During the early afternoon of 23 April 2010, I got a phone call telling me that Paul Field, lead singer of the 1980s rock band The Cockroaches, was visiting The 80s are back exhibition. I headed over, feeling pleased that the exhibition had a whole showcase dedicated to The Cockroaches.
I knew that two members of that great band, including Paul’s brother Anthony, went on to form The Wiggles, but I was unaware that Paul was The Wiggles’ managing director, producing and directing their videos. He was at the Powerhouse, it turned out, to discuss a proposal for the Museum to develop an exhibition marking the group’s 20th birthday. I immediately held up my hand to be the curator.
The Wiggles’ journey is a remarkable story, from 80s rock band to the most popular children’s singing group of all time. When The Cockroaches stopped touring extensively in the late 1980s, guitarist Anthony Field resumed his early childhood teaching course at Macquarie University. Murray Cook and Greg Page were fellow students and in 1991 they decided to record a CD of children’s songs, with former Cockroach Jeff Fatt called in to help. The CD was simply titled The Wiggles and was to be the first of many to come. In 1992 they donned their signature coloured skivvies, and the rest is history as they began their journey from local successes to global stardom. In 2006 yellow Wiggle Greg Page left the group due to illness, but their creative output continued with Sam Moran taking Greg’s place. Today The Wiggles are still delighting 2 to 5 year olds the world over with their music.
I had my first experience of The Wiggles’ story when I made a trip to their headquarters in Sydney, shortly after meeting Paul Field. I was not altogether familiar with their music and videos, but it took just one visit to begin to comprehend their impact. Awards, photos and other memorabilia filled the rooms and corridors of Wiggles HQ. A small ‘history room’ contained hundreds of samples of licensed products. A long corridor, its walls festooned with twenty years’ worth of framed posters and awards for ridiculously high video sales, led me to the sound stage, a huge video recording studio. A left turn down a passageway covered in gold and platinum CD awards took me to a beautifully designed music recording studio and a state-of-the-art post-production suite, known as ‘the cave’.
I was shown the wardrobe department, containing costumes worn by The Wiggles, their various characters and dancers. I saw props from television and video productions. The walls of the fully equipped green room were full of framed clippings, photos and special mementos. On one wall was Shaquille O’Neal’s basketball shirt; on another, a crucifix made from a steel fragment of the World Trade Centre; on others, individually framed expressions of thanks from charities and hospitals. Clearly there would be no shortage of objects to tell the story of what The Wiggles have achieved. I continued my research by watching Wiggles DVDs. Lots of them.
In the entertainment business, the conventional indicators of success seem to be CD and DVD sales, concert takings, awards, fame and money. In terms of sales, The Wiggles are rivalled perhaps only by AC/DC as the biggest performing act Australia has produced. However I came to understand that these rewards have not been their prime motivation. The guys are genuinely passionate about writing and performing songs to enchant children. Their success is grounded in their acquired knowledge of what young children need in entertainment. They match the content and style of their performance to what is known about how young children develop and learn.
One of the most exciting things was glimpsing how The Wiggles operate as a creative team. During one of my visits to Wiggles HQ, the guys were using the sound stage to record segments for a forthcoming DVD, under the direction of Paul Field. As I crept around, measuring objects and trying to keep out of the way, I noticed Anthony in the green room intensely working on an idea, while his brother John Field (another ex-Cockroach) sat nearby in a small meeting room, guitar and pen in hand, writing a song. While The Wiggles have become a large business, creative production resembles a cottage industry of family members and close friends.
So how do you go about developing an exhibition about the world’s most popular preschool entertainers? The major challenge is presenting appropriate content within an environment that is engaging for preschool children and adults, together and independently. The Wiggles exhibition is really two interwoven exhibitions, one for children aged 2 to 5 and one for the adults who will accompany them. It’s a design challenge to make it a seamless entity. Parents, carers, older children and adult fans will follow the story of The Wiggles’ career. Children, however, will be more interested in opportunities to discover, play and interact. For many, this will be their first museum experience.
Helen Whitty and Michael Van Tiel, from the Museum’s Family and Community experiences team, came on board early in the exhibition development process, to ensure that the content for young children is consistent with the principles of early childhood education. Designers Diana Lorentz, Fiona Blades and others have devised spaces that can accommodate objects and other content for adults, while remaining sympathetic to how young children play and learn. Editor Melanie Cariss has helped make the exhibition text as family friendly as possible.
The Wiggles’ songs, videos and characters offer exciting themes for interactivity. Children will ‘ride’ in the Big Red Car and, of course, have the opportunity to wake up Jeff. They will encounter Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog, Henry the Octopus and Captain Feathersword, characters who are as well known as The Wiggles themselves.
For many years as a curator I have been interested in that part of Australian life where popular culture intersects with performing arts. I have thought it important that the Museum, through its collection and exhibitions, should acknowledge excellence in entertainment – in music recording, live performance, television, film and other forms. It’s not just glorifying star performers, but helping visitors to evoke earlier times in their lives, as they revisit the songs, shows, films and other cultural experiences that helped to define them. Museums become the keepers of collective memories. They can lead visitors to an understanding of how generations are shaped and how we have arrived at the present.
Today there are 25-year-olds whose first musical experiences came from four young guys in coloured skivvies. The Wiggles are now part of our lived history, even as they move to new heights and captivate new audiences.