I have to admit, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do for my project when we were first introduced to it.
There we all were on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting in a seminar room and listening to Mike talk about all the amazing things that past students had done – writing cookbooks, designing websites, making documentaries – and all that was going through my head was just pure nothing. Okay, maybe not just nothing. I was also injected with a healthy dose of fear and anxiety that made my eyes feel like they were going to bulge out of my head. I tried my best to hide it though. When Mike asked if we were all okay, I just smiled and nodded, trying to ignore the black hole that had suddenly appeared inside my brain, draining me of ideas and depositing them in a parallel universe.
When I got home that night, I called my boyfriend and curled up on my bed with my dinner. “I’m stuck,” I said, sadly shoveling forkfuls of pasta into my mouth. “Well,” he said, “There’s plenty of places you can start. What about a church? Or a cinema? Or a hospital –“
I froze mid-chew. A lightbulb has suddenly switched on inside my head. Hospital. Of course! It made complete sense. My mother had been a head nurse when we lived in Hong Kong, and I remember running through the corridors of her hospital as a kid. In the space of a few minutes, I had leapt up from my bed, grabbed my laptop and began an email to the first hospital I thought of: The Heritage Centre at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Conveniently located right next to university, the Centre is made up of three branches: the hospital museum, which exhibits medical instruments and other historical objects, the archives, which hold an insurmountable number of patient records and materials spanning from 1868 onwards, and the library, which contains a collection of medical texts from the 19th century, as well as histories of the hospital itself.
The next few days went by without a reply, but I still held back from emailing my other two preferences. There was something about this one that spoke to me, and I didn’t want to step away from it. I was so glad that I didn’t. A week later, I received an email from Scott Andrews, Manager of the Museum and Educational Facilities at the RPA, letting me know that he was available for a meeting to discuss the course and the project. Walking through the corridors of the RPA was a little nerve-wracking; the stark white walls and the shiny linoleum aren’t really conducive to calming down a small, anxiety-prone student. But stepping into the museum was like stepping into another world, separate from the body of the hospital itself. Black and white photos of nurses and doctors lined the walls, as well as wooden cabinets filled with old medical instruments. Scott greeted me, cheese toastie in hand, and began to guide me around the museum.
It turns out that I may have emailed the RPA at an optimal time. Scott has only been manager for the past two years, but in those two years he has made it his mission to reform the museum. “I want to give everything a narrative,” he kept on saying on our tour of the rooms, “Everything needs a story. Right now, there is no story.” And Scott was right. Though every instrument and piece of equipment had a fascinating history, the sheer amount of them, coupled with their organisation, overwhelmed visitors instead of speaking to them. He has made a variety of changes to the layout of the museum in the last two years, installing plaques and new cabinets, but he still has a lot of visions he wants to see out. “You’re our first ever student volunteer,” he told me, “Lucky for you, there’s a lot of things that you can do.”
In our meeting, we discussed everything from re-formatting the layout of the museum, to giving tours and printing out more plaques. Scott was delighted that I already had experience digisiting the archives at the Art Gallery of NSW, as the museum has a lot of documents and objects still unaccounted for on their database. Perhaps the most interesting project that Scott had in mind was the making of a huge timeline on the corridors of the hospital about the history of the institution. With my background in art and design, I knew for certain that this was a project that I could help him achieve.
As of now, there are still various forms and applications I need to fill out – you know, to prove I’m not a criminal. I am still frequently conversing with Scott over email, discussing the administrative aspects of my volunteering, as well as the online training I will need to complete before I start. Right now, I am sitting at my desk with books and pamphlets about the history of the RPA, some of which I have already started reading. I have no clue where this volunteering will take me, but one thing is for certain: I am filled with excitement for new beginnings.