The National Museum: the digital media works

Mitchell Whitelaw

First Australians exhibit 
George Serras @ National Museum of Australia 2001

First Australians exhibit
George Serras @ National Museum of Australia 2001

For a nation that likes to think of itself as a bit cheeky, a bit exuberant, something of a larrikin, we do a great line in po-faced Federal Institutional architecture. Canberra’s Parliamentary Triangle is all restrained greenery, manicured lake foreshore; the elegant neo-Classical-whatever of the Library, the High Court peeking through the trees, and the buried centrepiece with its very earnest and very shiny flagpole.

The building which has recently appeared on the opposite shore of the lake could hardly be more of a contrast—a gaudily coloured riot of loops, grids, portals and stripes, it turns its back on its neighbours, focusing energy inward on a mad plaza, a kind of backyard of the national imaginary. Other than a predictable minority of nay-sayers, it’s been well received. People seem to recognise its energy, its multilayered semiotic gags, and particularly appreciate the way it invigorates, and messes up, the carefully constructed stateliness of its surrounds. John Howard could barely conceal his displeasure at the building he called “almost un-museum-like”; I swear I heard a gleeful chorus replying, “Exactly!”

Inside is a collection of exhibits which, luckily, live up to the promises of their extraordinary shell, and an organisation that seems to be thriving on the buzz. The presence and impact of that shell can never be underestimated: in particular, the National Museum of Australia’s deployment of digital media really begins with the building. This is a scheme that is hugely informed by, and enabled by, digital media technologies. The site is conceptualised as a tangling of the axes of Burley-Griffin’s Federal layout: they form a complex three-dimensional knot, which expresses itself as both solid forms and voids in the building. The design takes on the spatial plasticity of computer-aided design and applies it to a meaningful conceptual task: rather than just conveniently permutating floorplans in a multi-storey Meriton monster, the CAD system gets a 3D-workout. It’s no surprise to find, in an exhibit detailing the design process and philosophy, references to complex systems sciences, and figures such as the Lorenz attractor—the original “strange” attractor. Like these sciences, the Museum project uses visualisation technologies to turn abstract complexities—in this case layers of spatial and semiotic data—into sensible forms.

Inside, the initial impression is of the sheer density of media-surfaces. There are screens literally at every turn, in all shapes and sizes. Discreet and very sleek touchscreens, installed PC-based kiosks, video projections, arrays of flat-panel displays, a full-size cinema and a VR theatre. No visual monopoly, either; individual listening stations and installed speaker arrays are widely used. There’s an overall balance throughout the space between museum-type objects (there’s even the odd display case) and dynamic media elements. That balance is striking in that it’s remarkably even: the media elements are never secondary to the objects or vice versa. The 2 are more and less prominent at various points, but work as equal partners in forming the exhibitions.

There are 5 big nodes in this media-field—what Stephen Foster, Head of the Museum’s Content and Technology Division, calls “musclemedia” elements. They are ciRcA, a revolving theatrette; kSpace, kid-oriented interactive VR; Imagining the Country, an interactive map-based display; the Welcome Space in the Gallery of First Australians, an interactive corridor of video projections; and a huge video-wall at the other end of the same gallery.

While there’s something slightly comical about the idea of a revolving theatrette, ciRcA carries it off well. The installation is clever. A small slice of seating moves in stages through the 4 quadrants of a circle, over the course of around 10 minutes. The quadrants house 3 video installations, corresponding to the museum’s themes of Land, Nation and People; each is a multi-screen, multi-channel linear video. The video content is bright, snappy, very accessible and cleverly organised. There are hints of that high-production-value TV-ad Australiana which has been prominent recently—iconic landscapes, intense colours, exhilarating helicopter shots and snapshot montage—but here, thankfully, there’s no sun-browned Aussie narrator trying to sell us airline tickets. There is an eye-opening gimmick: in the Land installation, 5 big plasma-screens are mounted on vertical tracks, so that they slide in front of a huge rear-projected video wall; their motion is computer-controlled in sync with the video. They almost look silly, whizzing up and down with robot precision, but are saved by some neat integration with the video content, as when a rainforest stream cascades gently across the wall, from one screen to the next. The other 2 installations are less startlingly kinetic, but both generate rich, multiplexed video textures, and present material conveys a diverse, self-conscious and self-critical nationalism, leavened with a wry sense of humour.

kSpace, by comparison, is straight high-tech; this kid-focused exhibit was created with input from the Vizlab visualisation team at the ANU Supercomputer Facility. As you enter, a digital camera snaps an ID photo. Touchscreens in lime-green plinths offer you the chance to design a vision of the future, in the form of either a vehicle or a building. Through a simple series of choices (this chassis, those jets, that antenna) a custom-designed form appears—in my case a purple and fawn possum-headed rocketship, in glorious 3D, wobbling on the screen. On to the little VR theatre, don a pair of LCD shutter-glasses, and fly through a lurid fantasy city, studded with custom-kid-designed buildings and buzzing with weird flying objects, each of which proudly bears the mugshot of its creator. There’s some nice tongue-in-cheek VR Australiana here—including a huge silhouette of a Nolan Ned Kelly—and the B[if]tek soundtrack is seriously funky. Great fun, and I imagine it has the target demographic climbing the walls in delight. The fact that it was still all fully functional after a busy opening month of visitors is a sign of some bulletproof design and engineering.

Upstairs, the Gallery of First Australians is devoted to Indigenous history and culture, and the space draws visitors in through a wide corridor lined with shimmering video projections of Aboriginal dancers. This Welcome Space functions as a transitional zone, announcing Indigenous culture and identity, but it’s also a sensory oasis—a drop in the density of the museum experience. Hurrying through, you may see the figures dancing—sometimes in tribal dress, other times in street clothes; dancing traditional or contemporary moves—richly overlaid with painterly textures. Slow down, and some subtle interactivity becomes apparent: walking in front of the figures sends the image rippling, and triggers transitions between sequences. There’s a quiet invitation to engagement here (on several levels): interaction is designed to require a certain proximity to the video-figures—if you want to play, you’ve got to get up close. The system design is by the Interactive Modelling and Visualisation Systems group at CSIRO, and it’s strikingly effective.

The most iconic of the musclemedia spectaculars is Imagining the Country, otherwise known as the Big Map. The concept is relatively straightforward: a huge map of our wide brown land acts as a screen for a constant stream of interactive video-projected sequences. Some are info-overlays for the map, showing geographic data on land-use, rainfall, population density, and so on. Others are thematic montages or snippets of archival footage, tied to a particular location—like surfing at Bondi in the 60s. It’s visually snappy, clear and informative, and it unrolls in a continuous stream mixing hard data with cultural and historical artefacts. The map silhouette shifts roles: at times it’s an almost-kitsch backdrop (think of those wooden Australia-shaped clocks), and at others it’s a geological terrain, a dwelling-place, a set of historical location-points. The constant stream of material creates a sense of residue, a layering of different imaginary countries. The interaction occurs through a set of high-res touchscreens mounted around the viewing area for the map: they carry a parallel set of content, also based around the map and its historical, social and geographic layers. Every so often one of these screens is given the option to trigger the next set of content on the large map—so a personal process of interaction can open out into a shared, public display.

While these high-profile elements are important, the proof of the museum’s commitment to interactive and electronic media comes in its wider integration into the collection as a whole. Stephen Foster describes the museum’s approach in terms of exploring the relationship between object and media—that balance described above. It’s a fruitful partnership: the object retains its rich thing-ness (the form and fibre of an Arnhem Land fish-trap) while media elements contextualise, expand, and animate that object. Linear and interactive media are used to draw out the strata of story and experience which the object only hints at.

The museum’s work in the media sphere isn’t limited to its permanent collection; Foster promises an ambitious program of media-rich temporary exhibitions following the current Gold show. With built-in TV and radio studios, the site can act as a broad- or narrow-cast source, as well as a venue. As Foster points out, things get even more interesting when this capacity is combined with broadband internet and the existing, and growing, database of artefacts and media content. The museum may come to form an online repository of cultural memory and social history—a national mediabase, a keyword-searchable electronic attic. There’s significant promise here for local producers, who will be called on to keep up the supply of fresh content, but also for local museum and media culture and the wider public.

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 20

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001