If you wind through the corridors and stairways at the back of the curatorial building at The Australian National Maritime Museum, you will arrive upon a small room and – if you are with one of the few staff members with access – you’ll see an eclectic collection of donations to the museum, yet to processed. My project was working with one of the items in this treasure trove, and making a case for why it belongs in the Museum’s collection.
Unfortunately, some complex copyright issues prevent me from posting the images that my project centred around, but I was tasked with writing an acquisition concept proposal for a set of surfing photographs from the 1960’s. Most of these were of incredible women, who were pushing the sport forward in a time where it was, unsurprisingly, dominated by men and male champions and magazines filled with men and their achievements. The photographer of my images, Jack Eden, produced a magazine called Surfabout and while this did have female writers and acknowledge female surfing champions, but it also featured rather crude representations of women, like these examples.
My project was about assessing the significance of these images, understanding their history and (the most fun part!) considering their interpretive potential. This meant thinking about how these photographs could be used to tell historical tales. My project was something of a brainstorming exercise, of coming up with varied and creative ways to use the photos. They could be used to understand women’s surfing history, but also to understand how the Australian national identity is constructed in relation to our laid-back beach culture. They could simultaneously be used to demonstrate the controversial and admonished ‘surfari cult’ of excessively laid-back surfers and women dressed immodestly. Whilst I can’t show the images yet to be accepted, or reproduce the ones in the museum collections, this image is an example of a Jack Eden photograph of a female surfer that is similar to the items I looked at.
It was such a pleasure working with the ANMM and the staff could not have been more helpful. I’m excited to continue working on this proposal, if the donation is accepted into the Museum’s collection, and potentially write an article about the incredible women that were absolute pioneers of surfing in their day.
So much of the story of Australia is in the story of its waterways. Yes, the stories of Cook and invasion and European migration. But also the stories of First Nations communities connections with waterways, how these bodies have provided for and been cared for since Deep Time. The Australian National Maritime Museum is deeply aware of these huge and varied stories that they have the opportunity to tell. A new permanent exhibit, ‘Under Southern Skies’ has been designed to interweave these histories and perspectives, to create a coherent timeline and find connections with these many stories.
There is something fascinating about the many worlds that are encompassed by a maritime museum: boats of course, but also stories of migration, of dock unions, of coastal fashion, of aquatic life. There is somehow intriguing about the interplay of this incredible sense of eclecticism and coherence; of the many things tied together under this umbrella. I am not entirely sure as of yet what my project will look like, but the scope of this museum really excites me. As with so much of history, it is simultaneously huge, global, expansive – yet also intimate, specific, personal.
The social justice agenda of the museum really sparked my interest. Looking after the seas, they do incredible work around climate change. One of their ongoing exhibits displays artworks made out of found, discarded fishing net, done by Torres Strait Islander artists. The different ways that they are able to engage the public in these environmental issues is so interesting to me, and they have such an array of approaches. Currently they also have multiple temporary exhibits that use marine science to demonstrate the wonders of the oceans, the threats to it and the innovations working to save it. The museum does an amazing job of utilising a diverse range of disciplines and modes of engagement to try and engage with the public in a myriad of ways.
I am particularly excited by their integration of Aboriginal ways of knowing and understanding throughout many exhibits. It is evident that they take their role as storytellers on Gadigal Land very seriously and make an effort to go beyond acknowledging custodianship to championing it. This is especially vital for a museum that houses a replica of the HMB Endeavour, which is such a symbol of violence and oppression for First Nations Australians. I am hoping to learn how they go about engaging in processes of truth telling and working to champion these voices, as it is some of the most important history that can be told on this land.
In a museum of this scope, it is easy to see the huge collection of boats as the most noteworthy or important acquisitions, but of course there are so many smaller artefacts and exhibitions that have so much to tell. My project will most likely involve writing the story of one such donation, that is still waiting to be fit into the larger narrative of Australia’s maritime history. It is such an honour and a privilege to be a part of this process and to have the opportunity to contribute to this public history.