Thursday, July 19, 2012

Museum Thinking – some ruminations on performance.

By Frank McKone
18 July 2012

It’s quite a few years now since I have been in the position to review exhibitions in, say, the National Museum of Australia, Old Parliament House – now the Australian Museum of Democracy, or the Australian War Memorial.

My current trip to Europe (I write this in Geneva, not far from the Place of Nations) has reminded me of the exciting days when the NMA hosted the fourth biennial conference of the International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL) in October 2005.

Robyn Archer, whose commitment to Canberra continues in our Centenary celebrations next year, gave a suitably theatrical keynote address at a conference which convenor Daina Harvey said would examine ways of reaching new audiences and the possibilities created by interpreting history and culture through performance.

'Performance is a really powerful way of drawing visitors into cultural institutions and engaging them in content,' Ms Harvey said. 'The conference explores the changing nature of cultural institutions and the way in which their themes and collections are interpreted.' 

As I recall, it was Ohio University's Catherine Hughes, speaking on how visitors connect emotionally to performance and how this affects memory and learning, who made the most powerful impact, backing the research done by Harvard’s Professor of Psychology, Howard Gardner, famous for his development of the Seven Intelligences theory of human brain function and learning.  (I believe he was able to extend his range to 8½ intelligences in later research.)

But the truth is I haven’t come across much theatre on this trip, though this is partly because our focus was mainly on walking in mountain country rather than visiting museums.  I feel a bit like Antony Green, the ABC election commentator, who has apologised in his blog for not being up with the latest numbers until he returns in August from his European bike riding trip.  It’s well up in the 30s where he’s riding in Italy, while we have also escaped the heat (at least my wife has) up on high walking the Haute Route in Switzerland.  I’m no longer capable of such escapades.

Yet three museums, I think, show that the theatre of history is dramatic, and should be presented as such to attract and educate the public of today.

The first I visited on a previous trip to France.  The town of Castres boasts perhaps the best collection in the world of the art of Spain, in the Goya Museum.  This indeed is an eye-opener because the mediaeval  paintings from Spain show so much more realistically the personalities of their subjects than those of other parts of Europe.  And that’s before you get to Goya, himself.

But the usual guidebooks mention that a museum was set up in 1954 in the house where Jean Jaurès was born.  Lonely Planet more or less said – speaking obviously to the young who want to keep moving – don’t bother unless you want to do lots of reading.  But what reading it is, with plenty of pictorial documentary displays, about the life of the founder of French modern socialism, merging the French Socialist Party with the Socialist Party of France in 1905.  If you thought Gough Whitlam was of some importance to the Australian Labor Party, see the story of Jean Jaurès and you’ll weep for this anti-militarist tragically assassinated on 31 July 1914.

While Castres’ tourist industry is so proud of its Roman remains (they’re everywhere, absolutely everywhere in Europe, as we have seen on this trip), and of the luck of having all those exquisite Spanish paintings, it’s Jean Jaurès and his lifetime of work for human rights which is the real legacy in a town where by 1860 “there were 50 wool mills in town, employing 3,000 people. In the end of the 19th century, mechanical engineering industries appeared beside the textile industry, which led to Castres becoming a major arsenal for the French army during the First World War.” (

The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand had its parallel in Castres.

No-one tried to perform in the Jean-Jaurès Museum – the house, the words and the pictures played their roles perfectly.

And on this year’s trip, a little museum in Torino (Turin) and a big one in Bolzano have had a similar impact.  The big one first.

How could we walk in the Dolomites above Lake Garda’s Malcesine and the ski-fields of Corvara without calling in to see Ötzi, in Bolzano, midway between? Ötzi, the Ice Man, 5300 years old and preserved in a whole museum to himself.

I doubt that I need to write about his famous story, but the special exhibition, for which we drove 80 kilometres (and you know what that means in Italy) and got lost in Bolzano (saved by an extraordinarily kind car salesman who gave us his map), took more than two hours in the viewing. 

We understood the context: the life of Ötzi’s times; the 20 years’ worth of science that has gone into the forensic interpretation of what was found on the glacier; and the way modern people have reacted to the “mystery” and the scientific information, as if each one of us has a personal connection to the Ice Man’s life and death.

But then comes the real drama.  There immediately before us are all the items of his clothing, his weaponry, his food, his backpack, and his finely ground and polished copper knife, just as we would see them if we had been on a bushwalk with him.  Then we see his body, his actual body, though preserved behind glass in a controlled atmosphere container.  We see his twisted arm and we see the wound where an assailant’s arrowhead tore his flesh and left him to die.

There is a little performance available.  School students dress up in re-creations of his clothing – superficially just for fun, but in the experience is the reality.  This man climbed well above the snow line in these clothes, made by hand of materials such as goat skin and wolf fur, and carried a long bow that required great strength to bend, to fire a notched arrow with glued-on feathers and a stone barb finely designed so that it could not be removed from its target.  Like the one which was still in his body in the ice after 5300 years. 

This is authentic museumship which makes history no longer a thing of the past. Ötzi is made present for us by the skills of modern forensic artistry.  Dutch artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis have used all the information from 3D CT scans to create Ötzi as he must have looked, standing before us, maybe unaware of the enemy hiding a little more than 20 metres away.  We know from the calculations made from the bow and arrows, and the direction of fire, that this scenario is very probable.  And I have to say he looked quite like my brother.

The special exhibition has been extended until 2013, and you can check it out at , but the website just can’t match the reality. 

The little museum has a long title: Museo Diffuso della Resistenza, della Deportazione, della Guerra, dei Diritti e della Libertà. for short.

Maybe this is to try to make this modern museum of social history claw a bit of audience response away from the Savoy family, the Royals of Piedmont, whose insanely huge buildings put up over 400 years now house massive collections of art. (Just like the Queen, I thought.)

But the difference is not just in size, but in intention and display.  Room after room of paintings are labelled with details of the work’s provenance – like who probably, possibly or actually did make the painting, what kind of brushwork was used, and how this might show the style and the likely date of the work.  Occasionally a portrait may have a named subject, especially if he (and sometimes a she) was “royal”.

In the Museo Diffuso the people, now often in their eighties, have real names and tell their real stories of the rise of fascism, the resistance, the Second World War, and the establishment of human rights principles in post-war Italy.  Fortunately for me, the speakers have their stories reproduced in English beneath the video as they speak.

On large screens as you move around from speaker to speaker you see film of the experiences these people were having: from Mussolini making public speeches to the destruction of people’s homes as they were bombed during the war.

Being entombed in a crypt of an old building where this display is set up was more than enough to bring back my memories of nights squashed in an Anderson shelter with my parents while the buzz-bombers and finally V-bombs crashed into North London.  So I was glad to find that the even deeper tunnel which was an original air raid shelter among the hundreds built under Turin had water seepage and was out of bounds on my visit.

The whole point of the exhibition circuit was to take you through people’s experiences to the point where you sat before modern day speakers quoting from the provisions that offer freedom of association, freedom of speech, protection of minorities, and equality before the law in the Italian Constitution. 

This was in stark contrast to the woman who spoke of not being able to gain employment as a teacher in 1933 unless she joined the Fascist Party.  She did so despite her abhorrence of the Party, explaining to her mother that she had no choice.  Her two brothers had already been drafted against their wills and her mother was now in tears at the equivalent loss of her daughter.

Later in the teacher’s career, her Principal had to write a report on her progress, and asked her to suggest what he might write.  She told him that she had always taught the children to search for information and to think for themselves, at which he pointed out that he couldn’t write anything like that.  It appeared that he sent in an acceptable report, however, and she did not lose her job.  Watching her speak I knew that she had had the patience, however dreadful the experience, to wait throughout the 1930s and then through the awful wartime, which luckily she survived, until the time came that she could treat herself and her students as a teacher should.

This is the kind of lesson this museum has to offer.  There were many more, ending in four mirrors.  As you sit before each one, you “activate the replay of individual accounts, passages from literature and newspaper commentaries on the selected articles of the Constitution.”  Called “Living the Constitution”, I wonder whether our new National Curriculum in Civics will ever do our young people such a service as this.

And, later, I found that this “little” museum is named Diffuso because the Comune of Torino – the equivalent of the ACT Government – has made the message “widespread”: “Twenty sites in the town have been highlighted with graphically coordinated signs so that the traces from the past can be recognised and deciphered in their local context.” 

I didn’t have time to stay in Turin and search them all out, but across Australia it may be time to make museums perform like these sites which “are marked with a matrix code as well as information panels.  These are two-dimensional codes which can be read using a cell-phone, transmitting information, pictures, documents about the place as well as giving access to a geoblog.  The geoblog is a communication space within the website of the Museum where impressions, comments, personal experiences and information can be exchanged in real time.”

The National Portrait Gallery is already using iPods.  What will it be like when you rock up to a town like Roeburne in WA, and your mobile tunes into the images of people in neck chains (which are on display in the old Police Station) while you are looking at the iron bars on the shopfronts.  Would you perform on the geoblog, I wonder?

Maybe we need one big Museo Diffusio, and the political will to make it happen.