End of an era…

The other day I found out that the old gaol at the WA Museum is now closed and the exhibition within it being carefully dismantled. While this might seem like a fairly regular occurance for a state museum, it is special because that exhibition has sat there since 1976. This has been enternally embarrassing for the museum’s history curators, no doubt, but it is a somewhat significant event in the history of presenting and recording history in this state.

History here really didn’t get going until 1979 and the Sesquicentennial celebrations that were for some reason a huge deal. Most local history publications date from this time (and many have never been revised) and this exhibition was no doubt part of the groundswell that developed in the lead up.

While I’m happy to see that the museum is removing the exhibition finally, it seems they are doing it only because they are about to demolish the old museum building (also of this era) which was found to be riddled with asbestos. This building has stood like a sentinel – empty and decaying – guarding and protecting the state government from putting any of the riches from mining in the State into the arts at all (a whole other post!).

Earlier this year I wrote an assignment for a subject called Museology and chose to analyse this exhibition. I’m now really glad I did. You can read the whole paper here :Assignment 1 – Jennifer Griffiths. Or just read on for the interesting bits without the academic fluff. I do need to acknowledge Bennett (1995) and Whitcomb (2003) in this paper, although I’ve taken specific references out of this post. See the full paper for complete referencing.

When I was younger – probably between the ages of 12-14 – my best friend and I would visit the Western Australian Museum often. We had a routine; picking up the worksheets and blunt, short pencils from the now closed foyer of the old building, going from room to room, up and down the stairs, filling in the information required. It didn’t worry us that we’d done it all before. I have a vivid memory of coming out of that building full of bones, rocks and stuffed animals and into the courtyard where the smaller, quainter gaol buildings offered a safe haven from the city surrounding the museum. We would do the worksheets for the exhibitions in the old gaol and courthouse then have orange juice and a vanilla slice at the café as reward for our efforts.

When I went to the old gaol and courthouse part of the museum looking for an exhibition to review for this assignment I was astounded to find myself transported back to 1987 and my twelve-year-old self as I wandered the rooms of my memories. Everything in the gaol is just as it was and just as I remember it. An email to the exhibition department of the museum confirmed that the exhibitions would have been installed in the 1970s, in fact it was opened in 1976 (Annual Report, 1976), and have not changed since. Quite apart from issues of relevancy and representation which will be discussed later, what struck me most was how the exhibition organised my own memory – at my first visit I was walking through my own history, rather than the one behind the glass. I was there with my best friend again, filling out worksheets. I was taken not back to nineteenth century Perth but to the 1980s, bringing with it a flood of memories of the city and my life at that time.

It occurs to me that this experience may not be all that unusual for those who have lived long enough to see the things of their childhood in a museum cabinet (for example, their grandmother’s clothes wringer or an old telephone) but in these cases the object itself is the cause of the memory. Seeing objects within a museum in this way opens questions of how the present inserts itself into an historical display, but perhaps, when being seen by someone who used or knew of the object in its original form, the object brings the past forward into the present (arguably the desired purpose of an exhibition), rather than pushing the present back into the past.

For me, however, something different occurred. As it was the display, the exhibition itself that was the historical artefact and my own memories that layered upon the historical meaning, my experience, as a viewer of the display was beyond the realm of the curator’s initial purpose. I suppose I have to assume that others have had a similar experience on revisiting this museum after a long absence, but it struck me as particularly incredible that not only was this a museum of historical artefacts, it was now an artefact of its own.

The narrative of the exhibition in The Old Perth Gaol and Courthouse can be seen, perhaps, as the way we (white middle-class of British heritage) would like to remember “the past” – trips to the beach, morning tea listening to the gramophone, visits to the dentist and the pharmacy, simple children’s games – and not really at all what it was like. This is an edited version of Western Australia’s beginnings, one that ignores some of the key things that shaped this state (the goldrush, the indigenous population, immigration, convicts, agriculture to name the obvious examples). This is a history for a people without a context (who were they?, where did they come from?) and without a link to the present (what happened between Federation and today, even if ‘today’ is 1976?).

Is it possible to discuss The Old Perth Gaol and Courthouse exhibitions and leave behind the scorn of Bennett (and others) who would see these exhibitions as the epitome of “passive contemplation” (Bennett, 1995, p. 135), of the worst kind of nation-building? It is perhaps all to easy to heap negative criticism on an exhibition who time forgot, one that has stood silently as the crisis of curatorial theory and practice raged around it. And while the questions of why that might have happened are beyond the scope of this paper, it is possible to imagine that this was not a conscious choice by the museum. So can we really blame the exhibition for being of its time? As the debate continues as to what a museum should do and be, it seems unfair to try to fit this exhibition into the frame of what we might believe an exhibition should do today.

What, then, is the answer? Should this exhibition be labelled outdated, useless or worse, offensive by its omissions and assumptions? Should it be gazed at affectionately as a past we made before we knew better – a bit like a child’s first clay mug? Are either positions even useful when confronted with an exhibition as part of the state museum (and this is where I believe it is differentiated from the regional museums that have sat untouched for years) that is rapidly approaching its fortieth birthday? I’m not sure I am ready to posit an answer to these questions here, although, I must confess a certain fondness for the place; that in this town which changed so much during the twenty years I was absent, there is a little piece of my childhood still here.

Image by Amanda Slater.

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