Category Archives: Museum displays

Free-Day Friday in my own city

On Fridays, I usually volunteer down at Brotherhood Books in Kensington. I catch the train to the very sparse Kensington South station and walk along Childers St./Hobsons Rd, crossing Kensington Road. But as I left the station last Friday, a passerby warned me that I wouldn’t be able to cross Kensington Road. He was right. I looked up Hobsons Rd and thought “no-one’s going to be working there today”. And I was right. Brotherhood Books has been closed all week, after the Maribrynong river washed through our warehouse. (If you click on the images, you can see a larger version).

So, I had the rare experience (for this year) of a free Friday. It felt like a holiday! We decided to go in to see the ‘Lust Love Loss’ exhibition at the Shrine of Remembrance, then to pop in to the NGV International.

I haven’t been to the Shrine for probably 30 years. Its new galleries underneath the hill on which the Shrine is placed and the unobtrusive entrance received well-deserved architectural acclaim. The Shrine is such a strange place: built to last for hundreds of years in stone and marble, with lots of Egyptian references combined with classical figures and marble reliefs of battles (which reminds me that I really must read Ken Inglis’ Sacred Places one day).

I was impressed with the three exhibitions: Lust Love Loss (which closes 20 November 2022), Defending with Pride, the first of its kind for an Australian war memorial (closes July 2023) and For Kin and Country (until 26 March 2023) the history of First Peoples’ service in the Australian Defence Force, a display which makes you feel angry and ashamed of the discriminatory treatment that they received on returning home.

I really liked the human scale of these exhibitions, with none of the big-boys-toys approach being pushed by Brendan Nelson at the Australian War Memorial. But I am mystified that with all the ‘professionalism’ of the GLAM sector, so many signs were difficult/impossible to read. Why would you put black print on a dark khaki background in a dimly lit gallery? I don’t want to go through a gallery with the catalogue on my phone, drawing my eyes constantly to a 15 cm screen that pings messages at me: I want to look at the exhibition. The artworks and photographs had only rudimentary signage beside them on the walls, and there were only two printed catalogues available (which we returned for someone else to use).

Then off to the NGV International. When was Deborah Halpern’s Angel sculpture moved out of the moat? (Ooops! 2006. Why hadn’t I noticed earlier?) I was keen to see Richard Mosse’s Broken Spectre but it was so loud and dark – and the chairs at the back were taken and it was too dark to see if there were any other chairs there, and no way was I going to sit on the floor in the dark for 74 minutes…..and yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old lady. So we went up to the Jewellery and Body Adornment display on the balcony which was interesting, although again with rather baffling signage. I liked the malicious glee of the Gold Makes Blind, Bracelet (the middle bracelet). Covered in rubber, there is (supposedly) a gold bracelet underneath the rubber, but you need to destroy the bracelet to see if it is really there.

I liked the pieces that had some social history attached to them. I had heard of Josiah Wedgwood’s Anti-Slavery medallion, but never seen one. I was rather taken with Sylvia Pankhurst’s Holloway Brooch (in the middle in the image below) which was awarded to women who had been imprisoned. The two medals with the green, white and purple ribbons were awarded by the Women’s Social and Political Union to women who had endured hunger strikes while in prison. Fewer than 100 of these medals were awarded.

Off to lunch at Roule Galette in Flinders Lane- and yes, the city still is much quieter than it used to be- then back home for a grand-daughter pick up from school. I haven’t ever done the pick-up run because I’m usually down at the Brotherhood- and hopefully, things will have dried out enough that I can be down there again next Friday. Says she, with thunder rumbling outside.

A day trip to Kyneton

The sun was shining and we had no commitments. So we hopped into the Big Red Car and drove up to Kyneton, about ninety kilometres from Melbourne.  A former gold rush town, it still has many original buildings and the wide streets and verandahs of an Australian country town.  For many years it has been a favourite ‘Sunday drive’ destination with antique stores and restaurants.

Kyneton isn’t far from Hanging Rock, which is going to be the setting for a ‘Too Many Mirandas’ flashmob later in February.


Feel like joining them?  Here’s the video so that you can learn the dance. It looks like fun. But I think I’m more Miss Appleyard than Miranda or even Ethel.

There was a stonemason’s yard where they were operating a hand-operated crane to move some marble blocks.


One guy to turn the wheel, the other to position the stone


Fancy a headstone with a bit of Os-tray-iana on it?


It’s a very long standing business (a very little pun)


Putting one’s stonemasonry skills to work on the letterbox

The museum was open so of course we went in.  They’ve obviously had lots of financial support for the museum, which was housed in a former bank building with lots of land attached.  Their main exhibition in the front rooms in on loan from Tennis Australia, and features  lawn tennis objects, including a Teddy Tingling tennis dress.

In the grounds outside they had a very well-preserved timber slab hut. The original hut had been built around and encased in weatherboards, leaving the original hut in very good condition.  It was originally located on a local farm property but has since been shifted to the museum. The pig shed from the local market was shifted to the museum site too, and is now used to display agricultural equipment.


There was a Furphy water cart there, dating from 1920. I’d never noticed what looked like hieroglyphics on the tank end. Steve thought it looked like shorthand, and according to the ADB, that’s exactly what it is, apparently exhorting the reader to stay away from strong drink and stick to water instead.


They even have a bluestone structure that no-one really knows why it was built. They think it might be a pigeon loft because there are alcoves built into the walls which might be used for nesting, and steps leading down from the windows for young birds just learning to fly.  It had at various times been used as a morgue too, but no-one really knows.


Upstairs in the old bank building the rooms are still laid out as they would have been when it was used as the bank manager’s residence. All in all, well worth a visit although I wish that someone from the local historical society had been in attendance because the woman working there, while very welcoming and helpful, did not come from the area and her knowledge of Kyneton as a broader area was limited.

After museum-ing, it was time for lunch. How could we pass a bakery that had won so many prizes? Pies, vanilla slices- it just cleaned up the competition! I’m obviously not good at this taking-pictures-of-your-food thing because I’m sure the pie looked better before I started eating it. At least I took a photo of the very good vanilla slice before I hoed into it.


A final drive to the Botanic Gardens, where the National Trust heritage-listed trees were carefully listed in a useful pamphlet available as you go in the gate.  Then we headed for home, going past the school. In the local community newsletter it appears that the school site is about to be closed because a new school is opening up and there’s a movement afoot for the old school to be used for community purposes.  It’s a beautiful bluestone school, with a WWI memorial to fallen former scholars right in the playground where the kiddies play. But Kyneton has just so many historic buildings for community purposes and a limited, albeit active, population to use them.  Wait and see, I guess.


Museo Italiano, Carlton


In January we had a day off from caring for Dad. It was a stinking hot day (41 degrees) and coming out of the air-conditioned comfort of Cinema Nova, we weren’t quite ready to head home yet but didn’t want to relinquish our undercover car park. What could we do? Then I remembered the Museo Italiana at the CoAsIt building in Faraday Street, which I’d promised myself I’d visit one day.  Was it open? Yes! open Tuesday to Saturday.  Was it air-conditioned? Yes! Beautifully!

It’s a good little museum, documenting the Italian migrant experience right back to convict days and the gold rush, but focussing on post-war migration.  During the 1950s and 1960s, Carlton was known as the Italian part of Melbourne, a small remnant of which remains in Lygon Street today.  The displays are professionally mounted, and there’s good use of music and video.

And if you need any further encouragement- it’s free!

‘Coming Home’ Exhibition Bundoora Homestead

There’s a fantastic exhibition on display at Bundoora Homestead called “Coming Home” that commemorates the use of the homestead as a convalescent farm and repatriation mental hospital between 1920 and 1993.  Even though it’s ostensibly an exhibition about the use of a house,  it’s a sad and very human exhibition. There are none of the brass bands and official ceremonies that we saw last week at Albany , but this exhibition is an act of commemoration nonetheless.

As I’ve written about previously, (here and here) Bundoora Homestead was built in 1899 by the Smith racing family as their residence and stud farm. In 1920, immediately in the wake of WWI the Commonwealth government negotiated the purchase of Bundoora Park estate as a convalescent farm for returned soldiers from the WWI front.  As Marina Larsson wrote in her book, Shattered Anzacs (review), the families of returned servicemen with mental illness were keen that their loved ones not been seen as ordinary ‘lunatics’, but housed and treated in repatriation facilities in recognition of their war service. Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital was sited across the road from Mont Park as a separate, soldiers-only hospital that could draw on the facilities of the civilian asylum nearby.

The exhibition focuses on individual men, most particularly Wilfred Collinson and Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon,  who spent decades of their lives at Bundoora.

Wilfred Collinson was a British migrant, who arrived in Australian in 1914. He hadn’t been here long, working as a farm labourer with a friend that he’d met on the ship over, before the two lads volunteered and were returned to Europe to fight in WWI.  He had a long war, and was gassed four times.  On his return to Australia he and his friend, Eric Brymer, boarded in South Melbourne, and Wilfred soon married the girl next door and embarked on a family life.  His children grew up with a father affected by “nerves” who became increasingly delusional, and eventually he was committed to Bundoora in the 1930s.  As Larsson points out, families often had to battle the government for pensions and recognition that illnesses and injuries were war-based, and Wilfred Collinson’s wife is a case in point. His friend Eric Brymer, who was the only person who could testify to what Wilfred had been like before the war, wrote a letter in support of his wife’s application on her husband’s behalf.  Then followed another thirty-five years, and two generations, as his wife and daughter, then daughter and his granddaughter, went out to visit ‘Dad’ at Bundoora.  He died there in 1972. His war, in effect, was never over.  (You can see the video of his daughter and granddaughter on the exhibition site here.  The video is also running at the exhibition).

Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon was a medical orderly with the 2/9 Field Ambulance and Changi POW.  We’ve all heard about Weary Dunlop, but I’d not heard of Lofty Cannon. He was a tall man- 6 foot six- but it was a shrunken life that he returned to after WWII. He’d married just six days before leaving for the front, he fought in the Malay campaign and was captured as a prisoner of war in 1942. While he was at Changi he met Ronald Searle, an English prisoner-of-war, who later credited Lofty with saving his life, nursing him through beri-beri and malaria. Lofty wasn’t in much better shape, with ulcers, malaria and dysentery and the after-effects of beatings from the Japanese guards. He was hospitalized at the Repat. in Heidelberg in 1946 on his return to Australia, where he received ECT and insulin coma therapy.  By 1947 he and his wife were living on a soldier-settlement farm near Swan Hill but by 1960 his wife and adopted son returned to Melbourne and Lofty went to Bundoora.  From Bundoora he wrote letters to his wartime friend, Ronald Searle in England, by now a noted artist and illustrator, probably best known for his  St Trinian’s illustrations.  Much of the display shows Searle’s sketches that he made of Changi, several featuring Lofty.  These are in the possession of the State Library of Victoria, and you can see them online if you search for “Cannon, Harry (Lofty)”. He died in 1980 at Bundoora.  Rachael Buchanan wrote a terrific essay about him in Griffith Review 2007 freely available here.

Bundoora Homestead is beautifully restored and such a peaceful place today that it’s hard to believe that so much sadness seeped through its walls and the  now-demolished wards that once surrounded it.

The exhibition runs until 7 December at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, 7-27 Snake Gully Drive Bundoora, Wed-Friday 11.00-4.00 p.m and Sat and Sun 12.00-5 p.m.


‘Auld Lang Syne’ at the Art Gallery of Ballarat

Well, it’s not quite over yet! You can catch this exhibition at the beautiful Art Gallery at Ballarat before it closes on July 27th 2014.


When we talk of ‘British’ settlement in Australia, we often glide over the fact that this included English, Scots, Irish and Welsh settlers and officials.  Hidden in plain sight is the fact that Scots permeated the empire, both as agents of colonialism through their Scottish enlightenment skills in botany, surveying and art, and as settlers in their own right.  Once you’re alert to this, you find them everywhere in colonial Australia- and in my own research into Upper Canada and British Guiana, they’re there as well, as this Slaves and Highlanders site conveys.  Their Scots ties were not left behind, and they were reinforced in new colonies by the church (both Presbyterian and Catholic), Scottish organizations and the familial networks between new settlers.

This exhibition of artwork and artefacts underscores the importance of the Scottish artists who accompanied the First Fleet (think Sidney Parkinson), and those officials who dabbled in artwork in the early Port Jackson settlement (think John Hunter).  Their education and scientific learning , to say nothing of toughness), fitted them well as explorers (think Stuart and Sturt and Major Mitchell) and their financial acumen and entrepreneurial nous served them well as merchants (think Robert Campbell) and agriculturalists (think William Anglis).  They were governors (think Lachlan Macquarie) and firebrand preachers ( think John Dunmore Lang) .  When Queen Victoria adopted Balmoral into her ‘brand’, Australians did too, and Robert Burns and Highland games became incorporated into the Britishness that colonial Australians held onto while at the same time developing their own variation.

All these aspects are explored in this exhibition which covers the First Fleet to Federation.  There is, as you might expect in an Art Gallery, an emphasis on artwork which is drawn from many collections, including the Natural History Museum in UK.  (I liked the fact, conveyed through one of the information panels, that a wombat skin sent ‘home’ by one of the early Scots settlers is displayed standing on its two back paws). But there are some objects as well, including a silk scarf commemorating the Scottish Martyrs who were sent here as convicts (an EXCELLENT Radio National podcast on Thomas Muir here).  An introductory panel warns that women are not heavily represented in the display, but Georgiana McCrae had a presence.

The dearth of women might have been ameliorated by a stronger focus on family connections, which was hinted at with the displays on Thomas and James Mitchell, but not really brought to the forefront.  It could likewise have been drawn out further with Georgiana McCrae whose brothers-in-law popped up in different aspects of Port Phillip Society.  Family connections, the networks across colonies, and chain migration as one son, then another, then the whole family came across, ensured that the Scots spread across Australia and the empire generally.  They became part of, and shaped their new communities but retained still an emotional attachment to their Scots identity.

I would have loved to have purchased the book that accompanied the exhibition but it was just SO expensive.  It was available in hardback only, at $79.95.  I’d gladly buy a softcover book for $40.00 if it were available (even though the glue binding them is often inferior) but double the price is just too much.  The same applied at the Bendigo exhibition we attended recently.

I’m pleased that the regional galleries are mounting such well curated and well publicized exhibitions.  And we certainly weren’t alone in our enjoyment. It was a bitterly cold Ballarat Sunday afternoon, and the gallery was comfortably full.



A cultural Friday

My youngest child is walking her feet off for the Oxfam 100km Trailwalker today.  And was I there to support her? Why, no – I was off into town to catch one exhibition before it closes and to see two others that I’ve promised myself I must see.  I’ll do supportive mother tomorrow.

The first exhibition, which closed today, was ‘Learning from Surfers Paradise’ which was displayed in the lobby to RMIT’s Design Hub at 100 Swanston Street (corner of Victoria Street).


Architectural photographer John Gollings, along with three others, arrived in Surfers Paradise in 1973 to undertake a project photographing Surfers Paradise.  Forty years later he returned and took the same photographs again from the same spot.  So what do we learn?  Many of the buildings in 1973 that had been cutting edge in the 1950s and 1960s were looking a little tatty by then.  There’s a sameness about many of the buildings that have replaced them.   Certainly there is more greenery in the streets. Some buildings from the 1950s and 1960s quite frankly were no loss at all.  Others, however, were a loss- especially the Surfers Paradise Hotel which had such a distinctive outline and was replaced by a very ordinary entrance to a shopping centre.   We used to holiday up there from about 1975 onwards, so many of the places were very familiar.  There were a couple of places in the recent photographs that I recognized that are still there.

Then off to the Ian Potter Museum at the University of Melbourne.


They have an exhibition ‘Secret Lives, Forgotten Stories: highlights from Heritage Victoria’s Archaeological Collection’.  I was attracted to this exhibition (which is on until 12 October) because it has artefacts that were collected from excavations at Viewbank Homestead.  Viewbank, which was demolished in the 1920s, was situated close to Banyule Homestead, and there was a close association between the two houses through Robert Martin and his family.   There have been several digs at Viewbank which have uncovered pottery, crockery, toys, bottles etc.  One rather amazing find: a cup with ‘Robert’ written on it.  All of a sudden, these jagged shards of crockery seemed very personal.

Most of the material came from Viewbank, but there are other archaelogical digs featured as well: the coffins shifted from the Old Melbourne Jail to Pentridge that included Ned Kelly’s bones; Cohen place near the Little Lonsdale Street excavation; the Eureka lead; a Chinese  brick kiln from Bendigo; the Sorrento settlement,  and two shipwrecks.

Finally off to the NGV for their Blake exhibition. Plenty of time to see this one too- it closes 31 August.


Did you know that Melbourne has the largest share of the 102  watercolours created by Blake to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy?  They were purchased in 1918 by a consortium arranged by Robbie Ross (Oscar Wilde’s close friend) that comprised the National Gallery of Victoria, The British Museum, the Tate Gallery, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and two private collectors.  The watercolours were to be sold as a set and there was much anxiety that they remain ‘within the Empire’.

The National Gallery of Victoria was a major player amongst these illustrious organizations because it had been recently enriched by the Felton Bequest.  The prosperous Melbourne businessman Alfred Felton had left 383,000 pounds as an investment fund, with the earned income to be divided equally between nominated charitable causes and the NGV for purchases of art.  So, all of a sudden the little art gallery from the bottom of the globe, with all its wealth, was welcomed with open arms.

Dividing up the set was conducted through a carefully pre-arranged system, whereby the watercolours were divided into three categories depending on how finished they were (because some were still very rudimentary sketches). Depending on their contribution, each consortium member could select in turn from the three categories in a round-robin arrangement.  National Gallery Victoria and the Tate each ended up with 36, the British and Birmingham museums six and the Ashmolean and private collectors three each.  Despite the plan to keep them within the empire, twenty three ended up at the Fogg Museum at Harvard University.

Melbourne’s thirty-six are on display in a large darkened room on the ground floor. In fact, you can see them all here on your computer but they’re much, much better in real life.  There is also a digital display of the whole 102 watercolours at the exhibition, along with a brief description and explanation of the scenes from the Divine Comedy that they are illustrating.  I felt a little guilty looking at the digital version while the real thing was hanging just a few metres away, but I really didn’t know much about the Divine Comedy, and I appreciated them more having seen the whole collection.  I find it amazing that Blake was working in the early decades of the nineteenth century: they are striking pictures.

All these exhibitions were free.  How blessed we are.  Along with a good coffee or two, a tasty lunch while resting our feet, it’s been a lovely day.  Speaking of resting one’s feet, I wonder how that daughter’s getting on….

‘Streets of Melbourne’ at the Old Treasury Building

While I sometimes feel as if I am the only person who’s not away at the beach, the mountains or where-ever everyone else goes, there are some advantages in being home during the close-down around Christmas and New Year.  Off into town we went yesterday, feeling like tourists in our own town, to see the ‘Streets of Melbourne’ exhibition at the Old Treasury Building.  It’s on until May 2014, so there’s plenty of time to catch it!


If you haven’t been to the museum in the Old Treasury, I strongly suggest that you pop in.  It’s FREE, it’s grown-up and it gives a much better narrative of the history of Victoria than the House of Fun that pretends to be the Museum of Victoria.  It’s open every day except Saturday between 10.00 – 4.00 each day, and its website is here.

The building itself was designed by J. J. Clark, who was only 19 when he started work on it.  It is a three-story Rennaisance Revival- style building, constructed between 1858 and 1862 at the cost of approximately 75,000 pounds.  It’s a proud building that boasts of the wealth that gold bequeathed to Victoria.  It was built to store gold in the vaults below (which you can access) and originally provided office facilities for the Governor, the Premier (then called the Chief Secretary), the Treasurer and the Auditor General.   It is still used today for Executive Council meetings.  The left hand side of the building usually has a bride or two hovering around it because it’s the home of the Victorian Marriage Registry (as you can see if you click to enlarge the image above).

We were fortunate to see the Executive Council rooms upstairs because they’re not always open. I’ve obviously been dwelling in pre-Responsible Government days for too long, because I’m rather ashamed to admit that it hadn’t occurred to me that there even IS an Executive Council any more.   In Port Phillip during Judge Willis’ time (i.e. prior to Separation), the executive council of New South Wales consisted of about 5-7 men, all appointed by the Crown and on the Executive Council by virtue of their substantive positions i.e. the Governor himself, the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, the Lord Bishop of Australia, the Colonial Secretary, the Colonial Treasurer, the Chief Justice and the Attorney General.   You don’t tend to hear much about it, because the Legislative Council was much more significant in the granting of Responsible Government.   But here we are, 170 years on in the separate state of Victoria, and the Executive Council, which meets in this room,now  consists of the governor and the senior ministry (although I do wonder how they all crowd around the table).  It was pleasing to see photographs of the current-day Executive Council with both men and women, compared with the rather dour and serious men-in-suits in some of the older pictures in the corridor outside.

The exhibition of early Melbourne paintings is also on the first floor.  You can only see them through a tour (Mondays 2.00pm. from Jan 20th or other times by appointment $8.00). I purchased the catalogue because there’s images there that I have never seen before.  Many of them are from the Roy Morgan Research Centre collection.

The museum downstairs has a large permanent display, but the first two rooms have special displays, and at the moment it’s of the streets of Melbourne, with an emphasis on the Hoddle Grid.  There are some fascinating maps there, and various surveying instruments and artefacts.


We probably spent 90 minutes poring over a large map of the grid on the wall that has numbered street scape photos surrounding it.  There were photographs that I hadn’t seen before here as well, and we spent much time picking out buildings and arguing about which direction the photograph was taken from  (a compass and directional arrows on the map, which we suggested, would resolve such disputes!)


This is a fantastic museum and I’m pleased that it has survived and is still free after the earlier City Museum closed there.  You can see (and purchase) a terrific video of a trip on a cable car just before it closed during WWII, the exhibitions change frequently, and there’s actually something real in the museum to see,  as distinct from a series of ‘experiences’ and ‘immersions’ that we seem to be fobbed off with in museums these days.

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.


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.



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.