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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Elizabeth Farm is located at 70 Alice Street, Rosehill, near Parramatta.
Old Government House is located in Parramatta Park.