Making a big deal of it

They say that bigger is better and with the National Museum's latest exhibit, that is surely the case, Larissa Nicholson writes

Australians, or Australians in the tourism industry at least, have a well-documented love of all things big. The Big Pineapple, Banana, Merino and Golden Guitar are favourite landmarks dotting the country's landscape. This Spring, the National Museum of Australia has dug some of its large scale objects out of storage to let visitors take them in, bathed in lovely Canberra sunlight.

Senior curator Carol Cooper says that the large-scale objects capture the imagination.

''There's just something about the sheer size of some objects,'' she says. ''Just as a lot of small objects like jewellery can be really fascinating in its miniature, [with] the large objects there's just something very powerful about them, they speak to a lot of people.''

There is something rather joyful in the absurdity of a giant faded prawn sitting atop a souvenir store, soon to be a redeveloped as a Bunnings warehouse. The large scale objects in the museum's exhibit are less kitsch, though no less striking. Loosely tied together with the theme ''travelling across Australia,'' they include a canoe, aeroplane, wagon and car, to name just a few, and are positioned right at the entrance of the building, there to transform visitors' first impressions of the now 10-year-old institution.

That huge empty hall when you walk through the doors has obviously been a bugbear for museum director Andrew Sayers. When he took on the job in mid-2010 he publicly declared the great hall should be used as an exhibition space.

''Overall if people walk in and say wow, this looks like a museum, we will have succeeded,'' he says.


Cooper says there were four drivers for the Big Objects exhibit. The first, the simple fact that whenever the museum holds open days at their Mitchell storage facilities, visitors fall in love the with the grand scale objects, particularly old cars. It seemed a shame to have such treasures stored away from the public eye for most of the year, much better to have them out on display.

Secondly, they create a wow-factor to greet people when they enter the museum, and make use of the soaring ceilings and unusual size of the room.

''This is a great hall, and we're so lucky it's a beautiful space,'' Cooper says.

In the words of the curator it also serves to ''interpret the museum'', and Sayer's idea of making the museum look like one. Perhaps it is to be expected that such a relatively young establishment should still be shaping the image it hopes to project to the world, and staff seem to agree this will be a milestone.

Finally, Cooper says, this new exhibit serves to showcase the work of the museum's collection staff, conservators and registrars, all those people who spend painstaking hours behind the scenes repairing, conserving, caring for and displaying the objects so their stories can be told.

The beauty of gleaming vintage cars and planes ties in nicely with what is going on in the next room.

Museum Workshop opened concurrently and is a chance for visitors to see what conservators actually do. They are working on real projects, some for an exhibit themed around the year 1913 to open next year, and at the same time answering questions about their job. It is a bit of a fishbowl experience, head of conservation Vicki Humphrey admits. But luckily, conservators love to talk about their work, and the public have a chance to ask them about the best ways to care for their own antiques and family heirlooms. It should not get too much in the way of their work.

''If we're doing something that we need to concentrate on, I'm sure people will be able to understand if we say, 'Excuse me a minute, I really have to concentrate here,' '' she says.

Humphrey is working on some photograph albums for the 1930 exhibit, removing dust, repairing the book structures and stabilising them. ''They're photograph albums that are quite old, and the paper that makes up the pages of the photograph albums are quite thick, but also extremely poor quality, so I'll be doing more on the album than I will be on the photographs,'' she says.

Other staff members will be working on a beautiful old car, the 1948 Daimler landaulette used by the Queen on her 1954 tour of Australia, when an estimated 75 per cent of the population caught a glimpse of the royal.

To what extent objects should be restored to their original state throws up some interesting questions for conservators, Humphrey says. Another car from the exhibit helps highlight what needs to be considered; it is from the popular 2001 ABC documentary series Bush Mechanics, about indigenous mechanics fixing cars in ingenious and unorthodox ways.

''In terms of conservation treatment, we don't treat everything necessarily to the same degree,'' she says.

''We look at what the story is of the object, what it means to people, because the Daimler, if we take that back to a sense of grandeur, and a sense of fit for a Queen, that is relevant to that object's story. If we restore or fully revamp the bush mechanics' it loses a lot of its story, so what we've done is we've stabilised it.''

Things on a grand scale pose their own particular challenges for those who take care of them. For weeks before the opening of Big Objects, the mostly quiet nocturnal streets of Canberra played host to trucks carrying precious cargo, moving the large and very valuable treasures from Mitchell to the exhibition space itself. The hall was used daily right up until the exhibition opening, with an information desk and temporary cafe operating, and visitors and school groups streaming in and out, so most of the setup had to be at night.

Staff considered the thickness of the floor to make sure it could sustain the new exhibit, because some of the objects really are huge. So, too, the amount of light that would hit each object to prevent fading.

The ''Ranken coach'' will be among the treasures on display. Believed to be the oldest surviving horse-drawn vehicle in Australia, it is a rather stately carriage first owned by George Ranken, a wealthy Scotsman who migrated to Australia in 1821-22. So attached was he to the vehicle that when the family returned to Scotland for the children's education in 1837 they took the carriage with them, and shipped it back to Australia in 1841.

After Ranken died in 1860 a Bathurst family bought the coach and used it as the mourning carriage in their funeral business for 65 years, before it was acquired by the Australian Historical Society, and then the museum. Now it is back out of storage and taking pride of place in the museum for anyone wanting a closer look.