Author Archives: Anne-Marie Van de Ven

David Mist collection digitization project

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Portrait of children published in ‘Sydney: a book of photographs’, 1969

Portrait of children published in ‘Sydney: a book of photographs’, 1969

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences holds two important photography archives related to Sydney photographer David Mist – the Studio Ten archive (92/401) acquired as a gift of the photographer in 1992, and the David Mist archive (96/44/1) acquired as a gift of the photographer under the Australian Government Taxation Incentives for the Arts program in 1996. In recent years David Mist has been helping digitize these irreplaceable analogue collections with the Museum regularly lending David batches of negatives and transparencies to scan. These digital records then get added to the Collection Database. Thank you David!
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NAIDOC Week 6-13 July 2014

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P3188 Photographic prints, (4), aboriginal carvings, Cowan's Creek, Bantry Bay, Mossman's Bay, Australia, [

P3188 Photographic prints, (4), aboriginal carvings, Cowan’s Creek, Bantry Bay, Mossman’s Bay, Australia, C1890. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

The Powerhouse Museum has an amazing range of Australian and international, historical and contemporary objects which tell us so much about who we are, where we came from and perhaps more importantly, they may help us identify who we are now and where we are going. NAIDOC week stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. According to the NAIDOC website, NAIDOC Week’s origins “can be traced to the emergence of Aboriginal groups in the 1920’s which sought to increase awareness in the wider community of the status and treatment of Indigenous Australians”. Today NAIDOC Week is commemorated on the first full week of July. It is a time to remember to pay tribute to and recognise Indigenous Australians vital connection and contribution to country, culture and society.
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The Art of Curating

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Guest in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Nathan Jurevicius case study), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Guest in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Nathan Jurevicius case study), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006. Photo: Prudence Upton.

As the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney undertakes a restructure, downsizing staff numbers as it endeavours to become more nimble and sustainable, curators will soon be re-applying for their jobs. My thoughts turn to the often envied, sometimes maligned, role of the curator and to curatorial competencies.

What makes a competent curator? 

After almost 30 years of experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important attributes of a competent curator, is the ability to be discerning (though I’m not exactly sure how one would go about measuring this capability). I’d be interested to hear your views on which attribute you think is most important.

Being discerning involves standing one step back from your own personal preferences, choosing not necessarily what you like, but what’s significant in context. I think this is one of the least understood of all the curatorial roles, and together with the ability to make smart connections between objects, one of the most important. In being discerning, curators make complex decisions about what to acquire, and what the most appropriate juxtaposition of objects and ideas might be in displays. How often have I heard it assumed that a curator loves something simply because they’ve chosen it for display or acquisition? This simplistic view is offensive. Personal taste shouldn’t take precedence in curatorial work. Personal preference is one of the last emotions one brings to professional considerations when assessing, collecting or curating – not the first. Does a talented teacher look for learning tools that they like, or do they seek the most appropriate resource for the individual student’s learning needs or style?

Paradoxically, curating still requires a passion for objects, but in equal measure it involves a thirst for knowledge, an understanding of how things are made and how things work, and a willingness to share this knowledge, passion and understanding with others. It requires the ability to undertake complex research, and an understanding of people. Curators need to be able to communicate complex concepts and ideas succinctly and engagingly to colleagues and clients (including artists and designers) then help find strategies which communicate these concepts and ideas innovatively and coherently to diverse audiences.

Curating is complex

In 2006, I developed an exhibition for the 2006 Sydney Design Festival titled “In your face: contemporary graphic design”. I didn’t necessarily go about choosing contemporary work that I loved, nor only the work of Australia’s leading design studios. Rather, I decided to be more discerning – decided to select works which exemplified where graphic design was at that moment – when the boundaries between art and design were blurring, boutique multi-disciplinary design studios were springing up all around the inner-city, animation and motion graphics were becoming increasingly prevalent, tattoos were for everyone, handmade retro type was being generated in response to the impersonal domination of standardized computer-generated fonts, lomography slipped into advertising campaigns, and websites and mobile devices were capturing the imagination of illustrators and designer toy makers.

Josh Roelink case study in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition, 2006. Photo: Kojdanovski, Marinco.

Josh Roelink case study in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition, 2006. Photo: Kojdanovski, Marinco.

This approach wasn’t necessarily explained in the exhibition, it was purely a part of the curatorial process. 16 case studies were selected – some of the more esoteric, like Reg Mombassa’s Aussie Jesus or Josh Roelink’s tattoo designs, almost rejected. I fought to retain them all. With curatorial projects, uneasy inveigling is sometimes required to rationalise prioritizing, meaning, significance and aesthetics. Eventually 16 case studies remained – short TVCs, supersized graphics, comics, 3 minute mobile phone animations and tattoos alongside logo design, typefaces, book design, poster design, brand identity and way-finding.

Guests in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Qube Construkt and Voice case studies), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006.

Guests in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Qube Construkt and Voice case studies), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006. Photo: Prudence Upton.

The show’s diverse and surprising content was well received by Museum audiences, especially students and culturally active young adults (some coming with older parents and grandparents). It was perhaps slightly less well received (but in no way totally rejected) by traditional graphic design practitioners who may have expected a celebration of past professional practice. This too may have been valid, but not necessarily the best, or only, fit for the Museum’s Sydney Design audience. Similar debates arose around the Love Lace exhibition a few years later when it pushed the boundaries of lacemaking in preference to making an assessment of traditional practice. Curating is complex and it often involves making difficult decisions.

Love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially any misconceptions you have experienced around the role of the curator, or what you feel is the most significant attribute of a competent curator. Happy to answer questions.

Written by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator, Design and Society


Upcycled – waste not, want not…

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Budget option ‘bush pantry’, improvised using an oil drum, kerosene tins and length of water pipe, unknown maker, about 1930. Powerhouse Museum collection. 92/305

Budget option ‘bush pantry’, improvised using an oil drum, kerosene tins and length of water pipe, unknown maker, about 1930. Powerhouse Museum collection. 92/305

A new display opens at the Powerhouse Museum this week titled ‘Upcycled’, a word coined by German engineer and upcycler, Reiner Pilz in 1994.

‘Recycling? I call it down-cycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.’ (Reiner Pilz: thinking about a green future, Salvo Monthly, No 23, October 1994, p14)

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Farewell to curator, Christina Sumner, OAM

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Christina Sumner, Principal Curator, Design & Society in the basement with textiles, including 92/775 Suzani (needlework), Collection: Powerhouse Museum

On the eve of of Christina Sumner’s departure we asked her a few questions about her experiences at the Museum over the last 28 years.

What have you enjoyed the most about working in the Museum?

Always always always it’s been the people and the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to spend every working day with curatorial and other colleagues who are bright, interested, articulate and as passionate as I am about the collection – building it, and committing ourselves to interpret, tell stories about and communicate the meaning of our objects to the wider community.

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Tribute to Harry Rogers: legendary Qantas poster designer

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Koala poster from Harry Rogers’ animated animal series of the 1960s 95/277/4 Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Sadly, the Powerhouse Museum farewelled two more supporters this year – poster artist Harry Rogers (b. 20 November 1929 – d.19 May 2012) and his wife Valmai (Val) Rogers, who died on 23 November 2012. Harry and Val were married for almost 60 years. Both were artists. They met while studying at East Sydney Technical College in Darlinghurst (now the National Art School), married in 1953, then moved temporarily to California where Harry studied Animation as part of a Summer Theatre Arts and TV Production course at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). This love of animation is reflected in his poster designs like the one above.

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Round and round the world we go, travel in the 1930s

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Dahl riding a merry-go-round, 1930s, Collection Powerhouse Museum

Dahl riding a merry-go-round, 1930s. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

I have just catalogued the 1930s photographs from The Dahl and Geoffrey Collings Archive as part of an internship project for my Masters of Art Curatorship at the University of Sydney. Although photography was only a small part of their practice, beginning in the mid 1930s, it paints a very broad picture of their holistic approach to art and design.

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Michael Callaghan 1952-2012

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90/91 Poster, `Buy CAAMA Cassettes', paper, designed by Michael Callaghan and Jeff Stewart, made by Redback Graphix, Wollongong, 1984. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The above bi-lingual screenprinted poster design by Michael Callaghan, was produced at Redback Graphix in Wollongong in 1984 for CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (established 1980). CAAMA is owned by the Aboriginal people of Central Australia, and aims to advance social, cultural and economic benefits to local people. CAAMA was the first Aboriginal group in Australia to be allocated a broadcasting licence, and this poster is one of the earliest bi-lingual posters designs produced for an Aboriginal community.

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Books, the best thing since sliced bread

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(left) Hand-drawn Alphabet book handmade by William Harrison, Australia, 1894. 97/132/1 (right) E R Boyce, Beginning to Read, England, 1950s. 2007/108/1 Collection:Powerhouse Museum

In this National Year of Reading, it is appropriate that the Powerhouse Museum mounts an exhibition which celebrates excellence is Australian book design and publishing. While the Museum collection contains hundreds of books, including the two children’s books illustrated above (one hand made in Australia by 13 year old William Harrison for his niece in England, the other published in England but used in Australian schools), it holds very few winning books from the Australian Publishers Association (APA) annual Book Design Awards (BDA).
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Sydney Mardi Gras: a daring, dazzling and defiant display of difference

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96/305/2 'Cotton Blossom' costume designed, made and worn by Ron Muncaster, for 1994 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Over the next 4 weeks, if the rain abates and the sun shines, the city of Sydney will come to life as 1000s of men and women fly into Sydney from around Australia and the world for the 2012 Sydney Mardi Gras which kicked off last Sunday with the annual Victoria Park Fair Day. This festival follows close on the heels of its New Orleans counterpart.

The Powerhouse Museum‘s collection includes a number of objects related to this internationally significant Sydney event, including David McDiarmid’s iconic poster for the 1988 Mardi Gras which places Australia on top of the world.


95/339/10 Poster designed by David McDiarmid for 1988 Sydney Gay Mardi Gras. Gift of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Limited, 1995. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The design of this and other Mardi Gras posters captures something of the exuberance and the spectacular costume and float designs associated with the Mardi Gras parade.

This year Mardi Gras celebrates its 35th anniversary by welcoming the return of Kylie Minogue and singer/songwriter Sam Sparrow. Both will perform at Mardigrasland, the bejewelled party environment set to take over Sydney’s Entertainment Quarter for the final days of the 2012 party season. As part of Mardi Gras’ earlier 20th anniversary celebrations, the Museum mounted an exhibition titled Absolutely Mardi Gras: costume and design of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (1997).

The 2012 Mardi Gras program is packed with events like the Fair Day, Drag Races, a Youth Festival, Pool Party, etc but its the Mardi Gras Parade (7.45 to 10pm, 3 March) and the After-Parade Party at Mardigrasland (10pm -8am, 3-4 March) which form the key spots on the calendar for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersexed communities to get together to celebrate differences and commonalities with friends, family and community supporters.


95/172/1 Costume designed by Peter Tully, for 1990 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Peter Tully (1947-1992) the designer of the 1995 Mardi Gras costume illustrated above was creative director for Mardi Gras from 1982-1986. Under his tenure, the Mardi Gras workshop was founded and the Sydney Mardi Gras transformed from a political march to a cultural event. Tully and Ron Muncaster (1936- ), were two of Mardi Gras’ most spectacular costume designers. Muncaster’s ‘Cotton Blossom’ costume for the 1994 Parade is illustrated at the top of this post.


98/173/6 and 95/339/3-1, Preparatory collage (on left) by David McDiarmid for the 1990 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras poster (right). Collage, gift of the Estate of the late David McDiarmid, 1998; Poster, gift of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Limited, 1995. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The Museum’s collection also includes the original artwork that is a conceptual collage for the 1990 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. This poster was also designed by David McDiarmid (1952-1995).

The Museum’s Mardi Gras collection has been developing over a 25 year period, mainly as gifts of the organisers, the artists or their family and friends. These wonderful objects shine a light on the history of Sydney Mardi Gras and the aspirations and concerns of the Mardi Gras organisers and participants. The poster collection includes all Mardi Gras posters from 1981 to 1998, but we are still missing the three earliest posters (1978, 1979 and 1980) and have also not yet acquired the posters from 1999 through to 2012. If readers have copies of any of these missing posters in good condition, especially the earlier designs, and be willing to donate them to the collection, please contact the curator at or 92170161.

Post by Anne-Marie Van de Ven