Daily Archives: June 24, 2013

Ballarat Bound #3: The Gold Museum

The final stop on our weekend in Ballarat was the Gold Museum that is adjacent to Sovereign Hill.  It’s been there for some time- in fact, it even has a statue of Sir Henry Bolte out the front, welcoming his contribution to the creation of the Sovereign Hill/Gold Museum precinct.  I suppose that there’s a long tradition of commemorating patrons with a statue.

IMG_0260

The Gold Museum had always seemed a rather strange place to me.  I remember it having many displays of gold coins and nuggets which have never particularly interested me.  I’m not sure whether they’re authentic or reproductions: I suspect the latter because there seemed to be little overt security presence.  As a display, it seemed even more disjointed this time around and rather tired.

However, this was only part of the display, and the rest was excellent.  There was a rather dimly lit exhibition about gold and its impact on Victoria generally, and Ballarat in particular, and it was very well done.  We spent probably 45 minutes looking at a panorama of Ballarat taken by William Bardwell from the top of the town hall spire in 1872. (See here for just one of the 15 images)  I assume that the photographs had been taken in the early morning because there are not many people about and the clarity, especially for a photograph of its age, is amazing.  We spent ages picking out buildings we knew, contemplating the variety of industry and civic life depicted, transportation etc– very well done indeed.

A temporary display highlights letters of the goldfields, and in particular the Petford Letters Collection.  This is a series of 36 letters written by James Petford who arrived in Adelaide in 1848 then travelled between goldfields in Victoria.  It’s sobering to see how tenuous the communication links could become between family members with letters waiting literally years before being collected, and vain attempts to keep some sort of chronology intact with marriages occurring and breaking down, children being born and dying and people moving on.

We had been lured up to the museum by the Anne Frank travelling exhibition which had closed in Melbourne before I got to see it.  No doubt, those who have seen the Anne Frank house itself would sniff at this travelling exhibition but given that I’m not in Amsterdam….  There was a good video, then a pictorial display based on a timeline.  All very apposite, given that last week was Refugee Week.  I’d like to think that I would have had the courage to help had I been in the situation, but I fear that I wouldn’t.  Life was so cheap.  I hadn’t realized how close to liberation Anne Frank’s death was, and I continue to be impressed, especially when I hear readings of her diary entries, by how well she wrote.

And so,  completely museum-ed out we headed for home.  Where next, I wonder, within 100 km of Melbourne?

Ballarat Bound #2: The Museum of Democracy at Eureka

Victoria’s newest museum, M.A.D.E , The Museum of Democracy at Eureka opened in May this year.  The building looks a bit like a grown-up version of Julia’s schoolrooms throughout the country, with the timbering on the back expanse referencing the stockade that was erected roughly on the site in 1854.

IMG_0246

IMG_0247

As all of the kerfuffle over the National Museum in Canberra during the Howard years demonstrated, museums are rarely neutral institutions and this is particularly true of this museum.  You can see a number of worthy priorities at stake here: a desire to ‘teach the young ones their civics’; a desire to take advantage of one of the colourful episodes in Victorian history as something that kids might get excited about; a bit of local pride and tourism opportunities for Ballarat as a region.

The Eureka Rebellion of 1854 was a revolt of gold-miners against the expense of the mining licence they were required to hold in order to pan for gold and its administration by the Gold Commissioner and his troopers.  Civil disobedience had been rumbling along for a while, and culminated in the creation of the Ballarat Reform League and a shoot-out at a hastily erected ‘stockade’ (probably a generous term) on 3rd December 1854.

One of the claims for the Eureka Rebellion- and one that is pursued through the displays in this museum- is that the Eureka Rebellion marked the birth of Australian democracy.  This is a rather tenuous and parochial claim, and one that you’d rarely find enunciated in other museums celebrating democracy in other states.  It’s a view that largely overlooks the contribution of Chartism in UK and other international political undercurrents,  and struggles to explain why South Australia had manhood suffrage before Victoria did.  Direct links between the Eureka rebels and the Federal Parliament and its policies some 50 years later are also fairly slight.  However, not to put too much weight on this particular thrust of the display, the museum does also explore the concepts of democracy, power and participation more widely.

The exhibition space is laid out with the Eureka Story in the centre, with alcoves around the room other sections discussing differing aspects of power through words, influence, numbers and symbols.  The Eureka Story display had a good chronological narrative and was, rather surprisingly, very heavily primary document-based.  The displays were operated using all the display syntax of the i-phone: swiping, pinching to reduce and magnify etc- something that people would not have known how to do three years ago (and possibly will be surpassed in future years).  That said, it’s not a particularly option-laden display: your choice involves choosing which particular topic to explore on a given screen and then just clicking ‘next’ on the transcription of the primary document attached to it.  It was frustrating and troubling that already, after less than a month, some of the touch displays required several pressings.    Only two or three people can gather around each display tablet at a time, and only one person can ‘drive’ it. I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable poring over the primary documents in the way I did, had there been a queue of people behind me.  There’s always the tendency to keep pressing buttons (or in this case, icons) quickly just as a way of seeing what comes next, and I think that under the pressure of crowds waiting for you to move on and let them control it instead of you, you’d feel a strong pressure not to linger.

The displays on the outer walls were rather less touch-screen based.  There was an interesting video with a woman talking about feeling powerless in a Muslim country, followed by a video of a refugee;  there was an  activity where your face was scanned for digital recognition and you were either granted or denied the right to vote based on age or gender (not colour, interestingly enough given the salience of colour as a criterion for the right to vote, historically).  It was rather funny: I was trying to look as happy and beautiful as possible (!) and was assessed as a 45-55 year old MAN in a ‘neutral’ mood.  There was a display about songs, which had a rather primitive stop/start mechanism based on standing on footsteps on the floor.  The one song was played,  no matter which set of footsteps you stood on- perhaps there would have been too many competing sounds in a small area otherwise.  I don’t think that it was well enough explained why those songs, in particular, were chosen.  There was a good video-based display about the power of persuasion, with an interactive quiz at the end, and an excellent auditory presentation of famous political speeches highlighting the rhetorical devices used by the speaker.

Then, of course, there’s the Eureka Flag itself, on permanent loan from the Art Gallery of Ballarat, where it has been on display for a number of years.  It’s in a darkened room behind glass, and it’s quite a reverential experience.  A video outside the display explains the conservation techniques that have been used on the flag, and the complexity of its shift from the gallery to this new museum.

Like all  new public buildings of its ilk constructed today, the gift shop, cafe and auditorium dominate most of the usable space.

All in all, it’s a very multi-media laden display and I wasn’t at all surprised to see that the director of the museum is a digital-content expert rather than a historian.  In fact, any mention of curators or historical consultants seems to be missing entirely. Perhaps that’s why, too, the transcriber of a particular government document seemed to be completely unaware of the bureaucratic convention of writing the gist of the government reply on a diagonal angle across the back of a document.  This led to a rather garbled and nonsensical transcription, and one that should not have appeared in a display of the quality and expense of this museum.  Still, given the huge conceptual difficulties of displaying and even enthusing visitors (and especially young people) about democracy,  this museum is a very twenty-first century approach.

I’ll be interested to see how this museum fares under a conservative government, if that’s what we’re heading for.  I’d be willing to bet that Christopher Pyne, who has already reprised the cry against ‘black arm band history’ will be hightailing it to Ballarat very quickly, calling for an enquiry into this exhibition that celebrates protest so overtly.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

Ballarat bound #1: The Art Gallery of Ballarat

So what if the Aussie dollar is dropping?? I’m still on the road:  Geelong a couple of weeks ago; Ballarat this weekend! Who needs to go further than 100 kms from home?? Wot larks!

I’d been disappointed to miss the Anne Frank travelling exhibition that closed recently at the Jewish Museum and when I found that it had headed off to the  Ballarat Gold Museum, I thought I’d follow it.  Then there’s the new Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (MADE) which opened just last month, and a scientific drawing exhibition from Museum Victoria on show at the Ballarat Art Gallery.  So, all in all- a good reason to go!

IMG_0258

For those of you not familiar with Ballarat, it’s a large provincial gold-rush town about 100 km north-west of Melbourne.  Enormous wealth poured into both Ballarat and the similarly-sized Bendigo  in the early 1850s and is expressed in its grand architecture and densely-woven civic culture.

IMG_0255

First stop- the  Art Gallery of Ballarat, the oldest and largest regional art gallery in Australia (yet another manifestation of the wealth brought by gold, no doubt).  There were two temporary exhibitions that we were interested in, both as it happens  touring exhibitions from Melbourne-based institutions.

The first was The Art of Science: Scientific illustrations from Museum Victoria, featuring 300 years of scientific drawings from nature.  Birds and wildlife dominated the first room, with pictures by John Gould and his illustrators, various French and British naturalists who had come to Australia in the late 18th century and several plates from Audubon’s Birds of America.   I’m often fascinated by the very first scientific drawings of -for example, Australian fauna- that are really grappling with trying to depict something that has not been seen before and yet don’t quite capture it properly.  Possibly it’s lack of skill, or perhaps it’s because the painter is reaching after comparisons and analogies that don’t work.

There was a chronological and conceptual narrative  in the way that the works were displayed in this exhibition.  The illustrations in the first room tried to replicate reality as accurately as possible, then the exhibition moved on to scientific depictions of the unseen through the  reconstructions of fossils and then finally magnification as a form of hyper-seeing.

Stairway leading up to galleries, Art Gallery of Ballarat

Stairway leading up to galleries, Art Gallery of Ballarat

All of which formed an interesting juxtaposition with the exhibition in the adjoining rooms Living Traditions: The Art of Belief  from the NGV which showed man’s attempts to draw or respond through art to something definitely unseen (and in my opinion, not real at all).

Then upstairs briefly to look for Mr Judge’s Grand-dad’s contribution to the Gallery.  Most major  galleries in Australia have a Web Gilbert somewhere tucked away.  Here’s Ballarat’s:

'Psyche' by C. Web Gilbert, Art Gallery of Ballarat

‘Psyche’ by C. Web Gilbert, Art Gallery of Ballarat

A pie for lunch (what else?) then next stop- The Museum of Democracy at Eureka.