Putting our exhibition together (#1)
A while back, one of our regular readers was talking to me about what we were doing and expressed some surprise at what effort is going into this exhibition. He said that he thought we just went out the back and grabbed things to put into cabinets and presto, an exhibition is born. Well, words to that effect. Others have emailed me recently about being interested in what goes into putting our exhibitions together.
The process isn't actually that simple and with about half of this exhibition being devoted to international loans regarding Lawrence, it is even more complex than our normal temporary exhibition process. So, for those of you who might be interested, I will now attempt to outline the key elements of our process thus far. I suspect that it'll take a few posts, based just on my rough notes and there won't be too many relevant images, so if you don't have a deep abiding interest in our process, I suggest you turn away very quickly now and do a crossword puzzle or look at one of our other blogs. My colleagues working on the To Flanders Fields, 1917 exhibition are doing a great job with excellent content, so maybe check that one out.
The early days
Our exhibition program group had discussed the possibility of an exhibition that focussed, at least in part, on T.E. Lawrence in late 2005 and it had been tentatively scheduled for a future date. We also did some early audience research into the awareness of Australian audiences about Lawrence. Interestingly, this research seemed to indicate a pretty low awareness rate for those under 35 years of age. I hope we can turn that around.
Several Memorial staff managed to see the impressive IWM exhibition on Lawrence while travelling in London, including our Director, two Assistant Directors, our Principal Historian and Lola Wilkins, the Head of Art, while she was installing the Memorial's works in Shared Experience. The IWM had managed to put together a comprehensive biographical survey of Lawrence's legend and life. Many items were borrowed from other institutions and private collections specifically for the term of the IWM's exhibition in London, so it was never going to be possible to simply pick up the whole exhibition and put it on in Australia. Some informal discussions followed at a senior level regarding our cooperation with the IWM regarding relevant items from the IWMs exhibition list.
Over the period from late 2005 to early 2006, we put together the current exhibition team for this exhibition. I was given the opportunity to curate the exhibition and Robyn Van Dyk was to assist me. At that stage, the Memorial's Principal Historian, Dr Peter Stanley was to be the historian (he was replaced later in the year by Nigel Steel, due to his other priorities concerning the redevelopment of our post-1945 galleries). Susie Quinn from Gallery Development was our Project Manager and curators were added from each of our collection areas: Dr Janda Gooding from Art; Jane Peek from Military Heraldry & Technology; and Ian Affleck from Photos, Sound & Film. As both Robyn and I work in the Research Centre, we did not need another curator from our collection (official, personal and published records of war) and Robyn picked up most of that research herself. Everyone working on this exhibition is doing so part time in addition to their normal work. Only Robyn and I have had some short periods where we have been put 'offline' to concentrate solely on the exhibition.
Just before Easter in 2006, I was given the chance to go to London and view in detail the IWM's Lawrence exhibition. (I've posted separately about that here and here.) I'd previously read quite a few reports of others who had viewed the exhibition, so I already had a pretty good idea of the items we were most likely to be interested in borrowing.
I returned to Australia and wrote a report on what I thought we needed to seek from the UK as loans for our exhibition. That report was read and agreed internally and I began drafting a series of letters for our Director to send to the heads of various UK institutions and private collections. Those letters introduced our exhibition framework and me as our exhibition's curator and they detailed the items we were interested in borrowing. I then had to return to England a couple of months later to begin loan negotiations. More on what I did during that trip in my next post . . .