Review: Bouncing Back from Disaster, Queensland Museum

The Queensland Museum on South Bank has just re-opened after being closed for refurbishment for a few months. Since I happened to be in town, I thought I’d drop by and have a look. More on the museum as a whole in a later post – for this one I’ll concentrate on the Bouncing Back from Disaster exhibition about the Queensland floods, which devastated many parts of the state just over a year ago.

As the one-year anniversary has only just passed, it is a very recent event that’s still fresh in everyone’s memories. The exhibition focused not just on what happened, but the resilience of the people who picked up the pieces and moved on in the wake of the disaster. Australians who followed the event on the news will remember this resilience embodied in Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s emotional “We are Queenslanders” speech:

And in the exhibition we get to see a facsimile of her handwritten notes from that day:

Graphic about resilience including Anna Bligh's notes from her famous "We are Queenslanders" speech.

This is very much a story-led, not an object-led exhibition. There is a great selection of images and dramatic footage of rescue efforts. The relatively few objects are everyday items that had been retrieved during the clean-up. I found that there was an understated power to these objects:

A mud-caked record player retrieved from the wreckage

A sizeable portion of the exhibition is dedicated to a space where visitors (many of whom would have been directly affected by the floods) are able to share their stories (I blogged about the role of museums in sharing these kinds of community memories at the time):

Part of the wall that people could stick up their own experiences of the floods. Note the exhibition has only been opened for a couple of days and there are already a considerable number of contributions. The writing table is to the right and the wall continues to the left of this image.


A poignant personal story of survival and loss

The design of the exhibition is evocative of the ‘rebuilding’ theme – the exhibition panels are mostly bare plywood attached to vertical timber supports, with construction fencing and plastic sheeting used to enclose certain spaces (see above). The design of the graphics (white text and straight lines on a blue background) looks like it is intended to represent the blueprints of a rebuilding project – but this is just a guess on my part. Overall the design fits in well with the story being told.

However, I found the exhibition sections that attempted to put the flood disaster into broader scientific context (i.e., natural disasters across geological timeframes) a bit out of place. For me this was primarily a story of human experience and this alone was strong enough – it didn’t need to be placed in a planetary context. I wonder what the rationale for including this additional content was:  To show that this was not an extraordinary event in the global scheme of things? That life on Earth has adapted and responded in the face of disaster since time immemorial? Maybe something a little less remote from living memory and human experience may have been a better choice if this was the interpretive intent (e.g., the cleanup of the 1974 floods in Brisbane).

One absent story (assuming I didn’t miss it) was the experience of the museum itself during the flood – the South Bank precinct was certainly affected and the museum presumably had to make efforts to ensure collections weren’t damaged or lost. Perhaps this ‘inside story’ was more of interest to people like me and my visiting companion (another museum person of sorts). But even so, making the museum part of the story (instead of just the reporter of it) may have added another dimension to the exhibition – the museum is as much a part of the community as any other public institution. As such, it shares our achievements and challenges.


Exhibition Attendance Figures: The Art Newspaper

If you’re wondering just how big those blockbuster crowds are, then the annual summaries published by the Art Newspaper are a great place to start.

These comprehensive lists show both overall and daily attendance figures for (predominantly) art exhibitions around the world, ranging from the 10,000+ daily visitors to the mega-blockbusters to far more modest ventures. There are also top ten list by category, such as “Decorative Arts” or “Impressionists” or “Antiquities”.

There are several years of data available online, going back to 2003 (links posted below):

That represents a fair data set for spotting longer term trends or changes over time. Looking at this data, I was interested to see how often exhibitions in Japan top the list, with exhibitions in Tokyo and elsewhere often dominating the top ten. This is in contrast to the most visited museums overall, which are predominantly the big institutions in London, Paris, New York and Washington.

Looking at the Australian scene, the top exhibition for 2010 was the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial at Queensland Art Gallery (34th overall).  Both Queensland Art Gallery and its sister institution, GoMA, managed more than one entry in the top 100 as well as additional entries under specific categories.  Other Australian exhibitions to make the list were Masterpieces from Paris at the National Gallery of Australia and the Tim Burton exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.

The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial attracted some 4,400 people a day. That sounds like quite a crowd, until you compare it to the top exhibition overall – Hasegawa Tohaku at the Tokyo National Museum – which attracted over 12,000 people per day!

Interpretation: Science, Craft or Art?

A little while ago I was discussing training with my Interpretation Australia colleagues. Unlike some professions, there are no real rules regarding who can call themselves an interpreter, and what specific skills and qualifications these people can have.

While there are tertiary-level courses in interpretation, and some organisations offer accreditation programs, these are not ‘gatekeeper’ qualifications and pretty much anyone can say they do interpretation, regardless of how much knowledge and experience they actually have.

This can make it difficult for experienced interpreters to have their skills recognised and valued in the way that (say) architects and designers can. While the lack of rigid qualifications is not necessarily a bad thing, it can lead to interpretation being relegated behind other (more clearly defined) specialisms, particularly on large capital projects where the people in charge of the purse strings may not really appreciate what interpretation is.

Unlike some professions (neurosurgery springs to mind), interpretation comprises skills that are not necessarily unique to interpreters. I’ve been working in interpretation-related positions for over a decade, but I don’t have any formal qualifications (although I’d argue that my Grad Dip in Science Communication covered many of the skills that interpreters need).  And not all interpretation jobs are the same: if we were to create a one-size-fits-all training and accreditation model for interpreters, how big would it have to be?

Number three of Freeman Tilden’s six principles of interpretation states:

“Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.”

My response to Tilden would be that art (like interpretation) can be hard to define. What is art? One person’s masterpiece can be another’s monstrosity! And that’s before you get to the “my four year old could do better” school of art criticism. Thus I would extend Tilden’s definition to incorporate science and craft as well as art:

  • Science: the theories of interpretation (what we know through research and applying theories from education, psychology and the social sciences to the interpretation context);
  • Craft: the skills of interpretation (for instance practical performance or public speaking skills, or learning how to write good interpretive text);
  • Art: the intuition of interpretation (the bit that is hardest to teach – how to instinctively read your audience and know how to hook them in and keep them engaged).

Thinking about interpretation skills this way might make the training requirements for different interpretation tasks easier to conceptualise. We should be able to define the knowledge (science) and skills (craft) that we want interpreters to have.

However (and this is the tricky bit!) it is probably the “art” part that separates the merely competent interpreters from the truly inspirational ones.