Australians of the Year tell stories through objects

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Mathew Trinca and Scott Rankin at the exhibition opening.
THE National Museum of Australia’s 2018 Australian of the Year exhibition, developed with the National Australia Day Council, is the kind of venture that could easily fall flat, but it doesn’t, as the forth annual exhibition indicates.

The secret is that the museum, which prides itself on using objects to tell stories, asked state and territory recipients to choose an object of personal significance that communicated something about their lives, aspirations and experiences, or as NMA director Mathew Trinca puts it: “To actually think about things that really matter.”

Each nominee was asked to choose a personal item that would say: “What animated me”. Several chose more than one.

This year’s list of inspirational Aussies is surely a source of optimism for anyone viewing the show: entrepreneur and community leader Mark Dion Devow from the ACT; professor in quantum physics Michelle Yvonne Simmons from NSW; paediatric cardiologist Bo Reményi from the Northern Territory; NRL player and Indigenous mentor Johnathan Thurston from Queensland; craniofacial surgeon David David from South Australia; writer and arts charity leader Scott Rankin from Tasmania; actor and fundraiser for cancer research Samuel Johnson from Victoria; and psychologist Tracy Westerman from WA.

3D nylon skulls, from craniofacial surgeon David David.
The decision to focus on objects gets around the problem that museum viewers tend to focus on visual images more than words, but make no mistake, visitors will still have to do a little bit of reading too, as few of the chosen objects are self-explanatory, but that has been remedied by the NMA’s curators.

The Open Heart Story, 2017, by Trish Bush, on loan from Bo Reményi.
Two of the easier ones still require background knowledge.

Craniofacial surgeon David David from South Australia, with his team, performs often life-saving, surgery on conditions such as scaphocephaly, which leaves the sufferer with an elongated skull. The two 3D models he chose for display were created from patients’ pre- and post-operative CT scans, and show how a skull can be reshaped with ray-like incisions. He says he chose the skulls “because they show how you need teams”.

Bo Reményi, a paediatric cardiologist from Northern Territory who fled Hungary as a political migrant in 1998, chose a partial dot-painting by Trish Bush of a healthy, beating heart gifted to her by the grateful mother of a patient. Reményi, who became appalled at the Northern Territory’s rate of rheumatic heart disease when worked there as a young doctor, says the incidence is highest in the world and believes that access to adequate health care is a social justice issue.

“I stayed faithful to the families that motivated me,” she says.

Some of the objects require somewhat more background knowledge.

Graduation sash and rosary, on loan from Dion Devow. Photo, National Museum of Australia
ACT Australian of the Year Dion Devow, for instance, chose a sash worn at his graduation ceremony at the University of Canberra made especially for him to indicate his joint Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, and a rosary as a connection to his faith.

“Education is a great thing to have,” says Devow, founder of Darkies Design, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Business that deliberately used a racist name to negate inappropriate use of the word and to reclaim it – his mum was horrified.

Miniature manuals and a model boat, on loan from Scott Rankin. Photo, National Museum of Australia
And most mysteriously of all, theatre director, playwright and founder of the arts and social justice organisation Big hART, Scott Rankin from Tasmania, chose a model boat and a stack of Big hART manuals. It turns out that Rankin grew up living on a Chinese junk, and he says: “Not growing up within conventional boundaries meant I often felt on the outside looking in… I was open to trying new things.”

In 2017, after eight years of Big hART campaigning with Albert Namatjira’s family for his copyright to return to them, justice was achieved. The manual shows how to engage with communities.

There is much more to see — a sculpture of the unicycle Johnson rode around Australia, Simmons’ chess set and certificate, Thurston’s headgear featuring Aboriginal artwork and Westerman’s handful of Pilbara dirt and a certificate.

Mathew Trinca hopes the short-run show will get viewers having a good think about their own special objects.

The state and territory recipients will now go to Sydney to contend for the national announcement on Australia Day, 2018.


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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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