Tag Archives: 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

Parramatta – The museum that never was ……. we are still talking about it 120 years later.

It’s often said that history repeats itself. The case for a museum in Parramatta is no exception, the conversation has been happening for more than 120 years and I’m sure that there is sufficient primary source material available to produce a PhD thesis on the subject.

Old Government House, Parramatta

Digitised newspaper articles from the past (via TROVE) reveal that as early as 1899, James Burns had suggested that Old Government House at Parramatta be made into a museum of Australian curiosities. He was willing to have his ships collect curiosities and rare items from the Pacific region, which his company traded with for business purposes.

Daily Telegraph  Saturday 1 July 1899

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/239530843

A ground swell movement for a museum rose in response to Parramatta Council’s invitation for residents to come forward with ideas for commemorating the foundation of the city. People thought it appropriate to have a permanent structure to celebrate the city and to be passed on for the enjoyment of future generations.

An awareness for the need to preserve monuments and collect historical items relating to Parramatta in around 1888, the centenary of Parramatta’s foundation. Towards the end of the 19th century citizens of Parramatta began expressing a need for a museum to be built to commemorate the achievements of Parramatta and to provide an attraction for visitors to the area. In a letter to the editor of the Cumberland Argus, James Purser felt the “town would be deserving of such an institution being the oldest in Australia.”

http://ref.arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2013/12/03/the-parramatta-and-district-historical-society-100-years-old-looking-back-to-its-beginnings/

A section of an article from 8 April 1905 rings true to the discussions we are having about a museum in Parramatta in 2020. There has been ongoing community debate for several years about whether or not the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) should be moved holus bolus to Parramatta. The conclusion is still the same – that Parramatta deserves to have a world class museum to reflect on the past and celebrate the present. It is a city of great cultural diversity with significant cultural heritage which needs to be preserved or repurposed rather than knocked down and redeveloped without much thought.

Questions about the Powerhouse move included the loss of heritage buildings to make way for the museum and whether the whole project has been sufficiently well thought out and will meet the needs of people living in Parramatta and Western Sydney. After all the years of talking, it would seem that Parramatta needs both a Powerhouse Museum satellite and its own Museum of Parramatta.

Saturday 8 April 1905

In 1905 there was opposition from Alderman Bartlett (Parramatta City Council) to the museum being built on the southern side of the Town Hall and whether the money could be better spent on subsidising a hospital ward. 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/85994942

At a meeting of Parramatta Council on Saturday 1 July 1911 to discuss the 50 year Jubilee celebrations, it was suggested that the foundation stone be laid for a Historical Museum the building of which should cost no more than £400 spread over a term of years. If only it had gone ahead at that time we may have an institution like the Australian Museum or the Art Gallery of NSW in Parramatta, but alas …… the talking continued.

On 3 July 1912,  Mr. J. H. Murray, one of the brothers of the Murray Brothers shopping emporium, raised the proposal to establish a local history association. Murray pointed out that “there were a number of ancient landmarks – Old Government House, the Observatory and others – which should be preserved in the interests of future generations.”

William Freame, a long term Parramatta Historian, wrote a letter to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913, noting that he was surprised that so little had been done to preserve Parramatta’s memorials and perpetuate its history.

From the City of Parramatta Research Services Blog 2013 quotes a letter by Freame to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913: 

“Look where I may, I see signs of vandalism, and the hand of the spoiler at work. And there were those, who would have turned its beautiful oak avenues into a highway for wood and brick carts, because of the stray coin or two they might have brought with them; And yet there has been so much that might have been done to preserve ‘Old Parramatta,’ and it has not been done. I remember the scores of old photographs and the several valuable engravings the late Mr. John Taylor possessed; where are they now?”

3 January 1925

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/16202968

By 1925, there were so many newspaper articles being written about The Australian Museum and the War Museum (The Australian War Memorial Museum) in Sydney. It isn’t surprising that there remained a push for a museum at Parramatta as the city continued to grow in size. I have not been able to determine who wrote the anonymous letter to the Editor of the Cumberland Argus shown below. Perhaps some research into primary source material or the handwritten Council Minutes of the time could pinpoint the author.

23 January 1925

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/103763750

The handwritten minutes of the City of Parramatta Council meetings from the 1930s mentions that one of the Misses Swann (from Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta) was involved in both the Parramatta Historical Society as well as  Parramatta Historical Museum Committee. The article below from the Cumberland Argus confirms that Miss Swann and both organisations came together in favour of building a museum in Parramatta. They also called for donations to the collection.

Thursday 14 November 1935

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald the following year again mentions that the committee is looking for material from the district and from several well known, old Parramattan families in particular.

Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday 31 March 1936

On Thursday 28 May 1936, The Cumberland Argus refers to the new Museum playing an important part in connecting people to the Sesquicentenary celebrations of Parramatta in 1938. “No doubt many overseas visitors will come to Parramatta during that year and that  material of historic value will be of appeal to these people”. It also mentions that in the United States of America, “there is not a state in the union without a historical museum and the oldest states have several museums” and that they are recognised as “an important element of cultural character”.

“Parramatta, the oldest town in the State Outside Sydney should be the first to set up a Historical Museum”. Daily Telegraph 29 June 1936

Then in August 1936, The Cumberland Argus reported on a dispute over the new museum and the “acrimonious exchanges” between  the Historical Museum Committee, Parramatta Council and The Parramatta Historical Society (PHS) which led to the PHS disassociating itself from the Parramatta Historical Museum Committee and developing a museum of its own.

Wed 2 November 1938

World War II intervened and there appears to be very little in the paper about a museum for Parramatta until 1948 when the subject was again discussed in the local newspaper. The following year Parramatta City Council accepted an offer from the estate of Sir Joseph Cook accepting his Windsor Court Dress and insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George. Many years later after the uniform went missing and was found in a council storeroom, Philip Ruddock called for a museum to be built in Parramatta. In 1949 Parramatta City Council tried to secure Old Government House as a permanent site for a museum but it was during the sixties that Old Government House was acquired and dedicated as a house museum after it was vacated by The King’s School. During the sixties there was a movement to protect some of Parramatta’s heritage buildings from developers. Too late for the buildings from The Vineyard and Subiaco Estate which were demolished to make way for a car park for Rheem Australia Pty Ltd.

Privy Council uniform made for Joseph Cook (Prime Minister 1913-1914) in 1914. The uniform consists of a jacket with tails, pair of trousers, cloak (now missing), ceremonial sash, ceremonial half sash (possibly for wearing with the cloak), sword and sword holster. The Privy Council uniform and ceremonial sword were worn on special occasions, such as the opening of Parliament. In 1918 Cook was presented with the insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George. The set consists of a collar and star, worn with the Privy Council uniform. Parramatta Heritage Centre. City of Parramatta Council collection.

Looking back, we can see how much the city of Parramatta has changed from a colonial settlement on Aboriginal land to a diverse and vibrant city in 2020. Our cultural heritage is constantly changing but it is important to reflect all the layers of history in a world class facility which brings people together and is a safe place to discuss all aspects of Australia’s past and to reflect how this has affected us and how we can move forward into the future. We have spoken about needing a museum and protecting our cultural heritage for too long. 120 years later – let’s act.

Extra reading

The articles below are the tip of the iceberg as far as truth and fiction about the Powerhouse move and the need for a significant museum in Parramatta. I think that the fact that the building of a museum has been argued about for more than 120 years shows that now is the time to get our act together to create a museum which showcases the history and cultural heritage of Parramatta, Western Sydney and NSW in all its glorious layers Indigenous, Colonial and Multicultural Australian.

The Parramatta and District Historical Society, 100 Years Old. Looking back to its beginnings.

The other side – why the Powerhouse should move west. https://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/features/museums/gina-fairley/the-other-side-why-the-powerhouse-should-move-west-253455

Opinion: Parramatta Powerhouse Move better for Sydney  https://thechamber.com.au/Media/Opinion-Parramatta-Powerhouse-Move-Better-for-Syd

Trashing the Powerhouse Museum https://cityhubsydney.com.au/2020/01/trashing-the-powerhouse-museum/

How the Powerhouse was saved https://www.cultureheist.com.au/2020/07/08/how-the-powerhouse-was-saved/

Five Museum Ideas for Parramatta. Kylie Winkworth. https://powerhousemuseumalliance.com/museum-opportunities/five-museum-ideas-for-parramatta/

Concept – Museum of Parramatta https://museumwhisperings.blog/2019/10/19/concept-museum-of-parramatta/

Plea for History Museum at Parramatta https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/105736073

 

Concept – Museum of Parramatta

I like to visit museums when I travel. Some of my favourites have been specific museums unique to the place that I’m visiting like The Little Museum of Dublin , The Museum of Liverpool and the New York Historical Society Museum.

The Little Museum of Dublin. Picture by Lonely Planet

What I know about Parramatta is that it’s not just about stadiums, new high rise development, Parramatta Eels and Western Sydney Wanderers. In my opinion, the City of Parramatta has a rich cultural heritage which could be a more significant tourist attraction and contribute greatly to building the community and economy of Western Sydney.

The City of Parramatta Council has a culturally significant collection of objects and archives dating back to the earliest days of council (1861), and archaeological evidence dating back to much earlier times. Parramatta’s historical layers provide the perfect inspiration for its own unique museum which I’m calling “The Museum of Parramatta”, not to be confused with the new MAAS Museum (which is a completely different concept) coming to Western Sydney in the future. 

Kaolin Pipe stems and bowls from the collection of the City of Parramatta

In my mind, Australia has three distinct layers of history which make it what it is today. It is too late to undo the colonisation of Australia by the British, but we can look harder at our history, dissect it and present it in new and better informed ways. History is not fixed – it is open to further research and interpretation from primary sources and definitely open to further discussion. I would say that the City of Parramatta is the perfect place to examine and discuss Australian history by exploring further its Indigenous layer, Colonial layer and its waves of migration or the Multicultural layer.

I envisage that The Museum of Parramatta would use 4 spaces to present the Parramatta story – past and present – a story of its First Nations people dating back 40,000+ years, to the arrival of Europeans and the successive waves of migration from 1788 until the present. The museum will also need a functional space for permanent exhibitions, travelling or changing temporary exhibitions and for the public to access Parramatta’s history using onsite digital resources similar to and building upon those available in the existing Parramatta Local Studies Library.

Aboriginal Warriors by Joseph Lycett (1815-1822). National Library of Australia Collection

Space 1. Our First Australians

Starting at the beginning, I have imagined that Space 1 would need to be created in consultation with local Indigenous groups. We need to know Australian history from an indigenous perspective – we are all still learning the facts about our past. How did Aboriginal people live in Parramatta? What were their totems? What animals and foods were special to them? What was the impact that Colonial settlement had on the cultural practices on Indigenous groups already living in Parramatta and surrounding areas. The story goes back much further than Colonial settlement in Australia to more than 40,000 years ago. Who were the standout Aboriginal characters – individuals who were important local leaders and who managed to straddle both worlds at that time of first contact? Some of the stories will be hard to hear but they need to be told. Australians must think more critically about the past rather than continuing to look at history from a Eurocentric perspective.

Two Aborigines spearing eels by Joseph Lycett (c1817). National Library of Australia collection.

What about Indigenous Parramattan communities today? Where are the communities? What are the local languages spoken? Which part of local cultural heritage are the communities willing to share with us today? Are there objects in the City of Parramatta collection or in other cultural institutions that may be appropriate to use to tell their stories? Several Indigenous cultural experiences are already available through Discover Parramatta and perhaps these could enhance the museum experience in Space 1.

I recently participated in an online FutureLearn Course called Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Spaces which examines both sides of Captain Cook’s encounters with First Nations People in the Pacific and and how various societies related differently to his legacy. This reinforced my ideas about a need for Space 1 in the Museum of Parramatta.

The English Channel (2015) by Michael Parekowhai. Captain Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world. How do Pacific nations view him now , 250 years after their first encounter?

Space 2. The Colonial Years and birth of Parramatta Council

This area would be used to unpack Parramatta’s Colonial layer. There is plenty of archaeological and archival evidence to support learning about the built environment, but sadly there has been a significant loss of the “intact’ heritage buildings from Colonial times as a result of neglect, “progress” and development. Much of this destruction occurred before the Heritage Act was introduced in 1977. There are a number of significant sites in Parramatta which could be cross promoted through The Museum of Parramatta such as Old Government House and Experiment Farm Cottage (National Trust of Australia), Elizabeth Farm (Sydney Living Museums), Hambledon Cottage, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, Lancer Barracks ………and the list goes on (see more detail at the end of this post).

Space 2 could utilise the objects from the City of Parramatta’s collection of archaeological and culturally significant material as well as its Archives. It will be a great space to tell the stories of Parramatta’s early history using the collection as tangible evidence of the past. 

One of the many Expeditions for the City of Parramatta DigiVol project

The current City of Parramatta DigiVol project has a team of 120 volunteers transcribing the Parramatta Council Minutes from 1862-1945. The minutes tell of the everyday issues facing a new rapidly growing town. When the minutes become searchable primary source, it will bring the Councillors and the people of Parramatta’s past to life. TROVE is also a wonderful resource for reading news from the early days of Parramatta via the old newspapers in digitised form.

The team at Parramatta Heritage and Visitor Information Centre has researched so much about the city’s past which is available via their blog posts. Another significant body of work was researching all the Parramattans involved in the Great War . The team has produced a range of publications on the subject and also a travelling touchtable resource for the public to access.

Space 3. Waves of Migration

Successive waves of migration have shaped the culture and identity of Parramatta. It is home to many people with different pasts, and it is important to recognise that there are connections between the city of Parramatta and the new migrant communities that now call Parramatta home. We know that Chinese people migrated to NSW in the earliest days of the colony. Indian and Lebanese people also came very early on when the colony formed and have participated in the growth and cultural heritage of Parramatta and NSW.

Australia Day at Parramatta

The ‘Waves of People’ report was produced by Western Sydney University for the City of Parramatta. The research recounts the history of Parramatta’s inhabitants – from the generations of Darug families living along the Parramatta River and Australia’s first inland European settlement, to the waves of migrants and refugees from all over the world who made a home here.

“It is the accumulation of stories and experiences inscribed in built form that gives a place its distinct identity. Such stories are not only for the culturally sensitive: they drive real-estate investment too. When a city is rebuilt from scratch, we risk losing these stories and connections.” (The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta)

As well as connecting to the past, Parramatta’s calendar is filled with festivals such as – Parramasala, Diwali, Lunar New Year, ParraLanes and Winterfest to name just a few. These festivals build on Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and help to bring the community together in the present.

Celebrating Holi at Parramatta

Space 4. Changing exhibitions

This space is essential for presenting temporary exhibitions or travelling exhibitions from other cultural institutions to engage with local and wider audiences of The Museum of Parramatta. The area would provide a safe meeting place for discussion on contentious issues, talks and events. It needs to have banks of computers to be available for research and discovery. The area would be well supported by the existing Local Studies Library, allowing visitors to research in depth information about Parramatta and their connections to the area. It should also host a searchable map of Parramatta to showcase all the amazing historic buildings, house museums and small volunteer run museums in the local area (some mentioned previously and also see the links below).

Final Words

Maybe I’m dreaming, but I believe that Parramatta is worthy of its own purpose built museum (or a museum reimagined in an existing heritage space e.g. Fleet Street Precinct, Old Kings School, Willow Grove) to showcase the history of this city. Parramatta deserves The Museum of Parramatta as well as a satellite of the Museum of Applied Arts and Science (Powerhouse Museum – an existing cultural institution being transplanted in Parramatta). It deserves a well thought out museum of its own to take a more critical look at Australian History from a Parramatta perspective.

Want to think  more critically about Parramatta’ history and cultural heritage? Explore the links below.

City of Parramatta Archive Council Collection

City of Parramatta Heritage Centre

City of Parramatta Collections

Parramatta Stories

Old Government House, Parramatta

Elizabeth Farm

Hambledon Cottage

Experiment Farm

Fleet Street Heritage Precinct

Parramatta Park

The Dairy Precinct

Lancer Barracks, Parramatta

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum

Female Factory, Parramatta

Female Orphan School, Parramatta

The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta https://theconversation.com/reimagining-parramatta-a-place-to-discover-australias-many-stories-100652

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

Maps versus Staff on the Museum Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

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New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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A Tale of Two Dairies

One weekend, two heritage sites. Both The Dairy Precinct and the Yaralla Estate lie along the Parramatta River in Sydney, and I knew nothing about the history of either property before my weekend visit. Strangely there are some similarities in the way that both sites came into existence, but in 2016 there is little connection in the funding, management or the way each site is interpreted for the visitor, apart from the fact that both offer occasional guided tours.

The Dairy Precinct is an area north of  Old Government House in the centre of Parramatta Park containing both the Rangers and Dairy Cottages and overlooking the Parramatta River. It is managed in accordance with the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001 and Parramatta Park Regulation 2012.

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The Dairy Precinct, Parramatta Park

The Dairy Cottage was home to George Salter, an ex-convict turned cattleman who constructed the cottage in 1796, on his 30 acre grant. It was converted to a dairy after its purchase by Governor Macquarie c1813 to provide milk for Old Government House and the Female Factory. Macquarie added a sunken dairy processing room in an extension beside the cottage. A cow house and barn were also added to the original building.

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The Dairy Cottage

The $1.7 million upgrade to the site has stabilised, conserved and enhanced the Dairy Precinct to improve the interpretation and understanding of the area as part of the greater Parramatta Park cultural landscape.

The new interpretation works really well for this small site and pays tribute to the Indigenous and Colonial Australian history of the site as well as orienting the visitor to the role that this site played in the early days of the colony in NSW.

During the recent “Day at the Dairy”,  Parramatta Park Trust ran short half hour tours of the cottages. A longer tour option would be even more worthwhile because there is plenty to learn about the site. On the open day, the tour and the new interpretation were a perfect introduction to the site.

 

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The second open day that I attended was at the Yaralla Estate, further down Parramatta River at Concord. Yaralla is of course much more than a dairy, but like the The Dairy Precinct at Parramatta, Yaralla began as a small land grant to a freed convict in 1797. Isaac Nichols not only grew food for the colony, but became Australia’s first postmaster.

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The Walker family home at Yaralla

Eventually, debt ridden, Yaralla became part of the Walker family story until the death of Dame Eadith Walker in 1937. The property then became vested in the Crown under the Walker Trusts Act in 1938 and remains the largest community bequest of its kind to survive intact in NSW. The City of Canada Bay Heritage Society holds two major fundraising events at Yaralla each year and one at Rivendell, another property which is  part of the estate, to raise funds for the continued restoration and to research the history of several outer buildings and gardens on the property.

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Our guide Karina walked us through the estate armed with lots of narrative. We covered the original Nicholl’s cottage, the Dairy, the Coach house and Stables, the rose garden, the sunken garden, and then moved down to the river where the boathouse and wharf, swimming pool and grotto and the Powerhouse once stood. We then viewed the exterior of the Yaralla homestead (designed by Edmund Blackett and modified by John Sulman) rising above its Italianate terrace where there were originally croquet lawns and a tennis court. Our last stop was the Squash Court built for Prince Edward’s unofficial visit with Louis Mountbatten in 1920. The story goes that the court was never used because the floor was made of concrete rather than the timber flooring necessary in these types of courts. It is great that the volunteer guides know their history and are good storytellers since so much of the estate has already been destroyed in the name of progress or through vandalism and there is currently very little interpretation apart from some historic photographs and memorabilia on display  in the Coach house and Squash court.

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The Yaralla story is fascinating and the life of Dame Eadith would be a perfect plot for a movie. Born in 1861, Eadith  lost her mother in 1870 and was raised by her aunt, Joanna, in a shared childhood with Annie Masefield (her companion and friend for life). She inherited Yaralla from her father, Thomas Walker, and made significant alterations to the estate. She was active in Sydney Rowing Club and the Animal Protection Society of NSW and was patron of the Yaralla Cricket Club and leased land to Royal Sydney and Concord Golf Clubs. She made a considerable contribution to several charities and to the Great War effort in both a physical and monetary sense. She was also very involved in supporting her own staff at Yaralla even after their retirement from the Estate. A woman well ahead of her time. The heritage society has produced a lot of information about the Walker family,  and the history of the site itself. There are books and guides available through the Canada Bay Heritage Society website.

I guess my purpose for writing today’s blog was that I was struck by the similarities and contrasts between the two sites. The Dairy Precinct seems well managed and well funded by The Parramatta Park Trust while Yaralla needs more funding and support in the future. Yaralla does not enjoy the same profile in the community nor the funding that Parramatta Park receives.

Today, we are more connected than ever to our Australian Indigenous and Colonial heritage and Yaralla has suffered some significant losses through not having its significance acknowledged. NSW Health has done a great job restoring the old house (which is currently in use as a Dementia hospital) and the grounds are neat but there needs to be greater support to bring the Yaralla estate to the standard of Parramatta Park with its public recreation areas and heritage buildings. I couldn’t help thinking how great Yaralla estate would be as a public park in the ever increasing concrete jungle springing up around Parramatta and along the river bank.

Archaeology – subdivision and the loss of historical context

Over time, Australia’s amazing indigenous, maritime and cultural heritage is being uncovered via numerous archaeological investigations, many of which pre-date The Heritage Act 1977. I was amazed when I visited an Open Day in Parramatta for the Centenary Square development to see the incredible history which lay under the Post Office and surrounds in Macquarie Street. Strangely, although this site had been built on in the interim, there was a large amount of archaeological evidence still visible from the earliest times such as the footings of pre-existing colonial buildings and a variety of everyday objects uncovered by  Casey and Lowe’s meticulous dig. I wondered whether we had lost the context for the earliest land use of the site because it had already been disturbed? I guess that the most recent dig will be the last opportunity to research Parramatta’s past from the Centenary Square site because once the underground car park has been excavated – the existing layers of history in the substrate will be lost.

 

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That isn’t really why I was writing the blog post. The point I was actually thinking about after my Centenary Square visit was that if we continue to subdivide Parramatta and other parts of urban Australia into tiny blocks (which seems inevitable), then what happens to the layers underneath? If the colonial subdivisions are double, triple or quadruple the size of the modern land holdings, what will happen to the archaeological material and the context of where that material is located below the surface? The size of indigenous Australian history layer will be even greater. If an archaeological survey is required by  a developer before an underground car park is excavated, are we only getting part of the story from the archaeological report? Are we looking at half a house, quarter of a hotel or a miniscule portion of a larger landholding such as market gardens, farm, factory or place of indigenous significance? Considering that the layers of earth below the surface can reveal so much about our past  and that suburbs like Parramatta are a significant part of the history of Australia, I really hope that some very important person with vision or the Office of Heritage and Environment or local council responsible has all this in hand before the evidence and context is destroyed for all time.

P.S. After I posted this I noticed some posts by @gmlheritage on Instagram showing items from the archaeological dig of 200 George Street, Sydney, reinterpreted for use in the foyer of Mirvac’s new headquarters. Great to see the objects used along with some explanatory text about the site’s history supported by a wonderful artwork by Judy Watson on display in the public foyer instead of being archived in boxes and stored out of sight.

Museum Digitisation – A Case Study

I support the digitisation of museum and gallery collections. There are so many places that I’d like to go to but realistically I won’t have the time or money to travel to all the destinations that I have on my bucket list. Enter the digital museum. Museums with a strong digital presence allow the virtual visitor at least some entrée into their collections. When collections are digitised it also assists researchers access to a wealth of new information to study without them ever having to leave the comfort of their own home.

One of the best stories that I’ve read recently was in Cosmos Magazine[1] which reported on The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership launching the Qatar Digital Library – a new bilingual, online portal which provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Gulf history and Arabic science. Their vision was to prepare the people of Qatar and the region to meet the challenges of a changing world by leading innovation in research and education[2]. (See Fig 1.)

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Fig 1. Home page of Qatar Digital Library

The British Library (in London, England) has amassed one of the world’s greatest research collections and with the Qatar Foundation has undertaken a huge project to digitise more than half a million pages from their collection consisting of images, manuscripts, maps, sketches, personal archives and East India Company Office Records. The project is an ideal example of the role of the contemporary curator who as part of a project management team of curators, cataloguers, conservators and digitisation experts works to create a valuable online digital resource[3] from a significant collection of objects located in the British Library. The Qatar Digital Library[4] aims to bridge the gap between past and the future by providing access to information about the history and heritage of the Gulf and Arabic science. Before digitisation, researchers would have manually searched a printed catalogue or physically visited the library to access a particular item which would then be retrieved from the archives.

One of the pages now accessible online
One of the maps from the archive now available to study online.

The web-based, interactive, multilingual information is more searchable and accessible for new audiences in Qatar, the UK and other online researchers and hopes to inspire new forms of interpretation from the original historic documents. The project has created high quality contextual and interpretative material to facilitate the use and understanding of the digitised content. Digital technology has provided a  platform for the discovery of history from the gulf region by allowing access to the original primary source scientific documents in Arabic which can be reinterpreted in the future without physically visiting the British Library.

As part of the process, the curator has taken primary sources, such as a photograph album, showing the everyday life in Afghanistan (social, architectural, trade) during a one month period, and digitised the pages allowing the voice of the object to come alive for the researcher. Supporting text has been added to contextualise the objects for the online audience in the same way that they would be supported by curatorial staff in the British Library.[5]

In order to encourage new audiences, the project team has actively tested the portal with possible users such as academics, archivists and young people, to find out what they need from the content and how they would use the collection for their own purposes. The feedback has been used to create a better system. The online catalogue is intuitive and researchers will be able to access the collection more easily than the original objects in the British Library. Evaluation of the new website will be carried out to determine the project’s success by measuring website users, site feedback, media coverage and other Key Performance Indicators.

References:

[1] New Digital Home for 1,000 years of Arabic scientific manuscripts viewed online at http://blog.cosmosmagazine.com/blog/2014/10/28/new-digital-home-for-1000-years-of-arabic-scientific-manuscripts?rq=Qatar%20digital%20library viewed online 20/2/2016

[2] Qatar Foundation vision and mission statement viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/qatar/ on 20/2/2016.

[3] The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership viewed online at http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2015/january/british-library-and-qatar-foundation-extend-partnership-to-digitise-images-of-gulf-history  on 20/2/2016

[4] Qatar Digital Library viewed online at http://www.qdl.qa/en on 20/2/2016

[5] Some of the information cannot be accurately interpreted without advice on the circumstances in which the records were created which is normally provided by archivists in the reading room at the British Library. Links to related material may also be provided by the curatorial staff in the British Library.