Arts / Bringing memories back to life

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The PARADISEC in action at CMAG.
The Paradisec in action at CMAG.

IN its very newest show, the Canberra Museum and Gallery has engaged many of our national collecting institutions as it introduces Canberrans to “the memory of the world.”

The Federated Stovemakers and Porcelain Enamellers Association of NSW created this banner in 1906, on loan from the Noel Butlin Archives.
The Federated Stovemakers’ and Porcelain Enamellers’ Association of NSW created this banner in 1906, on loan from the Noel Butlin Archives.

That’s the kind of “memory” safeguarded in Canberra’s premier cultural institutions by Canberra’s librarians, archivists, curators and conservators.

In a kind of “Documentation-101” crash course, “CityNews” is introduced to a new idea of what a “document” is, so that film, music and dance, oral history and digital media can all be considered “contextual documents – anything that records info is a document”.

That means that, say, a film about the Kelly gang or a Cinesound- Movietone newsreel can have equal weight with a diary or the Griffin drawings of Canberra.

This is a significant exhibition, as CMAG’s senior curator in social history Dale Middleby and consultant Ros Russell, chair of UNESCO Australia’s Memory of the World Committee, are keen to stress as they take us on a tour around the “with-it” show.

They are particularly pleased to have drawn on collections in the Noel Butlin Archives, the National Archives, the National Film and Sound Archive, the NGA, the NLA and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

Little of the Australian experience is omitted in the 14 modules covered by the show – Enduring Culture, Our Pacific Neighbourhood, Australia on Film, War and Australia, First Encounter, Establishing Settlements, A Documentary Democracy, Planning the “Ideal City”, Artists and their Works, Workers in Documents, Australia’s Folk Culture, Digital Pioneer, First on the Stage and Canberra and Memory of the World.

Although as social historians Middleby and Russell take UNESCO’s precepts very seriously, they have been mindful of the demands that a heavily-captioned show like this can make upon viewers used to whizzing through a visual arts exhibition at the rate of 30 seconds a painting.

As well as all the fun, there are plain social documents, too, ranging from a kids’ “Sorry” book and Eddie Mabo’s diary to the huge “Banner of Pride” from the Butlin Archives.

Using a plethora of devices and initiatives, young people are expected to flock to CMAG to access information through iPads, videos and the fantastic initiative Paradisec. That’s the ultra-awesome Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures developed by Drs Rachel Hendry and Andrew Burrell which allows viewers to zoom into islands in the Pacific and hear songs and words from the 1500 or so languages of the region.

“Memory of the World in Canberra”, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Civic Square, until March 19.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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