Tea trees in their characteristically twisted forms provide the context for a look back, back, back into the far history of our island home. The First Tasmanians: Our Story is the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery’s newest permanent exhibition, now open to the public.
The exhibition was the brainchild of project manager Greg Lehman who noticed “a bit of a glaring gap” when it came to the state’s deep history; what came before colonialisation.
“It’s a pretty amazing story to tell,” he says of the exhibition’s scope. It dovetails with other displays throughout the state, without overlap, and builds on people’s ability to engage with the island.
Rather than ruin the experience for you by giving the expected highlights reel (better for you to head down to QVMAG and check it out for yourself), Lume caught up with exhibition designer Andrew Johnson to find out just what goes into creating something of this magnitude.
What was your brief?
The design brief for the gallery was to create a visually stimulating and engaging environment with a strong identity. It had to be simple, beautiful and elegant incorporating a number of themed areas in an organic interior treatment which moved away from the gallery box. Information was to be provided through text, video and audio. The galley had to feature a large projection of the night sky and showcase precious cultural objects from the QVMAG collection. A 'welcome space' at the entry to the gallery incorporating strong visual images of country and featuring contemporary Aborigines greeting visitors was to be included. Incorporating an education program to support the exhibition and expand on research for the exhibition was also essential.
Describe for us your process in formulating ideas and designs for the exhibition.
The inspiration of the tea tree forests came quite early in the design process which proved to be a theme that had a strong relevance in so many elements of the project. An iconic natural feature of the Tasmanian landscape, a source of shelter, hunting materials and a key element in continuing cultural beliefs and stories. The tall slender trunks with random patterns of angles are repeated throughout the gallery design in three dimensions and in the graphics.
As designer of the exhibition I worked closely with the curators who represented the sciences, history and the arts. Added to this was a strong involvement with the QVMAG Aboriginal Reference Group (ARG). This group of Tasmanian Aboriginal community members were vital in advising and guiding the curators and myself in cultural matters which did influence the overall design.
What was the biggest challenge?
We are telling an enormous story from the points of view of science, history and the arts over a vast period of time. So to create a gallery environment that could deliver the themes and decipher the complexities for a wide variety of visitors was definitely a challenge. Some visitors may wander around in half an hour and others are looking for a significant depth of information. The challenge is to make sure they all walk away with an understanding of the story being told.
What have you learnt along the way?
This unique project has given me an insight into the deep culture of the Tasmanian Aborigine that goes back over 40,000 years. I have learnt a great deal about the state I live in, its rich history and the incredible diversity of landscape. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with members of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community creating elements for the gallery such as the two examples of shelters historically used by the Tasmanian Aborigine.
When people walk through this exhibition, what do you hope they grasp?Walking into the space I hope the visitor has a sense of entering more of an outdoor environment than indoor. I hope they embrace the multiple perspectives from the floor and from upstairs. I would like to see the visitor really engaging with the objects and building an appreciation of their significance. The storytelling and information sharing from Tasmanian elders presented on a number of televisions I hope strengthens the strong cultural message being told to the visitor. The message that the Tasmanian Aborigine survived over 40,000 years, living and adapting to severe environmental changes, developing a strong understanding of their surroundings which they managed on a sustainable level all this time.
By Claire van Ryn - Published in Lume Issue 8