Museums as Sites of Civil Society: Cultural Leadership in times of crises

8 December 2021, 3:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Anna Lawrenson, University of Sydney
Dr Chiara O'Reilly, University of Sydney

Session Moderators

Dr Anna Lawrenson, University of Sydney
Dr Chiara O'Reilly, University of Sydney

Session Speakers

Sarah Rees, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Powerhouse Museum
Nina Earl, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Powerhouse Museum
Dr Mariko Smith, Australian Museum, First Nations Collections & Engagement Manager / University of Sydney, Honorary Associate, School of Literature, Art & Media
Dr Lee-Anne Hall, Director, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and National Glass Collection / Research Associate, Department of Art History, The University of Sydney

While the world has undergone a major revolution as a result of Covid, the changes that have been witnessed in art galleries were seeded well before the pandemic. From their inception, art galleries and the artists that they exhibit, have reflected and engaged with the social and political currents of their time. Never before however, have we seen galleries called to account on such an array of issues: #MeToo, the climate crisis, decolonisation projects and BLM, relationships with big business and the questioning of the neutrality of institutions. In the current climate, where financial support is limited and reliant on sources beyond government, how can galleries engage in risky topics that advance discourse while also preserving their supporter base? This panel is interested in foregrounding galleries that have taken a leadership role in reflecting societal uprisings and current affairs and in doing so, are moving towards an activist role themselves. This returns to the original Enlightenment foundation of the art museum as a space for public discourse and debate. How ‘public’ are galleries today and what role do they currently serve in society?

This is a joint panel with “Museums as Sites of Civil Society: Audiences and Impact”.

PAPER #1
Eucalyptusdom: New museology as civic engagement

PRESENTERS
Sarah Rees & Nina Earl, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Powerhouse Museum

As the Powerhouse Museum embarks on an expansive renewal, it is timely for the institution to reflect upon its history and re-examine its role in contemporary society. It is not enough for cultural institutions today to simply make exhibitions and programs that highlight current social issues, rather there is a need to demonstrate leadership by interrogating their own processes and practices making intrinsic changes that address these issues both internally and to their partners and audiences. This paper will discuss how a reflexive curatorial approach was used in the development of Eucalyptusdom to reckon with the profound and lasting implications of the museum’s foundational activities on First Nations peoples and the environment, whilst upholding its ties to industry and preserving and redefining the museum’s supporter base. It will review how a new curatorial methodology was used to make space for critical dialogue and to amplify the voices of diverse publics. Eucalyptusdom accounts for the museum’s colonial history through the lens of its complex relationship with Australia’s most prolific and diverse plant species, the eucalypt. The project was developed holistically as an exhibition, public programs and publication in collaboration between artists, curators, experts and knowledge holders from diverse backgrounds and disciplines.

PAPER #2
Art as resistance: working with First Nations artists and communities in the Unsettled exhibition

PRESENTER
Dr Mariko Smith, Australian Museum, First Nations Collections & Engagement Manager / University of Sydney, Honorary Associate, School of Literature, Art & Media

In the Australian Museum’s ground-breaking First Nations-led Unsettled exhibition, core themes include truth-telling, First Nations sovereignty, self-determination, cultural strength, and resistance to the colonial foundational narrative that Australia was “peacefully settled”. The First Nations curators Laura McBride (Wailwan, Kooma) and Mariko Smith (Yuin) recognised that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have historically used creative forms of expression as acts of resistance against colonial legacies. As the exhibition’s assistant curator and also as a visual sociologist, I will present several case studies about First Nations artists whose works were included in Unsettled, promoting a process that empowers and elevates First Nations voices, bringing attention to important issues which impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples every day through the powerful medium of visual arts. Underlining this discussion is the question around how museums are able to engage in social justice history and issues in order to facilitate the general public’s awareness and understanding about Australia from First Nations perspectives and lived experiences.

PAPER #3
Risky business: leading public reflection, discussion and debate at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery

PRESENTER
Dr Lee-Anne Hall, Director, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and National Glass Collection / Research Associate, Department of Art History, The University of Sydney

Due to long curatorial and production lead times it is often very difficult for galleries or museums to respond to topical events or concerns. It is usual instead that they adopt a principled approach to programming, which actively anticipates and is responsive to larger social issues and concerns.Without question, cultural institutions such as galleries are important players in leading intellectual enquiry and debate –and responding to social concerns and crisis. But are they, and should they have an activist role to play? Is it appropriate to actively apply the heft and authority of a public institution to a campaign or political position? How is it possible,and is it desirable,to be nimble in our institutional response?To provide audiences with the resources which are not instructive in ‘what to think’ but are expansive, empowering audiences in considering difficult, challenging and risky topics.This paper will unpack some of these conundrums through case study example.It explores the approach taken by Wagga Wagga Art Gallery in leading community reflection, discussion and debate through exhibitions and associated public programs.

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Biographies

Dr Anna Lawrenson, University of Sydney

Dr Anna Lawrenson’s career has spanned critical museology and applied practice having worked in academia and the arts sector. She has been a part of USYD’s Museum Studies, and now Museum and Heritage Studies, programs since 2010. Her background is in art history, and she initially taught in this field. Parallel to this she worked in the arts sector in management, curatorial, consultant and research positions. This dual focus has driven her research, which is informed by her experience of the practical issues that museums and galleries face while being underpinned by a strong theoretical foundation.


Dr Chiara O'Reilly, University of Sydney

Dr Chiara O'Reilly has been involved with exhibitions and projects at the Historic Houses Trust of NSW, National Gallery of Australia and the Art Gallery of NSW. She has extensive teaching experience across the university sector and she currently a Senior Lecturer in the Museum and Heritage Studies Program. Her doctoral thesis dealt with the French Romantic Landscape painter Paul Huet (1803-1869) and considered Romantic ideas of human history and natural science, as well as the influence of literature on the depiction of landscape.


Sarah Rees, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Powerhouse Museum

Sarah Rees is a curator with extensive experience collaborating with artists and developing multi-arts projects for cultural institutions. She holds a Master’s of Art Curating from the University of Sydney and was the inaugural Curator, Contemporary Art at Sydney Opera House before joining the Powerhouse Museum in 2020.


Nina Earl, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Powerhouse Museum

Nina Earl is a curator and science communicator with extensive experience in STEM education and community outreach. She holds a Masters of Science Communication and her recent work has involved the delivery of cross-disciplinary exhibitions, such as Linear (2019) and Design for Life (2020).


Dr Mariko Smith, Australian Museum, First Nations Collections & Engagement Manager / University of Sydney, Honorary Associate, School of Literature, Art & Media

Dr Mariko Smith is a Yuin woman with Japanese heritage. She undertakes an interdisciplinary practice encompassing museology, contemporary art, visual sociology, research methodology, epistemology, and history. Mariko has worked in the museum and tertiary sectors in Sydney, specialising in Aboriginal cultural heritage, community-based cultural resurgence projects, and incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing into museum and artistic practices. She was previously a Wingara Mura Indigenous Fellow and Associate Lecturer at Sydney College of the Arts. Mariko has a PhD from the University of Sydney (Department of Sociology & Social Policy) about Aboriginal tied-bark canoe making practice through cultural resurgence.


Dr Lee-Anne Hall, Director, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and National Glass Collection / Research Associate, Department of Art History, The University of Sydney

Dr Lee-Anne Hall has combined a career in both academia and the arts. She has taught extensively in Arts Management at UTS (1993-2001 and 2011), and Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Sydney (2010 and 2019-2020), where she continues as a Research Associate. In the past decade she has held leadership roles in the Gallery sector as Director, Penrith Regional Gallery in Western Sydney (2012 –2018), and Director, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery (since August 2020). Recent sector contributions include; Peer for M&GNSW (2016-current) and previously, as Vice President, Regional & Public Galleries Association (2016-2018).