At Newcastle Museum, a rusted 1923 Model T Ford, layered with dust and spotted with generations of possum footprints, rests at the center of 'A Newcastle Story' – our permanent social history exhibition. Standing next to this 99-year-old car is a label featuring five different interpretations of its history, with a two-sentence introduction:
There are many stories that this car and the museum can tell. What story would you have told?
This question cuts to a tension at the heart of museum practice. Curators choose an interpretation of an object, and visitors engage with this story as the truth. But museum objects are a widening gyre of stories, experience, and perspective. They contain a multitude of truths, all valid but all different. Acknowledging this tension has become part of a carefully seeded philosophy at Newcastle Museum, reflected not just in the label for the Model T Ford but across our collecting, exhibition, and programming practice.
This core value of Newcastle Museum inspired us to produce 1X4, an exhibition that highlights the role of curators and historians in shaping how we perceive significance and acknowledges that each personrs"s view of an object or event is different. It opened in December 2020, was chosen as the National Winner of the 2021 MAGNAs, and is now touring NSW. So, how did Newcastle Museum craft this challenging idea into a finished exhibition with a budget of less than $18,000 in the middle of a global pandemic?
1X4 started as a conversation between Audience Engagement Officer Bree Rooney and Director Julie Baird - ld"You know how you are always saying that every object tells multiple stories? How about we do an exhibition like thatrd". A core creative team that comprised Julie and Bree and Exhibition Support Officer Grant Hall and Curator and Collection Coordinator David Hampton was brought together in March 2020 to begin developing this conversation into a fully realised exhibition.
Working through the early uncertainty of the 2020 lockdown, Julie Baird developed the Internal Project Plan for 1X4. In essence, an IPP is our god document that outlines everything from the responsibilities of individual staff to the key exhibition takeaway messages. In dialogue with the rest of the creative team, Julie crafted an overview that set the structural and philosophical bones of the exhibition. 1X4 would be an innovative, collection-rich, social history exhibition exploring the multiplicity of narratives by having each object featured tell four different stories. It would begin as many conversations as it concludes, allowing visitors to enjoy deeper engagement and a more philosophical view on rare, beautiful, and ordinary objects. It would also be designed with a flexible layout, low rental fees, and reasonable environmental controls to allow the exhibition to tour regional museums in NSW. With the path set, we began making 1X4 a reality.
The Newcastle Museum collection focuses on local significance, so to tell 1X4's expansive stories, David explored the selected objects from various new perspectives. Inspiration for the research came from eclectic sources. A fake book called A History of Screaming, glimpsed in the sitcom Black Books, inspired investigating the brain chemistry of anger for one object. Childhood memories of the smell generated by a Sunbeam Mixmasterrs"s motor led to researching how the graphite in old electric motors vaporises when hot.
To contrast these whimsical themes were stories highlighting the inherent power and bias employed by museums, particularly regarding Aboriginal perspectives. One object was a convict-made brick, chosen to reflect on and acknowledge past injustices. Drawing links between the brick, the owner of the estate it was from (Henry Dangar), and his role in the Myall Creek Massacre. The four labels presented together highlight how benign object labels have erased the frontier wars from the public consciousness for more than a century. 1X4rs"s themes also celebrate the strong and continuous culture of Aboriginal people. A Stone Axe represents trade routes, language, material handling expertise, and global innovation in flour production. A Racing Saddle discusses the 20th-century Aboriginal civil rights movement, international Aboriginal achievement, and the amazing career of Worimi man Merv Maynard. We developed the language and nature of stories representing Firsts Nations stories in consultation with local cultural experts and knowledge keepers, another value long embedded into Newcastle Museum practice that has strengthened the museumrs"s connection to its community.
As the research into 1X4rs"s objects continued, that ever-widening gyre yielded themes that explore history, art, philosophy, and science. Careful considerations of Aboriginal perspectives were joined by Feminist, Multicultural, and Class readings of the chosen objects and their significance. Stories that reflect on women's experiences, highlight the roles of migrants, and explore the struggles of working people emerged from the final 23 objects selected for display. The result is an exhibition providing challenging, creative, and engaging interpretations about the chosen objects.
Bree Rooney designed the exhibitionrs"s distinctive Art Deco inspired graphics. Conventional case and wall-mounted labels were discarded early in the creative process. With 94 labels for 23 objects, we were mindful of presenting the audience with large amounts of text and overwhelming the objects. As 2020 progressed and QR codes became an essential part of navigating day-to-day life, we decided to develop a dedicated website to act as 1X4rs"s interpretive platform. Exhibition Coordinator Paul Dear designed the website using the assets Bree created, and he ensured 1x4.com.au was formatted for use on smartphones and tablets as well as desktop computers. Visitors are encouraged to bring their phones or wifi-enabled devices to the museum to engage with the exhibitionrs"s content. Feedback from visitors on this choice was overwhelmingly positive, with loaner tablets available for those who didn't have access to their own devices. The reliance on handheld devices rather than wall labeling also had the surprising result of a high satisfaction rate for Autistic Spectrum and teenage visitors who engaged with the technology for longer periods.
A creative solution was needed that emphasised the spirit of 1X4 when developing the exhibition's interpretive aids. To break down notions of order or hierarchy, Bree created illustrations of each artifact, which were printed as labels and used as an alternative website navigation aid to letters, numbers, or titles. Visitors match the picture next to the object with the picture on the website to hear or read that objectrs"s stories. This avoids the narrative and hierarchy implied by using numbers or letters to identify each object. The exhibition can be viewed in any order and does not place visitors on a linear path. Using these illustrations in place of written language improved accessibility for visitors with lower literacy levels to engage with 1X4.
The exhibitionrs"s use of illustrations is just one aspect of how we expanded 1X4rs"s accessibility to a broader audience. Not everyone ls"readsrs" an exhibition in the same way, and with the website established as 1X4rs"s primary interpretive platform, we could cater to various communication methods. One of our Visitor Service Officers - Ken O'Regan - was redeployed to collections during the museum closure and set about photographing each object in glorious detail for the website, allowing visitors to inspect the artifacts even closer. We wanted to include an audio tour, and our colleagues at Newcastle Libraries had just opened a brand new community podcasting studio. Four museum staff members lent their voices to the project, reading one label for each object and emphasising the varying perspectives inherent in each objectrs"s interpretation. Julie and David worked together to choose a song that reflected on the objectrs"s themes, and these would play in a pop-up window on the website when selected. For certain objects, we also provide links to articles and websites that explored the themes discussed in the labels in more detail, encouraging visitors to use the exhibition as the beginning of their learning, not the end. Vision Australia evaluated the exhibition before going live. The dark blue background with silver-white text provided accessibility for low-vision visitors. The audio descriptive images, audio labeling, videos, songs, and Newcastle Museumrs"s incorporation of vision-impaired mapping through Bindi Maps allowed us to have significant vision-impaired tourism through the exhibition.
Grant Hall navigated interruptions in the supply lines caused by the pandemic to design and build the exhibition display furniture. The resulting cases are veneered in Jarrah timber and lined with blue velvet. Despite their elegant look, they were made to a lightweight design and can be lifted comfortably by two people. The physical design of the cases took wheelchair heights into account for sightlines and the ability to get as close as possible to the objects. When displayed at Newcastle Museum, 1X4 was displayed in a larger social history exhibition space, so we developed a unique visual environment that allowed visitors to follow the exhibition through the space. Walls were painted blue, vinyl decals, and velvet banners were used to connect the objects and the exhibition across the space. Sourcing the velvet and having it machined into banners proved to be one of the more difficult practical challenges of the entire project! After several false starts and a national search, we were able to find a supplier with the equipment to produce the enormous banners that flank the entrance to 1X4, just a 15-minute drive from the museum.
The ability to tour this exhibition around regional areas was a major priority. The types of exhibitions available for touring in Australia are often inaccessible to regional museums. Beyond the obvious challenges of cost, smaller museums often find they can't meet larger institutions' environmental and security requirements or have the necessary storage for crates over the period the exhibition would be displayed. Throughout the development process, we remained conscious of supporting our regional colleagues. The choice of objects and design of cases means a team of any two Newcastle Museum staff can pack the exhibition and objects into a 3-ton rental truck and take it anywhere in NSW, and then install it and drive home, taking the object crates with them. The curatorial rejection of placing the objects in a specific order allows the layout to be adapted to various spaces. The choice of objects means that the environmental conditions are sympathetic to the resources available in regional museums. At the time of writing, 1X4 is now displayed at La Perouse Museum, where pleasingly, the team there has embraced the exhibition's core concept by interpreting and adding an object from their own collection to the display.
Realising 1X4rs"s big concept proved a rewarding project for the team at Newcastle Museum. Every challenge involved in realising this engaging and complex exhibition was met with a creative solution that emphasised its core philosophy and increased its accessibility to museum visitors. The exhibition effectively breaks the proscenium arch on curation and the museums' power when they choose what to collect and how to interpret. The exhibition begins as many conversations as it concludes, allowing visitors to enjoy deeper engagement and more philosophical views on rare, beautiful, and ordinary objects. The use of the website as the exhibitionrs"s interpretive platform extends 1X4rs"s reach beyond the physical museum, and you can access it anywhere in the world at 1X4.com.au. The exhibition's success at the 2021 MAGNA national awards has led to invitations to speak at both national and international conferences. We are immensely proud at the reception of this little exhibition full of big ideas.
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