Last week I spent four hours – yep, FOUR! – in the National Museum of Australia’s newest temporary exhibition, Spirited: Australia’s horse story.
Even though I am a museum professional, I still see myself first and foremost as a museum visitor, and as a visitor I really enjoyed this exhibition. An exhibition can (and should be!) so much more than simply a bunch of text panels with objects more-or-less related to the content of the text. Good exhibitions such as this one encourage you to look deeper at THINGS, and to intellectually engage with the context of their display, while also retaining some sense of wonder that you just cannot get from the ‘book-on-the-wall’ approach.
Good design, blending seamlessly with the curatorial intent of an exhibition, is critical to facilitating such interactions, and Spirited is beautifully designed (with the possible exception of the clunky wooden poles positioned to prevent visitors getting into the display areas). The white walls are, I think, a new innovation for the Museum’s social history exhibitions. This helps to give Spirited a sense of cohesion, and in my view creates a welcoming ambience in the gallery space. For me there is something distinctly unappealing about dark backgrounds and dim lighting, feeling as though I’m stumbling around in the darkness from one spot-lit showcase to another, unable to derive an overall sense of the space. And this is from someone who knows the conservation rationale behind such an approach!
Another good design-cum-curatorial strategy was to have horse figures as forms upon which to model a carriage and associated tack. Someone once remarked to me that kids were not overly impressed with the concept of the coach when viewed on its own; after all, it’s around the same size as a car, what’s the big deal? Including the horses – and in this instance, these are artworks in their own right – really helps bring the concept to life. This is also true where the horse forms have been used to mount saddles. If only there was enough space to include representations of the full team that would have been necessary to pull the tabletop wagon!
The exhibition is object-rich, boasting around 500 items on display. In a less coherent exhibition this might have presented some challenges, however the narrative structure of Spirited, organised thematically and in a roughly chronological format, prevents it from becoming overwhelming. It is also interspersed with great archival footage, and a range of hands-on interactives that kept me engaged.
My favourite objects were, I think, the horse-head hitching posts, because they were so unexpected. I’d never really considered the practicalities of horses in the city in this way before, and I liked the way these objects made me think about that physical reality.
I have to admit that the ‘trophy cabinet’ section of the exhibition, located in the module on horseracing, left me cold, though the many fingerprints left on the showcase showed I might be in a minority. I found the lack of acknowledgement of the controversial aspects of horseracing somewhat perplexing, especially considering the emphasis on animal welfare elsewhere in the exhibition, particularly the audio-visual components.
This exhibition also represents the unveiling of the missing bits from Phar Lap’s heart. As I loitered around the showcase where they are displayed with the army remount heart that was shown alongside Phar Lap’s heart when it was exhibited in the Australian Institute of Anatomy, I repeatedly overheard visitors who were rather hurried in their contemplation of these objects mistakenly identify the heart as Phar Lap’s. This is understandable, given it is in a showcase apparently devoted to Phar Lapia, and the fact that it too has the signature triangle cut out of it. There is not much that can be done when people choose not to read object labels, however perhaps selecting a different context for its display would have prevented the issue from arising. After all, it doesn’t really evoke being a comparison heart when there’s nothing to compare it to!
But I must say, most people were reading the text throughout the exhibition, something you don’t always see. The amount of time that people spent in the gallery was probably the clearest testament to the success of this exhibition. Overall I really enjoyed Spirited. As a horse lover and enthusiastic museum-goer it was a great exhibition. I even ran into the woman who used to own the riding school in Sydney where I worked as a teenager, which was rather an amazing coincidence, as I hadn’t seen her since she sold the business 19 years ago!
I’ve pretty much stuck to talking about the museological aspects here, as I plan to review the exhibition content in a more academic fashion elsewhere, but for anyone in Canberra with an interest in horses and history I would recommend checking it out. It’s on until 9 March 2015.
DISCLAIMER: I used to work at the National Museum, and yes, I know some of the staff who worked on this exhibition. Regardless of that, this post represents my honest opinion.