Thursday, November 11, 2010

Living histories

When a town passes its heyday or a tool or craft or industry is superceded, it is consigned to 'history'. Once it is dead and buried in history, it loses substance and becomes a wraith with little power other than that of curiosity.

Museums that house these wraiths of past times have little pulling power for new audiences. But museums that invoke the life in their stories and collections remain relevant and attractive to audiencs across the generations.

I'd like to share three examples where museums and historic places have brought life and relevance to their heritage material.

At the Queensland Art Gallery in October, I wandered past one of the most loved paintings in the collection. The vibrant 'Under the Jacaranda' was painted in 1903 by Richard Godfrey Rivers portraying the first jacaranda grown in Australia, in Brisbane's Botanic Gardens.

I was delighted to see a scattering of jacaranda blossoms on the floor under the painting.

Under the Jacaranda by Richard Godfrey Rivers

I'm not sure who scattered the petals there, but it is clear that they are acceptable to the Gallery. This little touch of whimsy tells visitors that someone, today, appreciates the way this painting celebrates one of the beauties of our world. Bringing a smile, it surprises and enlarges the visitor experience. 

Visiting Salisbury Cathedral in 2008, I was struck by the facade of the West Wall. Most medieval cathedrals struggle to keep the roof intact and when decorative bits fail, they are rarely replaced. Many a niche is empty or has little more than a worn remnant of the original statue.

At Salisbury the West Wall is full of statues, though only 10 date back to 1300 when the wall was first completed. In recent centuries, old statues have been replaced by new ones. But they are not replicas of the originals, instead they represent contemporary people while still conforming to the original iconography based on the Te Deum.

The latest addition was in 2008, when the cathedral added a statue of Canon Ezra, a Sudanese a priest who was killed by cross-fire during the civil war in 1991.

Canon Ezra

This contemporary statue has the remarkable effect of transforming the West Wall into a living history wall. Suddenly, you are not really visiting a medieval cathedral, you are visiting a contemporary workplace that happens to be housed in a remarkable building.

There's nothing more energising than a shift in framing!

Finally, the Australian War Memorial keeps alive a practice of commemoration that is meaningful and moving for many visitors.  Daily and annual rituals refresh appreciation for the dedication, courage, commitment and sacrifice of those who have defended Australia and served in the armed forces.

Anzac Day 2001

Living ritual is one way to engage visitors and nurture meaningful connections. What rituals does your museum have?

Contributed by Gillian Savage

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