Flashback: “Melbourne: Stories of the City”

I studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia, during the spring of 2007.  I loved it wholly and enthusiastically, but the experience took a lot out of me too.  I was constantly moving and exploring, and I felt this mild yet inexorable panic that if I didn’t try to cram as much into the experience as possible I’d arrive home laden with regrets.   Trying to fit a lifetime’s worth of experiences into one semester is difficult and exhausting.  That sort of energy level is hard to maintain and by the end of my five months there I was ready to go.

The thing about Australia, though, is that it isn’t known for its museums.  Don’t get me wrong – the island continent has a lot to offer, museum-wise.  But when I was traveling around with my fellow study-abroaders trying to get a sense of what we absolutely couldn’t miss, there was never a helpful Australian citizen or Lonely Planet book saying, “oh, you can’t leave without making it to the Australian National Maritime Museum,” or something similar.  So we did all the “important” things, like going to Manly Beach or doing a tour of Victoria’s wine country, seeing the Sydney Harbor Bridge and visiting the Opera House, and somewhere along the way I missed a bunch of museums.

Which is why I’m all the more thankful that I took a course called “Museums, Objects, Spectacles,” while I was at Melbourne University.  By  far the most difficult class I took, “Museums, Objects, Spectacles” was about the history and philosophy of museum exhibition; the Whens, Whys, and Hows of exhibiting, if you will.  Besides giving me a crash course in museum history, the class also got me out and about visiting Melbourne’s museums.  Arguably the cultural capital of Australia (Melbourne sees itself as the New York to Sydney’s LA), Melbourne has an awful lot of quality museums.   I spent the most amount of time at the Melbourne Museum, where I reviewed an exhibit called “Melbourne: Stories of the City.”  Looking at the Melbourne Museum website now I can’t tell if the exhibit was permanent or not, but their current permanent city exhibit called “The Melbourne Story” is likely very similar to the galleries I saw in 2007.

I thought I’d kick off The Museumist with a walk down memory lane and revisit the first museum exhibit review I’ve ever done.  The review I wrote for “Museums, Objects, Spectacles” was long, academically-minded and, in retrospect, not quite as earth-shattering as I remember it being, but I’m going to try to distill it down to the pertinent points. So if you’re interested in a short  analysis of an Australian history exhibit from the perspective of a non-Australian, click for more.

“Melbourne: Stories of the City” is an interesting exhibit because it shows that Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theory of two models of democracy producing two models of exhibiting is not quite as cut-and-dry as one might have thought.  Assuming, of course, that one found oneself pondering the cut-and-driedness of Chakrabarty’s theories, which I imagine doesn’t happen very often.

Chakrabarty wrote in his essay “Museums in Late Democracies” that there are two types of democracies with differing relationships to museum exhibiting.  The first, the pedagogical model of democracy, is concerned with creating citizens and teaching people how to be politically active members of society. As Chakrabarty wrote, “It was assumed that becoming a citizen, possessing and exercising rights, called for appropriate forms of education.”   The nineteenth century museum is the ideal pedagogical model.  Order was taught through taxonomy and scientific examination, and displays privileged “the conceptual or analytic over the lived.”

The second democratic model is a performative one, in which a person’s experience is the only education they need to be capable of political action.  The personal is political, and therefore identity politics are a legitimate form of political engagement.  In the performative museum model, oral histories and objects have importance outside of the support they can give to analytic understandings of history.  Experience trumps archives, as Chakrabarty explained, “The politics of experience orients us to the realms of the senses and the embodied.” “Melbourne: Stories of the City” (M:SotC) serves as proof that an exhibition can appropriate ideas from both models., using characteristics and tactics from the performative model to perpetuate a story that rightly belongs to the pedagogical model.

What does this mean in practice?  Well, lets start, appropriately enough, at the beginning, where a chronological display of Melbourne history shows display cases of Aboriginal tools compared to colonial surveying tools.  By describing the Aboriginal environment as “mapping out a spiritual landscape” and then referring very concretely to the future site of the white city of Melbourne, the exhibition undermines any physical claim the first groups might have to the actual land.  It is actually a very neat act of satisfying everyone while simultaneously satisfying no one: it acknowledges the centuries-long presence of Aboriginal groups in the area while also perpetuating the myth of an empty Australia just waiting to be settled. The use of surveying tools is particularly important.  These displays put forward the idea that that the Aboriginal people had a “spiritual landscape,” while the Europeans had a vision for a physical city, discounting any presence of a physical, vital Aboriginal community that stood on the land for centuries before.

This pattern of paying lip service to the presence of a disenfranchised group while essentially passing it over continues throughout the exhibition.  Melbourne, like most Australian cities, was built on the back of immigrants.  At the beginning those immigrants were of Irish and British descent, but very quickly other European groups and even Asian immigrants began pouring into the city.  You’d be hard pressed to find much mention of the waves of immigration, though, based on the M:SotC exhibit.  In the section about the social life of the city’s inhabitants in the early twentieth century, for instance, a display of objects from the various fraternal orders and social brotherhood groups illustrate the diversity of options for British and Irish Melbournians.  The text alongside it mentions “the diverse cultural origins in Britain and Ireland” but avoids discussion of diversity from outside the British Isles.  Italians, Greeks, Chinese: they would have been excluded from those fraternal orders and most likely formed their own groups, so why not include artifacts from their organizations?

There is a section that deals with immigration, but I even managed to find fault with that one.  (Which, in retrospect, might be more a critique of my judgemental self than of the exhibition…)  A display on a recent archaeological dig at Little Lonsdale Street shows pieces of pottery, hair brushes, liquor bottles and other artifacts used by the immigrants who populated the neighborhood during the late 19th and early 2oth centuries.  The display is engaging, but by separating it from the chronological story of Melbourne the designers of the exhibition take it, and thus the immigration experience as a whole, out of the mainstream of the “story of Melbourne” and ghetto-ize it in the corner of the gallery space. The placement of the Little Lonsdale section, at the end of the chronological history, marginalizes the story of the immigrants, physically removing them from the stream of Melbourne history.  The accompanying text discusses  the dirty environment of Little Lonsdale, reading:  “Its dingy lanes seemed full of malice, and many Melbournians shunned the area.”  The immigrants who lived in Little Lonsdale were themselves citizens of Melbourne but by identifying the more upper-class, mostly Anglo population of Melbourne as “Melbournians,” the display assigns to the immigrants the default position of “the other.”

And then there is the issue of women.  Women get a similar treatment to that of immigrants in the M:SotC exhibition.  Women make a huge contribution to any society, and Melbourne is no exception.  The main mentions of women in the M:SotC displays, though, have to do with shopping and the growth of department stores in Melbourne.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love shopping as much as the next lady, but the absence of women from displays on the workforce and the physical growth of the city is marked.

Catalogues from early department stores are displayed as items that interest women.  This case is part of a section on the progress of the city during the early twentieth century and it stands next to a display of office-building innovations such as clocks and lift mechanisms.  Whether it was intended or not, the comparison between the important mechanisms that keep a city moving – clocks, lift mechanisms, phones, and so on – and the products used to entertain the female leisure class– advertisements for department stores, hat pins, images of wealthy women strolling – contributes to the vision of women having few important roles in historical Melbourne.

The display of industrial innovations borrows something from the great exhibition halls of the nineteenth century, allowing the visitor to marvel at the technological advances that society has made, and wonder at their ability to build a living environment.  In the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, an entire section of the exhibition hall was devoted to Victorian machinery, seen as “proof in abundance of Victorian industrial and manufacturing capacity.”   More than 100 years later and the same kind of machinery is being displayed as proof of man’s ability to build a lasting metropolis.  It is a display that implicitly underplays women’s contributions to society.

And now you’re thinking, “don’t be such a Debbie Downer, Museumist!  There must be something good about this exhibition!”  And there is quite a lot that is good about the M:SotC exhibit: a display on “Neighbours,” one of the longest-running soap operas in Australian history stands out especially.  “Neighbours” is set in a Melbourne suburb and can be credited with the creation of such stars as Kylie Minogue and Eric Bana.  I would also argue that it is probably Australia’s biggest export behind Tim-Tams and Crocodile Dundee.  For sheer entertainment value, nothing beats being able to walk through the original kitchen set of “Neighbours” and listen to producers and former stars discuss the show in video displays.  A section on the history of sport in Melbourne is also very good, mixing cultural history with local pride and discussing some of the more exciting moments in regional sport history.

And really, I don’t mean to be such a drag about this issue of performative exhibitions and inclusion; I guess it’s just that I expect more from the Melbourne Museum.  With the revamping of the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Center, the Melbourne Museum has proven that it can engage deeply with complex, controversial issues that strike at the heart of what it means to tell Australian history.  Bunjilaka dealt with much more difficult and traumatic history, and did so well (at least in my opinion.)  So why, after something like that, would they drop the ball in “Melbourne: Stories of the City?”

Anyway, if you find yourself in Melbourne with some time to kill, you should certainly check out “Melbourne: Stories of the City,” or “The Melbourne Story,” as I think it’s called now.  It will give you a solid background on the history of the city, and you’ll get a lot out of it so long as you remember that despite its name, it doesn’t tell the whole story of diverse Melbourne.

2 responses to “Flashback: “Melbourne: Stories of the City”

  1. Okay, sorry, so when I wrote “short,” what I meant was “not an 8-page paper written for an academic class.” Clearly, this doesn’t match the usual definition of “short.”

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