Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

MV’s Melbourne Museum Inside Out

Patrick Pound’s  Gallery of Air  used the idea of breath, air or wind to link a range of both the mundane and amazing collection items from the NGV collection into an array — centred around the strangely compelling August Fredrich Albrecht Schenck’s “Anguish”, c.1878

Michael Parry, Inside Out at Melbourne Museum, Medium, 11 February 2018

On show for a limited time only, Inside Out is a rare and surprising museum experience. Let’s call it a love song to Museums Victoria’s mostly unseen collection of more than 17 million objects. It’s a diverse arrangement of our most beautiful, intriguing and downright bizarre collection items, dusted off and dressed for show. A team of curators has lovingly selected 370 extraordinary items from our vast storerooms, many on public display for the first time. Each artefact has been reimagined with unique presentation and captivating storytelling.

While I love a marketing team with a healthy dose of hype and bravado, there is one hackneyed phrase…it’s “dusted off”. It goes along with all of those articles that make you cringe as a museum professional — you know, the ones that talk about the amazing item ‘discovered’ in the dusty archives.

As anyone who has spent any time in a collection store knows, the idea that our collections have been abandoned to layers of dust is just bunk; or that we have no idea what is in the collection, is quite the insult to professionals.

Regardless, it is that kind of angle that that the team at Museum Victoria have embraced for their summer exhibition Inside Out which has closed today. And I get it: conveying the message that we can only ever show you a tiny slice of what we hold is sure to invoke curiosity, but I just don’t think you need to imply that we’re not looking after the rest of the collection whilst we do it.

Exhibitions as a mechanism for change

It becomes a fascinating time when there is a change in leadership in cultural organisations. It often triggers a series of effects that take a long time to emerge, but often there is a new, more immediate urgency to showcase something different.

Melbourne Now was put together quickly after Tony Elwood returned to NGV in 2012. It signified a shift for the gallery — one which would now connect to both contemporary practice (gettit? now?), but would also unashamedly set out a big, bold agenda across both sites, and shift the markers internally within the organisation regarding what it could or should do.

The exhibition and its extensive program did re-position the organisation in the mind of the cultural sector, and certainly put the staff through the wringer. It was one of those situations where staff either stepped up, or stepped out. The show was undoubtedly a success, both from a cultural practice, attendance, philanthropic and brand positioning standpoint. But the toll on the staff was significant. Some survived; many did not. Many eager new staff members joined the organisation through this period too.

This approach of setting up a big hairy goal, and using it to drive change from both in and out seems similar to what Museum Victoria is attempting with Inside Out.

“For a limited time only”

The first hint that this exhibition may be less about audiences, and more about internal change: it’s very short run: 23 December to 11 February.

As anyone who has programmed summer exhibitions would tell you (and I’m sure many inside MV would have said this) you don’t open a show just before Christmas. Journos have clocked off, the punters are distracted, your marketing buy is crowded and expensive, and shaking down a show just before your staff go on leave isn’t a great recipe for a quality experience.

Also, running a show with this level of investment, as a ticketed show, for such a short run is also not exactly the received wisdom. Check any recent visitor survey and you’ll find the top two sources of awareness are social media, and word of mouth. For those two factors to have greatest influence, you need some time; it’s also why the time immemorial practice of ‘papering the house’ is so valuable early in a theatrical run.

I’ve no idea how the exhibition has performed statistically or financially; but our visit was quiet. But, if the mission here wasn’t about visitor numbers — perhaps it was about something else.

Objects En mass

I still get a kick from visiting collection storage areas. In my current role, I’ve been having to think a lot about how and where we store collections. It means when I’ve been traipsing around, visiting other organisations — I’m often asking to go see collections storage.

There is something magical about these spaces. It is probably is linked to my slightly obsessive qualities about organising things. I know for others it serves as a calming, almost spiritual balm — rows of neatly ordered items, sorted by type or chronology — with a healthy dose of the serendipitous. Having spent quite a bit of time in Wellington over the past year or so with my involvement with Te Papa and Mahuki, I’ve especially been fascinated by the additional measures that storing collections in a geo-technically complex zone creates. eg. Bolting giant stainless steel tanks of pickled fish to the floor.

When I first joined MAAS, I remember the joy of exploring the Museums Discovery Centre for the first time. It was completely mind-blowing. It triggered the same question that I think naturally comes to many: if we have all this stuff, why aren’t we exhibiting it?

It falls in to the same category as why don’t we digitise everything, but it is a fair question; and one I’ve often needed to explain to public sector colleagues (often whom work in Treasury) who from an economically rationalist perspective wish to know why we would keep it, if no-one can see it.

At MAAS, it triggered my colleague, and now Director, Dolla Merrillees to do to things:

(1) Create a new exhibition series called “Re:Collect”

(2) Create a new permanent exhibition space designed for mass collection display — which internally became known as the ‘Vault’ due to the fact it was located deep within the Museum on the bottom floor.

The Recollect series has allowed the Museum to take a ‘slice’ through the collection — from cars, to shoes, to ceramics. There has been six recollection exhibitions since 2014. The current iteration is focused on Health and Medicine.

As Rebecca Anderson describes it:

“…replaced by a sense of awe as one rounds the corner to be met by two beautiful nineteenth-century showcases and the longest continuous row of clear floor to ceiling glass display cases this author has ever seen. The long brightly-lit showcase that dominates the space is one of the focus areas for the Museum’s new “Recollect” series — an open or visible collection storage series design to showcase en masse sections of the museum’s collection…taking the open storage model to a new and very welcome place”

The Vault is a space that has been stripped down to the very functional, polished concrete floors, raw brickwork, a slightly darkened mood and exposed services above.

The guide from Volunteers and front of house for this exhibition notes:

Why isn’t there more information with the objects?

This exhibition is part of the Recollect series, and as such is designed to be a kind of open storage that the public can view. We encourage visitors to bring their own interpretation and react with the objects instinctively.

Which I can’t really imagine any VSO ever saying, but there you go.

The Recollect series has been great for showcasing the depth and breadth of the collection — but it’s not without it’s challenges: changing over very large numbers of objects is incredibly time consuming, and the temptation to start making an exhibition (as opposed to making a selection of the collection) is a fine line.

I’m still waiting for MAAS to do the “everything red” or “just the stuff from 1977” Recollects, but I suspect I’ll be waiting a while.

Also worth a mention here is the parallel with Patrick Pound’s rather wonderful Gallery of Air — ironically enough which featured in Melbourne Now. It used the idea of breath, air or wind to link a range of both the mundane and amazing collection items from the NGV collection into an array — centred around the strangely compelling August Fredrich Albrecht Schenck’s Anguish, c.1878.

I really loved this display — somehow it was both entirely respectful of the art of collecting, and simultaneously drawing into question why certain items are revered, and others are just, well, stuff.

In Recollect, the visitor response is mixed: many enjoy the diversity of what’s on display, but many are confused about why there are so many things, and “couldn’t someone just choose the good ones?”. The object tags are left on the objects, providing a tantalizing hint at the object.

This frustrates some visitors who want it spelled out; others are more than happy to explore and find their own connections amongst the array.

Visible Storage

The biggest experiment in massed display I’ve been part of is the Museums Discovery Centre in Castle Hill.

Several thousand objects are on display, and the technique is not quite storage shelves, and not quite exhibition, and it makes many museum professionals uncomfortable: like we’ve put out our dirty laundry; rather than preparing a catwalk show.

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