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australian museum

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 25-Feb-2006

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum

Subsection: Books

Page: 27

Wordcount: 1206

Daylight enters the labyrinth


ELIZABETH FARRELLY. Elizabeth Farrelly’s column will move to the Wednesday opinion page of The Herald from next week.

The warren of buildings at the Australian Museum is being transformed by the application of common sense, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.

In the years between 1997 and 2002 Hendrikus van Leeuwen (Hank to his friends) is alleged to have pilfered more than 2000 precious objects from the Australian Museum, including the odd irreplaceable skull of thylacine. More recently, a Sydney conference examined links between space and public behaviour, centering on the idea that design holds the key to a range of social problems, from neighbourhood crime to attention-deficit disorder.

If you did believe in such spatial determinism (which, as it happens, I don’t) you might argue van Leeuwen was simply taking his cues from the building. Admittedly, murder might have been better suited to the place; something labyrinthine and Poirot-esque, the kind of scientific skullduggery that befits those winding, boffin-filled corridors and gloomy halls superintended by the stuffed and the fossilised.

The window is closing, though, on the perfect museum murder. A long-term Australian Museum project to suck fresh air into those musty Enlightenment lungs is under way. Its object is to render the august institution clear-eyed and open-faced as befits our times. (And no, that’s not a joke).

Architects Johnson Pilton Walker, fast becoming Sydney’s museum designers du jour, completed a strategic masterplan for the museum’s College Street site in December 2004. An exercise in the simplifying power of logic, it showed how, with a nip here and a tuck there, a tangled ragbag of buildings and spaces can be transformed into something reasonably workable through the application of common sense.

The first flesh-and-blood edifice to emerge from this lengthy strategic process will be the New Collections and Research Building – naming rights pending – which starts construction at year’s end. It’s a modest enough work, a simple, seven-storey street building slotted in at the end of that 1960s stone facade on William Street. Inside, the changes will be more dramatic, and that, too, is a good thing.

The problem is a classic: a contemporary institution trapped in a tangled mass of buildings and spaces, some handsome, some less so, that have been built, altered and added to many times over 150 years, always ad hoc, always in the manner of the times but seldom with any regard for the whole. It’s been downhill most of the way, from the grand sandstone classicism of successive colonial architects – Mortimer Lewis (1846-52), James Barnet (1861-66) and Walter Liberty Vernon (1899-1907) – to Ted Farmer’s elegant 1960s stone facade and the grotesque cack-handery of the 1980s – including that great black mass lodged within the once gracious courtyard like a decaying whale. The cumulative result is a warren of confusing public spaces and unworkable private ones, stuffed inside a handsome sandstone carapace.

But the ill fit between creature and shell is not just about the shell; it’s also about how the institution has changed over time. For most of us, the words “Australian Museum” conjure images of gargantuan skeletons and gossamer-winged insects on pins, animated dinosaurs and the odd hands-on digital disappointment. In fact, as museum director Frank Howarth explains, exhibitions are only part of it; just the head of the creature.

The rest is in two parts: collections, on the one hand; research on the other. According to the 19th-century idea of “museum”, these three areas would have been more or less coincident. Now, says Howarth, they are almost entirely separate, dividing the museum’s energies, space and budget into roughly thirds. This means that while exhibitions and public programs do sometimes arise as a spin-off from the research and collections, it’s more common for shows to be brought in, for public programs to involve things such as the Bugwise project (run through the museum’s excellent website) and for research to entail such projects as the North Coast koala crossings, undertaken with the RTA, or biodiversity work at the museum’s Lizard Island research station on the Barrier Reef.

Far from sidelining the buildings, such focus on the ephemeral is seen as endowing the museum’s “bricks and mortar” with new significance. It’s what Howarth calls the “hook of the real”.

“The more the world goes visual,” he says, “the more people want to see real things”, especially in pursuit of what he regards as the museum’s role, namely “inspiring and provoking people to explore questions of nature and culture”.

The new building will do what it can, within a $41million budget, to reorganise the College Street empire accordingly. Essentially this involves winkling the museum’s 80-strong phalanx of scientists from their specimen-stuffed labs and re-housing them in the new, open-planned building designed to encourage interaction between existing fiefdoms.

This will liberate most of the grand heritage buildings for use as exhibition space and although the beached whale will remain, those clunky mezzanine insertions through the Barnet/Vernon wings on College Street will go, restoring the spaces to a state of something like grace. The project will also create two new exhibition spaces, one of them dinosaur-sized, and extra collection storage in the new building.

The new building’s William Street facade, its height matched to the 1960s addition, will be a layered glass screen designed to pre-temper air for more efficient heating and cooling. A range of optical effects is being explored to make it shimmer like an insect’s back, including liquid-crystal film that can be rendered translucent or opaque for use as a projection screen.

Along with the high-techery, however, it may please you to know that the perfect murder spot remains. It is the aptly named “spirit house”. Tucked into a back corner of the site, the spirit house is a windowless brick tower, perfectly square in plan, with heavy security and a single door at its base. It is a storage tower, its six floors of compactuses stacked with a million glass jars containing small bodies preserved in formalin. Spirit, that is, as in pickling.

Just down the road, as the museum fills its hallowed halls with daylight, the cloaks and daggers gather around other, more pressing pieces of our cityscape. The latest in the continuing saga of East Darling Harbour is the last-minute canning of the planned exhibition of refusees from the first-stage design competition.

The show, much anticipated, was to be held at the Sydney Theatre, sponsored by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects and opened by Lord Mayor Clover Moore. Invitations had been sent and accepted, but the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority suddenly discovered a technicality in the rules that prevented publication until after a decision is made. That’s useful.

As to reasons for the cancellation, no one is saying. Participating organisations neither confirm nor deny being leant on by the minister’s office. Well, you wouldn’t, would you? Not if you valued your head, this side of the formalin jar. Especially now that Hank’s not there to liberate it for you.


TWO PHOTOS: Power of logic … architects Johnson Pilton Walker’s design for the Australian Museum’s William Street facade (top); museum director Frank Howarth (above). PHOTO: MARCO DEL GRANDE


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