the British, it would have been the Dutch, French or Portuguese who were all active on our coastline at that time. I believe that the outcome for Indigenous Australians would have still been quite bleak.

We may not be able to change history but museums have the power to revisit and reinterpret the facts. Australians still have much to learn about our nation’s history and perhaps learning  new things can help all of us to build on our cultural heritage and celebrate the contribution of Indigenous Australians to our country and to resolve the issue of January 26th as a contested date for Australia Day.

A few years ago, I saw a great art exhibition of works on paper about Bungaree: First Australian at Mosman Art Gallery (in Sydney), which made me think about the man, his place in Australian history and the way that these artists created works that acknowledged and critically re-interpreted the story of Bungaree – an important Indigenous figure in the colonial Sydney era. Bungaree’s story would fit well into the vision and exhibition strategy of museums such as the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian Museum or the National Museum of Australia.

32_4_87 (1)

Merve Bishop Bungaree: The showman 2012, digital photography, Giclee on archival pigment, 100 x 200 cm. From an exhibition curated by Djon Mundine at Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney          1 September – 25 November 2012

The man

King Bungaree (c1775-1830) was well respected by the Indigenous Australian community and developed a reputation as a negotiator between Aboriginal and European cultures during his lifetime. He accompanied Matthew Flinders on several journeys in 1798, 1799, 1801 and 1802-03 where he acted as interpreter and intermediary, a role which he undertook several times for European explorers in Australia.  Bungaree was the first Indigenous person to circumnavigate Australia and contribute to the mapping of the Australian coastline and yet more is known about “Trim”, Matthew Flinders’ “sea-faring” cat than the man Flinders described as having “a good disposition and open and manly conduct that attracted my esteem”[1]. I have often thought that the life of King Bungaree would make a wonderful museum exhibition – to rediscover the voyages undertaken by Bungaree with Matthew Flinders, and in particular the circumnavigation of Australia but with more emphasis on Bungaree – his character, his family and his exchanges with other indigenous people during those journeys.

A great deal is known about Australia’s maritime heritage but this would be an opportunity to engage with a different audience, reinterpret the existing historical record and to be more “inclusive”  of an indigenous audience with a more meaningful dialogue about the place of King Bungaree in Australian history[2]. This indigenous man was well respected by the Governors and officials in colonial Sydney. He was not only known in NSW but his fame spread to nineteenth century Europe both in artworks inspired by colonial Australia and in the journals of men that he sailed with. Considering that “Reconciliation” is an important theme for Australian museum projects recently, then public learning and collaboration with indigenous communities offers a museum the opportunity to become a driver for social change and inclusion[3]. It is a chance to research and communicate factual information to visitors about some of the relationships formed between the newly arrived colonial settlers and the indigenous population at that time.

The Exhibition

In the past, most exhibitions on the exploration of Australia tend to be Eurocentric, and yet here is a perfect opportunity to develop a more “inclusive” exhibition for the public with an opportunity to reinterpret Australian history so that more is known about the man who contributed much to the exploration and development of our nation. The following themes could be examined:

  • Bungaree the man – with paintings, prints and writings about Bungaree. Bungaree was a tribal chief who had the ability to straddle both the indigenous and colonial worlds. Bungaree spoke English well and his sense of humour was well noted[4]. There are several portraits and writings about Bungaree available to assist in developing a picture of his character, his family and his contribution to the circumnavigation and mapping of Australia with Matthew Flinders and Phillip King. He was the subject of at least 17 portraits during his life time and several more after his death – many by well known artists (The National Library of Australia[5] collection has portraits by Augustus Earle, Charles Pye, Charles Rodius, and W.H. Fernyhough).

The Journals of Flinders and King – There are original documents written about Bungaree and his family members. Matthew Flinders’[6] and Phillip King’s[7] comments on Bungaree in their daily journals. (National Library of Australia and State Library of NSW collections). A clever mimic, Bungaree could imitate the walk, gestures and expressions of past Governors of New South Wales. Like Shakespeare’s clown in Twelfth Night, he was ‘wise enough to play the fool’ and used his humorous talents to obtain clothes, tea, tobacco, bread, sugar and rum for himself and his people. As author and historian Geoffrey Dutton commented: ‘He mocked the white men by mocking himself[8]’. When in town, Bungaree was known to wear cast off uniforms and a tricorn hat given to him by the NSW Governors of the period and officers in the regiment. This period clothing should be researched and replica uniforms and hats produced as accurately as possible from illustrations and historical knowledge of the dress at that time. The breastplates of King Bungaree and Queen Gooseberry awarded by Governor Macquarie in 1815 are held in the Mitchell Library Collection, State Library NSW.

  • Bungaree’s Family Tree (This would be require significant research because he supported 5 wives and many descendants).The existing family tree for Bungaree and his wives is quite complex. His first wife was Matora, followed by three other women, Gooseberry (Cora), Charlotte Ashby and Biddy Salamander. There are many descendants of Bungaree and his wives identified in the literature which also details the places that they lived. Research may extract further evidence about the number of wives he had and about his known descendants which could be presented using an interactive display. This would assist existing and new descendants to find out more information about the family tree. Such a display could include some web links for searching Bungaree’s family history.
  • Indigenous Languages – A study of Indigenous dialects/lifestyles in the early 1800s. Bungaree was a Kuringgai man from the Broken Bay area along the Hawkesbury River and would have been quite unfamiliar with the languages and types of housing in other parts of Australia – contrary to the incorrect European view that all Indigenous Australians were the same and had no cultural heritage to speak of. In the early 1800s there were an estimated 300 distinct indigenous languages in Australia[9]. Currently there are 145 languages still spoken but of these 110 are critically endangered which is the largest and most rapid loss of languages in the world. In this display, show the spread of aboriginal dialects, comparing 1800s to today. Use audio examples of a couple of words to compare the different dialects. Bungaree was taken as a translator on these sea voyages which showed that early settlers had no idea that the culture and language of indigenous settlements was extremely variable in different parts of Australia. Discuss “terra nullius” presumption and note all the places that they anchored on the voyage.
  • Map making – Present a series of maps of Australia from Bungaree’s time including discussion about mapping instruments and techniques used to map the coastline – something which we take for granted in modern times. Demonstrate the navigational feat of the Matthew Flinders’ expeditions using audio visual support to show a map of Australia during Cook’s time and how that map changed after each of Flinders’ journeys with Bungaree and including the final circumnavigation aboard the HMS Investigator. Discuss the fact that it was Flinders who named Australia.
  • Indigenous Australia in Bungaree’s time – How did Indigenous people travel  Australia via the ocean and waterways? How did they use the stars to navigate? How did they use Songlines to travel and to pass information down through the generations? Compare the knowledge of  Indigenous Australians with the instruments used in early 1800s for navigation and mapping. Demonstrate how Australia would be mapped today -(showing modern photographic and satellite techniques. (Maps and instruments to be sourced from the ANMM collection and the National and State libraries).
  • HMS Investigator – Look at the history of HMS Investigator and the other vessels which Bungaree sailed on to Norfolk Island, Bribie Island and Hervey Bay before the circumnavigation of Australia with Flinders. The Investigator carried a crew of 88. He also made other expeditions with Philip Parker King.  Use diagrams and refer to the HMS Investigator using a scaled model such as the model – 1:48 inches with decking, rigging and fine detail (Object D 7835 sourced from State Library of SA). Also discuss the fact that there were nine different HMS Investigators in British naval history showing the lifespan of each ship on a historical timeline.
  • Trim and Bungaree. Finally the story of “Trim” and Bungaree and including the place of ship’s cats on these exploration vessels using a text panel discussing the role of ship’s cats in colonial times. There should be a reference to Bungaree and Trim. Bungaree first met when Trim was the rat catcher aboard HMS Norfolk in the 1790s. Trim and Bungaree are often mentioned in Flinders’ daily journal entries and both were present during the circumnavigation of Australia in the HMS Investigator in 1801-1803. Sadly Trim was killed in Mauritius in 1804. Sculptor John Cornwall created a statue of Trim which is located on the ledge of the Mitchell Library wing at the State Library of NSW.

The ideal Visitor Experience

Visitors will come to the exhibition with their own knowledge, thoughts and motivation – hopefully curious and asking “Who was King Bungaree?” The exhibition could be factual about the “first contact” between Indigenous Australians and colonial settlers through the eyes of Bungaree, a well-known Sydney character and identity. By wandering through the exhibition and interacting with its components, more could be understood about Bungaree’s place in history.

The audience will learn how little the British colonials knew about the Australian Aborigines, their culture and diversity of language and begin to understand how the divide between them came about. A point of interest is that the High Court’s Mabo judgment in 1992 overturned the terra nullius fiction. In the same judgment, however, the High Court accepted the British assertion of sovereignty in 1788, and held that from that time there was only one sovereign power and one system of law in Australia.

The exhibition content should fit within the context of the National curriculum particularly into the areas of Australian History, Geography, Civics and citizenship, Indigenous content and cross cultural perspectives as well as for Visual Arts and design.

Public programs could include storytelling, canoe building, dance and art workshops to explore aspects of country and culture (Bungaree used dance to communicate with other tribes when he did not know their language). Preparation should be carried out in consultation with members of Bungaree’s Kuringai (Guringai) clan from Broken Bay, Sydney.

Footnotes

[1] Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, W Nicol, London, 1814, p cxciv

[2] Simpson, M.G. 1996, Making representations: museums in the post-colonial era/Moira G. Simpson Routledge London; New York

[3] Kelly, L. and Gordon, P.2002. Chapter 11. Developing a community of practice: museums and reconciliation in Australia. Richard Sandell (Ed).pp 153 -174 in Museums Society and Inequality.

[4] McCarthy, F.D.1966. Bungaree (?-1830) in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University at http:adb.anu.edu.au/biography/Bungaree-1848/text2141, published hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 March 2014.

[5] National Library of Australia collections database at http:// www.nla.gov.au/collections accessed online 26 March 2014

[6] Flinders, M. A voyage to Terra Australis (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1814

[7] King, P. Narrative of a survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1827.

[8] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 111, Scene 1; Geoffrey Dutton, White on Black: The Australian Aborigine portrayed in art, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1974, pp 28–31

[9] Schmidt, A. (1990). The loss of Australia’s aboriginal language heritage. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

 

 

References

Smith, K. (1992).King Bungaree: A Sydney Aborigine meets the Great South Pacific Explorers, 1799-1830.Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press.

Simon, N. (2010) The Participatory Museum. California: Santa Cruz. Museum 2.0 pp 139-152

Weil, S.E. (2002) “From being about Something to being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum” in Making Museums Matter. Washington Smithsonian Institution. pp 28-53.

https://australianmuseum.net.au/bungaree

 

 

The NGV Triennial Giving Art to the People

Pae White’s colourful installation drawing in all ages

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest and possibly most well loved museum of art, founded in 1861. Its mission statement  – “To illuminate life by collecting, preserving and presenting great art” and perhaps the unwritten mission of “giving it to the people”.

NGV Triennial 15 December 2017-15 April 2018

In 2016 the NGV was the 19th most popular art gallery in the world with more than 2.6 million visitors across its two campuses. The ranking places the gallery in the company of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors flock to the NGV Triennial in Melbourne

The NGV is not only Australia’s most popular art gallery, but one of the top 20 most visited art museums worldwide as revealed by the U.K’s  The Art Newspaper in its latest survey of global art museum attendance. Not a bad effort for a small country on the world stage. Australia’s population is around 24.8 million compared with the U.S.A.’s 326.8 million and U.K.’s  66.6 million people. This ranking was based on visitation to “Van Gogh and the seasons” from the 2017 Winter exhibition. (Note that another Australian art museum on the list was the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art with its 2016/17 Summer exhibition – Sugar spin: You, me, art and Everything.)

Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms are always popular with visitors

The NGV held forty-nine exhibitions during 2016-17, including major retrospectives of international and Australian artists and designers, as well as focused displays of works in the NGV collection. The quality and variety of audience engagement initiatives presented in support of these exhibitions was extensive. They offered guided tours, audio tours, mobile phone apps, talks, lecture series and workshops as well as social events – such as the Friday Night events (aimed at capturing more of the younger audiences after work), the Summer Sundays music series and the NGV Kids Summer festival and supporting Kids spaces for some of the major exhibitions. For example – as part of the exhibition Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (2015-2016), NGV Kids presented Studio Cats, a large-scale installation especially for children and families to draw upon creative connections between the two artists and their mutual love of cats.

The Gallery aims to present programmes that engage visitors in meaningful cultural experiences and to keep them coming back.

According to their audience research data, The National Gallery of Victoria enjoys one of the highest community participation rates in the world. 70% of their visitors are local from Melbourne and regional Victoria unlike many other international art museums where the majority of visitors are incoming tourists. This also indicates that the locals keep coming back which is what every cultural institution needs to strive for. This is what Nina Simon talks about most recently in The Art of Relevance but also in The Participatory Museum and her Museum 2.0 Blog.

For any Cultural Institution, the collection remains  fundamental to the audience engagement and education strategy. The thoughtful curation and presentation of historical and contemporary collections is a key museum management strategy for continuing and ongoing audience engagement. Colleen Dilenschneider regularly writes about this in her Know Your Own Bone Blog (most recently in Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA) and previously in Death by Curation).The NGV strategy is to ensure that its collection is accessible to the widest possible audience who may be unable to visit the museum through the ongoing work of the NGV Digitisation Project which is still progressing.

I have to disclose that I am already a big fan of the NGV and the way that they design their spaces. I visit the NGV each time that I am in Melbourne, so over many years have enjoyed both Summer and Winter exhibitions as well as taking time to learn about the permanent collection shown across both campuses (St Kilda Road and the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square). On my recent visit I took in the inaugural Triennial at the National Gallery Victoria which on the surface (without actual audience data analysis) appears to be a great success. What I enjoyed most about this free experience was seeing the diversity of visitors attending the exhibition and the way that the work of 100 contemporary artists, architects and designers from 32 countries was juxtaposed against the existing works from the collection – which was great exposure.

Audience engagement with the art at NGV Triennial

I think that there is currently a cultural revival happening worldwide despite Government funding cuts trying to choke the Arts into submission. Creativity and cultural heritage feed the soul when so much about modern life seems to do the opposite. Now is a better time than ever for cultural institutions to offer their prospective audiences something new and different, to  re-energise and maybe even reinterpret their collections to be more inclusive, to build community and feed the souls that are weary of modern life and meaningless 24 hour connectedness to media, social media and globalised sameness. Keep leading the way National Gallery of Victoria and hopefully other cultural institutions in Australia will follow or at least just lift their game a notch.

Interesting reading:

Cultural Heritage and the City

Cultural heritage as a driver of economic growth and social inclusion

Creative Country

The value of culture

Museums in the 21st Century

IMG_1396

Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Architecture
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity

 

To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.

IMG_1248

Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.

Musing on Text and Labels

IMG_0112

Persuasion – an exhibition of wartime propaganda art at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Many museums and authoritative museologists  have written guides or chapters in their books on producing text and labels (see VandA guidelines for example). As a Masters student visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I was given some good advice by art educator about looking at and learning from objects in a more creative way than just using text and labels. Now I have changed my approach to my own museum and gallery visits. I always focus on the objects first, and if they interest me, I read the text and labels. It’s like reading the book rather than seeing the movie. When you actually look at an object, you can use your own imagination to make a  decision on how connected you feel (if at all) to that object and what you see is not a predetermined response to the information given in the text panel or label (or audio tour for that matter).

I like to find out information about the objects that I connect with – their age, construction method, maker, provenance and the story behind their creation so I use the text panels or the internet for extra information about various artists or particular objects. For example, after seeing prints by Koizumi Kishio and Onchi Koshiro, I found that I had strong connection to the type of Japanese woodblock prints created by these Sosaku Hanga  artists who are not as well regarded as Ukiyo-e printmakers like Utamaro and Hiroshige. I love the fact that these “creatives” were involved in the process from start to finish and that they don’t use other artisans to design, carve and print their wood blocks. Their works on the surface don’t appear as complex and yet these artisans were highly skilled individuals. In another exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I learned about the animated installations by contemporary Japanese artist Tabaimo who creates thousands of detailed drawings which are laboriously scanned into her computer to create her wonderful works. These facts gleaned from text panels and further investigated on the internet added value to what I saw on display and my appreciation of the works that I initially connected to.

IMG_0377

Text panels of different heights at Old Government House, Parramatta for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition in 2014.

IMG_0406

One instance of the text being too low for visitors to access easily. This problem has been corrected in the new 2016 exhibition.

Although officially the importance of text and labels has been recognised, theorised and documented, I still notice that many art galleries and museums are not getting it right.

When you track visitors in any gallery space, it is surprising how their behaviours can vary. Very few will stop and read all the labels and even fewer will read the labels in any kind of order and so it is important to grab their attention when you have a chance. Yes, labels must be accessible for wheelchairs and children but what about those with poor sight or the elderly who can’t bend down too far. Labels need to be in bold print and text must stand out from the background even if the lighting in the room needs to be dimmed for conservation reasons. I have seen elderly people nearly fall over while bending to see a poorly placed label. I have seen others struggle with text on an inappropriate background colour which makes it difficult to make out the words. I have seen visitors wasting time trying to find out information about an object when a label is missing or incorrect. Labels need to be visible to several viewers at the same time and able to be viewed from a distance. They should not be too detailed because their role is to enhance the experience of seeing the object rather than take over from the object.

The British Museum speaks about the use of “Gateway Objects” to catch the eye of the viewer with accompanying text to allow the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without having to read every single label in the exhibition. These objects aim to engage the audience quickly with enough information on the label to draw them into the exhibition or gallery. I guess that  my newly adopted technique is similar, but without well written labels may not always be as good as the constructed British Museum experience. Thinking about the short window of time to grab the audience’s attention – 30 seconds or so – and realising that the average visitor may spend less than 10 minutes in an exhibition……. museums really need to think about the importance of well designed and well written text and labels to accompany the objects on display.

See also:

Australian Museum – Writing Text and Labels which also discusses the audience response to text and labels.

Why have a museum collection? Lego to the rescue

Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.

Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local”  visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.

I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.