As the Museum plans for its future in Western Sydney, Director Dolla Merrillees examines Icons, an exhibition that questions and reinterprets the prevalent view of our collection, and considers how the Museum responds to Sydney’s social, political and cultural dynamics.
An icon in the 21st century is clearly no longer a simple matter of veneration and faith. It is indiscriminately and at times arbitrarily ascribed to buildings, handbags and people. In today’s terms icons are most readily identifiable as a small pictorial symbol that represents a computer application, folder or program; or as signified by pop icons, sex symbols, movies stars, models and sporting heroes.
Such contemporary icons as Australia’s 1950s king of rock ’n’ roll Johnny O’Keefe, internationally acclaimed actor and theatre director Cate Blanchett and Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman are represented in our new exhibition. Icons: from the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Collection brings together for the first time a collection of objects that consider the notion of ‘icon’ in all its complexity — from its origins as a sacred image traditionally used and venerated in the Eastern Church to a more contemporary definition that equates icons with mass culture and popular appeal. The objects displayed in the exhibition and catalogue present various aspects of luxury, celebrity, status, spirituality, value and genius.
The quest for identity, self-referentiality and the public desire around cult has seen religious belief and practice commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities. This analogy between religious and pop culture icons reflects the rise of popular culture of the early to the mid-20th century, driven and heavily influenced by mass media. Museums, too, are guilty of mythologising their collections, assigning iconic status to their objects through statements of significance, value and rarity. Public museums, like ours, are astounding repositories of objects accumulated under the impulse of serendipity, scholarship, connoisseurship and sometimes intuition reflecting the hopes, interests and aspirations of the curators who have acquired them. This exhibition seeks to examine, question and reinterpret the prevalent view and offers a different perspective, categorised by contemporary understandings of culture, historical and geographic origins, artistic creation, imagination and belief.
Building on the themes of luxury, celebrity, status, spirituality, value and genius the curator, Dr Jacqui Strecker, is clearly delighted in discovering unlikely alliances between objects. For example, the graphite elephant from Ceylon (about 1875) alongside the heroic astronautical busts (1984) from the Soviet Academy of Sciences representing status and power; the enigma machine (1940) and Howard Florey’s preserved specimens of penicillin (1944) celebrating innovation and ingenuity; the Strasburg Clock model (1887–89) and the Thancoupie pots (1984) encapsulating broad concepts of faith and spirituality across cultures. The breadth and diversity of the Museum’s collections, the intersection of the arts and sciences and the critical interchange of objects from different periods allows the curator a freedom of imagination and interpretation.
The exhibition focuses attention on the unusual diversity and distinctive character of the Museum’s collections, which not only document the state of New South Wales, and in turn Australia, but are also in dialogue with themes, motifs, ideas and styles from other cultures. The collection is not bound by time or place, rather it seeks to represent and encompass human creativity, innovation and ingenuity in all its expressions across the arts and sciences.
Like its collections, the Museum’s narrative is one of constant change, renewal and adaptation. The Museum’s foundation was established as part of the 19th century agenda for the advancement of knowledge and social reform following the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. It reflected the colony’s commitment to education and inquiry, and to the potential of technological and scientific advances to spearhead local industrial development and the associated economic opportunities. In a resolution put by Sir Alfred Roberts on 6 August 1878, the trustees resolved that ‘in the opinion of this Board, a Technological and Industrial Museum with classes for instruction would afford much valuable and practical information to a large class of the community’. Aspirations that remain as relevant and resonant today.
From its inception in 1880 as the conscientiously named Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum it has endured multiple variations of its name as well as occupying an assortment of sites. Housed in the upper galleries of the Garden Palace in Sydney’s Domain until it burned down, it found a temporary home in the Agricultural Hall, was relocated in 1893 to the Romanesque revival building designed by architect William Kemp in Ultimo, and was eventually recycled in 1988 into a complex of industrial buildings — the forlorn and derelict remnants of Sydney’s tram age. With the eponymous Powerhouse Museum as its flagship, the formally titled Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences was once custodian to the Mint in Macquarie Street and today administers the distinguished Sydney Observatory at Observatory Hill and the Museums Discovery Centre at Castle Hill.
While the bricks and mortar tell one part of the Museum’s story, at its core lies the collection. Capricious, eccentric and fascinating, its disparity is both its strength and weakness, but is always underpinned by its commitment to scholarship, education, scientific and technological advances, craftsmanship and aesthetic merit. Icons draws together disparate threads, linking them by focusing on a theme that emphasises the arbitrary and subjective way in which value and status is ascribed or defined.
The Museum itself has been described as an ‘iconic institution’. Jennifer Sanders, past Assistant Director, Collections argued in her introduction to Decorative Arts and Design from the Powerhouse Museum that ‘by the end of its first century, the development of the Powerhouse Museum … had transformed the museum in less than a decade from a Dickensian backwater to a vital and engaging part of Australia’s culture’.
The Museum once again is in the unique and extraordinarily privileged position of being able to respond to Sydney’s social, political and cultural dynamics and to actively contribute to the State’s health and economic growth. As it plans for its future in Sydney’s West, it will not only honour and continue to build on its legacy but will transform itself to respond to growth, to demographic trends, to the transforming social landscape and not least to the changing shape of Sydney and New South Wales. By positioning the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences at the centre of the innovation and creative agenda we can inspire a new generation of young Australians to dream, to imagine the possibilities and to realise their ambitions.
Our strength lies in our ability to tell the story of the past, to inform the present, to examine the contemporary and to foresee the future. Museums are defined by continued engagement, democratised access to knowledge, shared experiences, collaboration, interaction and participation — whether as a physical destination or through online and digital access, these are the cornerstones of the museum. Reimagining our future allows us to take risks with ideas, to break old habits, to ask provocative questions and to create new ways of thinking.
As custodians of a collection that documents the distinctive and complex character of Sydney and the state of New South Wales, and underpinned by our ethos and mission, there could be no greater compliment than to be asked to lead social change, to become a champion for a diverse and dynamic polycentric Sydney, to invest in and be integral to our community, and to deliver an authentic, personalised experience that places us at the core of imagining a hopeful future.
Icons is intended to generate a conversation, but above all I suspect it tells stories about us: our hopes, our fears, our desires and our aspirations.
Icons at the Powerhouse Museum open until 22 March 2020.
This article first appeared in MAAS Magazine, Winter 2016. Access a digital version of the magazine. To receive a printed copy, become a MAAS member.