Crisis 1914: how a crisis was born
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 first of a series of ‘behind the scenes’ blog posts, Campbell shares some of the experiences and challenges of putting this exhibition together.
For many people, a museum exhibition just appears like magic. You visit the museum one day and it’s not there. Next time, it’s there, finished and ready for you to enjoy. Despite appearances, it takes a lot of time and resources to make an exhibition happen and, in some cases, they are years in the making.
So, how does a museum exhibition come together? In the case of the Crisis 1914 exhibition, our contribution to the centenary of the First World War, the answer is surprisingly quickly! It was all hands on deck to put together an interesting and engaging display which highlighted our objects and was underpinned by a strong message.
The first step was deciding what story we wanted to tell, and how we might do that. The purpose of the exhibition was twofold: to mark the centenary of the First World War, and to be our museum’s contribution to the many commemorations happening around the country this year. Happily, we already had a ‘hero object’ in our own collection - the beautiful cabinet table around which the Cook ministry sat and decided on Australia’s role in and contribution to the war. It was the natural centrepiece of the exhibition and the piece upon which the exhibition story could be devised. This centrepiece helped craft our narrative - the Cook government’s initial response to the war, the transfer of power from Joseph Cook to Andrew Fisher and the government’s determined backing of the British Empire. The questions flowed naturally. What was Australia like at the time? What did the war mean for us as a people? How did Joseph Cook and his ministers make their early decisions? And how did the war impact on the domestic situation; how did it affect the election campaign Cook was fighting against Andrew Fisher at the time? These were the questions we wanted to address in our exhibition.
The cabinet table for all its grandeur and bulk wouldn’t be enough and we needed objects to complement it. The obvious source was the Australian War Memorial. After nominating a short list of items from their collection, and with the help of their enthusiastic curatorial staff, we went over the lake to examine fascinating recruitment posters, a sketchbook filled with hand-drawn experiences of the war, and paintings. Loans, like exhibitions, don’t happen by magic and the loans process takes time. You need plenty of time to complete paperwork, check the condition of works, do conservation work and so on. I wasn’t fully aware until this exhibition just how long that process can take. The learning curve got a bit steeper at this point for me.
A high point in the loans process was getting permission to lend the large Charles Bryant painting of the first Australian troop convoy leaving Albany. I really doubted that we would get it. I thought it would be too big, too precious, too fragile or too unwieldy for us to display in the chosen exhibition space. Imagine my delight at discovering we could borrow it! It’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of art, and it complements and balances the cabinet table and other objects. I’m very pleased we were able to get it, and never happier to be wrong!
Stay tuned for Part two, where Campbell will share some of the secrets of good exhibition design.