Tag Archives: museology

World War One grenades: one with a lifesaving little lever

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World War I grenades and fuses in the Recent Acquisitions Showcase

World War I grenades and fuses in the Recent Acquisitions Showcase

The weapon which would conjure up a – albeit highly visceral – image World War One trench warfare would be the rifle bayonet. So much grainy footage of young men charging across no-man’s-land with bayonets fixed gives us the impression that that was the main strategy of trench battle. However, rifleman with bayonets attached for defensive action were more often used to protect grenadiers – the infantryman who deployed grenades either by hand or by an attachment on a rifle.

H5556 World War One bayonet

H5556 World War One bayonet

On display at the Museum in the Recent Acquisition Showcase, in recognition of 100 years since the beginning of World War One, are two examples of grenades used in the war, along with two examples of bomb fuses.

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Sex and Museums: uncovering a tool of delight

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Packaging for sex toy 2008/60/1-3

Packaging for sex toy , object 2008/60/1-3

As part of the Ultimo Science Festival 2014, the Powerhouse Museum hosted a night of the Science of Sex. Along with talks form Dr Karl Kruszelnicki from University of Sydney, evolutionary biologist Professor Rob Brooks, and marine biologist Professor Emma Johnston from UNSW, Museum curators brought out a selection of sex related objects from the collection. Among them were the obstetric phantom, the birth control calculator, Madam Lash’s corset, and of course the electro massage device.

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Fans of the Powerhouse Collection

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Italian fan featuring Apollo and Daphne made between 1730-1760 (A5414)Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Italian fan featuring Apollo and Daphne made between 1730-1760 (A5414)Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Looking at ways to house our rich and diverse collection of dress accessories have always been a constant challenge. When an area of the basement store was set aside for the storage of dress and accessories in the early 1980s, we were at the forefront. A quarter of a century later some of the methods that were adopted, now appear tired and in need of attention.
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Gulgong Pioneers Museum Blog

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Gulgong Pioneers Museum. Image courtesy Mudgee tourism

I was contacted late last year by Marie Gorie from the Gulgong Pioneers Museum about a project she was about to undertake. She wanted to re-order the textile store. Maintaining a collection store takes a lot of time and resources and obviously, as the collection grew, some of the maintenance had slipped.
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What does a curator really do in a day?

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Portrait of Min-Jung Kim, Curator of Asian Arts & Design, Powerhouse Museum, Photo by Sotha Bourn

People often ask me what curators do. Usually my answer is “we research, collect, document and display objects.” However, this answer doesn’t seem to satisfy people who wonder what really goes on behind the scenes in the museums and galleries.

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Self-guided walking tour mobile app reviewed

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The release of another self guided walking tour (part one of the new ‘Exploring old Sydney’ series on the Powerhouse Museum walking tours iPhone application) marks a perfect opportunity to critically review how this product has performed to date. For those adverse to detail, key lessons are highlighted in bold.

A significant technical factor in the Museums quick transition from original tour idea to app release has been the My Tours solution. Its use highlights the strengths that a software as a service methodology can offer. In the Galleries, Libraries and Museum (GLAM) sector there is no need (and often budget) to reinvent the wheel for certain digital products. My Tours is an example of a competent package that works well to cover a common GLAM experience like audio tours. Treating ‘software as a service’ gives our curatorial staff the opportunity to focus on the all important content creation aspect of product development.

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At the Frontier of heritage conservation. A report from the Museums Australia Conference, Perth 2011. Part 2

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Toner Stevenson outside the WA State Library.

Written by Toner Stevenson, manager, Sydney Observatory. Only last week Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate galleries, campaigned against environmentally-damaging conditions in Museums and galleries worldwide. It is true, many museums spend a significant proportion of their budget in keeping galleries at a steady temperature and humidity level. Filtering pollutants and controlling light levels is taken very seriously. Also costs escalate when Museums display loaned artifacts which require even more stringent controls governed by contracts.

Making decisions about whether and how much to cool, heat and de-humidify has been much debated and, with the onus on reducing our carbon footprints and the running costs, the old standards are in question. International Conservation Services (ICS), a private conservation company based in Chatswood, took out this year’s Museums and Galleries National Award for an Australian-based research project titled Development of Guidelines for Environmental Conditions for Museum and Galleries. The presentation of the findings by ICS Director, Julian Bickersteth, considered both human comfort in galleries and the temperature and humidity conditions required for objects made form different materials, looking at the crossover range and suggesting that more flexibility can be tolerated. The new guidelines for the UK (PAS 198) are leading the way and it is timely for Australia to consider its own varied climate, and, argues Bickersteth, set its own guidelines.

The Powerhouse Museum is fortunate to have a highly-skilled Conservation Department who monitor spaces and advise on all the environmental requirements for all exhibitions. At Sydney Observatory we can only keep paper and textiles for a very short time and in a few rooms that have the least fluctuation in temperature and humidity. These new practically-based guidelines will help all Museums and Galleries make better decisions about the storage and display of their collections, guiding reductions in energy waste. .

The Judges Comments: “This project holds great significance for the cultural and heritage sector throughout Australia (arguably the world) as it builds knowledge, skills, understanding and standards for keeping collections safely into the future, both in storage and whilst on display. These guidelines will become the well-thumbed or bookmarked resource that remains on every gallery, library, archive and museum professional’s desk.”

Related reading:
Dialogues for the new century: Discussions on the conservation of cultural heritage in a changing world, 2010.

Australian Institute for the Conservation of cultural materials (AICCM) National Cultural Policy Discussion paper

At the Frontier of interpretation: A report from the Museums Australia Conference, Perth 2011. Part 1

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A portico outside the 'At the Frontier' conference in Perth reads ‘The price of all history is the understanding of Modern Times’. Image Toner Stevenson.

Written by Toner Stevenson, manager Sydney Observatory who recently attended the Museums Australia and Interpretation Australia conference held in the new State Theatre and WA State Library in Perth, 14 to 18 November. There were many frontiers discussed throughout the conference and two themes that I particularly engaged with as being of relevance to the Powerhouse Museum were the new cultural frontier and how technology has impacted heritage conservation. This blog relates to the first theme.
‘Why Culture is Changing’ was the title of the keynote address by Professor John Holden, chair of a thinktank in London called Demos . Holden discussed the revolution that is occurring in the definition of the term ‘culture’. In the past exclusiveness defined culture and decisions were made for the many by the few. There was a gap between culture as selected and presented by the professionals and the home-made. An exciting frontier now exists through technologies which place the tools of creation, selection and ‘curatorship’ in many people’s hands.
Unlike in the era of the Beatles and Rolling Stones access to music recording, production and distribution is available to everyone using ever-more accessible technologies. The rules of the game have changed and there has been an explosion in home-made culture. Holden argued that if ‘making cultural choices goes to the heart of self-identity’ then the providers of cultural content, the muses, must be more important for society and the economy as everyone strives to reach their cultural potential. To engage with this frontier means that Museums have to make content available so it can be manipulated, owned and revealed by the population. This will result in a more democratic culture.
Over the next few days of the conference we explored how communication technologies can democratize culture and add deeper levels of meaning to heritage sites. This included making content available over the internet, using Twitter and Facebook to create dialogues between Museum staff and the public and how Iphone apps can provide deeper interpretation of exhibitions which can be taken away and used at any time by the user. Julian Bickersteth, Director of International Conservation Services, demonstrated, using the Powerhouse Museum Lovelace exhibition app, how smartphones can also collect feedback that creates future opportunities, including mapping behaviour patterns in exhibitions to improve decisions on exhibition interpretation.
This leads me to the second theme of the conference, the frontier Museums are facing to do with prioritising the collection and the conditions in which it is stored and displayed. The challenge is to improve our energy usage, respond to climate change and provide the longterm care of our heritage. I will outline this in more detail in Part 2.


: Inside the Heath Ledger Theatre of Perth’s new State Theatre, Image Toner Stevenson.

Related reading:
Ivey, Bill (2008). Arts, Inc.: How Greed and Neglect Have Destroyed Our Cultural Rights.

Broken dreams and dioramas

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Photo by Jean-Francois Lanzarone, Powerhouse Museum

A couple of media stories set me thinking about the image of museums. One (which you may well have come across) concerned a museum and its touring exhibition which have gained an extraordinary amount of press. I refer to the Museum of Broken Relationships, founded by a Zagreb couple out of the ruins of their own relationship.

Artist Drazen Grubisic and film producer Olinka Vistica began collecting six years ago when dividing their own possessions. Books and furniture could be divvied up but what about a small wind-up white rabbit, for some reason a token of their former relationship?

The white rabbit became the Museum’s first artefact. It’s been joined by an array of artefacts encompassing the banal (mainly) to the profound and alarming. The collection includes an axe used to smash up an ex-lover’s flat, a teddy with “I love you” on its chest accompanied by a note reading, “I love you. WHAT A LIE! DAMN LIES, DAMN LIES!’ a set of brain scans, a tin of ‘Love incense’ (the label reads: ‘Doesn’t work’), and a red candy g-string.

With this unlikely collection the MOBR has progressed to a permanent and well-visited gallery in Zagreb plus a hugely successful touring show currently packing them in at Covent Garden, London.

Donations and accompanying labels are invited; most of the artefacts need the latter to work. My favourite label (accompanying a frisbee) reads

Darling, should you ever get the ridiculous idea to walk into a cultural institution like a museum for the first time in your life, you’ll remember me.

On one level the MOBR is completely trivial and opportunistic; on another its connection to some of our deepest feelings obviously gives it a strong appeal.

What does its success tell us about museums and their publics? Mainly that a lot of people would like a chance to be Tracey Emin. Or Glenn Close in boiled bunny mode. Or, less cynically, that a combination of voyeurism, interactivity and savvy curatorship is a sure fire winner. And that cultural/moral improvement is not essential to successful exhibitions.

By the way if you have artefacts to donate the MOBR can be contacted here.


Photography by Jean-Francois Lanzarone, Powerhouse Museum

The other muse-inducing source was a story in the New Yorker about the restoration of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History. I don’t much like stuffed animals or skeletons so I haven’t visited this museum or many others of its genre, but dioramas are another matter. For a start they have an interesting history – for example some of the first European views of Sydney were created for dioramas, the travel docos of their day.

More significantly, the Night at the Museum movie franchise (the first edition thereof was set at the American Museum of Natural History) makes it clear that despite decades of change, the diorama and its artefacts remain a powerful part of the museum idea to a lot of people. Sure, if you have to watch Ben Stiller in a museum, it’s obviously going to work better if there are heaps of fake animals and people ready to escape their dioramas after hours.

I’m still not sure if the result is merely further evidence of the cultural irrelevance of contemporary US cinema (the mainstream part, anyway) – why didn’t they put Stiller in a museum which would have him chased by more interesting and various things? The trouble with this argument is that NATM 2 apparently (I haven’t seen it) centres on a battle to save the old dummies from the Smithsonian, where such things aren’t appropriately valued. To inhabitants of the post-Pompidou museum world, it’s a message worth thinking about, even if you don’t like dioramas.

Regional Services Internship: The Manning Valley Museum

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Photography by Marsha Rennie

Manning Valley Historical Society Museum. Photography by Marsha Rennie

The Manning Valley Museum was established in 1964 through the incredible foresight and hard work of local farming women. They literally drove around on the back of a ute from farm to farm calling for locals to empty their sheds! In 1966 the Society moved into what was previously a General Store first established in 1871 by the Duff family in which to house the museum collection. They did not have any museum skills but had a real passion for their community. Today the museum still operates without a Curator and the volunteers are much the same, coming with various experiences to work with a passion for preserving the history and objects within the walls of the old store.

As the textile ‘custodian’ of the Manning Valley Historical Societies Museum, I was delighted to be accepted, along with my colleague Mieke Van Werdt for a Powerhouse Museum Internship. I certainly had no idea what to expect and I was soon to learn the breadth of skills I could acquire and the capacity of a 5-day program to transform every aspect within our Regional museum.


The art of box making. Photography by Marsha Rennie

The first day brought lessons in paper conservation with Margaret Jurasek. Paper conservation?? What would a textile manager possibly learn from a Paper Conservator? I was impressed to learn the importance of simple sand bags when displaying books and picked up a variety of skills from making mylar mounts and folders to the ‘art’ of box making – not just any lidded box but the hinged, foam lined, cotton tape enclosing, photo labelled type! Necessary skills for a textile volunteer in a low budget regional museum.

Across the room, I met the talented Gosia Dudek who shared with us the magic of building displays using simple ‘pins’, silicon tube and fishing line! She gave me real skills for presenting professional displays securely. Whilst in the conservation lab, we also learnt to absolutely not rub any preparation into our leather and timber objects. This is a revelation for decades of well-meaning volunteers everywhere armed with Mr Sheen or linseed oil!

Range of tools required by Conservators to build displays. Photography by Marsha Rennie

Range of tools required by Conservators to build displays. Photography by Marsha Rennie

In the basement, I not only got to visually feast on the collection but observe real storage solutions for our Manning Valley Museum. This rack on castors would be the ideal answer to our dilemma of storing large garment boxes in our back workroom. It would allow extra storage whilst being able to easily access our permanent shelving too small for garments.

Photography by Marsha Rennie

Photography by Marsha Rennie

Even when not actively engaged in a ‘lesson’ – opportunities to professionally ‘develop’ abounded. Just wandering through the ‘transit’ area and examining the Powerhouse Museum curators wish list items gave me reason to reflect upon our own accessioning choices now and into the future.

Anni Turnbull the Social History Curator, was the fresh set of eyes I needed to immediately see the opportunity to breathe life into our SES exhibit- a corner of our museum that had seemed like just another collection of objects. It was suggested that we dig up old newspaper articles of rescues that had been carried out by the men who had used the equipment.

Photography by Marsha Rennie

Photography by Marsha Rennie

Both Anni and Diana Lorentz explored the undeveloped potential of our museum to represent the story of our buildings history and this was best demonstrated by exploring the Powerhouse’s “What’s in store?” exhibit. Diana and Malcolm McKernan also helped me develop a strategy to highlight significant objects amongst our ‘clutter’, improve our signage and explore the potential for storage to be developed on the exhibit floor itself.

The internship surpassed all expectations. It was a pleasure and an inspiration to meet so many passionate and generous professionals giving freely of their time and knowledge to enhance our humble regional museum.

Marsha Rennie
Manning Valley Historical Society Volunteer