ScreenSound out of the vaults

Magella Blinksell

The National Film and Sound Archive, snappily renamed ScreenSound, has upgraded its role from archivist to ‘exhibitionist.’ Heralding this new mode is their first major exhibition of Australia’s audiovisual history, Sights + Sounds of a Nation.

While debate rages fiercely about the historical perspective of the recently opened National Museum—too black-armband or not enough—it is clear that the Centenary of Federation marks not so much a coming-to-terms with representing our history but rather a time where it is, at last, “out of the vaults.” Curator Joanna Wilson describes the exhibition as a “window onto ScreenSound.” Ten years ago the main purpose of the archive was to ensure the collection’s longevity and access to it. The mélange of information contained within is diverse and impressive. Now the public can peer through that window and wonder at our multifaceted and vivid history even if we as a nation don’t know yet what to do with it.

However the exhibition appears reticent about providing hard factual content about the cultural history of Australia. While Australians appear to greet the majority of Federation activities with characteristic yawns or sectarian rage, perhaps it is a wise policy to refrain from commenting too much. Is the archive being simplistic or cleverly coy? The sight of Kylie Minogue dancing at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras may make some members of the community grind their teeth. However, there is no placard here proclaiming Kylie’s performance as a great historical moment in New Social Movement politics. It is tacitly understood to be so. This approach is quintessentially Australian—witness the Olympics closing ceremony. Package politics in a fun way and Australians rarely rail against it.

There’s also an understandable feelgood factor in nostalgic exhibits: Mr Squiggle, Muriel’s wedding dress. But is this enough? In the explanation to the Look Back and Laugh section, we are told: “Australians love to laugh. Humour has always been central to Australian popular culture.” Well, in what culture hasn’t it been? This statement belies the richness to be found within the collection, linked through video compilations and interactive digital screens; with more than 13 hours of clips, sound bites and interactives. Touch screen booths figure strongly in an attempt to entice young viewers towards our cultural history. While interactivity now seems compulsory on the museum circuit, here the technology and wonderment seem to overshadow what could be extrapolated. There is a message in the medium, but where is it? The chance to provide context—with regard to changing social mores and advertising standards within Australian history—is sorely missed, despite great contenst like ‘Ants Pants’ and knicker ads through the 70s and 90s.

This exhibition offers the first opportunity to experience 100 years of Australian film and sound recordings under the same roof. There’s much to engage with: censors’ notes for The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, TV’s first lesbian kiss on The Box, the bicentennial commentary on public radio. A number of items have not been widely accessible to the public before. Thomas Rome’s wax cylinders—Australia’s earliest remaining sound recordings—are on show in their entirety. Home movie footage showing the demolition of Sydney cinemas during the 1970s, and out-takes from Bruce Beresford’s early advertising career (featuring Barry Humphries as a nubile Dame Edna) attest to the merit of the Archive’s acquisition policies. There’s a certain poignancy in watching the devastation of historic cinemas, or hearing Rome’s late 19th century recordings, through the relatively new medium of digital technologies.

The exhibition is culturally short-changed by a lack of considered contextualisation and linking of historical information. However what’s on show in Sights + Sounds is interesting and vivid, and the archive must be congratulated for the preservation and depth of the collection on display,

Sights + Sounds of a Nation opened March 1 as a 5 year exhibition which will be added to in that period; South Gallery exhibition space, ScreenSound Australia, National Screen and Sound Archive, McCoy Circuit, Acton, Canberra; free admission; www.screensound.gov.au

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 18

© Magella Blinksell; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2001