Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Come Alive 2013

Come Alive at the National Museum of Australia.  Artistic Director, Peter Wilkins; Manager, Mitch Preston, NMA Learning Services and Community Outreach. October 28 – November 1, 2013.

Commentary by Frank McKone

This is the fourth annual Come Alive festival in which nine Canberra schools present 11 performances written and performed by students based on their observations of exhibits currently on display in the National Museum of Australia.

The festival is an initiative taken under the Museum’s keen interest in IMTAL, the International Museum Theatre Alliance, whose annual conference has just been held at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, described (pre-conference) as follows:

The 2013 IMTAL Global Conference will focus on creativity and innovation in today’s Museum Theatre. In 2013, Museum Theatre is a proven, tested, educational approach in the field of museum studies. It is also an art form bringing the best of performance to museum visitors of all ages. But how is the field continuing to evolve? The 2013 Global conference will bring together practitioners, researchers, performers, and museum professionals from around the world to discuss, debate, present, and share examples of how the field is evolving and innovating.

As far as I know, Wilkins’ approach at the NMA is rare, if not unique.  He combines the learning about Australia’s social history with the learning of the practice of theatre by putting the students in the position of researchers, writers and performers. 

In one show I saw today (October 30), Melrose High School took up the question of whether each of three women whose stories are on display – Holocaust survivor Olga Horak, Annette Kellerman who was the first woman to swim the English Channel and stood up for women’s rights early in the last century, and Ida Prosser-Fenn, a missionary and nurse in Papua New Guinea through the 1940s and 50s – should be allowed into heaven.  The last laugh on the gatekeeper (a woman, not St Peter) was that all had satisfied Heaven’s requirements – but Olga Horak is still alive, volunteering at the Jewish Museum in Sydney.  So they promised she would be let in when she dies.  Their play is called The Final Reward.

Canberra College students took an entirely different angle. The Saw Doctor’s wagon was the mobile home and workshop of Harold Wright, who started travelling the roads of rural Australia during the 1930s Depression.  After migrating from England to Australia in 1930, Wright began walking Queensland roads to find work. In 1935, he used the little money he had saved to convert a horsedrawn wagon into a combined workshop and home. Over the next 34 years, as he travelled throughout the farmlands and towns of north-west Victoria and New South Wales sharpening knives and blades, Wright made updates and changes to his wagon, promoting himself as ‘The Saw Doctor’.  

Instead of re-telling the story of Harold Wright, the students turned him into “Tinker Tom” whose tractor and wagon became a time-travel machine to take an audience of second and third-graders back to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and one of the first outside television broadcasts in Australia, to the burning of their mining licences by the gold diggers at the Eureka Stockade, to the convict days of the female factory, and even back to the era of the dinosaurs.  Humorous and even quite absurdist, Tinker Tom’s Travels will go into primary schools and I’m sure will succeed in its prime purpose of engendering a sense of history through the fun of time travel.

There’s no doubt in my mind that these examples show that Peter Wilkins succeeds in encouraging the creativity and innovation that IMTAL seeks.  But it struck me watching today that there is a further level of education going on here.  The young people participating in museum theatre are engaged in the very multicultural life which the National Museum encapsulates as the core of life in Australia.  Writing and performing their own plays takes the students out of their personal circumstances, and perhaps out of their assumptions, into the lives of a great variety of people across the country and across time.  Within the groups performing today the variety of cultures in our society was clearly represented, all working together to explore their Australian heritage – and watching other groups from other schools travelling a similar journey.

So I see Come Alive not so much about learning about history, but being history through drama.  It was, perhaps, the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, famous for his Seven Intelligences, who first established the importance of education through museums.  Come Alive, I suggest, is proof in action.

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