Captivating and curious

An exhibition case study

by Guy Hansen

Captivating and curious poster

Captivating and Curious opened at the National Museum of Australia on 14 December 2005. This exhibition explored the history of the National Historical Collection (NHC), the Museum's main collection, from its origins in the Institute of Anatomy through to the present day. One of the most successful temporary exhibitions ever organised by the Museum, Captivating and Curious demonstrated the public's strong interest in the idea of the National Museum as a repository of the nation's treasures. Initially intended as a modest survey of the Museum's collecting activity over time, the exhibition quickly evolved into an important statement of the worth and value of the NHC.

In this article, I will argue that Captivating and Curious was a landmark exhibition in the development in the history of the National Museum. For the first time since its opening, the Museum turned the spotlight onto its own collections and their history. The exhibition set out to historicise the NHC by explaining the motivations behind the acquisition of major collections. Rather than presenting the NHC as a monolithic collection of national treasures, Captivating and Curious attempted to provide a more complex story in which the changing paradigms underlying the Museum's collecting were exposed. Approaches such as ethnography, comparative anatomy, social history, multiculturalism and environmental history all contributed to building the collection. Examining the various stages of the NHC's development provides an archaeology of twentieth-century curatorial practice.

Captivating and Curious was also different to many of the Museum's previous exhibitions in that it was strongly 'object'-centred. Instead of using objects to explore a historical theme or idea, the objects themselves were the starting point for a discussion of how the NHC was formed. By celebrating key objects in the Museum's collections, the exhibition asserted the importance of collecting as a key Museum activity. Most importantly, Captivating and Curious provided a clear statement that, despite the oft-repeated criticism that the Museum lacks objects capable of exciting the visiting public, the NHC is a nationally significant collection with the potential to both educate and attract large audiences.

Reviewing the development of Captivating and Curious highlights some important issues for museums. How should an institution present the history of its collections? What are the political consequences of failing to promote and explain the significance of a collection? What are the advantages of object-centred displays for exploring Australian history? What are the limits of object-centred interpretation? Do exhibitions such Captivating and Curious, despite the stated objective to provide a more complex story, simply repeat the cliché of presenting museums as treasure houses? In this paper I provide some initial reflections on these questions while also providing an account of the curatorial and design intent of the exhibition as originally conceived.

My role was that of the lead curator for the exhibition. As such, this article is intended to be a reflective piece about my own professional practice as a curator. While there are inherent dangers in judging one's own work, I would argue that this process of self-evaluation is essential to achieving a better understanding of curatorial practice. Unfortunately their ephemeral nature means that many exhibitions leave little trace after they have been de-installed. If not documented when in place, information about what objects were used and how they were interpreted can be lost. The transient nature of exhibitions highlights the need for curators to preserve a record of their exhibitions. Without such a record, it is difficult to conduct an informed discussion about changes in exhibition practice. There is a danger that new curators will be condemned to 'reinvent the wheel' as they encounter problems that have been solved many times before by their predecessors.

Exhibition background

The proposal for an exhibition on the history of the NHC emerged at a pivotal moment in the Museum's history. In the wake of the controversy surrounding the opening of the Museum in 2001, the Australian Government commissioned a review of the Museum and its programs.[1] The review, chaired by sociologist John Carroll and completed in 2003, was critical of the Museum in a number of areas and described the NHC as 'immature'. It recommended the Museum initiate a major acquisitions program with the objective of building a set of 'national treasures' that would eventually become a 'lighthouse beam, illuminating Australian culture as powerfully as visitors expect'.[2]

While the Carroll report was not explicitly critical of the NHC, there was a definite sense that the report's 'faint praise' was damaging to the National Museum's reputation. It was clear that Carroll, the report's major author, believed that the Museum lacked the numinous objects required to explore Australian history. He was not the only one — prior to the Carroll report some media commentators vociferously expressed the opinion the Museum's collection was sub-standard. For example in 2001, soon after the opening of the Museum, newspaper columnist Miranda Devine published a scathing commentary describing the Museum as 'all upside down Hills Hoists and tongue-in-cheek Victa lawn mowers'.[3]

Leveraging off the perception that the National Museum of Australia needed to significantly improve the quality of its collection, director Craddock Morton successfully argued for the establishment of an acquisitions fund for the Museum. For the first time in the Museum's history, there was a dedicated budget for the purchase of historical material. This enabled the acquisition of a number of major items, including an early prototype model of the FX Holden and a water bottle believed to be recovered from the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860–61. Prior to the creation of the acquisitions fund, purchases of high value collections were rare and only made possible by reallocating priorities within the Museum's operating budget or by special arrangement with the government of the day.

By 2005 Morton felt that the time had come to celebrate the NHC and asked staff to prepare a proposal for a major exhibition on the history of the collection. The trigger for this request was the need to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Museum of Australia Act (1980). There was a happy coincidence between this anniversary and the desire to make a strong public statement that the NHC was an important public collection. Also figuring strongly in the background was the success of the National Library of Australia's exhibitions, Treasures from the World's Great Libraries (2001) and National Treasures (2005), both of which had demonstrated the popularity of displays exploring the history of collections. The popularity of the National Library's exhibitions boosted the confidence of the Museum in its own venture to present the highlights of its own collection in a major exhibition. The exhibition was produced in a six-month period and opened in December 2005.

Developing the exhibition

All exhibitions are collaborative exercises.[4] As lead curator, I resisted the temptation to select my own personal favourites from the collection and instead sought input from staff across the Museum. This provided a shortlist of collection items from which to work. My role was to 'stress-test' this list to ensure the objects were representative of the major periods of collecting in the history of the institution, and to develop a story line that would weave these objects into a narrative explaining the history of the NHC.

Given that the National Museum of Australia only came into existence as a legislative entity in 1980, many would assume that it has a small and relatively recent collection. This, however, is not the case. The NHC consists of over 200,000 items collected by the Commonwealth Government over the past century. Modest compared to some of the state institutions, the NHC nevertheless represents one of the major holdings of historical material in Australia. Reviewing the history of the collection demonstrates that, while the collecting had at times been ad hoc and opportunist, the combined result is a significant collection with the potential to tell many stories about Australian history and culture. The 2005 exhibition provided an opportunity to uncover the motivations behind the creation of collections, and demonstrate how collection material can be used as historical evidence. I strongly believed that providing a sense of this history was essential in order for the exhibition to be more than a simple presentation of national treasures. The challenge for Captivating and Curious was how to convey the story of the NHC to a broader audience.

First impressions

The venue for Captivating and Curious was the National Museum of Australia's temporary exhibition gallery, which is adjacent to the Museum's main hall. A long-standing problem with this gallery is that its entrance faces the opposite direction to the main flow of visitors as they enter the building. In order to attract visitors to the gallery it is necessary to persuade them to change direction. This is partly achieved by the intervention of front-of-house staff who redirect visitors to the gallery. In order to assist in this process, the Canberra-based design firm Thylacine created a spine of storage racking that projected from the exhibition space into the main hall. This racking was identical to that used in the Museum's warehouses in the Canberra suburb of Mitchell. It was enclosed in acrylic sheeting with shelves populated with hundreds of items from the Museum's collections. This installation was intended to convey a sense of how the Museum stores its collections. The inference was that here you had a chance to see behind the scenes. The objects in this area were not labelled and were organised by material type as they are in the Museum store. Given that this spine projected into an area with limited environment control, the objects were selected for their robust nature, as well as their aesthetic appeal. Accession tags and bar codes were left in place. Visitors attracted to this open storage display were guided from the main hall into the temporary exhibition airlock and then into the exhibition space itself. Contextual photographs of Museum storage areas were used as wall murals to provide a sense of entering a warehouse.
Shelves with collection objects on them
The open storage display at the entrance to the exhibition photograph by Dragi Markovic National Museum of Australia
Upon entering the exhibition, the visitor was confronted with an impressive landscape of objects, both big and small. Considerable effort was put into the lighting design to make the first impression as spectacular as possible. The intended effect was that of a treasure cave, with areas of darkness contrasted with spotlighted objects. Wherever possible, internal lighting was used in cases to make the objects 'glow'. This framed each object in a way that attempted to convey its significance as part of the NHC. Even if a visitor did not read the associated exhibition text, it was still clear from the way an object was presented that it was precious.
A display of material from the MacKenzie collection, one of the first collections acquired by the National Museum of Australia photograph by Dean McNicoll National Museum of Australia

The MacKenzie collection

The opening set of displays in Captivating and Curious was designed to give an introduction into how the first collections of the NHC were formed. The first cases encountered within the exhibition space were a set of traditional cabinets that had been recovered from the Institute of Anatomy. Two major collections once housed in and cared for by the Institute of Anatomy, the MacKenzie collection and the National Ethnographic collection, were the first collections to be absorbed by the NHC. The objects in these cases were organised according to when and how they were first collected. Supporting labels explained the motivation behind their acquisition, providing an introduction to the intellectual history behind the creation of the collections. These first cases displayed a selection of anatomical wet specimens that included the respiratory system and heart of a brush-tailed possum and the dissected shoulder of a koala. These specimens had been collected by the Institute's first director, Sir Colin MacKenzie. The arrangement of these objects echoed the display techniques originally used in the Institute of Anatomy's exhibition halls and reflected MacKenzie's interest in comparative anatomy. MacKenzie, a prominent Melbourne orthopaedic surgeon, believed that Australia's unique fauna was destined for extinction. In 1924 he wrote, 'Unfortunately these animals are fast disappearing, and, in less than twenty years it is computed, will, in the absence of rigid protective measures, be all extinct'.[5]
Sir Colin MacKenzie, 1930s by WB McInnes Australian Institute of Anatomy collection, National Museum of Australia

A man of considerable wealth and extensive political connections, MacKenzie devoted much of his professional life to building an extensive collection of Australian animal specimens. He viewed Australian marsupials and monotremes as important, not just as examples of endangered species, but also for their potential to provide insights into the treatment of disease. The complexities of the human body, he argued, could 'only be revealed by a study of types of animals in which these can be demonstrated in their simpler form'.[6] Australian animals were unique, providing a rich field of comparative examples that could be used to better understand human anatomy.[7]

MacKenzie, convinced of the national significance of his work, offered his collection of specimens to the Australian Government. The collection consisted of approximately 2000 items, including a variety of wet and mounted specimens and anatomical drawings completed by artist Victor Cobb. The government responded to MacKenzie's generous offer by creating the National Museum of Australian Zoology in 1924. MacKenzie was appointed the museum's first director and, in 1929, received a knighthood in recognition of his contribution to medical research. In 1931, the Museum of Australian Zoology changed its name to the Australian Institute of Anatomy to coincide with the opening of its Canberra home.[8] The new title reflected MacKenzie's goal of creating a major research facility that focused on comparative anatomy. The building that housed the institute was one of the first major public buildings in Canberra and is today the home of the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).

In a new, purpose-built case, adjacent to the Institute of Anatomy cases and located directly in the path of incoming visitors, we placed the carcass of a thylacine acquired by MacKenzie in the 1930s. The state of the carcass suggests that it had not been used as a display specimen at the institute. It was roughly skinned, some organs were missing and the tongue had burst through its throat. As one of the last examples of an extinct species, however, the exhibit was invested with considerable emotional power and attracted significant visitor interest. Locating this gruesome icon of the collection in the opening area of the exhibition was intended to make a powerful statement about the significance of the collections held by the Museum. This physicality of the carcass was direct evidence of human impact on the environment. For me, as curator, it was a powerful demonstration of the role museums play in preserving a material record of the past.
A preserved thylacine from the 1930s on display in Captivating and Curious MacKenzie collection, National Museum of Australia

The National Ethnographic collection

In addition to storing and exhibiting MacKenzie's anatomical specimens, the Australian Institute of Anatomy also cared for the National Ethnographic collection. This was a diverse collection of a number of sub-collections comprising more than 20,000 items, initially acquired by some of Australia's earliest collectors of Aboriginal and Pacific material. This material later provided the basis for the National Museum's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collections, today considered one the best collections of Australian Indigenous material in the world.

At first glance, MacKenzie's acquisition of these collections sits awkwardly with his interest in comparative anatomy. For MacKenzie, however, there was a close link between the fate of Australian fauna and Aboriginal people. MacKenzie saw a parallel between the impact of settlement on wildlife and declining numbers of Indigenous people. As he described it, 'Thanks to poison and the gun they are rapidly following the fate of the Tasmanian nation which was completely destroyed in a period of about 40 years, constituting the most colossal crime our earth has known'.[9] Tasmania had come to symbolise a microcosm of what could happen on the mainland. While perhaps distasteful to modern sensibilities, MacKenzie's conflation of Aboriginal people with Australian fauna was a major motivating factor in his desire to collect Indigenous material.

A selection of material from the National Ethnographic collection was included in Captivating and Curious. Again, the interpretative strategy was to unveil the motivations of the original collectors, and turn the spotlight on some significant early collections:

  • Edmund Milne collection: Milne, an assistant commissioner for the New South Wales Railways, collected Indigenous material from the 1870s through to the 1910s. Milne's work on the railways took him around the state, enabling him to meet Aboriginal people and build a collection of artefacts. He displayed his collection in his home, arranging items by their type and size. He also gave public lectures on the 'Australian stone age', emphasising the importance and value of Aboriginal culture. Anticipating Canberra's future as the home of national institutions, he bequeathed his collection to 'the first Federal Museum opened in the Federal Capital'.[10]
  • Herbert Basedow collection: Basedow was one of Australia's first trained anthropologists. Between 1903 and 1928, Basedow, who was also a medical doctor and geologist, took part in many expeditions to central and northern Australia. While these expeditions were primarily organised to conduct surveys of the health of Aboriginal communities and to survey potential mineral resources, Basedow always took the opportunity to collect objects, photograph and record field observations of Aboriginal culture.[11] Objects displayed from the Basedow collection included 17 Tiwi spears he had collected from Bathurst Island in about 1911. The spears were displayed in an arrangement inspired by a photographic plate in Basedow's article, 'Notes on the Natives of Bathurst Island, North Australia', published in 1913.[12]
Spears collected by Herbert Basedow in 1911
photograph probably by Herbert Basedow National Museum of Australia
  • Material transferred from the University of Sydney: These fieldwork collections were made by anthropologists working in the late 1920s and 1930s. Part of their significance stems from the fact that Sydney University was the first Australian university to establish an anthropology department. AR Radcliffe-Brown and AP Elkin were leading figures in the department, encouraging students to undertake fieldwork across Australia, including Cape York, Arnhem Land, central Australia, the Kimberley and Bathurst Island. Much of this fieldwork was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation of America. Artefacts collected on these field trips were included in the exhibition.
  • Official Papuan collection: In addition to Aboriginal material, Captivating and Curious also featured examples of Pacific material culture, collected by officials during the period of Australia's administration of Papua in the early twentieth century. Originally intended for a Papuan museum, the collections were sent for safekeeping to the Australian Museum in Sydney. They were then sent to the Australian Institute of Anatomy in 1934. Objects displayed in the exhibition included an eraho mask from the Elema people collected by Francis Edgar Williams, the government anthropologist in Papua from 1922 to 1943.[13]
  • American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land collection: The Institute of Anatomy continued acquiring ethnographic material after the retirement of MacKenzie in 1937.[14] A good example of a collection acquired in this way was the material collected under the auspices of the American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land in 1948. This was a multidisciplinary expedition that set out to explore the Aboriginal culture and natural history of Arnhem Land. One of the bark paintings from this expedition was featured in Captivating and Curious. A bark was selected for display because the expedition played an important role in encouraging people to view these works as art, rather than simply as ethnographic objects.[15]
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) collection: The Institute of Anatomy also stored collections on behalf of the). AIAS was created in 1961 with the aim of promoting research into Indigenous culture. It funded fieldwork around Australia and purchased significant collections of Indigenous material. One of its major areas of material culture collecting was bark paintings, resulting in one of the largest collections of barks in the world. Collections acquired by AIAS were mainly sourced from northern Australia. Many of these collections were eventually transferred to the NMA. Among the AIAS material on display in Captivating and Curious was a selection of mortuary posts collected by Helen Groger-Wurm in the late 1960s, and items collected by other AIAS researchers, Howard Morphy, Brian Hayden and Janet Mathews.

Big things

Moving out from this area the exhibition began to explore material collected from the 1970s onwards. A series of large objects dominated the central spaces, selected to reveal the scope and variety of the collection, as well as to provide a rich visual landscape. One of the first objects encountered was the stream anchor from Matthew Flinders' ship, the Investigator. This anchor, along with the Investigator's best bower anchor, had been cut loose in the Recherche Archipelago in 1803 during Flinders' circumnavigation of the continent. Both anchors were recovered by staff from the South Australian Museum and divers from the Underwater Explorers' Club of South Australia in 1973. The best bower anchor was salvaged for the South Australian Museum and is on permanent display at the Maritime Museum at Port Adelaide. The stream anchor became the property of the Commonwealth and, in 1974, arrangements were made for it to be lent to the Western Australian Maritime Museum.[16] As senior curator working on this project, I made a special request for this object to be returned to Canberra for Captivating and Curious. The request was made with some trepidation as the termination of long-term loans of this nature can be resisted. In this case, the Western Australian Museum acceded to the request and the object returned to Canberra to be displayed in the eastern states for the first time in 30 years.
Stream anchor from Matthew Flinders' ship, the Investigator Matthew Flinders collection, National Museum of Australia
Other large items on display included a restored steam engine, an aeroplane, a tinker's wagon, a coach, a car and a giant Kewpie Doll. Each object was carefully positioned to make dramatic use of the exhibition space. For example, Betty, the giant Kewpie Doll that had been used during the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games, was located at the rear of the gallery to provide an intriguing visual sightline from the entrance. As a group these objects reflected the more recent social history collecting undertaken by the Museum.
'Bettie', the giant kewpie doll, 2000
Gift of the New South Wales Government, part of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Cames collection
National Museum of Australia
Perhaps the most significant of the large objects displayed was the Holden prototype no. 1.[17] Purchased from funds made available by the Howard coalition government for an acquisitions fund, this was the prototype of what later became the 48/215 (popularly known as the FX), the first commercially available sedan produced by General Motors-Holden's (GMH). In 1945, GMH sent 30 engineers and technicians to its parent company in the United States of America to design 'Australia's own car'. The prototype was completely hand-built and finished in August 1946 in Detroit. Two other prototypes were also built and tested on Australian roads.[18]
Holden prototype no. 1, 1946
Ian Metherall collection, National Museum of Australia
One of the most intriguing and evocative objects in the exhibition was the Road Urchin, also known as the Saw Doctor's Wagon.[19] This wagon belonged to Harold Wright, a travelling tinker and 'saw doctor'. Wright had arrived in Australia from England in 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. With limited job opportunities, he converted a horsedrawn wagon into a combined workshop and home. Wright travelled the eastern states in this wagon until his death in 1969. Decorated and adapted over the years, the wagon was, at various times, pulled by a horse, a truck and finally a tractor. The elaborate decoration of the wagon reflects the creativity of Wright and his family and also served the commercial function of attracting attention when the 'Saw Doctor' arrived in a country town or village.
The Road Urchin, travelling home and workshop belonging to Harold Wright, 1930s–60s
Peter and Wyn Herry collection, National Museum of Australia
Another horsedrawn vehicle displayed in Captivating and Curious was the Ranken coach.[20] This coach, or landau, is believed to be the oldest surviving horsedrawn vehicle in Australia. It was owned by George Ranken, who migrated from Scotland to Van Diemen's Land and then New South Wales in 1821–22. Ranken's family settled on a 2000-acre land grant near Bathurst. Following Ranken's death in 1860, the coach was sold to Sebastian Hodge, a Bathurst businessman. His son William inherited the coach and used it as a mourning coach in his funeral business until the 1920s. In 1925, the vehicle was presented to the Australian Historical Society and displayed at Vaucluse House. In 1938, it was featured in the 'March to Nationhood' pageant during Sydney's sesquicentenary celebrations and, in the 1970s, it was displayed at Old Sydney Town, a tourist development north of Sydney, before being purchased by the Museum in 1980.[21] The significance of the coach relates not only to its working career in the nineteenth century, but also to its continuing life as a historic object used to celebrate and signify Australia's colonial past.
Landau, the 'Ranken coach', early 1800s
Royal Australian Historical Society collection, National Museum of Australia

Collecting from the environment

Another part of the Museum's collecting history that I wanted to explore in Captivating and Curious was human interaction with the environment. From its inception, the Museum had departed from the traditional natural history approach, which separates humans from the natural world. The exhibition revealed stories of engagement with the land by European settlers, and contrasted this with Indigenous perspectives, including an Ian Abdullah painting, Finding Tree Frogs along the River Banks, which depicts life on the Murray in the 1960s.[22]
A selection of objects documenting the hardships of farm life, ancestral links with the land, the love of the outdoors and scientific interest in Australian flora and fauna were included in the exhibition. This included a pyramid of wheat and grain specimens assembled by a former judge of wheat at agricultural shows from the winning strains of 1886–1926.[23] The pyramid incorporates strains that are no longer grown and represents almost 50 years of crop development.
Pyramid of wheat specimens, about 1926
Department of Home Affairs collection, National Museum of Australia

Another exhibit that explored the history of European settlement was a pearl necklace and matching brooches from about 1826.[24] These were among the few possessions kept by Janet Templeton after declaring bankruptcy during the agricultural depression of the 1840s. Templeton had emigrated from Glasgow with her children and relatives, the Furlongs, in 1831. They had brought with them a flock of Saxon sheep, an influential breed in the development of Australia's fine merino wool industry. The sheep were purchased with the proceeds of the estate of Templeton's late husband, a Scottish financier and banker.

The growing interest in the bush as a place of leisure was reflected in the display of a bushwalking pram and leather dog boots from the 1930s.[25] These belonged to Myles Dunphy, a pioneering conservationist. Myles adapted the pram so that his son Milo could join the family on bushwalks. Myles enthusiasm for the bush is further demonstrated by the intriguing leather boots custom made to protect the paws of the family dog, Dextre. Also from the 1930s, and demonstrating a growing interest in Australia's floral emblems, was a wildflower quilt made by Nettie McOlive.[26] McOlive, who grew up on a dairy farm in Eurelia, South Australia, had been highly commended for this quilt in a competition run by the Adelaide Chronicle in 1933.

Fame and infamy

Another category of collecting represented in Captivating and Curious was a collection of items associated with well-known Australians. This area was partly influenced by the Carroll report's recommendation that the National Museum should showcase 'exemplary individual' achievements.[27] In the exhibition, this definition was expanded to include infamous as well as famous Australians. Material displayed in this area included Governor Lachlan Macquarie's dirk and scabbard. Macquarie, one of the most important of the early colonial governors of New South Wales, was an ideal figure to use. His dirk was part of his regalia as a Scottish officer and provided a powerful symbolic link to his role as an administrative and military commander within the colony. A movie camera belonging to RG Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister (1939–41, 1949–66), was displayed alongside the amateur footage he shot during his overseas visits. Also displayed was a black dress worn by baby Azaria Chamberlain, who disappeared on a camping trip at Uluru in the Northern Territory in 1980.[28] These objects were deliberately selected for the fame of their original owners. Their authenticity as objects, combined with their connection with famous figures, gave them significant power within the exhibition space. This was reinforced by a design treatment that used internal lighting and a red background to convey an 'iconic' status for each item. While this might be considered akin to producing a reliquary, the interpretative objective was to demonstrate the national significance of the collection.
Black dress, panties and booties belonging to baby Azaria Chamberlain
Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton collection, National Museum of Australia

Milestone markers

Surrounding this large central show of personal items was a selection of material reflecting major events in Australian history. The curatorial intent in this area was to demonstrate how the Museum holds material reminders of Australia's past. This includes items associated with landmark events as well as popular culture and social history material. Most of the items displayed were collected after the Museum was established in 1980. Objects included bunting that celebrated the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901; a 1920s waterside workers trade union banner; a Latvian folk costume brought to Australia after the Second World War; a 1950s' Australian migration poster; a TCN television camera used in the first broadcast of commercial television in 1956; a control panel from the Orroral Valley Tracking Station near Canberra, used in the 1960s as part of the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration's worldwide STADAN network; a Depression-era child's dress made out of old curtains and painted with slogans such as 'Have you got a job for daddy?'; a protest placard featuring the memorable date 11–11–75 (marking the dismissal of the Whitlam government); and a sign from the original Aboriginal tent embassy that was established in front of Parliament House in January 1972.[29] No attempt was made to link these objects into a causal narrative. They did not make an argument about the flow of Australian history but rather served to provide a physical sense of that history. For the majority of visitors these objects had their own resonance and acted as triggers for memories and to stimulate discussion about Australia's past.

The review of historical moments was brought to a close with examples of contemporary collecting. An Australian flag recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York following the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001 provided a reminder of the lead-up to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.[30] The effect of terrorism on Australia was illustrated by material salvaged from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta after being damaged by a car bomb on the morning of 9 September 2004. This display included the broken embassy coat of arms, the shattered ambassador's window and the carpark clock, frozen at the time of the explosion.[31]

Australian Flag recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, 2001
World Trade Center collection, National Museum of Australia

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material

The penultimate area of the exhibition was devoted to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander material. The objects displayed reflected both regional and urban Indigenous life, and included historical material, objects used in ceremonies, and art-and-craft material. The largest object was a dugout canoe from Borroloola, a town on the Macarthur River inland from the Gulf of Carpentaria, which was commissioned by the Museum in the 1980s. A selection of the Museum's extensive collection of king plates were presented. A bark painting depicting Namarrkon, the Lightning Man, by Jimmy Nakkurridjdjilmi Nganjmira from Oenpelli in western Arnhem Land, was displayed alongside a contemporary print from Redback Graphix, a community-based arts studio established in 1979.[32]
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artworks and objects on
display photograph by Dragi Markovic, National Museum of Australia

The 'Lab'

As visitors left the exhibition they walked through the 'Lab'. This was an area devoted to the technical aspects of collections management. One of the treasures of the Museum, a convict jacket, was the centre of a display explaining potential threats to objects, including fading and insect infestation. Visitors were able to observe carpet beetles and silverfish specimens through a magnifying glass, and touch a silver tray that accumulated marks and tarnish over the course of the exhibition. A series of interactive displays revealed the application of new digital technologies to the interpretation of paper-based objects. This included screen-based interactives that allowed visitors to examine in detail Oscar's sketchbook, (a book containing 40 pencil drawings by an Aboriginal schoolboy in the 1890s), and the Jerilderie letter (an 1879 transcription of bushranger Ned Kelly's manifesto by publican John Hanlon), both objects which normally can only be displayed in low light.[33]

Evaluating Captivating and Curious

Captivating and Curious was one of the most successful exhibitions the National Museum of Australia has hosted in its temporary exhibition gallery. On show from December 2005 until March 2006, it attracted 81,709 visitors. In terms of how visitors responded to the exhibition, 50 exit interviews were conducted with visitors during the life of the exhibition.[34] Although care needs to be taken in interpreting the visitor survey results as the sample size is small, it did reveal that visitors knew little about the Museum's collections prior to visiting the exhibition.[35] Having seen the exhibition, they felt they had a much clearer idea of what the Museum collected. As one visitor expressed it, 'Australian identity, place in the land, evolution, how we have progressed over the years'. Or, in more direct terms: 'Australian history. All the memory stuff'. Visitors were also interested in how the collections extended to the present day: 'There are more modern things than I expected'. When invited to comment on what they liked about the exhibition, respondents favoured the large objects, with the Sydney Olympics kewpie doll the most mentioned item. There was also a strong sense of how the objects elicited a nostalgic or emotional response, including remarks such as, 'Lovely old stuff from when I was a kid'.


Viewed from a distance, a museum's collections can appear monolithic, as having always existed in a coherent mass. Reviewing the history of the NHC shows a more complicated picture. The collection is not the result of a single hand, but rather reflects many people's efforts in preserving material for future generations of Australians. It becomes clear that a number of different collecting paradigms have driven the development of the NHC. Comparative anatomy, ethnography, environmental history and social history have all contributed to the shape of the Museum collections. Government policies, such as the assertive cultural nationalism of the 1970s, the multiculturalism of the 1980s, and the culture wars of the 1990s, have also helped define the limits and possibilities of the collections. Understanding this history and communicating its significance is an essential part of preserving the NHC.

While Captivating and Curious was undoubtedly successful, the need to promote the significance of the NHC remains a pressing issue for the NMA. In 2009 former prime minister Paul Keating argued in an article in the Weekend Australian that the National Museum of Australia lacks the necessary collection base to be a truly great national museum. In his words, national museums must 'have large and varied collections of the many ordinary and, sometimes, great things that tell the story of how a society developed and how life was lived through particular periods'. For Keating, the construction of the Museum rushed ahead without the necessary collections groundwork to underpin the building. Rather than spend money on construction of an exhibition venue, Keating argued that the development of the collections should have taken priority: 'The important thing, I thought, at this stage was the dragnet; the harvest'. For him, the Howard Government's decision to proceed with the Museum resulted in a 'national lemon'.[36]

Craddock Morton forensically rejected Keating's rebuke of the Museum, pointing out that it was a pity the former prime minister had not, during his tenure, matched his belief in collection building with additional funds. Morton stated: 'As far as I am aware the National Museum of Australia did not have an acquisition fund until it was provided with one by the Howard government in 2004. Prior to this its capacity to acquire objects was almost non-existent, unless they came from donations or the transfer of already existing collections'.[37]

While Keating's remarks, and Morton's rebuttal, post-date the development of Captivating and Curious, their exchange demonstrates the importance of how a museum's collection is perceived. The Museum's current director, Andrew Sayers, has reiterated the importance of this task. In a recent address to the National Press Club, Sayers argued that the Museum 'is still at the beginning of the long range task of bringing together a collection of objects that carry some national symbolism'.[38] For the Museum to attract the necessary support from government, it is essential that it makes the case that its collection is a national treasure. One of the main objectives of Captivating and Curious was to demonstrate that the NHC is a unique and important national asset and that the Museum has a vital role to play as custodian of this collection. In 2011 the challenge remains for the Museum to demonstrate to government and the people of Australia that its collections are an invaluable asset for exploring Australian history and culture.


1 For an account of the political controversies surrounding the Museum at this time see Guy Hansen, 'White hot history', Public History, vol. 11, 2004, 39–51; Guy Hansen, 'Telling the Australian story at the National Museum of Australia', History Australia, vol. 2, no.3, December 2005, 90.1–90.9
2 John Carroll (chairman), Review of the National Museum of Australia — Its Exhibitions and Programs: A Report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia (the Carroll report), Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pp. 52–3.
3 Miranda Devine, 'A nation trivialised', Daily Telegraph, 12 March 2001, p. 3.
4 The curatorial team for Captivating and Curious was Guy Hansen (lead curator), Johanna Parker, Cinnamon van Reyk and Almaz Berhe. The exhibition was designed by Thylacine, an ACT-based design firm.
5 Professor Colin MacKenzie, 'The medical importance of the native animals of Australia', paper circulated for the information of Honourable Members by the Honourable the Chief Secretary, MacKenzie papers, National Museum of Australia, 1924, p. 1.
6 MacKenzie's study of koalas reflects this argument. He observed that koalas possessed a hyperextension in their arms, allowing them to grasp gum leaves above their heads. Using detailed dissections of koala shoulders, he was able to design a shoulder splint as a treatment for sufferers of infantile paralysis. The splint held the arm out from the side of the chest helping to re-educate damaged muscles. MacKenzie was later able to adapt this technique when working as a surgeon at the Military Orthopaedic Hospital in Shepherd's Bush, London, during the First World War. Here, the splint technique was used to treat soldiers with wounds to their upper limbs: ibid., p. 1.
7 Monica MacCallum, 'MacKenzie, Sir William Colin (1877–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 10, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 1986, pp. 306–8.
8 ibid., p. 307.
9 Professor Colin MacKenzie, 'The importance of zoology to medical science', Presidential address, Australian Institute of Anatomy, 1928.
10 David Kaus, 'Collecting by railway: The Milne collection of ethnology', Masters thesis, University of Canberra, Canberra, 1998, p. 63.
11 David Kaus, A Different Time: The Exhibition Photographs of Herbert Basedow 1903–1928, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2008.
12 Herbert Basedow, Notes on the Natives of Bathurst Island, North Australia, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1913, Photographic Plate No. 9.
13 Sylvia Schaffarczyk, 'Australia's Official Papuan collection: Sir Hubert Murray and the how and why of a colonial collection', reCollections: Journal of the National Museum of Australia, vol. 1, no. 1, March 2006, pp. 41–58, 14 This was partly because of the historical precedent MacKenzie established, but also for the pragmatic reason that there was no other Commonwealth institution in which to store this material. The Institute of Anatomy had become, almost by default, home to these collections.
15 National Museum of Australia collection file 9315448.
16 Mathew Trinca, 'The Investigator's anchor', in Captivating and Curious: Celebrating the Collection of the National Museum of Australia, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2005, p. 22.
17 Ian Metherall collection (NMA 2004.0033.0001).
18 Daniel Oakman, 'Australia's own car', in Captivating and Curious, p. 72.
19 Peter and Wyn Herry collection (NMA 2002.0016.0002).
20 Royal Australian Historical Society collection (NMA 1986.0038.0001).
21 Denis Shephard, 'The gentleman's coach', in Captivating and Curious, p. 26.
22 Ian Abdullah collection (NMA 1990.59.03).
23 Department of Home Affairs collection (NMA 1986.0037.0116).
24 Diana Baxter collection (NMA 1998.0020.0002).
25 Myles Dunphy collection (NMA 1987.0045).
26 Nettie McOlive collection (NMA 2000.0009.0002).
27 Carroll report, p. 13.
28 Governor Macquarie's dirk and scabbard (NMA 1993.0005.0002); Azaria Chamberlain's black dress (NMA IR 1577.0008.001); RG Menzies film camera (NMA 1993.0026.0001).
29 Bunting celebrating the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York in 1901 (NMA 1999.0017.0124); a 1920s waterside workers trade union banner (NMA 1986.0040.0001); a Latvian folk costume (NMA 1986.0040.0001); a 1950s Australian migration poster (NMA 2002.0047.0010); a TCN television camera (NMA 1986.0088.0995.001); a control panel from the Orroral Valley Tracking Station (NMA 1986.00086); a Depression-era child's dress (NMA 1986.0002.0001 ); protest placard featuring the iconic date 11–11–75 (NMA 2003.0005.0001); sign from the Aboriginal tent embassy (NMA 1987.0090.0001).
30 World Trade Center flag (NMA 2008.0011.0001).
31 The bomb exploded four metres in front of the embassy gates, propelling shrapnel far and wide. The windows to the front offices of the embassy were blown in, but the structure withstood the force of the blast. Ten Indonesians died. Department of Foreign Affairs collection (NMA 2005.0060).
32Lightning Man, by Jimmy Nakkurridjdjilmi Nganjmira (NMA 1991.24.3788); Redback Graphix print (NMA 2002.0008.0002).
33 Oscar's sketchbook (NMA IR 2269.0001); Transcription of the Jerilderie Letter (NMA 2001.0015.0004.006).
34Captivating and Curious, Results of 50 exit interviews, 2006, National Museum of Australia Internal report.
35 Sixty-eight per cent stated that they knew nothing about the collection with a further 24 per cent saying they had some knowledge.
36 Paul Keating, 'Lame excuse for a national lemon', in 'Review', Weekend Australian, 25–26 April 2009, p. 36.
37 '2020 vision: The National Museum of Australia over the next decade', speech by Craddock Morton, director, National Museum of Australia, to the Friends of the National Museum of Australia, 24 June 2009.
38 'In the national interest: The National Museum of Australia', Address by Andrew Sayers AM, director, National Museum of Australia, National Press Club, Canberra, 16 March 2011, viewed at