Knowing your stories: a traveller's tale

By Joanna Cobley, Museum Detective

4 March 2009

Museums are excellent places for travellers to refresh, revive and refuel. Museums are also places to educate, entertain and enlighten folks. And after two years of recording museum stories for The Museum Detective and eight months on the road for Te Papa I can say that the most important aspect to any form of education or entertainment programme is to know what your underlying message is. But it has been a long time since I had been an actual museum visitor. What follows are some anecdotes about being an accidental museum visitor while on holiday.

Kuranda is a village about an hours drive from Cairns. Here are tourist shops selling clothing imported from Bali, rustic looking art, and jars of country cookery. But it was the mineral, stone and fossil shop that caught my attention. Downstairs was a museum, and it was air-conditioned. Not trivial as it was 38°C outside. Entry was by donation. The permanent display started with a large dinosaur model with a spinning disco ball over head, then along a dark corridor-like space the gems etc were displayed along the darks walls in an opulent jewellery-shop way. The exhibition was tightly focused with just enough interpretation and the tour was completed in a little under 10 minutes. I left the museum feeling much cooler and immediately before me was a cafe, the public toilets were across the road, and I had already visited the museum shop.

On our 5000km drive through the Outback we noticed a number of petrol stations, roadhouses and cafes with museums attached ‘on the side’; it’s viewed as a way to draw in the travellers and something similar would be worth considering in New Zealand.

Croydon is situated in the heart of the Gulf Savannah country. The whole town looks like a heritage site; even the local Police Station has a display of retired agricultural machinery on the lawn. The museum is a collection of heritage buildings. In each building are bite-sized exhibitions evoking stories about settler society, education, agriculture, domestic life etc.

The displays were nice and simple. Each theme was illustrated with just a few objects clustered around an interpretation panel and supplemented with historical photographs displayed on large sheets of corrugated iron (see photo). The sheets also served as dividers between exhibits. I am sure these dividers could be made fairly cheaply. The toilets were very neat and tidy.

But it was in Croydon that I began to appreciate that some museums in Australia are very remote – here Brisbane is a 2-day drive and Darwin is 3-days away – buying in expertise is expensive. The visitor guide told us that the museum relied on funding from the local regional council as well as donations, member subscriptions, and the research computers, now that the local genealogists had completed their family histories, were rented to tourists wanting to check their email and upload their photos to facebook. Later on I read that the guide I had spoken with at the Museum/Visitor Information Centre had recently been crowned as ‘heritage guide of the year’ for the Savannah Region.

Apparently the Rijksmuseum has only 400 artworks on display at the moment. This is because the museum is undergoing a major renovation. In fact the first exhibition room was sufficient. Here, six objects told the story of ‘nationhood’. But it was the confidence in the storytelling that made it work. These objects – a model of a ship, a painting of ships in battle, a gun, armour, a cannon, and a group portrait of 17th Amsterdam traders – were in good condition. Without too much reading I quickly figured that the Dutch built boats, they sailed them, they traded, they accumulated wealth, territorial battles took place, and there was other stuff like mortality and morals to contend with too. Fantastic.

The toilets were 4 star but sadly there was no ‘Night Watch’ tea-towel in the museum shop.

Lastly, is Laura’s Cafe for Fine Dining…it was 7am and the only cafe open in Taihape. I bought all of the freshly made cheese and onion sandwiches and ordered takeaway coffee then proceeded to feast my eyes on the archive photographs displayed along the wall. These photos were supplied by the Taihape Museum. So while that particular museum might only be open in the weekends I had accidentally stumbled into a mini-exhibition about ‘Taihape town life’ throughout the ages. Charming, quaint and easy to take in.

Of all these museum visits I am particularly fond of the Taihape experience, it is a simple example of a museum working with the local business community. While the owner of Laura’s cafe tells me that they’re about to have an image make-over (out with the quaint charm) the museum has successfully extended their exhibitions and opening hours without being dependent on the physical presence of museum staff. Similar exhibits can be found in rural pubs and international airports. But the same principles apply: you must have confidence in your storytelling. Start of with six objects and see what happens.