Art is a Weapon: Behind the scenes of a new exhibition
Having worked at Old Parliament House since 2006, before the Museum of Australian Democracy existed, I’ve often had a small role in assisting with exhibitions—mostly doing research for text panels or for objects on display. But the Art is a Weapon exhibition, due to open in December 2012, is the first one with which I’ve had this level of involvement. For me it has been a learning experience, a lesson in how to put things together and make an exhibition work well.
Outside of work I’m studying for a Masters in Liberal Arts (Museums and Collections), but this experience has been more valuable in terms of hands-on, practical knowledge and learning how exhibitions are conceived, designed and installed.
The exhibition concept is built around a portfolio of linocuts, produced by the Communist Party of Australia in 1954 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade. Everyone, myself included, was sure from a very early stage that we needed to keep the exhibition design simple and let the artwork speak for itself. As part of the curatorial team, my job has mostly been to do background research on some of the objects and pieces that will go into the exhibition space. However, unlike past exhibitions I’ve been party to every major decision and all the design process, which for me has been absolutely fascinating.
I really didn’t realise just how involved the entire museum can get with exhibitions. Naively, in the past I’d assumed the bulk of the work had been done by the curators, with some assistance from external designers and installers. Of course, it’s far more widespread than that. Every section of the museum has some involvement, from the heritage staff who conserve and look after the objects, to the marketing team, the web co-ordinators and especially the staff who handle the actual installation. It’s obvious when you think about it, but I hadn’t thought about it until I started to become involved. Exhibitions really are a core business of a museum and nobody in the museum organisation is immune from having to be involved with their design and installation.
For me, though, the biggest challenge has been the copyright and intellectual property issues around this exhibition. Most people may not realise how important and difficult it is to track and obtain copyright clearance for museum exhibitions. Generally, if a work is still in copyright it can be displayed without needing approval from the copyright owner, but if it is going onto a website it can be considered as reproducing or copying the work, which is covered under copyright. A large part of my role in preparing this exhibition has been to locate the holders of the copyright for the artistic works and other museum objects so that we are able to put them online and in some cases incorporate elements of them into the exhibition design. It was a lot more difficult and time-consuming than I thought, but an interesting project. Some of the original artists have died, and the copyright has passed to their families. Others are still living and hold their own copyright, which allowed me to talk with them about the works they produced nearly sixty years ago. There were some fascinating stories to learn.
We still don’t know much about some of the artists, and in preparation for the exhibition I’ll be researching them to reveal as much as I can. In the meantime, there are displays to design and install and objects to make ready. The final design looks great, and I think it will really show off these unusual pieces of art in a different and interesting way. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of working on this exhibition, and I for one can’t wait to see it finally open.
Art is a Weapon is due to open at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in December 2012 in the Living Democracy exhibition space.