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Under the imposing shadow of the new Governor Philip Tower, the recently opened Museum of Sydney has emerged out of the rubble of the old Government House (1788–1846) to mount, what Ross Gibson, writer and director of the Museum’s Bond Store installation describes as “… a sustained and creative inquiry into the operations of power and commerce and colonialism.” Like many of the “new wave” of museums that are opening around the world, the Museum of Sydney produces itself as an entirely reflexive and reflective event that, in its very structure, in the very act of creating the museum environment, turns history into effect of interpretation.

The inert “ruins” of the colonial government are subsumed into a mobile, panoptic structure that imagines, and images, culture as the exchange between the microscopic and macroscopic dimensions of an everyday environment. It attempts to construct a multi-layered series of interpretative perspectives and projections that mark out the historical possibilities for any site, for all sites, at the same time as it vigorously resists any form of closure or completion of the past. In this sense, the Museum stands as a kind of fragile nexus of museology and informatics, of aesthetics and politics, where artefacts, narratives and events are reconfigured within a complex choreography of advanced audio-visual systems to mark out the site as one of an ongoing cultural contestation and negotiation.

For Gibson, the museum exists to demonstrate that “… the meanings of so many places around this inhabited country are always and endlessly questionable. As we go through the museum, we hope it becomes apparent to the visitor that there is a profusion of assertions, versions, stories, options, testimonies; and that they all interrelate and they all invite interpretation. And that’s what the place is about: the necessity for you to reason through, worry through, imagine through, and come up with your best preference for how to interpret the various narratives, rather than it being a place where you’re taught a given line. Of course that open-endedness is ideological as well.”

Approaching the design of his installation and the place as a whole, Gibson continually draws attention to the notion that “space is a live construction of meanings which is changing all the time and so the idea of spatial history is fundamental to the place. Nothing is impeachably solid; it’s there but it is only just there. And although you can see the outside world so readily though all of the glass, in this quite hi-tech, metallic design, no matter where you are in the space, a representation of the natural environment, of a pristine ecology, is always informing what you see and hear. You can’t go anywhere without the environment, as it is understood in a mediated system, being close by.”

Each installation or exhibit produces itself as both a singular point of attraction, of narrative possibility, and as an interconnected passage between the various levels of the site. From the subterranean image of the “dig” mapped onto the outside plaza, to Heidi Riederer’s and Colin Grimmer’s arcane, shifting panoramas of Sydney on the top level, there is a feeling of being drawn through a range of vistas, of ideas, of sounds, and of mechanisms that are, for Gibson, “… ghosted with the markings of previous struggles, previous occupations, previous institutions. It’s a site of transience, but even at this very moment, it’s also a site of contestings, of meetings and negotiations.”

In this way, Gibson sees the Museum as a place for devolving authority, for making it negotiable, changeable; a place of layering, of levels, and reflection that initiates an “interpenetration of outside and inside space, outside and inside light, outside and inside vantage points. Every surface that you strike, every surface that you encounter, has several latencies in it; and this idea of layers, this idea of having to continually look and shift your focus and know enough about any of the surfaces that you encounter is central to the direction of the museum. This is a space in which you can almost see the edges; you don’t become lost in it, and over time it alters itself endlessly.”

And yet, as we move through this “new” space of cultural production, what also becomes apparent is that the sheer indeterminacy of this interpretative surface carries within it the potential to dissolve, into its “aura” or spectre, the very divisions, the differences, the material conditions, of a colonial history; to subsume politics into aesthetics, critique into mediation, event into environment. To maintain its critical edge, the Museum of Sydney must become a site that not only negotiates or contends the assumption of meaning, but one that inevitably questions the whole categorical imperative of a mediated “culture” itself.


The Museum of Sydney opened May 20.

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 6

© Nicholas Gebhardt; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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