Crisis 1914: designing a 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 second of a series of ‘behind the scenes’ blog posts, Campbell shares some of the experiences and challenges of putting this exhibition together.
Once we had chosen our objects, it was clear what our story would be and the broad concepts were established in our heads. The challenge now was in discovering the best way to tell the story and the most engaging ‘form’ for the exhibition. When an exhibition project reaches the design planning stage, everyone has their own ideas about how the exhibition should look and feel. The challenge for an exhibition team is to separate the wheat from the chaff, gather all the best ideas and find ways to make them happen. I distinctly remember a conversation with a colleague right at the beginning of the process where I said I was determined that a particular idea be taken up, and by the time of the launch and opening, I’d forgotten I ever said it!
Museum exhibitions can be designed in-house if the expertise is available however many museums use external designers who bring specialist expertise, skills, technology and views. Our designers were a company from Melbourne with a history of innovative and creative museum work. They contributed new and interesting ideas to liven up the space and extend the exhibition far beyond a table and some artworks. The designers and the museum agreed that we wanted the space to be evocative, thematic and interesting, while keeping our core message clear and not overshadowing our objects. They did a great job at interpreting the space and objects. They understood right from the beginning what we were looking for, and helped us carve out a strong story we could tell with the objects and the space around them. I don’t recall whose idea it was to have a soundscape, but it turned out to be, in my mind, the most inspired idea of all. After much discussion the designers showed us a series of concepts, and once they had been approved by all the necessary people, we were able to start sending them content, so they could work their design magic.
Most of my role in the exhibition involved resourcing; finding the content the designers needed for the banners, panels, labels, footage and soundscapes. For example, it was intended that the soundscape would feature actors reading speeches and letters from the time. Someone had to not only find what they’d be reading but also what the speech makers or writers sounded like. A lot of my days were spent trawling through old newspapers on Trove, trying to find letters, both pro- and anti-war, that expressed the sentiments of the period. Perhaps the most fun part was trying to discover what Vida Goldstein and Andrew Fisher sounded like! There were all sorts of clues, but no actual recordings. I was able to give the designers some tips on how they might have sounded, and I feel proud every time I hear that hearty Scots burr reciting Fisher’s famous words, ’…to our last man and our last shilling!’ in the exhibition. I also spent a great deal of time finding appropriate images and footage to use for the audio-visual projections. I trawled through major archives and collections for the best, most evocative and most striking images I could find. Then, of course, I had to buy them and spend time fretting about when they were going to arrive!
Once the designers had everything they needed, they sent us proofs which we could check for accuracy before the final versions were produced. From there, the designers arranged for fabrication of all the products, from the text panels and exhibition labels to the interpretive artwork, projected film and images, and sound. Installation was imminent!
In Part 3, Campbell will describe the process of installing the exhibition, launching it and enjoying the fruits of everyone’s labour!