This post was written by Chloe Appleby, a Curatorial Volunteer working under the supervision of Curator Margaret Simpson throughout 2017 and 2018. Chloe also works as a Program Producer and Visitor Services Officer at MAAS’s Powerhouse site in Ultimo and the Museums Discovery Centre in Castle Hill.
The Museums Discovery Centre (MDC) is a hidden treasure trove of objects which encompasses all topics ranging from decorative arts to transport, science to everyday life. Located in Castle Hill, Sydney, the MDC is not your typical museum but rather a facility for the storage of the Museum’s collection some of which is open to the public. It is one of the three sites of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) and is shared with the Australian Museum and Sydney Living Museums.
A little history
Since 1879, when MAAS was founded, our collection has grown to over 500,000 objects, and storing these treasures for preservation and research can be difficult, especially larger objects, as city-based sites have a limited storage space.
The 2.8-hectre site at Castle Hill was acquired for the Museum in 1947, and curiously was planted with eucalyptus trees as part of a scientific research facility to establish the commercial applications and properties of essential oils.
In 1979, the Museum’s scientific research branch was transferred to the Department of Agriculture and the Castle Hill site was gradually transformed into a much-needed state-of-the-art collections storage area for the Museum. A small area of visible storage was opened to the public in 2007. This area was expanded and underwent a major refurbishment for re-opening in 2016.
Bringing the collection to light through visible storage
The MDC is not only a storage facility but an exciting destination to experience a unique take on museum collections through public display of objects in storage.
My roles as a Program Producer and Visitor Services Officer give me a unique insight into the public’s reaction to the Centre. When visitors come to the site some of the questions they often ask are:
Why are the objects stored in crates, drawers and on pallets?
Why are there no labels or additional information?
Why does it look like a warehouse?
How is this different from other museums?
The difference lies in the fact that the permanent display was not designed with the intention of being an exhibition but rather a visible storage showcase. Visible storage is a way of showing objects, on mass, with minimal interpretation. The objects aren’t displayed in a polished showcase as in an exhibition setting, but rather are found on industrial shelving, pallets, crates and in light-minimising drawers and resting on little pillows. The idea is to provide the public with a behind-the-scenes insight into how museums store, conserve, and research objects, and to show their historical development over time.
The concept derives from the original way museums and collectors showed their collections, in Cabinets of Curiosities which goes back to Renaissance times. Today it provides the public with maximum access to as much of the collection as possible. Along with the MDC, many American and European museums such as the Luce Foundation Centre for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York taking on board this trend due to the increased public interest in their collections.
Rooms of pure imagination
In the public area of the MDC a staggering 4,200 objects are showcased across six rooms each illustrating different subject matters and are driven by a loose thematic narrative.
Room One is dedicated to showcasing the decorative arts in all forms from various countries and cultures, including a wall of chairs across time.
Room Two explores the evolution of technology and human ingenuity in almost every industry you can imagine, from cameras and computers to engines and printing presses.
Room Three examines the use and modes of transport including trains, planes and automobiles.
Room Four investigates natural sciences with models and taxidermy and the feats of human experimentation and exploration, notably Antarctica, from the MAAS and Australian Museum collections.
Room Five takes a step back into time and displays the evolution of domestic appliances and everyday living in New South Wales.
Room Six presents a grand spectacle of 19th Century Australian architecture through models of King Street, Sydney, in the 1880s to mouldings, many from the collection of Sydney Living Museums.
The Museums Discovery Centre is a visible storage facility that encourages learning and out-of-the-box thinking through the collection, interaction and on-site activities to give a unique and unforgettable experience. So, if you want a different Museum experience where so much of the State’s valuable collections are housed, come out the MDC! It’s open Monday to Friday, 10am – 5pm.
Chloe Appleby, Curatorial Volunteer 2018
Anon, (2018), Cabinet of Curiosities, Wikipedia, accessed 7th May 2018, < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cabinet_of_curiosities >.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, (2018), The Henry R. Luce Centre for the Study of American Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accessed 30th April 2018, < https://www.metmuseum.org/art/libraries-and-research-centers/the-henry-r-luce-center-for-the-study-of-american-art >.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, (2018), Luce Foundation Centre, Smithsonian, Washington D.C., accessed 30th April 2018, < https://americanart.si.edu/visit/saam/luce >.