Crisis 1914: a manufactured crisis
Curatorial Officer Campbell Rhodes was on the project team for Crisis 1914! The Call to Arms, the Museum of Australian Democracy’s exhibition on the early days of the First World War. In the final of three ‘behind the scenes’ blog posts, Campbell shares some of the experiences and challenges of putting this exhibition together.
With the fabrication finalised, and all the objects chosen and ready to go, it was time for the last task: installation. This task is done by our talented in-house exhibitions team and some trusted contractors. My job, at this stage, was to stay out of the way. That’s the hardest job of all!
Normally, installation happens quite rapidly; the room or gallery is closed to the public, the installation team locks themselves in with all the objects and component parts and two-way radios and emerge occasionally for drinks and snacks. The doors re-open when everything is ready. This time we were lucky to be ahead of schedule and could install more slowly, a bit at a time as it was ready, meaning the process was a little bit less stressful and difficult than it sometimes can be. I say ‘a little’ because it was still a busy and at times fraught period. And another lesson: never interrupt an installation team when they’re busy! Trust me on this point!
The installation process was fascinating to observe—even though at a distance. I was able to see how the exhibition developed from an empty room to something special. First, the enormous cabinet table was installed and the conservators worked their magic on it. It is a very large table; everyone had spent so long worrying about its size and how it would fit into the space, I was expecting it to be about fifty feet across! But it fitted perfectly. Then the showcases and 3D objects were moved in, and the team began hanging the Australian War Memorial’s newly framed artworks. One of the last things to be installed was the Charles Bryant painting. Often particularly precious objects are installed last to prevent any damage that may occur in the installation of the exhibition as a whole. One of my favourite moments was seeing one of our heritage staff affix our collection of tin badges to their stands with tiny magnets; a simple and elegant solution to the problem of how to effectively display such awkward, fiddly metal objects.
Finally, everything was ready, and we could open the door (actually, take the door off its hinges and store it away) and let the teeming masses in to view our newest exhibition. Over the next week we made the odd adjustment here and there to get everything just so. By the time the exhibition was officially launched, we had everything ship shape. The two-stage launch is very common in exhibitions; a ‘soft opening’ where the doors are opened and visitors can experience the exhibition and issues are ironed out, and the formal launch a short time later, which usually involves drinks, nibbles and speeches. On this occasion, the formal opening was conducted by the Governor-General, Sir Peter Cosgrove. I’m told he was impressed with the result. I certainly am.
I’m proud to say I worked on Crisis 1914, and while we were all very pleased, there was barely time to admire our work. Menzies by John Howard was just weeks away from its own launch. But that, of course, is another story.
Crisis 1914: the call to arms is open until August 2015 at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
Campbell made the ‘manufactured crisis’ pun at least twice while the exhibition material was being fabricated, and nobody laughed.