Exhibition Recognition: Acknowledging Heritage Volunteers

I’m taking a short break from my ongoing rant on exhibition pet peeves to pay tribute to small town heritage heroes. Completely aware that they won’t be paid a cent for the work they do (or a shilling, which they’d probably prefer), they get out of bed to do it anyway. Because they love doing it. Because not doing it means that local heritage will be left to the discretion of developmental interests, which will not always preserve, recognise or record historical significance.

Today, small town heritage heroes were given the recognition they deserve at the 2014 NSW Government Heritage Volunteer Awards. I attended the ceremony because an organisation I have recently started volunteering with, the Hills District Historical Society, received an award acknowledging their voluntary contribution to local heritage conservation.

An example of the Hills District Historical Society’s recent work is a temporary exhibition created for the Castle Hill Show, entitled Back to School. Enveloped within craft displays, cake stalls and equestrian performances, a tin shed was transformed into an old classroom to showcase the history of education in the Hills District. Historical objects on display included class photographs, maps, blackboards, exercise books, uniforms, furniture, and other school memorabilia.

Back To School Exhibition at the Castle Hill Show, 2014

Back To School Exhibition at the Castle Hill Show, 2014

Participation in Back to School was highly encouraged. A quiz was established, in which visitors were presented with old maps of the Hills District and had to guess what was located there now. Children were also well catered for; they could experience what it was like to be at school in a bygone era, by sitting at an old wooden desk and drawing on blackboards with chalk. One child was a little confused though, not knowing what a blackboard was. When I told him, he proudly exclaimed “well, my school has SMART Boards!

Back To School Display

This exhibition is just one manifestation of the tireless effort of Hills District Historical Society volunteers over a long period of time. They also manage an entire museum, as well as regular public events and programs, without any help from paid staff (no biggie, though). Today’s recognition by the NSW Government, of them and other small town heritage heroes from across the state, is timely, hard-earned and well-deserved.


My Top 5 Exhibition Pet Peeves (Part One)

I have a bone to pick with you, exhibition. Yes I’m talking to you: dark lighting, white paint, sculpture on pedestal, flash of tourist’s camera, pretentious tour guide, old bones, new media, crying baby, form a queue please, and “It costs $25 to get in?”

I love you, but you are by no means perfect. You should be ashamed of yourself.

These are the top five things I hate about you.

5. Other people

Hell is other exhibition visitors.

It would be great to have an exhibition to myself for once; to flit from object to object without risk of an elbow to the face, or having my vision obscured because the tallest man in Australia has also decided to visit the Biennale today.

There are four sub-types of annoying exhibition visitor.

The Elbow Fiend

A serial exhibition pest. The Elbow Fiend’s constant elbow-raising shows a minimal awareness of bodily proximity and lack of respect for interpersonal boundaries. 

The Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’

Always has an opinion deemed worthy enough to force upon other gallery participants. Highly aware of the small room’s capacity for aural reverberation and uses it to their advantage. 

The Delinquent Child

I’m all for children interacting with exhibitions, and would be the first to argue the importance of cultural institutions for child development. But an exhibition experience can be completely ruined by The Delinquent Child, especially one that insists on pirouetting over security barriers while screaming (though check first as the screams may actually be part of a contemporary art installation, which therefore makes them acceptable).

The Frontal Impediment

The equivalent of being cut off while driving, or climbing a mountain only to have your view obscured by fog. The Frontal Impediment is a visitor who swoops, out of nowhere, into that tiny space between you and the exhibit.

Next time, come prepared for these sub-types: earplugs, hula hoop around your waist to define your boundaries, protective elbow pads for retaliation against The Elbow Fiend. You may think you look ridiculous, but in the art world you will appear hip and avant-garde.

4. Overzealous staff

To guarantee an enjoyable exhibition experience, overzealous staff members must be eradicated.

Not all staff members though. Museum workers and volunteers are often angels who enrich the visitor experience, whether it is through education, guiding, curation, or pointing out when you’re walking the wrong way. When I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, an extremely helpful staff member advised me that I wasn’t supposed to walk through a century-old revolving door in the middle of the museum: “It’s an exhibit dear, not an exit”.

An overzealous staff member will always pounce if you

  • bump the security rope, or marginally overstep the line;
  • wear your backpack on your back;
  • accidently use your camera flash;
  • have a sneaky sip of water to prevent dehydration;
  • exist.
Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit.

Younger me, getting too close to an exhibit while wearing a backpack ON MY BACK. How rebellious.

If an overzealous staff member has a point to make, they will make it. Like a draconian school principal hell-bent on pedagogic domination, they will find a grievance and object to it. My boyfriend made the mistake of visiting an exhibition while wearing a 1970s camera around his neck. He had no intention of taking photographs inside the gallery, but each time he touched the camera ever so slightly, a security guard jumped in and reprimanded him.

3. Elitism and price warfare

Art, heritage and cultural engagement should be open and accessible to all. So why pay $25AUD and up to visit an exhibition? If I wanted entertainment combined with a Delinquent Child ruining my day I’d go to the cinema instead, which has also seen price rises, but not as high as some exhibitions I’ve been to. Events, talks and symposiums add additional costs, at times making them accessible only to elites. Increasingly, visitors are asked to book tickets to blockbuster exhibitions through ticketing agencies, which charge inflated fees on top of the exhibition price.

But many organisations have addressed this issue. Some museums and galleries maintain a free entry policy, digital initiatives and travelling exhibitions increase accessibility without additional cost to the visitor, and child, student and pensioner discounts are commonplace.


Stay tuned for my top 2 exhibition pet peeves …

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have an opinion on exhibition pricing? What are your exhibition pet peeves? Have any museum or gallery experiences particularly enraged you?

Maybe you have come across one of the four sub-types. Or are you one of them? If you’re a Loud, Opinionated ‘Expert’, now is the chance to defend yourself while sharing your loud, opinionated expertise!