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Ask A Curator logo 2016.

What do you call a group of Curators? #AskACurator 2016

Thank you for your questions for this year’s #AskACurator. Many of your questions centred on the topics of curatorial practice in a changing world as well as the personal experience of being a curator. In discussing the answers, our curators reflected that they each approach their job in unique ways: the exhibition specialist, the art history major, the maritime archaeologist, the historian and seeking a way to connect with Indigenous communities.

We began our #AskACurator round table with a quib asking what does one call a group of curators? A gaggle. A curiosity of curators. An exhibition of curators.

Who are our curators answering your questions?

Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Andrews is our special projects Curator and is currently working on developing several exhibitions.

Donna Carstens is our Indigenous Curator who is revitalising our Indigenous programs and collections.

Daina Fletcher is our Senior Curator working on the art collections. She has worked on exhibitions about swimwear, beach history, immigration, windjammer voyages and Antarctic adventurers.

Dr. Stephen Gapps is the Curator of recent exhibitions War at Sea – the Navy in WWI and Black Armada.

Dr. James Hunter is a maritime archaeologist who specialises in the history of the Royal Australian Navy.

Kate Pentecost is our Digital Curator who looks after our online collections and aspects of the museum’s social media.

Plus, our surprise guest and Registrar Rhondda Orchard is here to answer a question on copyright.

Jackson: I’ve heard you guys have the biggest museum object in Australia. Is that true?

True! HMAS Vampire is Australia’s largest museum vessel at 118.6m long and a displacement of 3,888 tonnes (fulload). It is a museum object you can literally climb aboard to explore. Vampire is the last of surviving example of Australia’s big gun ships from the Daring class, the largest destroyers built in Australia. Vampire served in the Royal Australian Navy from 1959 to 1986 and has called the museum home since 1990 and officially became part of our collection in 1997.

We are also home to HMAS Onslow, an Oberon class submarine which operated during the height of the cold war embodying the Navy’s submarine motto of “Strength, silence, surprise”. Onslow is 89.90m long and could dive over 190 meters.

HMAS Vampire. Image: ANMM.

HMAS Vampire. Image: ANMM.

You can visit both ships in our Action Stations experience.

However, our curators would like to emphasise that interpretive value matters more than size when it comes to accessing significant objects in our collection. Certainly, the immersive experience of climbing aboard our fleet is a unique way for our visitors to experience maritime heritage but the Australian War Memorial, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences as well as the Sydney Bus and Tramway museums all also offer collections with sizable objects. The Western Australian Museum has section of the Batavia hull on display, its sheer scale very impressive in person.

Eva: Did you actively choose the area you specialize in or was it more of a gradual, less conscious progression of knowledge?

James: Yes, I’ve specialized in maritime archaeology from very early on in my career – my first field school program in fact. The first half was traditional, trench based archaeology and the other half of the field school as maritime archaeology. I quickly discovered that I preferred mapping sites in the cool solitude of the water far more than working in hot noisy trenches on a dig. It’s also a lot quieter to work underwater…

Team members swimming past the bow section of the Lady Darling. Image: ANMM.

Team members swimming past the bow section of the Lady Darling. Image: ANMM.

Mary-Elizabeth: My speciality is in German history and I worked for some time at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. But my career as a curator has focused on using my research and interpretation skills to design and develop new exhibitions. I love learning new things and finding ways to communicate my research. My main passion is exhibition development.

Daina: When I first started at the museum I was tasked with sport and leisure as my collection focus. But I’ve now moved onto focusing on our art collection and I’m very much enjoying combining my passions for art history and archaeology. These are the areas which I trained in originally. I see my curatorial practice as a combination of the two; viewing art as artefact.

Stephen: My twitter bio says ‘Historian by discipline. Curator by trade.’ History has always been my focus and being a curator is a job which allows me to pursue research, writing and historical inquiry full-time. It beats working garbage trucks.

Donna: I never imagined that I would be a curator but all my previous jobs have given skills which fit the role of Indigenous curator really well: liaising with community, understanding copyright law, developing programs for at risk youth, developing performances. This role was unexpected but I love it. I always think of my culture when applying for jobs, and I feel that this role allows me to continue supporting and working with Indigenous communities.

Kate: Generic but simple: Why did you become a curator?

James: Full time maritime archaeology positions are difficult to come by (but there’s plenty of contract work!). Being a curator offers stability and it’s enjoyable to be part of interpreting the story of the artefacts to the wider public. I find it more interesting than pure academia.

Mary-Elizabeth: For me, it’s a fantastic blend of academic skills (such as researching and writing), organisational skills (including project management), topped off with visual communication skills. It’s a wonderful visual and material outlet where you get to tell stories through images, objects and the way people move through space. I worked in film and television production for ten years before re-training to shift careers.

Stephen: It’s a way to engage with history. It’s a job. I’m a historian working in a museum and strongly believe that historians make the best curators.

Daina: The love of the artefacts draws me in. It was a career where I could combine both my majors, art history and archaeology to interpret and present history. I’m endlessly fascinated by the aura and intrigue of an object as well as finding exploring new ways to engage the audience: online such as the Google Cultural Institute, traditional exhibitions like Cazneaux and more recently, through art installations like Johnnie and Mehmet.

Harold Cazneaux, ‘A study in curves’, 1931. Gelatin silver print. ANMM Collection 00054649.

I’m often asked what does it take to become a curator? And I always say you need an enquiring mind, love of the artefact and an understanding of history. Above all you need to be a good storyteller.

Donna: I never planned to be a curator but skills from my previous jobs lead me here. From circus performance I learnt lighting techniques, how to use sound scapes, the effect of colour, staging. I’ve worked to develop education programs with the Sisters Inside and youth at risk. At the Arts Law centre of Australia I was the Indigenous Copyright Officer working to with artists to protect their works and wills. I’ve been working with many Indigenous for a long time, liaising with them and managing stakeholders. All of this experience helps me enable the museum to reach out to and engage with community.

Alexandra: What’s your favourite bit of your job?

Mary-Elizabeth: Creating and developing exhibitions.

Stephen: Writing and researching.

Daina: Exploring ways to interpret an object and unlock its interest and intrigue for a variety of

Donna: Curating exhibitions and making our culture accessible to the wider community (including the international community through opportunities to lend our collections to exhibitions further afield).

Our Photographer, Andrew Frolows worked with Daina to capture modern images of Cazneaux’s Sydney Harbour scenes. Image: ANMM.

Madeline: What is the most rewarding part of curating an Australian Indigenous collection?

Donna: There’s several parts! Working with the cultural objects is exciting, working with community is rewarding and creating exhibitions to tell our cultural stories and history is thrilling. Each community I work with is unique and I enjoy researching their cultural practices, which then informs our interpretations of the collection and what we collect. Acquiring objects for the collection is a fun process, I specifically seek out objects from saltwater and fresh water communities. It’s interesting to see generations of family heritage come through in the objects and their cultural practices, such as our Saltwater Barks collection which now spans three generations of a community.

A saltwater bark. ANMM Collection 00033775.

A saltwater bark. ANMM Collection 00033775.

Nicole: Hi guys, a bit of a broad question for you. Are all the objects collected for museum collections done so with the intent to end up on display, or are most objects collected to continue a story or larger history by providing context rather than a particular, unique, displayable history?

Objects are collected for interpretive and/or research value in conjunction with their accessed significance. When acquiring an object we consider the interpretive potential of the item*: how you use them to explain history, what the object says to various audiences and how it to communicate this. Does an item have research, exhibition and/or online potential?

We have moved away from collecting for the sake of collecting and the notion of ‘completing a collection’. There is more focus on the unique value of a particular object rather than in context with a greater whole. This is a more current approach across the cultural sector, a move away from the 19th century modern museum collection practice of attempting to catalogue and/or collect the world.

Most museums are lucky to have 5% of their collection on display at any one time. This is due to a range of factors: space, light levels and temperature fluctuations (i.e. conservation reasons), the fragility of the artefact, cost of developing an exhibition and opportunities to run public programs, events and/or school excursions in relation to the objects.

However, an object can be valuable to our collection even it isn’t on display. We’ve been undertaking a large digitisation project for the past several years to expand our online collections. Research collections and archives are also important. Part of collecting is also making sure objects are conserved, ‘saved’ from the being lost to time. Display is only part of the story.

An example of our small object storage area. Image: ANMM.

An example of our small object storage area. Image: ANMM.

Daina: The excitement and aura of an object and the investment of significance are the driving factors for me when looking at material to acquire for the collection, this of course is combined with its interpretative potential in all types of programs.

Stephen: The object has little value in and of itself. For example, it’s just an Iphone until it has a history and history is a science.

James: My personal view is that archaeology is 80% science and 20% interpretation. When you compare the artefacts with historical record and find discrepancies between the two then things get interesting. Such as the boots found on the HL Hunley. The commander, George Dixon, was the only crewmember with a relatively well-documented life: newspapers of the time report he was prominent in social circles in Mobile, Alabama, as well as handsome and well-dressed. Indeed, remnants of his fine clothing were found with him, including a cashmere vest with European-made buckles, red suspenders (manufactured from one of the earliest known examples of elastic) with monogrammed silver clasps, a gold British-made pocket watch, and a diamond-studded gold brooch. Archival sources suggest Dixon was at least 6 feet tall, but his skeleton revealed otherwise. His actual height – 5ft 9in (1.7 m) – was augmented with lifts attached to the bottoms of this leather boots.

Donna: We aim to collection objects relating to the Indigenous connection with water, both freshwater and saltwater people. It is about connection with waterways – rivers and creeks – as much as the sea.

*There was a strong debate among the curators about whether it is correct to refer to our collection as ‘objects’ or ‘artefacts’.

Lynda: What is the percentage of people who visit the museum online and the physical site?

Kate: It’s about half and half and difficult to quantify exactly as many people are in fact both online and physical visitors. For example, they might visit our website before they come to check opening times, ticket prices, exhibitions and programs but then also visit our online collections or stories or blog for more information or to share a link with family/friends. Increasingly the physical and online are blurring. It’s less an ‘either/or’ situation than a ‘how do we produce complimentary content to make the physical and digital engage each other’.

Gail: What happens when you have multiples of the same object in the collection?

It largely depends on what the object is and does the fact that were are multiples give the collection additional meaning and interpretative value. Is it part of a larger collection? How unique is it on its own? For example, we have the occasional multiple of postcards from early last century but each of these cards come from different donors and are therefore part of a different archive.

As part of Treasures of the American Collection, we have a collection of zippo lighters on display. These cigarette lighters were collected by Vanessa Roberson from US Navy ships visiting Sydney between 1950 and 1980 that inadvertently portray a history of post World War II naval and defence ties between our countries including Operation Deep Freeze, goodwill and ceremonial visits, the Korean and Vietnam wars. Some designs on the lighters are repeated but each lighter was collected from a different visiting ship.

Multiples can often have more power to tell a story when displayed together, as is the case with the lighters in Treasures of the American Collection.

Katharine: Two questions: What is your favourite object in the museum’s collection? How has your role changed since you started as a curator?

Donna: About once a month I tend to come across new and surprising objects in the collection. I love the Saltwater Barks and the Ilma collection. Both of these collections contains a significant amount of cultural knowledge. I’ve only been in this curatorial role for two years but in that time I have enjoyed the opportunity to work with international exhibitions in Monaco and Istanbul to share our objects. I’m also embracing the chance to explore different ways to tell our stories through multi-media projections and oral histories.

Daina: My favourite object will often change. This year I’ve loved our Windjammers and Johnnie and Mehmet public art works, the latter about an historical engagement more than oen hundred years ago. This work introduces the AE2 Sultanhisar story to new audiences and it’s tremendously engaging and intriguing – you want to know more about the historical episode.. Our new Cazneaux works are favourites as well I love beauty in the world!

Johnnie and Mehmet, a new sculpture of commentorate AE2. Image: ANMM.

Johnnie and Mehmet, a new sculpture of commentorate AE2. Image: ANMM.

Stephen: The Wharfies mural is probably my favourite because it’s political, it’s by the people, and it’s pleasing to look at. It examines working lives around the harbour from an industrial age of activism, which is fast disappearing.

South Australia Maritime Museum:  Love your museum dog! Do you have much in the collection relating to pets on ships?

We have quite a few diaries and journals which mention pets on board ships. Cats, dogs and even birds were common ships companions. There’s a long and noble history of ship’s mascots; they were important for crew morale and vermin control. In our collection there’s also a range of photographs from the 1950s and 70s of people on the beach with their dogs. We’ve recently added an album of Little Shipmates, from the Hood and Hall photographic collections, on our flickr and blog.

Bailey visits Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Bailey visits Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Bailey: Any interesting seagulls in the collection?

We have some photographs and paintings which include seagulls. Though, it seems that you’ve already found the largest ‘seagull’ in our collection. (It’s actually an albatross).

Becky: How will increased globalisation impact acquisition of objects & handle the complexities of unclear copyright law?

This question as passed onto our Registration team, who oversee the copyright status for the collection. Curators often deal of the copyright of an object as they compile the acquisition paperwork.

Rhondda: As a public museum we are ethically and legally bound to ensure our practices meet legal requirements surrounding acquisitions, we meet industry best practice standards for collection due diligence and provenance research and we abide by Australia’s copyright laws however complicated they might be. You are correct to infer that copyright is complicated, especially in a globalised world, but we work within the legislative framework to ensure we can legally provide digital access to our collection.

Ted: I am looking for WW2 service info for my dad who worked for the Small Ships contingent. Would you have that info?

Did you know that we have a library? It’s the Vaughan Evans research library and has an extensive collection of publications relating to our permanent exhibition themes standard, reference sources on ships and shipping, material relating to our temporary exhibitions, museology and maritime archaeology as well as a good collection of journals on shipbuilding, yachting and surfing. We would have information about the Small Ships contingent there. There might also be information in our archives and online collections.

John: How important is active contemporary collecting?

Donna: It is really important, particularly for Indigenous collections. Contemporary collecting is part of communicating that our culture is still being practiced and is constantly evolving. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures see the land, sea and sky as one and interconnected. Our connection between the generations is passed down through our expression of culture. Collecting contemporary objects – especially art – helps document this evolution. It is connected to the energy of the people, as they work the word and ochre to create the items.

Daina:  We do keep abreast of contemporary trends in our swimwear collections and also the and art collections We have at times commissioned contemporary capsule collections for swimwear designers to respond to our collection and/or historical themes. We have been a little slow in this regard. We have been redirecting our collecting to new museum narratives but now we’re ready to go to represent maritime experience and life in the ANMM collections in all its forms!

Stephen: I would like to see the museum expand its contemporary collecting to include other areas as well.


Kate Pentecost

Kate Pentecost is the Digital Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum.