I received an email from Museum Victoria today asking for feedback that will help them plan for the future. It seems that they are planning some exciting things in the next phase of the institution’s development and I, for one, am delighted that they have asked me for my thoughts. I have always felt a real sense of ownership for Museum Victoria, in particular, the Melbourne Museum and the Immigration Museum and, coupled with my obsession with filling out feedback forms, I jumped at the opportunity.
Who doesn’t love the museum? From the giant whale skeleton in the foyer to the bugs, dead and alive, to those life size models of the human body – men, women, children, old wrinkly people – standing or seated comfortably in their nakedness, genitalia showing for the world to see. We giggled at the sight of them as children, and again as supposedly ‘mature grown-ups’. The galleries containing stories of Koori culture are, for many primary school children, their first introduction to Indigenous Australia.
Sadly, many Victorians’ knowledge of the Melbourne Museum end there, whatever fragments of memory are informed largely by their last visit, which was probably in grade four. Every winter we hear about a major touring exhibit through adverts on the side of trams – Pompeii, Titanic, Mesopotamia – and say to ourselves we have to go, but then rarely make it. Sure, this is different if you have a family. Who else is going to entertain your kids for half a day, teach them, stimulate them, feed them, for less than $70 all up?
There is so much that’s wonderful about Museum Victoria, which encompasses the Melbourne Museum, Immigration Museum and Scienceworks. As a history student at Melbourne Uni, I used to visit one of the two city-based museums at least once a month. I could do this because entrance for students is free. Studying the gold rush, I would turn to the museum’s telling of the growth of the colony. The Immigration Museum was invaluable for all my units on migrant histories. And then when I moved on to public history and material culture, I looked to understand the objects themselves and their role as the vehicle for illuminating a person or a culture’s story. Everyday utensils and clothing from the Kew and Beechworth asylums dating back to as early as the late nineteenth century , miniatures of Aboriginal tools and weapons made by the Le Souefs, Cuc Lam’s red suitcase that she brought with her to Australia as a refugee in the 1970s – such beautiful and poignant stories uncovered because of these objects.
I love that although I’m a tax paying adult these days, I can buy annual membership to Museum Victoria at such an accessible price of $35. I LOVE that they’ve introduced SmartBar, an afterhours adults only event where you can roam about the museum with wine and attend information talks or do crafts.
But I wonder how widely known is all of this to the people who live and work in Melbourne and Victoria. I do feel that the museum is perceived as a children's institution – rightly or wrongly – but the common perception is there. I often have to explain at length to friends (late 20s) why I love going to the museum and have a membership. I don't think enough people know about the fascinating displays in the new-ish Melbourne Story gallery space – stories about the Little Lon slums, Cole's Book Arcade and Victoria's history of psychiatry and mental health – and that's a shame because they are fascinating and relevant chapters in our history. It's unfortunate that many young adults and people without families don’t visit the museum because they believe that they’ve outgrown dinosaurs. To them I say: WHAT ABOUT THE NAKED PEOPLE?
Melbourne Museum, more so than the other museums under Museum Victoria, is ambitious in that it tries to do a lot – natural history, Koori culture, Marvellous Melbourne, the human body. That’s ultimately a great thing but it needs to be marketed more cleverly and focused beyond families and school holidays. To tell stories of contemporary Melbourne, the museum needs to look beyond its four walls and reach out to the people who are begging for their stories to be told. And the truth is, the stories are there, compelling and wondrous, just waiting for a new audience.
If you want to offer your feedback to Museum Victoria, you can visit their website where you can also find details of how to visit or become a member. I highly recommend it.