Name: Rebecca Bower
What is your specialty area? Like many curators at the Powerhouse I studied archaeology, having wanted to be an Egyptologist since I was a little girl. It was pure coincidence that my first year at university was soon after Raiders of the Lost Ark came out. There were a bumper number of wannabe archaeologists that year hoping to be lectured by an Australian Indiana Jones!!! The reality was far different and the drop out rate, high. Unlike many I survived the undergraduate course, became the inaugural graduate of the Historical Archaeological honours program at the University of Sydney and followed that with a post graduate degree in Maritime Archaeology. Before making the leap into the museum world I ran my own consultancy business specialising in archaeological footwear and shipwreck research, but within a couple of years was bored and looking for new challenges. I started at the Powerhouse as an Assistant Registrar, later moving to Curatorial. I pursued an internship at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and a Masters Degree in Public History to develop my understanding of photographic history and practice.
Over the years I’ve worked primarily within the area of performing arts on a number of research projects and exhibitions. An inveterate traveller and hoarder, my research interests are so diverse that I have difficulty in sticking to one specialty. I am lucky my job and studies have allowed me the flexibility to develop specialist knowledge in a range of areas in performing arts and photography, such as early 20th century travelling tent shows, Bollywood films and vernacular photography. My colleagues consider me the resident Elvis Presley aficionado and my desk, the local tourist attraction, is littered with kitsch ephemera, the product of travels in the Middle East and India and my fascination for religious ritual. Some may accuse me of having a short attention span, I consider it collecting knowledge like I collect things and you can never have too much of either.
How long have you been working at the Museum? That’s like asking a lady how old she is! I’d like to say since Adam was a boy. In fact, compared to some, a relatively brief 17 years.
Favourite object in the collection? In all the years I have worked here I have never been able to nominate a single object as my favourite as my tastes and interests change on a regular basis. Is it museological schizophrenia? The beauty of working with a collection as diverse as this is that most interests are catered for. One thing that has remained constant though is my passion for interesting and quirky stories. I have a great fondness for objects relating to people’s religious observation, their sexual proclivities and the rituals associated with their death. To me these are the most important aspects of human existence and yet often these subjects are shrouded in shame, misinformation or bigotry.
I am drawn to the beauty of Natraja, the Hindu god Shiva performing his celestial dance, the serenity of the Tibetan Buddha, the sacred bull Nandi, the joi de vivre of Krishna dancing and the rituals associated with the Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist skullcap. The ushabtis and bust of Osiris are a nod to my past. I am fascinated by the appropriation and reinterpretation of religious symbols as expressed in the posters for Mambo Goddess and the ‘Christmas is false consciousness Eve’ party while the statue of St Cecilia, speaks to my love of Christian/Catholic ritual. My interest in the rituals surrounding death is represented by the funerary urn “Three Dead Passengers” and the crucifix from the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium. There wasn’t room for the ash grinder in the photograph. Finally, I am intrigued by the pushing of sexual boundaries as expressed by Richard Boulez’s bondage collection euphemistically entitled “collection of leather accessories’’ and Gretel Pinniger’s fetish corsetry.
If there was a position called ‘Curator of religion, sex, death and weird stuff’ then I’m sure it would have been invented with me in mind!
What piece of research or exhibition are you most proud of in your career at the Museum? I rarely use my archaeological specialist knowledge in a museum context. So it was a real pleasure to use my specialist knowledge to catalogue the Joseph Box footwear collection and work directly from shoe historian June Swann’s notes.
Being just a tiny bit ‘obsessed’ by Bollywood I relished researching Indian films made in Australia for the Australian component of the Cinema India exhibition, curating a film program and exposing our audience to the magic of Indian film. Watching scenes being filmed on the streets of Sydney for the Bollywood film ‘Heyy Babyy” wasn’t bad either.
The running joke of the team during the development of The 80s are Back was that I ‘was born’ to work on this exhibition. There is certainly no denying that my formative social years happened during the 1980s and being able to relive my youth under the guise of work was a pretty special experience. Being able to use social media such as Facebook to undertake primary research and in the process discovering so much rich content for the exhibition was fun and a revelation. I think the subcultures section of the exhibition was all the richer for these personal stories and mementoes.