Another essay in City Museums and City Development is written by two curators from the Museum of Sydney, Caroline Butler-Bowdon and Susan Hunt. Their approach to interpreting Sydney is something they call “thinking the present historically.” The museum staff uses the past to inform the present experience of Sydney residents, with particular attention to contemporary social and political issues and to the city’s ethnic diversity. Therefore the goal is not simply to illuminate Sydney’s history, but to make a statement or ask a question that is relevant and useful to today’s Sydneysiders.
While some of the content developed by the Museum of Sydney does focus on traditional historical themes (for example, a current exhibition, 1810: Expanding Sydney, describes Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s influence on the city in the early 19th century), the staff is just as likely to produce exhibitions and programming about Sydney now, with little overt reference to history.
An exhibition titled My City of Sydney (2004-2006) explored the question of what makes Sydney, Sydney. It involved a documentary film, commissioned by the museum, in which Sydney residents “tell personal stories of places significant to them” (p.79), as a well as several installations by contemporary Sydney artists (one featured residents’ home movies; another is described as “a family photo album of a city”).
Meanwhile, a series of symposiums over the last ten years addressing a range of contemporary issues—from urban redevelopment and sustainability to demographic shifts to the Olympics—have resulted in two major publications: Debating the City: An Anthology (2001) and Talking about Sydney: Population, Community, and Culture in Contemporary Sydney (2006)
Another exhibition, Sydney Now (2007-2008), presented the work of 24 contemporary photojournalists, portraying the “everyday lives of ordinary citizens.” A user-generated component to the exhibition, My Sydney Now, invited members of the public to submit a photograph that “best captured life in Sydney” via Flckr. A panel of judges then chose three of these images to be included alongside the work of the professional photojournalists in the bricks-and-mortar exhibition.
Indeed, the Museum of Sydney collaborates frequently with contemporary artists, particularly photographers. The 2003 exhibition Welcome to Sydney featured panoramic portrait photographs by Anne Zahalka of Sydneysiders from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, each one shot in a different location throughout the city. The exhibition attempted to spark dialogue about diversity and identity amidst “the recent climate of intense controversy over Australia’s immigration policies and treatment of refugees.” (p. 79) For another project, Eora Crossing, the museum worked with the “physical theatre” company Legs on the Wall to create an outdoor performance piece than ran for three nights during Sydney Festival 2004. Part indigenous dance, part storytelling, and part acrobatics, the piece involved dancers hanging by rigging from the skyscrapers of downtown Sydney with the museum building, which stands on the site of the first colonial Government House, serving as the centerpiece. In a city still dealing with the legacy of colonialism, Eora Crossing addressed what white occupation meant for Sydney’s indigenous Cadigal people.
I must confess I have never been to Australia, so I am learning about the Museum of Sydney second-hand. But here are some thoughts after a few hours studying archived material online. First, after working for so long in a city where public history is fixated on the 18th century, the idea of interpreting the present is refreshing, maybe even downright liberating. I got excited by some of these projects; if I lived in Sydney I’d want to see them all. But I’m not the typical visitor, so of course my question is whether or not this approach leads to a more successful visitor experience or a more engaged public. The museum’s annual visitation (paid admission plus comp tickets and public program attendance) averages a little shy of 100,000 from 2004 to 2008. This is certainly respectable but not stellar. I’m thinking about other ways to measure. In the meantime, this concept makes sense intuitively to me—after all, how often have museums been admonished to use visitors’ own experience as a point of departure, instead of starting with something abstract or remote? For a history museum, what could be closer to visitors’ own experience than the present?
Second, working with contemporary artists could be a particularly useful approach for city museums that don’t have strong collections. History museums usually rely on their collections to do the heavy lifting, and rightfully so. But in today’s market the development of a comprehensive collection can be cost-prohibitive. For city museums that are just starting out—or for those that never acquired vast stores of artifacts in the first place—providing venues for artists to make statements about the city, if done thoughtfully, could be just as powerful and authentic.
And third, I wish I had been there to watch those dancers hanging from the sky. What an interesting example of place-specific programming, not to mention public spectacle. I’m sure there are thousands of Sydneysiders out there who can’t walk by the museum building without thinking of it. Metrics be damned, I have to believe that experiences like this one knit us together as part of a shared urban community, even if the stitches are loose and uneven. The strange and unexpected, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of strangers—that’s what city life is all about.