Digital museuming

A unique interdisciplinary conference on digital media at the Museum of Sydney

Gary Warner

Gary Warner

As a child I was enamoured of the spooky, musty South Australian Museum. You could almost smell the mummies: there was more than a little of the morgue of history about the place with its stern elderly uniformed attendants and shadowy well-trod stairwells. The bird room in the Sydney Museum still has some of that Victorian gothic flavour, and the Macleay Museum (now being promoted for its exotica by the Historic Houses Trust) in the University of Sydney plunges you back quite astonishingly into a 19th century museum culture. These were and remain to a degree places to dream in: it was enough to look (and smell and wander), perhaps to press the odd button to illuminate a tableau. The Museum of Sydney shares that virtual with its slide-out drawers of old Sydney pipes, coins and bric a brac, but there is no smell of formalin or moth balls or dust and ageing wood. The Museum of Sydney has a video wall and it has a “Bond Store” packed with not-quite-but-almost hologrammatic characters from early Sydney (more everyday than famous and played convincingly by actors) ghostily telling their lives and singing songs against dimly glimpsed layers of sea and landscape. It’s a room that benefits from a long and reflective visit, and has the requisite museum eeriness (of which education is only a secondary benefit), especially if you’re in it for a long time and preferably alone. It’s not a space for whizz-bangery and impatience.

Three years after introducing itself as a museum uniquely predicated on the virtues of new media technologies, the Museum of Sydney is reviewing the engagement between the past and the new both here and overseas in a 2 day conference featuring international guests. Curated by Gary Warner, Director of CDP MEDIA (which specialises in multimedia projects for museums, galleries and the likes of the Botanic Gardens), SITE-TIME-MEDIA-SPACE, is billed as cross-disciplinary. It is broadly “intended to contribute to development of understanding and appreciation of the wider creative potentials offered by new media technologies.” More specifically, and this is the nitty gritty we fantasists want to hear, it will “encourage consideration of the ways in which digital media might augment exhibition practices or be employed to create entirely new forms of visitor experience and interpretive techniques.”

Even more interesting for artists is its promise that “(t)he core of the event will be an inspirational series of presentations from local and international curators, exhibition designers, media artists, filmmakers and other professionals at the leading edge of museum and technological endeavour.” I like “inspirational”. As a new site for the working artist, the modern museum places itself ahead of the graphic, scenic, sculptural and taxidemic arts of the past in its artistic appeal for the animator, imager, interactor, interfacer. And, doubtless, the conference will attract the museologist, for whom the sharply changing nature of the museum offers one of those historical moments of enviable perspective.

According to a draft statement about the conference, the internet and the world wide web have tended to favour certain developments in the museum—“collection management, promotion, publishing and communication”—“tending to preclude other applications of new media.” Alertness to “local imperatives” and “staff members’ special abilities and interests” and the prospect of “unusual, innovative, eccentric and specialist exhibition projects” are the new focus. A measure of the conference’s success will be the degree to which it conjures possible ways of telling history and its various and sometimes contradictory truths, and whether it affords sufficient kinds of (sometimes interactive) experience for the visitor to become, as Ross Gibson has put it, “a provisional historian.” (Metro, 100, Summer 1994/5)

The Bond Store, Museum of Sydney Ray Joyce

RealTime issue #26 Aug-Sept 1998 pg. 21

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1998