Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Mercury shines light

TMAG’s collection of colonial paintings is among the finest in the country, but museum visitors are only seeing a small percentage of what is actually held in the museum’s collection.

Rex Gardner, Time our hidden treasures saw the light of day, The Mercury, 25 November 2017

Tasmania’s museums hold a treasure trove of the state’s history.

The shame is much of it will never see the light of day.

Historians and those curating the state’s hidden treasures are frustrated.

They have long fought a losing battle to get what are world-class collections out of dark basements and into the public domain.

Governments through the years have stood by and turned the other way as the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery cried out for more space, bursting at the seams with growing collections.

The public only see the tip of the iceberg in TMAG’s galleries, with less than 5 per cent of the items in its possession on display at one time.

The rest is stored away at TMAG in the city, at Rosny Park in the former archives building opposite Eastland shopping centre, or in a large store at Moonah.

The State Government seems not to want to advertise the embarrassment of the state’s bursting store of hidden treasures, and closed ranks when questioned about them.

Access to photograph the collections in storage has been denied to this newspaper because of “security concerns”.

But a statement from the Arts Minister, Elise Archer, said: “The Government has allocated $200,000 to develop a capital facilities options appraisal and business case.”

Work that ministerial speak out!

TMAG’s collections cover something like 28 disciplines, from artwork, porcelain and glass, books, photographs, costumes, flora and fauna, invertebrate zoology, farm implements, old carts and even Hobart’s old trams.

Tucked safely away somewhere is Kylie Minogue’s wedding dress from Neighbours.

TMAG has the finest Antarctic flora collection in the world (28,000 items) at the Herbarium, which is visited by experts in the field but doesn’t get public exposure.

It possesses more than 12,400 paintings, prints and drawings and the finest collection of colonial paintings in Australia, but only a handful of these are ever on display.

TMAG’s colonial gallery rotates them through. An exhibition of TMAG’s John Glover paintings and other colonial masters is currently on show at the National Gallery.

The extensive photographic collection holds some of the best examples of colonial photography in Australia. The collection’s storage, modified in 2008, is recognised “as one of the best in Australia”, says the TMAG website.

How tragic is it that TMAG promotes its storage area as top class!

Some of TMAG’s big items — such as the trams, carts, farm implements and vehicles — need large display spaces.

The smaller and finer collections need very specific display environments, like the fragile scientific drawings dating back to the 16th century.

TMAG chairman Geoff Willis said the gallery’s trustees still adhered to the TMAG masterplan stage 2, which was to expand across the Dunn St carpark and create a $35 million central gallery.

Plans had been on the drawing board for many years, since the time of the Bacon/Lennon Labor governments.

Past curators and administrators of TMAG say a succession of state governments has failed to grasp the breadth, depth and nature of not only TMAG’s collections, but of collections scattered around the state in little museums and libraries.

“The Government has no concept of the substance of the collections,” one said last week.

“Much of it is undervalued by this Government.

“For instance, the Australian colonial gallery collection is the finest in the world, and it deserves a much more extensive home to display the collection.

“Our collections are outstanding, but they don’t get the space they deserve.

“We don’t know or understand what we’ve got, and the gallery has never been resourced to promote what we’ve got. We have been dumbed down.”

Said another: “Pressure needs to come on the State Government to look at the state’s art collections in general, and how they are stored. All around Tasmania there are little museums and little gems.

“TMAG and QVMAG in Launceston are obvious, but there is the Queenstown Museum, the Bligh Museum on Bruny, even in Bothwell there’s a world-class collection of books, not properly housed.

“There are huge opportunities, but there needs to be a direction laid down and a discussion had. We are rapidly approaching a time when we could lose elements of huge historical importance.”

Debate has often swirled around the merits of having art, cultural and historic collections alongside collections of huge scientific and research importance. It can be an awkward fit for one administration to juggle it all.

Digitising TMAG’s collection to give the public greater access — where physical access has clearly failed — may be a saving grace.

Said Mr Willis: “We see getting the collection online as our number one strategy to make so much more available to the public. We lag the rest of the museum and art world by a long way in this regard.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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