Sunday, 15 September 2013

Final visits - 11-09-13

Final week now, can’t believe how it’s flown by. Yesterday I gave a presentation about my time and my experiences of the placement. It was amazing to realise how much I’ve actually managed to fit into my time here. I think this is largely thanks to the Cultural Collections Unit, who I've been based with, for having organised such an impressive programme for me.

The presentation was also a good opportunity to tell people about the University of Birmingham’s collections. The audience included a few Melbourne students who were thinking of applying for the award, as well as collections staff from the University, so this information was received with interest.

Today, I manage to fit in three things I’ve been very much looking forward to since coming to the University of Melbourne: visits to the Dax Centre and the Victorian College of the Arts, and a meeting with the co-ordinator of a collection-spanning course run for undergraduates, entitled Knowledge, Culture and Learning. A varied but inspirational bunch!

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Herbarium 03-09-13

Loan specimens being checked

Today I visited the University of Melbourne's herbarium. I was helping to process a loan of specimen's from another University, which was a great opportunity to learn about botanical collections, their uses and the issues they face.

The collection is largely comprised of crisply dried botanical specimens that have been secured to sheets of paper, along with notes and annotations added at the point of its collection, its cataloguing and subsequent re-classifications. Aesthetically, they are absolutely charming. 

... and neatly packed
This dead organic matter constitutes a collection that is very much alive in terms of its use. It is constantly being added to, is used for teaching and research within and beyond the University, and makes use of new digital technology. The specimens hold the answers to a number of contemporary questions about our climate and ecosystem - for example, by analysing their DNA, we can compare levels of pollutants in the air in different times and places, and observing the spread or decline of plants in an area can reveal information about climate change. The specimens' research potential are enhanced by the herbarium's new scheme of high resolution digital imaging, which will reduce the time, money and the risks involved with physical loans; and by their participation in the Atlas of Living Australia, a fantastic resource which pools information about plant species and locations across time from institutions, organisations and individuals across Australia.

An eerie exhibit of the contents left in Grainger's
 mother's handbag following her suicide.
I also made a trip to the Grainger Museum, where I thoroughly enjoyed the insights into Grainger's autobiographical approach to curating. I left feeling simultaneously amused by his unusual character and inspired by his avid pursuit of so many interests!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

UMA and the Potter - 28-08-13

This week I was introduced to the University of Melbourne Archives and the Ian Potter Museum of Art, where I learnt about the various ways these institutions engage students, staff and alumini of the University, as well as the wider public with their collections. Both institutions offered me a valuable introduction to their day to day duties and also encouraged me to talk to members of staff whose work I was particularly interested in.

UMA's magnificent collection of boxes

The University Archives holds 18km in shelving of archival records and materials, relating to businesses, social and political movements, the city and the University. The staff are currently working to improve accessibility by using digital systems to comprehensively record and organise information about their holdings. This is an ernormous project that includes ironing out any anomalies that have occurred since the archive’s birth half a century ago, as items and records have been moved, new collections have been acquired, members of staff have left and procedures have changed. It showed me that archives certainly aren’t the static things that I had previously imagined.

It was also interesting to see how the work of an archivist, more so than that of an academic, curator or researcher, really aspires to objectivity. The archivist endeavours to order things objectively, describe things objectively, and although assessing the significance of an object is an important aspect of their role, there is still a strong impetus to preserve even those items that may seem to be trivial or arcane.

At the Potter, I was privileged to attend a meeting to discuss a coming exhibition on the architecture on campus (which, incidentally, referred to a number of images that I had encountered the previous day in the archives!) This exhibition will explore how the changing representations of the University, through its buildings and their depcitions, reflect the changing image that the University hopes to present of itself. This strikes me as a fantastic opportunity to engage students of the University but also members of the public, who will have observed, as I did in my first entry, the multitude of architectural styles even from the outskirts of the campus, and may subsequently be inclined to explore the campus grounds within.

I was incredibly excited and inspired by my discussions with the Curator of Academic Programmes, Heather Gaunt. Heather’s inventive projects and ideas recognise that University art collections and galleries house great potential for education across an extremely broad array of academic disciplines. She has worked with students studying medicine and dentistry, business and marketing, computer science, and English as a foreign language, using art as a tool to develop new or existing skills relevant to that discipline. Her approach was refreshing in that many of the projects were mutually beneficial for the participants and for the Museum, in contrast to the Museum that often perceives its visitors as passive beneficiaries. This really feeds into my personal interests in cultural engagement and was also highly relevant for my Cultural Collections Unit project.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Trip to Ballarat - 23-08-13

Myself and Jason admiring the lovely gallery space at Ballarat 
Visited Ballarat Art Gallery today with staff to assess the exhibition space in anticpation of the University’s 2014 touring exhibition of prints: ‘Radicals, Slayers and Villains’.

I was interested to learn that Ballarat Gallery is actually modelled on Wolverhampton Art Gallery, which the founder, fairly, regarded as the exemplar regional gallery! The inclusion of a John Bratby work in their 20th century rooms also caught my eye, representing a connection with the University of Birmingham.

Other excitements included a retrospective of Robert Clinch’s jaw-droppingly detailed representations of urban Melbourne and a moving exhibition responding to the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, by Doc Ross.

CCMC - 21-08-13

The conservation project was one of the aspects of the award that I have been most looking forward to, since its an area that I presently have very limited experience of. Today was my first day at the University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation (CCMC), and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
One of the labs at CCMC

The conservation labs are exciting places in themselves: characterised by an uncommon mix of artist materials and scientific apparatus. Pigments and potions, swaps, brushes, and specialist machinery are scattered around upturned oil paintings and other dilapidated treasures. The array of materials reflects the impressive scope of the conservators’ skills and knowledge.

My previous experiences of handling artworks and artefacts have focused on the preventative side of conservation, which generally means keeping the objects in stable conditions and minimising physical contact with them. It was therefore amazing to see the conservators confronting (albeit with utmost care) traditional no-go areas, such as paint surface. At the same time, a respect for the original is central to their work. I saw, for example, how any painted restorations were separated from the original paintwork with a layer of soluble varnish.

I was also fortunate enough to accompany the team to a research seminar hosted at the University, which demonstrated how science and conservation issues can directly inform art historical understanding. One paper on Sidney Nolan’s use of commercial paints skilfully compiled  biographical information, archival research and chemical and material analysis of Nolan’s paints into a fascinating account of the artist’s use of and relationship with his medium. Another showed how synchrotron technology had been used to reveal an underpainting beneath the National Gallery of Victoria’s Degas work, Portrait of a woman (c.1876 – 80) in astonishing detail and colour! Using elemental maps this incredible technique revealed a work that the artist would have presumed we’d never see – excellent news for the prying art historian!

 Also this week: Attended a number of events from the student arts festival, Mudfest, including a (deliberately) disorientating and slightly traumatic performance called Blindness, based on Jose Saramago’s novel of the same name.

First days in Melbourne - 20-08-2013

My first four days in Melbourne have been experienced as a series of introductions: to the city, the University, and to some of the staff that I’m going to be working with over the coming weeks. Each continues to add to my increasing sense of excitement and gratitude for the award. 

The facade of an old bank is preserved on campus, due to be
incorporated into the new architecture building
 for the second time
The day after my arrival in Melbourne happened to be the University’s Open Day, which presented a great opportunity to preview the campus and some it’s collections. I was immediately struck by a number of similarities between this campus and Birmingham’s. There is the same close juxtaposition of grand, nineteenth-century architecture against the more pragmatic modernist buildings, as well as striking examples of twenty-first century design - a physical manifestation of the fact that despite being built on historic foundations, both Universities are incredibly forward-thinking!

The same can be said of both Melbourne’s and Birmingham’s attitudes to their collections. They seem to share a concern that these historic collections be utilised today as well as preserved for the future. However, I have also been able to observe some differences between the ways that the two universities use and manage their holdings. For example, Melbourne is endowed with a fantastically well equipped and well staffed conservation department, which can be called upon to administer special attention to any objects, paintings or papers in need.  Another difference results from the fact that each of Melbourne’s thirty collections is run and managed separately, although they are  required to comply with university wide policy and minimum standards for their care,  and are all supported in this by the Cultural Collections team.

On the afternoon of my first day, we observed the British tradition of afternoon tea. It was wonderful to be introduced to a number of staff members who work with the collections in various ways. One of the things I have always found exciting about cultural collections, and in particular, those housed in universities, is that they often form a point around which a variety of different people, practices and approaches can meet and communicate. It seems that the projects I’m going to be working on whilst I’m in Melbourne will really see this in action.