What Are Museums For?

Yesterday, we had what I will call “an unfortunate museum encounter”, which has raised the question, at least in my own mind, about why we have museums and how the interaction between visitor and exhibits should be conducted. Are we still living in the days where the museum dictates how the public should respond to an exhibit? Or, have we loosened the chains and allowed the public to discover history for themselves?

Over the last week, I unwittingly put this philosophical question to the test when I saw the Archibald Exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW,  Elizabeth Farm at Rose Hill and Old Government House out at Parramatta, in Western Sydney. Since I’ve already shared my interpretation of the Archibald Exhibition, today I’ll be focusing on Elizabeth Farm and Old Government House.

Somewhere along the dimly lit corridors of memory, I remember visiting Elizabeth Farm as a child and given my love of history and historic architecture, I’ve always wanted to go back. However, I’ve only been out to Parramatta a couple of times. Although it’s a major city, it’s a bit off the beaten track for us. Moreover, when you’re caught up in the rush and bustle, museums seem like a bit of a luxury…an indulgence. Something, I usually only get around to on holidays, or if there’s a special exhibition.

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Looking like a real writer with my quill at Elizabeth Farm.

What I really loved about Elizabeth Farm is that it is a touchy-feel museum. Everything inside is a replica or historical equivalent, including the portraits on the wall, which look very authentic. They’ve even gone to the trouble of copying the very sideboards, chairs and other pieces of furniture, and using them to furnish the house. That meant, I could touch everything. I could smell the spices on display in the kitchen, and I could even sit down at the writing desk and chair and pose for photos holding the quill. That gave me a real buzz…Rowena the writer. We could also sit down on the lounge chairs, with their firm horse hair bases and run our hands through the soft, luxurious possum fur rugs, which were draped over the top. Indeed, it was quite a sensory experience. (We are, however, hoping that the rug was made from New Zealand possums which are actually an environmental pest, very much like rabbits are here in Australia). There was also an informative DVD about the history of the house narrated by much loved Australian actor, Garry McDonald. When I heard him talk about bringing that sense of being in a bustling household back to life. I immediately thought about the houses I grew up in and indeed our own home with kids and dogs running through the place and a sense of chaos, adventure, laughter, tears and amusement. This place was anything but a mausoleum.

By the way, I should also add that we went on an informative tour of the house and our guide was absolutely delightful and very informative. Indeed, initially when it was just Geoff and I on the tour, I immediately introduced ourselves, and she said: “you were reading my mind. That rarely happens”. So, that was a lovely personal touch, along with the fact she’s worked at Hyde Park Barracks, which is of personal interest to me as I’m descended from an Irish famine Orphan who passed through there.

Elizabeth Farm

Joseph Lycett, The residence of John McArthur Esqre. near Parramatta, New South Wales, 1825. Sydney Living Museums.

Sunday, we drove over to Parramatta Park and visited Old Government House, which was a very different experience. Old Government House is owned by the National Trust and the displays are authentic historical items, while Elizabeth Farm is part of of the Living Museums network. I don’t know if my experience is typical of visiting a National Trust venue and indeed, I hope it isn’t. However, upon arrival and paying our entry fees, we were told no flash photography. We were given no other limits on photography. I was not only struck by the grand entry hallway, but also the keyhole. I have visited a number of historic homes in my time, but as far as I can recall, it’s the first time I’ve actively looked through the keyhole into the world outside and had what I will call an “Alice in Wonderland experience”. I don’t think I’d actually considered that you could see anything through a keyhole, and it reminded me of childhood stories, eves dropping, spying…seeing and hearing the forbidden. Something not intended for your eyes and ears. So, I knelt down in front of the keyhole and toppled over onto my derriere and perched my camera in front of the keyhole trying to capture the tree outside.

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Naughty Alice looking through the key hole…Old Government House, Parramatta. National Trust.

Unfortunately, that’s when wonderland came to an abrupt halt. I was squawked at by a rather militant guide, who told me you’re not allowed to take close-up photos in the house, only room shots. She also seemed quite irritated that I was actually sitting at the door and was stopping other people from viewing it and that I could come back and book in a photo shoot. She scared the bejeebers  out of me, and I felt like a naughty little school girl who was taking photos of the staff room or some other private, inner sanctum. I’d been a “bad, bad girl”.

However, the thing was that I wasn’t in a forbidden inner sanctum. I had paid my entry fee. I wasn’t using my flash and by looking through the keyhole, I wasn’t even photographing something inside. Indeed, most of what I captured was the sky, which to the best of my clearly inferior knowledge, isn’t the property of the National Trust. I was so shaken and outraged, in quite an uncharacteristic way, that I approached her. The whole thing seemed mad, and after the great time we’d had only the day before and going into the Art Gallery of NSW during the week and being able to photograph even the finalists of the Archibald Competition up close, it made no sense. Indeed, I also noticed another visitor taking close-up shots like myself but using her phone instead of an SLR with zoom, and nothing was said to her. Fortunately, after encountering this woman, we met another guide who was very friendly and chatty and helped me to calm down.

Above- There was an exhibition on covering Governor Phillip’s time in India and establishing the links between India and NSW through history. As early as 1850, 4 ships a week were arriving in Sydney from India, so there were close cultural ties.

By the way, I would also like to point out that there were only a few people in Old Government House at the time. So, it wasn’t like I was blocking traffic. Indeed, the Archibald Exhibition was much more crowded and nobody complained there.

This brings me back to my original question about the role of museums these days. Have we moved beyond the starchy museums of the the past into something more interactive? Or, given the value and fragility of the exhibits, does that line between exhibit and audience still need to be maintained and never the twain shall meet?

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Is this where I belong?

Of course, I would like to see some combination of the two and this is what I am used to in museums these days. There are elements of the exhibition that the kids and tactile people can touch and feel along with audio-visual presentations which bring the history to life. I think visitors to our museums have spread their wings, and don’t appreciate having them clipped by an old world approach.

What do you think? What is your experience of contemporary museums? Please leave your feedback in the comments.

Best wishes,

Rowena

Details

Elizabeth Farm is located at 70 Alice Street, Rosehill, near Parramatta.

Old Government House is located in Parramatta Park.

6 thoughts on “What Are Museums For?

  1. pensitivity101

    I like the idea of working museums, like the one at Morwellham Quay in Devon. When we visited, we saw the way beer barrels were banded by the Cooper, and were allowed to dress up in traditional clothing of the time. We were considered ‘well to do’ because we were both wearing hats! Despite the pouring rain, we had a wonderful time.

  2. Mabel Kwong

    This was an eye-opening account of the Elizabeth Farm exhibit and the Old Government House visit. It didn’t sound pleasant at all that one of the guides singled you out for taking a photo through the key hole – and it really didn’t sound like you were in the way at all. But lovely to hear the other guides didn’t mind much and were happy to chat to you. You do make a good point, that you were able to photograph the finalists at the Archibald Competition up close. Perhaps some view historical artifacts as historical and if you get to close, you might get in the way or there could be copyright issues. But from what it seemed, you weren’t in the way at all 🙂

  3. Rowena Post author

    Thanks, Mabel. I’m not sure what the rationale was, other than me having what could be construed as a professional camera, just because I have a good zoom lens. However, she could have asked. I’m not sure if historic artifacts are copyright, but I would’ve thought a bit of publicity would be a good thing. You can often have to pay for that. It’s a really good and important ting to be able to exchange ideas and stimulate intellectual and creative thinking, which is really hampered when everyone’s defending their fiefdom. Many people see the value in collaboration these days, although protecting everyone’s interests is also important.
    Best wishes,
    Rowena

  4. TanGental

    I feel irritated to be told I can’t photograph exhibits esp if either the museum/gallery is tax payer funded or charges me entrance. I get the big about not getting in the way but that’s the only point which you weren’t . Personally I don’t mind the lack of touch mostly. There are some exceptions of course.

  5. Rowena Post author

    Thanks for that, Geoff. I thought that was the general rule of thumb. I think this woman must’ve just been an aberration. As my Geoff said, she should’ve stayed home that day. It also reminds me how some older people can become rather cranky.
    Best wishes,
    Ro

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