A childhood experience that stays lodged in my mind is seeing the Transparent Woman at the old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Ultimo. It didn’t matter where it came from or who made it, I was simply awestruck by the spectacle of the human body with the skin removed, by the sight of those multicoloured organs that pull together to keep the organism running. It was thrilling to push buttons and see the veins, arteries and nerves light up.
This could have been the prelude for a career in medicine, but instead I’ve spent my life in museums. In retrospect, it wasn’t the object itself that proved crucial, but the experience of wonder it generated. How easy it is to forget in adulthood all the things that dazzled and inspired us as children.
And so, when Leo Schofield and a group of associate curators put together an exhibition called 1,001 Remarkable Objects, from the voluminous collections of the Powerhouse Museum, the emphasis was on the word: “remarkable”. The whole point of this irresistible, mind-boggling display, spread across 25 rooms, is to reawaken our sense of wonder, to speak to that inner child who can relate to so many diverse objects with freshness and immediacy.
First comes sensation, then, with our curiosity engaged, we go seeking information. Today I know the Transparent Woman was made in Germany and entered the collection in 1958, but she is still a startling presence in this exhibition – one of many items that will stimulate the imagination of young visitors and stir memories in adults.
Anyone might be stopped in their tracks by the ‘Supreme’ Mouse Trap Making Machine by A.W. Standfield & Co. (1925-2000). Although it looks like something created by Jean Tinguely, this ramshackle contraption produced hundreds of thousands of little wooden devices that have lurked in the dark corners of Australian households. It’s a classic Powerhouse exhibit combining industry, innovation, and social history.
The machine shares a rodent-themed gallery with one of the museum’s longterm public favourites: Baron Schmiedel (1739), a porcelain bust by Johann Joachim Kändler, of the court jester to Augustus the Strong of Saxony. It’s not just the mouse dangling from the Baron’s lips that renders this sculpture so memorable, but the comical half-turn of the head. It mocks the pomp and dignity of all those busts of great men dating back to antiquity. How appropriate it should end up in Australia, a land that prides itself on the idea that one bloke is as good as the next. Or so we’d like to believe.
Every piece in this show has a story but they are best sampled first-hand. Curatorially, 1,001 Remarkable Objects is a cultural pot-pourri, with disparate items clustered together on the basis of a shared motif or theme. In some rooms it’s as if Schofield, along with Mark Sutcliffe, Ronan Sulich and Eva Czernis-Ryl, simply put a word such as “peacock” or “music” into the collection data base and selected the strangest things that popped up.
Ephemeral items of pop culture are juxtaposed with artefacts of ancient civilisations, tiny pieces of jewellery are linked with great clunking pieces of furniture. Viewers see everything from an Arnott’s biscuit to an electric car manufactured in Detroit in 1917. One extraordinary pairing puts a medieval suit of armour alongside the wheel of the plane in which Charles Kingsford-Smith perished when he crashed in November 1935.
The effect is almost hallucinogenic, and here one needs give credit to exhibition designers, Pip Runciman, Julie Lynch and Ross Wallace, who have created appropriately theatrical environments for these whimsical-but-rational groupings.
This approach, so contrary to the usual curatorial processes, harks back to the ancestor of the modern museum: the Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, in which royal courts and wealthy connoisseurs in the 17th and 18thcenturies, would display historical treasures, works of art, items of natural history and ingenious mechanisms.
The Powerhouse has more in common with the old-fashioned Wunderkammerthan most museums in the range of its holdings. The challenge has been to impose order and scholarship on a collection that boasts more than 500,000 items. It’s been an ongoing task since the museum was established in 1893.
1,001 Remarkable Objects serves as an urgent reminder of the depth and breadth of the permanent collection. It could be seen as a ‘greatest hits’ package, but the rationales for this show are more complex.
Leo Schofield has been a consistent critic of the previous government’s destructive plans for the Powerhouse, which involved starving it of funds, then pushing through a preposterous billion-dollar scheme to move the museum to Parramatta, in defiance of public outrage and expert condemnation.
He has been equally unimpressed by what has followed, namely a bogus claim that the Ultimo establishment is “saved”, while the collection has been shunted into storage at Castle Hill, resulting in numerous damage reports. The fate of the Harwood Building remains under a cloud, and the historical mission of the museum is threatened by new management that seems determined to turn Ultimo into a contemporary art and fashion hub, while the unwanted new building in Parramatta becomes a depot for food and beverage.
Over everything looms the spectre of “decolonising” the museum – a hopelessly vague concept that provides a smokescreen for unpopular policies presented under the roseate banner of social justice. To sample the tone, look at a statement called Right of Reply, by Inaugural Powerhouse Director of First Nations, Emily McDaniel, on the Powerhouse website. To be blunt, it’s an assault on the legacy of the museum, describing an “illness created historically”, based on exploitation and exclusion.
No-one could argue that colonial Australia had much to be proud of in its treatment of Indigenous people, but surely the urge to collect and study artefacts was an important step on the path to understanding, not a hostile gesture. It’s disturbing to find a curator taking such an implicitly negative attitude towards her own institution, suggesting that presentations need to be remade, revoutionary fashion, from the bottom up. The revolution begins by commissioning “creative practitioners” to “respond” to the collection.
Elsewhere in the Powerhouse, a potentially interesting drawing show has been ambushed by neo-conceptual artist, Agatha Gothe Snape, who has been allowed to fill the galleries with her ‘creative’ interventions.
Under current management, who have spent more than $1.5 million in a rebranding exercise that has erased the word “museum” from the institution’s title, such gestures represent the future of the Powerhouse while 1,001 Remarkable Objects represents the past. Yet Schofield’s riotous Cabinet of Curiosities respects the individuality and dignity of objects which have not been co-opted into any dubious political or aesthetic program.
By contrast, the new approach is to impose the ego of a “creative practitioner” onto items in the collection, bringing them under the yoke of a sweeping narrative that emphasises – and inevitably “subverts” – their role in a sinful past.
The people responsible for this glorious vision, which – prior to 1,001 Remarkable Objects – had reduced Powerhouse attendances to their lowest ebb since the 1960s, probably see the Schofield exhibition as a way of demonstrating their public commitment to the collection. To them it is a piece of useful theatre that provides cover for the wholesale demolition job being enacted behind the scenes.
For Schofield, one suspects an entirely different motivation: namely to throw a spotlight on an incredible collection that is being treated in the most cavalier fashion. At the conclusion of this show, on 31 December, the vast majority of objects on display will disappear into storage in Castle Hill, joining other items that have been hauled off into obscurity, destined to resurface only as part of someone’s art or political statement.
1,001 Remarkable Objects may be a PR exercise for the new regime, but for Schofield and his curatorium, it is a Trojan Horse, showing us what will be lost if the Powerhouse is comprehensively made over, sacrificing its unique identity as a museum of applied arts and sciences. It’s a plea to give the public what it really wants, rather than impose a set of priorities that reflect the ideological values of those who have been handed the reins of power.
In a recent Budget Estimates hearing, Premier, Chris Minns, stated: “the ultimate mission of the Powerhouse was really the advancement of science, showcasing innovation in NSW”. But under the Powerhouse’s new direction, science and innovation are being sidelined, and social history rewritten in narrow, partisan terms. If the Labor government is serious about honouring its election promise to preserve the Powerhouse as a museum, it needs to stop prevaricating and act swiftly and decisively. Otherwise, most of Schofield’s remarkable objects will be gathering dust for a very long time. The only experience of wonder involved will be to wonder how this could ever have been allowed to happen.
1,001 Remarkable Objects
Powerhouse Ultimo, 26 August – 31 December 2023
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 11 November, 2023