Tag Archives: Multicultural Museums

The Holtermann Museum Gulgong – it takes a community to build a museum.

I have been taking pictures since I received my first Kodak instamatic camera at age 13. I’m not really interested in post editing images – I aim to photograph what I see with the naked eye – the subject, the light and the emotion that goes with capturing an image at a single point in time. Perhaps that is why I connected so strongly to the photographs and digital images at the Gulgong Holtermann Museum – a permanent exhibition showing part of the Holtermann Collection relating to Gulgong, NSW and which documents 19th century Australian life in the goldfields.

Gulgong Holtermann Museum (photo: Lyndall Linaker)

Behind the heritage walls, the museum’s contemporary exhibition space is engaging and entertaining for all ages. The text panels and interpretation are well done and further enhanced by wonderfully knowledgeable guides. The touchscreens and mounted photographs enable visitors to become completely immersed in the restored and digitised black and white prints from the collection. 

Thematically as the visitor moves through the building, they can see the town and its people in 1872, learn the story of the men responsible for the images, and can find out more about the wet plate photographic techniques that they employed, the photographic equipment that was used, and the ‘discovery of the collection’ in 1951. There is also a comprehensive display of cameras from the earliest box and bellow-types up to the present and a film showing the restoration of the heritage buildings.

Gulgong Holtermann Museum heritage shopfronts (photo: Lyndall Linaker)

I came across the museum by accident while researching a member of the family who was an “ironmonger, oil and colourman” and had a shop in Herbert Street, Gulgong. I believe that it is one of the best small museums that I’ve visited world wide. There’s a great story behind its creation, because without a driven and committed Gulgong Community that fundraised over a million dollars to save two of its heritage buildings and a sleuthing Photographic magazine editor who asked the right questions to the State Library of NSW, the Gulgong Holtermann Museum may never have been born. 

The images are amazing, but the fact that the glass plates used to make the images have survived at all, is a story in itself. Keast Burke was Editor of the Australian Photo Review when he enquired to the Mitchell Library in NSW about the existence of some glass plates associated with Bernard Holtermann. These particular plates showed panoramic views of Sydney in the 19th century. As a result, in 1951, 3500 or more glass plates (including the Gulgong plates) were unearthed from a garden shed in Chatswood, NSW. The glass plate negatives were donated to the Mitchell Library in 1952 by Holtermann’s grandson and became known as the Holtermann Collection

Merlin and Bayliss photographed literally everything in the rapidly growing towns of Gulgong and its surrounding villages – including diggings, businesses, the buildings, street scenes, panoramic views and the local people.The images were distinctive because of the groups that they photographed casually standing in front of the buildings – owners, workers and passers by – providing a microscopic view of life in a classic Australian gold rush town. 

Quite apart from the technical expertise required by Merlin and Bayliss for such a massive undertaking, it is their haunting images which capture the essence of each subject so beautifully and engage with the visitors to the museum. They bring Gulgong to life and create a real sense of the way that people survived in the goldfields at that time. Even in the harsh winter environment of 1872, the subjects are captured in their finest clothing, photographed with their prized possessions or in front of their shops or outside basic dwellings which were constructed from locally found materials. The photographer needed the subjects to be still for 8 seconds and so you can observe that many of the children have their heads held by a grownup or ghostly animals and people appear in the frame because unfortunately there was movement during that 8 seconds.  The Holtermann collection is deemed so important that it was included on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register in May 2013.

Thanks to the support of the State Library of NSW and a range of sponsors, the Gulgong Holtermann Museum is the only detailed and permanent exhibition of the unique Holtermann collection. It is a contemporary museum housed in two beautifully restored 1870’s gold rush buildings situated in Mayne Street, Gulgong. These two buildings along with many others were photographed in 1872 by Merlin and Bayliss and later acquired by Holtermann to form part of the UNESCO listed Holtermann Collection of photographs. So much of the town is still recognisable today from the digital collection and it’s an added bonus to stare into the faces of the people who lived in Gulgong in the 1870s and experience both evocative and humbling.

Holtermann with his nugget – photo: Merlin and Bayliss c.1872

Bernhard Otto Holtermann was a man of many talents, but for me, his most important role was that of wealthy gold miner and philanthropist who commissioned travelling photographer Henry Beaufoy Merlin, ((founder of the American and Australasian Photographic Company (A & A Photographic Company)) to photograph a massive piece of reef gold found in his mine before it was sent to be crushed. This meeting led to an amazing photographic partnership, Holtermann offering land for Merlin’s studio in Hill End and then sponsoring the work of Merlin and his young assistant, Charles Bayliss to photograph Hill End and Gulgong. Holtermann, a German migrant, supported Merlin’s quest to document the settled areas of New South Wales and Victoria and wanted to present these photographs of Australia overseas as part of an International Travelling Exposition to advertise the colonies and encourage migration.

The people of Gulgong 1872 – Museum Courtyard (photo: Lyndall Linaker)

After Merlin’s death in 1873, the project was continued by his assistant, Charles Bayliss and the collection, amounting to around five hundred glass plate negatives, was purchased by Holtermann to add to his own collection of previously commissioned works by Merlin and Bayliss. Only a small percentage of the A&A Photographic Company’s output has survived, but 3,500* small format wet plate negatives (including extensive coverage of the towns of Hill End and Gulgong) and the world’s largest wet plate negatives, measuring a massive 0.97 x 1.60 metres, are held by the State Library of New South Wales.

You can see more of Merlin and Bayliss’s work just over an hour away at the Hill End historic site which is managed by National Parks NSW. The Heritage Centre is located in the restored 1950’s Rural Fire Service Shed and also displays images from the Holtermann collection showcasing the Hillend goldfields. It adds value to your site visit making it easy to reimagine the scenes outside from Merlin and Bayliss’s images in your head.

Post Office at Hill End (Photo: Lyndall Linaker)

*Merlin retired as manager of the NSW branch of A&A Photographic Company in February 1872 and sold the business to Andrew Carlisle. Unfortunately, Carlisle sold all the view negatives of the company in September 1872, so it seems all the views taken throughout Victoria and NSW by Merlin and Bayliss in 1870 and 1871 were destroyed at that time. Some reports of 17,000 images.

Extra notes

In 1875, Holtermann and Bayliss produced the Holtermann panorama – a series about Sydney taken from the tower of his home in North Sydney,  which was an impressive 10 metres in length and received the Bronze award at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 and a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle Internationale in 1878.

The advertising below states that Beaufoy Merlin also created 800 views of Parramatta but sadly this collection does not appear to be intact. There are some of his images in the Sydney Living Museums and Historic Houses Trust Collections, J.K.S. Houison collection held by the Society of Australian Genealogists. Anyone with glass plate negatives in their shed, please come forward now.

Excerpt from Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1870 – Advertising 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/13219139

Further Reading

Creating with Communities/Make Museums Matter/The Museum of the Future https://themuseumofthefuture.com/2017/12/19/creating-with-communities-make-museums-matter/

Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museums/The Museum of the Future https://themuseumofthefuture.com/2019/05/15/intangible-cultural-heritage-and-museums/

Perspectives on Digital Engagement with Culture and Heritage by Jasper Visser in Inspired by Coffee https://inspiredbycoffee.com/ibc15par/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Visser-Summer131.pdf

Museums of the Future – Selected Blogposts about Museums in times of technological and social change. Jasper Visser https://themuseumofthefuture.com/download/1594/

Active Participation: Museums Empowering the Community by Marilyn Scott on Museum-id https://museum-id.com/active-participation-museums-empowering-community-marilyn-scott/

https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/henry-beaufoy-merlin-australian-showman-and-photographer

https://geoffbarker.wordpress.com/2018/11/25/beaufoy-merlin-showman-and-photographer/

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PbGMMCa5nGlHphpsVhX9EoiIb4IHbwp9/view

A modern vision – Charles Bayliss Photographer, 1850 -1897 https://www.nla.gov.au/pub/ebooks/pdf/A%20Modern%20Vision.pdf

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 2

In Part two of this post, I’d like to think more about the “decolonisation” of cultural institutions and how this could impact on Australia and the way it is viewed by visitors overseas. Do cultural institutions present Australian history and cultural heritage to reflect our ever evolving nation post British colonisation and including those who have migrated to Australia up to the present day?

Present day Australians. Image: abc.net

I would say that our Colonial past has synergy with other parts of the world colonised by the British – such as the United States, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. British Colonial Governors were regularly transferred to different parts of the British Empire and used convict labour to put their stamp onto the newly formed colonies. This period of history provides the earliest evidence of Australia’s changing cultural heritage post British settlement. After losing its American colonies in 1783, the British formed six colonies in Australia. They began to create a European-style “built environment” including townships, infrastructure and industries, large scale farming and trading between colonies and with other nations. 

History is Messy. Image: The Guardian

Calla Wahlquist from The Guardian wrote an article “History is Messy” about the National Galleries Victoria’s (NGV) concurrent shows called Colony (1770-1861) and Colony (Frontiers), exploring Australia’s complex colonial past and the art that emerged during and in response to this period. Presented concurrently, the two exhibitions offered parallel experiences of the settlement of Australia. Drawing from public and private collections across the country, Colony: Australia 1770–1861, brought together the most important examples of art and design produced during this period and surveyed the key settlements and development of life and culture in the colonies. Importantly, the exhibition acknowledged the impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities. Such an exhibition would have relevance in the UK and other Pacific nations that similarly were impacted by British explorers and colonists.

When the six colonies in Australia federated in 1901 and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed as part of the British Empire, there was widespread public support for the adoption of a national immigration policy and administration post Federation. Immigration was at the time administered separately by the states. All of the major parties involved in the new Federal Parliament held policies deliberately aimed at the exclusion of non-European migrants. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, included a ‘dictation test’ for those seeking to immigrate that could be given in any European language, and was the beginning of what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. This policy remained virtually unchanged until after the Second World War.

Until 1949, Britain and Australia shared a common nationality code. The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 created an Australian citizenship and the conditions by which it could be acquired. An Australian citizen was also considered to be a British subject.The Australian Citizenship Amendment Act 1984 was aimed at removing discriminatory aspects of the Act in relation to sex, marital status and nationality. The English language requirement was changed from ‘adequate’ to ‘basic’ and applicants over 50 were exempted from the English language requirement. Of particular importance, the definition of the status of British subject was repealed in order for the Act to reflect the national identity of all Australians. By the end of the 1980s, the total number of migrants from Asia overtook the total number from the UK. 

250 years after James Cook’s arrival, what are we doing to ensure the quality control of this information about Australia’s history on the world stage? There is a great deal of chatter worldwide about whether or not cultural institutions and their collections can be “decolonised”. 

“To decolonise is to add context that has been deliberately ignored and stripped away over generations. There are many examples of the misrepresentation of objects in museum displays that have only been corrected after dialogue with source communities. And there are countless instances where interpretation still needs to be rectified and stories freshly told.”  (Sharon Heal – 2019 Policy article – UK Museums Association) 

I think that it’s about more than that. It’s about being honest, stripping back the imbalance of power that occurred in the past (often unknowingly), really looking at inadvertent racism or examining the way that we tread “softly, softly” on difficult subjects like “The Stolen Generation”, “Slavery in Australia” or the “White Australia Policy”. It’s about looking carefully at museum collections – empowering them by reinterpreting and researching them, perhaps even repatriating objects with significance to living cultures or changing direction to be more “inclusive”. It is critical to consider the present diversity of museum audiences when evaluating objects in specific collections – are they relevant for each museum’s vision for the future or are they stuck with interpretation that belonged to times past, older exhibitions and a different type of museum visitor.

Museums must be safe places for inter-generational learning and education, spaces for healing and reflection and a place where everyone feels welcome and the majority of visitors would want to return again and again. In the era of Covid-19 when cultural institutions are about to take a huge financial hit – getting your house in order is the best way to stay relevant when the doors to your institution reopen. 

The Washington Post defines decolonisation as “a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonisers.”

There are several ways to promote Australia in cultural institutions overseas. The first and simplest method is to design travelling exhibitions in partnership with museums that may have objects in their collections which would enhance an existing exhibition or has had a direct connection which might be relevant  to the subject matter in the exhibition. 

Australia is very much a nation of migrants from 1788 until the present day. We have a number of good “Migration” museums and museums reflecting the migrant contribution to Australian culture around the country. Specific collections relating to our migrant history can be found at the Migration museums in Melbourne, Adelaide, and sections of the Australian National Maritime Museum (Sydney), National Museum of Australia (Canberra), National Archives of Australia (Canberra). There are also “specialist” museums such as Sydney Jewish Museum, Jewish Museum of Australia (Melbourne), Jewish Holocaust Centre (Melbourne) and “multicultural” museums e.g.  Multicultural Museums Victoria (MMV) an alliance  which is an Australian first including the Chinese Museum, Co.As.It Italian Historical Society & Museo Italiano, Hellenic Museum, Islamic Museum of Australia and the Jewish Museum of Australia. I doubt that many of these museums would have an opportunity to exhibit travelling exhibitions overseas which is a pity because I’m not certain how we are seen as Australians from a global perspective.

What’s on at Multicultural Museums Victoria.

 I’ve seen some sad misrepresentation of Australia in world class museums, but in direct contrast, I’ve been very proud to see one of our difficult stories connecting with audiences in the UK. I was lucky to visit “On Their Own – Britain’s Child Migrants”, a collaboration between the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney and National Museums Liverpool in both Sydney and Liverpool, UK and observe the emotional audience response to the telling of this story from our difficult past.

Sometimes the absence of objects in museums overseas also tells a story about how Australia is seen on the world stage. If you look into the online collections and exhibition databases of major cultural institutions overseas, Australia is either not mentioned, poorly represented across layers of history and cultural diversity or aspects of the Australian collection have been vaguely researched or mislabeled or tagged as Australian when they are not, or the provenance is weak to say the least (see Part one of the post). This is an opportunity for Australian cultural institutions to support or partner with museums overseas to assist with researching collections or reinterpreting out of date displays.

For example, I have seen wonderful exhibitions of Fred William’s work in Australian galleries over many years and would love to have seen some of those beautifully curated exhibitions travel the world. The works would also lend themselves to digital or immersive experiences of the outback Australia. Of course Williams is only one of hundreds of 19th and 20th century Australian artists who would look good on the walls of cultural institutions in other parts of the world.

Fred Williams from the Tate Galleries UK Collection

Williams (b.1927) is one of my favourite Australian artists because his works are truly evocative of the Australian landscape. Fred is the first and only Australian artist to have exhibited at MoMA (New York) and this happened  in 1977- 43 years ago. Sadly there are few other references to Australian Art in the MoMA collection. The artists represented in the collection are – Leonard French b.1928, Tracey Moffat b.1960, Toba Khedori, b.1964, Sydney Nolan b.1917, Anton Bruehl b.1900 (born in Australia), Shaun Gladwell b.1972, and the University of Western Australia for their Pig Wings Project 2000-2001.

In the UK the Tate Gallery holds 30 of Fred Williams works and works by over 70 Australian artists including those  with Indigenous and Multicultural cultural heritage. 

I was excited to find 619 references to Australia in the online collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but so many of these works were by Australian born artists who were more American or British in reality. Indigenous Australia seemed to be well represented in the online collection, but actually looking at these objects and artworks reveals that a large proportion are actually African, Indian, European, Fijian, South East Asian or from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. 

In the British Museum collection online there are over 7,000 references to Australia but closer examination reveals that hundreds of these are objects from other countries which had been on loan to Australian Museums for exhibitions rather than actually being sourced from Australia. Thousands of objects are Indigenous Australian pieces – tools, weapons, bags, adornments, artwork, shields etc. There are more recent art works and decorative objects, coins and banknotes and photographs and colonial paintings and engravings but only one record for Multicultural Australia – Ithaca I; print; Aida Tomescu (Print made by); 1997 .

Aida Tomescu (1997) Ithaca I. AGNSW Collection. No image available for British Museum.

Australia’s Multicultural heritage is unique and an interesting part of the fabric of our nation and there are many stories in museums in Australia that could be shared world over. In 2011 Viv Szekeres wrote an article  ‘Museums and multiculturalism: too vague to understand, too important to ignore’ . To reflect our changing cultural heritage may require a rethink in collection practices – a more strategic collection practice in partnership with different communities.

The National Galleries Victoria presented a major exhibition of influential British artist, David Hockney, in 2016 at NGV International. The exhibition, curated by the NGV in collaboration with David Hockney and his studio, featured more than 700 works from the past decade of the artist’s career – some new and many never-before-seen in Australia – including paintings, digital drawings, photography and video works. We seem to do really well collaborating with overseas museums to highlight their collections but what about the reverse situation to highlight our Australian collections overseas? 

Useful references

What does it mean to decolonize a museum?

Who’s afraid of decolonisation?

Decolonising museums

The ‘decolonization’ of the American museum – The

White Australia policy

Australia’s hidden history of slavery: the government divides to conquer

The Stolen Generations

Understanding Museums – Museums and multiculturalism

Decolonizing the Museum Mind

Museums Association UK  Collections 2030 DISCUSSION PAPER 

FRED WILLIAMS : INFINITE HORIZONS –