Before it goes to the tip

When the National Museum of Australia finally opened its doors on Canberra’s Acton Peninsula in 2001, local radio invited callers to phone in with their impressions of the new building. Canberra radio has a shortage of shock jocks. Nor does it have many shrill jills. You can listen all day without hearing much venom in the clichés. Visitors are sometimes disappointed, and go home early to places where they have more chance of hearing callers say what everybody else is saying as though they’d just thought of it. They forget that Canberra has Parliament for this.

Callers about the museum were mixed in their reactions. One man said he had gone home without seeing anything because he couldn’t find the door to get in. He wondered if this was part of the architects’ plan to protect the collection. Others were miffed that the European history of Australia, representing one per cent of the human story of the continent, had only 60 or 70 per cent of the space in the museum. There soon followed a territorial battle which became a focal point for some of the contested issues of indigenous history. The most passionate callers had important things to say about the high price of souvenirs and sausage rolls.

One particular visitor, however, reported that she had had an eerie feeling when she was inside the new museum. She couldn’t put her finger on the cause. The woman said she was looking out the window from one of the galleries and had an uncanny sense of déjà vu. It was a brand new place but she knew she had been here before.

The reason dawned on her later. The museum is built on the site of the old Canberra Hospital. The woman realised she’d been looking at the same view over the lake that she had spent hours contemplating from bed as she recovered from the birth of her first child. The child was now an adult. Not a trace of the hospital remained. But the view was still the same. For one moment, she had felt she was a new mother again. The years in between fell away like skin.

This is how the museum works. It provides long vistas. People go there to see old stuff. But if the place has done its job, they come away with a fresh look at themselves.

This is certainly true of the National Museum’s new exhibition, Captivating and Curious, which has been mounted to mark 25 years since the passage of the National Museum Act by the Fraser Government in 1980. This was the moment at which, at long last, both sides of politics agreed on establishing a place to house its homeless collection.

That collection has a longer history. In some ways, it owes less to a collective sense of national history than to the unusual passions of individuals. Foremost among these was Melbourne orthopaedic surgeon Colin MacKenzie. According to Guy Hansen, the curator of Captivating and Curious, MacKenzie was a wealthy man with access to the corridors of power. He was concerned about the danger of extinction faced by species of Australian fauna which he saw as valuable not only in their own right but also for their medical role as models for comparative anatomy. In the years after World War I, MacKenzie began collecting specimens. These became the basis of the Australian Institute of Anatomy, one of a number of streams that were eventually to flow into the holdings of the National Museum.

By the 1970s, any number of individuals, government departments and other bodies were known to have held on to all sorts of intriguing objects that had an important cameo in the national story. In 1975, Peter Pigott chaired an inquiry which reported that ‘deterioration of valuable collections in Australian museums, great and small, has reached the proportion of a crisis’.

Captivating and Curious is a delightful celebration of the moment at which this situation began to turn around. It puts on display hundreds of items for which the permanent display seldom has space. Of the 200,000 items belonging to the museum, only four per cent are regularly on show. The museum always has a duty curator available to field calls from members of the public who have just found something in their garage or shed. Every day of the year, somebody rings up about dusty objects that the museum just might want to see.

‘Often people ring as they are about to take something to the tip,’ says Hansen. ‘It’s important we get it before it has gone to the tip. It needs to come with its story intact. We need to know whose it was and how it was part of the life people lived.’

An example of this is a recently acquired collection from the Springfield property near Goulburn, NSW. Springfield was settled by W. P. Faithfull in 1827. His maiden daughter Florence lived on the property for 98 years, dying in 1949. Not only did Florence live long, but she never threw anything out. Her niece then had the good sense to preserve what Florence had neglected to get rid of. The result is a remarkable gathering of rural domestic paraphernalia whose provenance is well established. The material draws the visitor into the lifestyle of women on a 19th-century sheep station.

Guy Hansen began working for the museum in 1991 in a warehouse in the ungainly Canberra suburb of Mitchell. At that stage, he was not even sure there would be a building that could broker the growing collection to the public. In designing Captivating and Curious, he wanted to give visitors an idea of how the collection spends most of its time. The first thing they come across are steel bays piled with bricolage identified only by simple museum tags. Captivating and Curious is arranged in such a way as to provide a sense of the history of museums themselves: it moves from using old-fashioned glass cases through to interactive displays.

The Smithsonian Institution in the United States, now comprising a number of museums, has been described as the attic of the nation. Hansen describes the National Museum in Canberra as Australia’s garage. He could just as well have said it’s our op shop. The exhibition works by serendipity and surprise. There is no knowing what you’ll find next, but each item brings a kind of recognition. There is an anchor from Flinders’ Investigator, the proclamation left by Mawson in Antarctica in 1931 and duelling pistols said to have been used by Thomas Mitchell in 1851, although, in fact, only one of them was used by Mitchell. The other was used by a gentleman called Donaldson who had criticised Mitchell in public.

Being a garage, there is a fair emphasis on vehicles. There is the prototype of the first Holden, and a landau which arrived in Australia in the 1820s, possibly the oldest vehicle in the country.

But the item that steals the show in Captivating and Curious is the ‘Road Urchin’.
In 1935, at the age of 30, Harold Wright arrived in Melbourne from England. Work was scarce and Wright needed to do something to keep body and soul together. So he acquired a horse-drawn wagon and set himself up as the ‘Saw Doctor’, travelling from town to town, sharpening knives and tools as he went.

Over the next 34 years, his wagon the Road Urchin developed a life of its own. Wright married Dorothy; they had a daughter, Evelyn. The wagon was their home and workplace. It acquired all sorts of ornamentation.

Eventually, an old truck replaced the horse; the truck was also embroidered. Following Wright’s death, the Road Urchin was bought by a second-hand dealer in Wangaratta. It sat in a shed until it was acquired by the museum in 2002. The key thing is that it was undisturbed in its retirement. The Road Urchin is comprised of hundreds of details: a smoker’s pipe, pots and pans, postcards and signs, garbage bins and tools. All of these draw the imagination into a strange life on the road, one that was both fanciful and pragmatic. The Road Urchin tells a bottomless story. It can’t be exhausted by any simple explanation. It takes the onlooker to a dozen unfamiliar places from which he or she can look back upon themselves.

The culture we inhabit is changing from one based on memory, a human art, to one based on retention. If you take $20 out of an ATM, that factoid will be retained in a computer for all eternity. But the smell of the flowers you bought with the $20 can only be remembered. Telstra may retain an account of every phone number you ever dialled, but a tender conversation had over the phone can’t be retained, only remembered. Retention creates data. Memory leads to storytelling.

Captivating and Curious is a reminder that certain things need to be retained. But in this case, retention creates memory. These items come with labels. But they also ask for stories.

Is there anything Guy Hansen thinks is missing from the museum? Is there a call he would like one day to receive about a particular object that the collection lacks?

‘We would love to have one of 'Robert Menzies’ double-breasted suits,’ he says. ‘But I believe they all went to 'op shops.’

Michael McGirr is a former publisher of Eureka Street. His most recent book is Bypass: The Story of a Road. Captivating and Curious is on at the National Museum of Australia until April 17.


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