Exhibition: Something Borrowed at Parliament of Victoria

You can read more about how I found myself in a placement at Parliament of Victoria here.

My project placement at Parliament of Victoria has been a fantastic and even life-changing experience. I developed new skills, met some very lovely people and discovered a career path I didn’t even realise existed.

Something Borrowed

Flyer for our exhibition

My main task has been to work within a small team to write and present an exhibition on the period between 1901 and 1927 when Federal Parliament ‘borrowed’ Parliament House.

When I joined this project, the Parliamentary Library and the Community Engagement and Education Unit had already started sketching ideas for the exhibition. They had identified four themes that seemed to be significant during the era: Buildings, Library, Events and the War Years.

The first thing to do was to brush up on my general knowledge. I started with the very basics: I searched Google for ‘Australia Federation’, and yes, I looked at Wikipedia. I also read Parliament’s own website and took a public tour of the building.

The next stop was the stunning Parliamentary Library here at Parliament House. I spoke to a librarian about what makes their collection unique and how to use the catalogue to my full advantage. The librarian was also able to recommend some great books on the subject, in particular: A People’s Counsel by Raymond Wright and Capital by Kristin Otto. I also relied heavily on one of the library’s own publications: Speaking Volumes by former library staff member Patrick Gregory. In the Parliament’s heritage collection there are a large number of boxes of documents – mostly library correspondence. I spent several days going through old letters, receipts and reports.

Letter from EW Cole to the Librarian at State Parliament House

A particularly exciting moment was when I came across this original letter from E.W Cole whom I am familiar with from previous research.

Read my essay featuring E.W. Cole:
How did cosmopolitan thinkers imagine Australia?

Library table

The Parliamentary Library Photo courtesy Parliament of Victoria (used with permission)

With today’s incredible access to institutions online, I was able to search beyond the Parliament’s collection. Trove is great for anything published, but brilliant for newspapers. I have heavily relied on Trove for previous research tasks, so it was one of the first places I started.

The State Library of Victoria holds a large number of digitised photos in its collection, and offers large file downloads for free – a really important resource for a low-budget exhibition.

On a well-timed family trip to Canberra, I was able to explore the National Library of Australia, where I examined some of Alfred Deakin’s personal papers. I spent half a day at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, looking at some of their display strategies. I also attempted to visit the National Archives of Australia, but unfortunately due to a restructure I was unable to access any items.

We wanted some good stories that weren’t so well known; things that would be amusing for a visitor just browsing through. To try and find these, I searched newspapers and magazines for ‘political gossip’ and I also read sections in the Hansard from significant dates.

Through my research, I found some items of interest that were previously unknown to the other staff. For example, I found a photo in the newspaper of a tractor climbing the stairs of Parliament House which has been filed away to be used for a social media post in the future. I was also able to locate a photo of the refreshment rooms being built in 1928.

Tractor Climbs Parliament House Steps

TRACTOR CLIMBS PARLIAMENT HOUSE STEPS. (1923) The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 13 September, p.7

The process of researching as a team had some challenges. In the early stages of research, we each worked independently which led to some overlap and some gaps in our information. We initially tried to fill folders on the four identified themes with photos and research, with the aim of producing a text document for each theme.

It was sometimes difficult to fit the stories into the rigid categories afforded by separate Word documents. There was also a limited capability to work simultaneously, which led to some reluctance among the team to write any final text. I suggested that we use a shared document instead, to facilitate more than one person working at a time and to share ideas more easily. We soon abandoned the separate documents for a combined Google doc which enabled greater collaboration and allowed for cooperative editing.

We also met weekly to discuss our findings, the direction of the narrative, and any concerns.

Construction of refreshment rooms

REMODELLING PARLIAMENT HOUSE 1928 The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.) 8 September, p. 15

The exhibition text grew quite organically at first, as we all added stories that we found interesting. As a team, we gradually shaped a greater narrative and decided which stories were the most important. We gave precedence to stories that we had images to support. This process required some compromise. I found that sometimes I had to let go of stories that I originally thought were really important, but did not have a clear place or a clear structure of their own. Working as a part of a team was helpful as we were able to critique and challenge each others ideas.

At first I was a bit unsure of how to approach the task and how to write with the voice of the organisation. I also found it harder than I expected to write with authority on what I had found out. However, Museum Australia’s page on Writing Text and Labels really helped me to realise that writing text for the wall is the same as writing anywhere else.
There are key questions to keep in mind:
– Who is the audience?
– What do they know?
– What do I want them to know?
– How much time do they have/space do I have?

Once I recognised this, I found the process really enjoyable.

When the final draft of the panel text was ready, we each proofread it and then workshopped any awkward sentences or shaky facts. I spent a lot of time editing for brevity and clarity, and Glenn, the visual designer on the team, worked long hours to make sure that the text fit into the layout and went with our chosen photos. The panels were then sent to the printer.

Queen's Hall

The exhibition space (Queen’s Hall). Photo courtesy Parliament of Victoria (used with permission)

Another part of designing the exhibition was to think about how it would look and feel. This aspect was led by Glenn. I learned a lot by talking to Glenn about the different challenges related to the exhibition space:

  • The room is constantly in use as a walkway
  • It is a very large room with high ceilings
  • It has striking features such as red carpet, large portraits on the walls and a 4.3 meter high marble statue of Queen Victoria in the middle.

We solved these problems by arranging the room in a very relaxed layout without a strict walk through structure. Glenn chose colours that complemented the room, rather than trying to compete with it. We also used tall panels and plants to give some height variations.

The opening of Commonwealth Parliament Charles Nuttall

We hired plants similar to the ones in this Charles Nuttall depiction of the first opening of parliament in 1901. Image: Museums Victoria (public domain)

We used both objects (to suggest the era) and artefacts (of the era). It was important to us that visitors were not confused which was which, because we felt that presenting objects as genuine artefacts lacked integrity.

Because the exhibition was largely text-based, we used ‘moments’ to create some atmosphere and to facilitate a more immersive experience. These were settings that evoked the era, such as a small table with some glasses and an ashtray, a desk with a typewriter and some potted ferns. I located a book on Australian Victorian Décor, which helped me to get a sense of what a room may have looked like in the 1920s. To source objects for these moments, we visited a resource I would not have considered: the Melbourne Theatre Company’s prop store. We were able to choose several objects to borrow. We also scouted Parliament House for items of furniture and objects still in use.

Hansard Display

Hansard display at Museum of Australian Democracy (left) and ours (right) Photos by Kathlene Murphy

As well as objects, we had some artefacts on display. I helped to set up display cases including a selection of photographs, some letters, the mace and a copy of the Argus from 1926. We provided copies of Hansard for the public to browse, and we took inspiration for how to display them from some photos I took at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra

Setting up

Setting up Photo by Kathlene Murphy

Once the panels arrived, it was time to move into Queen’s Hall to set up. This was much quicker than I was expecting. Each of our display panels needed screwing together – a job that Glenn and I did together due to the large and delicate nature of the panels. Communication skills were key as Glenn and I shifted cabinets, tables, chairs, boxes and trolleys into the exhibition space. The selected volume of the Argus initially didn’t fit under the display case, and we had to come up with last minute solution to prop it up using a tiny tower of magnets. On a Sunday afternoon, we gave all of the displays a final wipe down and crushed the remaining cardboard boxes into the skip (no one promised parliament would be glamorous).

We were finished.

The future
Unfortunately, the nature of the space meant that the exhibition could only be in place for five days. However, we received a lot of positive feedback from staff and visitors and there is a possibility that it will be reassembled at a later date. The benefit of such a temporary exhibition is that it can be easily stored and then reassembled. This gives it the potential to travel, and there are plans to send it to some areas of regional Victoria. SB_BOOK_COVER_MOCKUP

The text is currently being developed into an eBook that will be available for free.


** UPDATE: Download the eBook

You can view a pdf version of the e-book here.

My time at parliament has been a thoroughly enjoyable steep learning curve.

Finally, here is a summary of my activity framed by the ACC317 Unit Learning Outcomes