State Library of NSW: so much more than paper


…by Francesca Beddie


On 30 January, 18 PHA NSW members were given an insider’s view of the State Library of NSW’s exhibition spaces by Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville. With his research interest in nineteenth century Australian art and culture, and his curatorial expertise, we were treated to many insights into the complexity of displaying the Library’s vast holdings.

The State Library of NSW is the oldest library in Australia. In 1869 the NSW Government purchased the Australian Subscription Library (established in 1826) to form the Sydney Free Public Library, the first truly public library for the people of NSW. When the Mitchell Library, made possible by an endowment from David Scott Mitchell, opened in 1910, the Library began to stage exhibitions. In 1919, its painting collection was much boosted by a donation from Sir William Dixson.

Commitment to exhibitions in the Library waxed and waned in the following decades but was galvanised by the bicentenary of European settlement, in 1988, when the Library staged a major exhibition, The Coming of the Strangers: the first 30 years of European settlement. Since then exhibitions have become a central activity and in 2018, a major new space, the Michael Crouch Family Galleries, was opened. One of the motivations for this commitment, Neville explained, is to try to make its mostly archival collections interesting to the average visitor and to help people learn more about the Library’s collections.

Our tour started in the Dixson painting galleries, which display 301 of the 1200 oil paintings in the collection. The Library also holds 140,000 prints, drawings and watercolours, 1.5 million photographs and 8000 relics and museum objects.

Hung low on one wall is a photorealist painting by Jeff Rigby. It shows Darling Harbour in the 1980s at the time of its transition from working port to tourist centre. Its simple white frame stands out in contrast with all the gilt that surrounds the 19th century depictions of the Australian landscape. But, like its predecessors, it offers a record of change to the built infrastructure of Sydney. And, as Neville pointed out, it demonstrates the value of the artist’s record, even in the era of the photograph.

We spent quite a time in the paintings collection talking about curatorial issues. The massed hanging of oils, large and small, good and less good, is impressive but does not allow for individual captions. The solution to this are central screens where viewers can find a hundred words about the painting, its artist and its historical meaning. To cater to those who don’t like reading on screen there are large print catalogues, as well as the first volume of a glossy booklet featuring 10 works and commentary from Library and outside experts. Neville said responses to these methods of explanation have been mixed, and the audio guides that are available for those with mobile phones and earphones have had a low take-up by visitors. Members of the PHA group were more enthusiastic about these solutions, which have been dictated by available resources as well as curatorial decisions and open, free access to the galleries. They saw the potential for arranging the explanations in flexible ways to address a variety of themes: for example, the role of portraiture in revealing class structures in colonial society; or the place of women in 19th century Sydney.

Most disliked by visitors, according to Neville, is the solution to labelling in the Collectors’ Gallery. This is an entire wall of glass case that houses a massed selection from the Library’s ‘realia’ collection of artefacts. The pieces are arranged according to substances (ceramics, bronze, silver, etc.). They include Captain Cook’s drinking tumbler from HMS Resolution, Scott’s compass from his journey to the South Pole, Dame Nellie Melba’s Cartier hairpin box and Henry Lawson’s death mask. To find out about each of these 2,000 objects, the viewer needs to seek out what information there is by noting a catalogue number and then looking it up.

While much of what is on display relates to the 19th and first half of the 20th century, the Library is being proactive in filling gaps in its collections and acquiring contemporary material. One gap has been the lack of an Aboriginal voice or Indigenous interpretations of existing material. In the exhibition space, this has been partially addressed by a new installation, Sydney Elders. The artist Jonathon Jones, a Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi man, collaborated with four Sydney elders — Uncle Chicka, Aunty Esme, Aunty Sandra and Uncle Dennis — to tell their stories of Aboriginal Sydney. To his obvious delight, Neville told us this exhibition has been a great success. It’s on until Saturday 13 October 2019.

The group in another the galleries, where a temporary exhibition showcases the Library’s UNESCO World Heritage collection

Attracting visitors to the exhibitions is a challenge for the Library, not generally thought of as a place that houses art. Nevertheless, audiences, including younger people, do flock to some events, especially the annual World Press Photo exhibition, and are engaging with some of the Library’s multi-media initiatives. For example when 300 digitised images from the Macpherson Family Collection of photographs were uploaded to the Library’s Flickr page in 2017, an online community of volunteers emerged to identify many of the undescribed images. An exhibition of the collection, memories on glass, is on display until 5 May.

Thanks to the generosity of John B Fairfax, school-age children now have a dedicated learning space to use when they visit the Library. Here they learn about history by engaging with the physical and digital collections, as well as the exhibitions. The schools program is aligned to the curriculum and caters to all levels of primary and high school. It calls on the expertise of historians, including PHA member Peter Hobbins.

While the learning programs do attract a fee, all the rest of these offerings are free, so spread the word about what’s on at your very own State Library.

With many thanks to Lisa Murray for organising this CPD event and of course to Richard Neville and Rachel Franks, Coordinator Education & Scholarship, for their generosity in hosting the visit.

[Caption: this selfie of the group was taken to contribute to another of the Library’s exhibitions, New Selfie Wales]


BY phanswblogeditor IN Review of CPD Sessions ON 31 JANUARY 2019

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  1. Pauline Curby says:

    A very worthwhile visit – summed up well by Francesca. Looking forward to the next PHA event.

  2. It was a great tour and a real insight into the process and challenges of mounting major exhibitions in an institution not established for that purpose. Richard delivered the tour in his usual wry and forthright style, which really suited the needs of professional historians. Thanks for organising this great event!

  3. Jennifer Debenham says:

    Great CPD. Love Francescas blogs they really give a great sense of the scope and the complexities of curating such an eclectic range of treasures

  4. Virginia Macleod says:

    Yes a highly relevant and interesting PHA outing. Richard Neville’s explanation of the process and experience of establishing galleries, coupled with Lisa Murray’s comments on future potential took us beyond what we might have seen otherwise. Thank you Francesca for reporting, too! Looking forward to the rest of the year’s program …

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