Keep in touch exhibition – a curator’s perspective

 

…by Birgit Heilmann

I had a busy ‘I am away from my desk’ week in mid-October, installing my new exhibition Keep in touch. After more than one year in the making, I can now sit back and observe how visitors to Hurstville Museum & Gallery engage with this latest exhibition. Keep in touch takes you back to the analogue world. It highlights the development of early communication services and a few more recent ones, as well as showcasing other forms of communication such as braille, Auslan and community languages.

The exhibition provokes different responses from its visitors – depending on their age. The younger generation is be able to learn about the world of analogue communication and might even wonder how to dial a number on telephones without buttons but a rotating disk. The older generation might feel nostalgic as they recall using some of the items on display from our collection.

So, how did I come up with this particular exhibition layout?

Curating an exhibition is much more than just researching historic information, writing exhibition text and selecting objects for display. You need to be able to imagine how the exhibition will look in the space and see what’s possible within your budget.

I spent a very long time thinking of interactive ideas and the right layout and feel of the exhibition. Over my six years working on exhibitions that will engage the community, getting the layout right has become my favourite part of the project. My focus has shifted from predominantly working with archival material and researching historic facts to more browsing the internet to find a Morse code machine that makes a beeping sound, hiring a 1960s working TV and creating a string telephone from cans. A trip to Kmart for finishing touches was mandatory for this exhibition.

Besides my interactive-prop-shopping skills, I also had to use my technical skills to reformat and cut old TV snippets together and create interactive content for two Ipad kiosks. A highlight on one of them is the dial up sound of the 56k modem – I am sure most of you will remember that painful process connecting to the internet.

There is a lot to discover in Keep in touch – if you want to check it out the exhibition is on show until 27 January at Hurstville Museum & Gallery.

Five minutes with Alinde Bierhuizen

 

Alinde Bierhuizen is the newest member of the PHA NSW & ACT committee and its new Secretary. She moved from her home country, the Netherlands, to Sydney last year and currently works as a freelance historian.

What made you decide to pursue a career in history?

I have always been interested in people: their stories and where they come from. When I realised that’s what history is all about, I enrolled in a History degree at the University of Amsterdam, where I completed an MA in Public History. During my Master’s degree I started working at the Amsterdam City Archives. As a junior curator I got a real taste of what it’s like to ‘do history’ as a job. I enjoy sharing stories and engaging people by trying to find a personal connection to the past. Moving to Sydney meant I had to find my feet again as a professional historian. Becoming a PHA member and joining the committee feels like a big step in the right direction!

Who is the audience for your history?

At the Amsterdam City Archives I aspired to make exhibitions for all ‘Amsterdammers’. As the youngest person on the team I worked hard to attract a younger audience. I hosted social events for students, organised special tours and evening openings, and set up an Instagram account for the Archives. It was great to see people who might not otherwise show interest in historical sources get excited about an old photograph, drawing or document.

The best thing about archives and their collections is that, as well as the big histories, they tell the intimate and personal. By contextualising objects so they become relevant to the person observing them, anyone should be able to experience an historical sensation.

What’s your favourite historical source, book, website or film?

The first exhibition I co-curated at the Amsterdam City Archives was about the period Vincent van Gogh spent in Amsterdam, before he became an artist. For months I read through hundreds of letters he had written as a troubled twenty-something to his brother, Theo. The letters – and this might sound very clichéd – brought van Gogh, and the city he lived in, to life. I started referring to him as ‘Vincent’ and colleagues often teased me for talking about van Gogh as if he was an old friend! I would recommend reading Van Gogh’s letters* to anyone as they provide a great insight into the mind of the artist as well as life in western Europe between 1870-1890.

If you had a time machine, where would you go?

That question is impossible to answer! I find every historical period fascinating in its own way. However, I would love to go back to Amsterdam at the end of the 19th century; not just for a cup of coffee with Vincent, but also to witness a city bursting out of its pre-industrial boundaries and modernising at a rapid pace.

Why is history important today?

There would be no today without history. History creates connection, understanding and a sense of belonging. As a newcomer to Sydney, learning about its history makes me feel more at home and a part of this beautiful city.

 

* This website houses all Van Gogh’s letters, digitised, transcribed and with English translations!