‘The problem with things is that they are dumb. They are not eloquent, as some thinkers in art museums claim. They are dumb. And if by some ventriloquism they seem to speak, they lie.’*
This passage, which opens Spencer Crew and James Sims’ seminal essay ‘Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue,’ has become one of the most frequently quoted in the literature of museums. It lies at the heart of the field of ‘material culture studies’, a relatively new discourse concerned with how objects communicate meaning, and the ways in which they acquire or shed that meaning according to the context in which they are displayed. The ‘things’ that Spencer and Sims refer to are historical artefacts, recontextualised and reinterpreted in museums. But buildings are also objects of culture – also ‘things’ – and the idea that architecture too is dumb, that it does not speak directly but must be translated by an intermediary, gives rise to the contemporary phenomenon of the ‘interpretation’.
Interpretative installations are interesting for several reasons. Aside from their challenge to dearly held notions that architecture somehow communicates automatically with its audience, they can offer a genuine collaboration between architecture and its sister disciplines, exhibition design and site-specific installation. At their best, particularly in historic buildings, such installations can evoke the history, past occupants and use of a space in a way that is both informative and richly allusive. Such is the case in a recently completed project for the Order of the Sisters of St Joseph, who invited Freeman Ryan Design to produce an interpretation of a newly refurbished schoolhouse on the grounds of their North Sydney convent. The school was co-founded in 1900 by Mary MacKillop, and thus holds a deep significance for the Sisters, since MacKillop was also the founder of their Order. The brief called upon the designers to gather and present artefacts and anecdotes from the school’s history, but also to open a space of memory, reflection, and contemplation.
There is an unusual level of cohesion here between the installation and its site, which is the interior of the schoolhouse. Principal designer Stephen Ryan has left much of the space strategically empty, emphasising the value of the building itself as an artefact. The space is defined by a long, low axial timber bench, which functions as both seat and display case for objects, and divides the room along its length. This links three pre-existing arched windows in one end wall with a large vertical projection screen at the other end, behind which is an intricately modelled and crafted series of showcases. This rear section was conceived as having been carved out of a single monolithic block, and its artefacts, textual and audio-visual elements, and religious figure statues are recessed or projected in a complex interconnecting series of niches and grooves. This section is remarkable for its finish as much as its form: a long process of experimentation has resulted in a plaster surface treatment that glows with a quality similar to egg tempera.
Audio-visual elements have been employed subtly – a video sequence of candles burning is particularly effective, since it is only when the flame occasionally wavers that the onlooker realises it is a moving image at all. This level of restraint, even quietude, is marked throughout the installation – the design is distinguished by what it doesn’t do, as much as what it does. This level of intricacy and finesse in design and construction throughout is an indication of the priorities of the clients, for whom the installation has a meaning which is conceptually and spiritually more sophisticated than in most museum displays. Indeed, the purpose of the installation can be seen to run at odds to the trend in contemporary museum exhibitions – there is no specific educational purpose, no facts to be drilled into school-aged children, and this meditative rather than didactic air is clearly evident. This is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of objects, which is ‘interactive’ not in the way of the push-button computer interactivity of many new museums, but in its older meaning, of an interaction between a human subject and a specific object, borne of self-reflexivity and contemplation. Such a relationship is characteristic of the interaction between a worshipper and a sacred object or relic. But aside from a magnificent alabaster head of the Virgin Mary, and a series of three religious figure statues, the artefacts on display in the installation are of a largely humble, quotidian type. The sacral character of the installation springs from the reverential treatment of these objects, not their scale or tone. This reverence is not manifest in pedestals and glass cases, but rather in the accessibility of the artefacts – the fact that they are relatively vulnerable, and physically much closer to the visitor than is usually allowed in a museum. This expression of trust is a poignant statement of the objects’ value, and has the effect of bringing the viewer and the object into both physical and metaphorical proximity. A rapport is established between spectator and spectacle which also draws in the ambient spatial and temporal context – the building itself. This installation for the Sisters of St Joseph draws a tangible link between the building, in its mute physical presence, and the minutiae of event, experience, and memory that pervades it. It is a subtle and sophisticated interlocutor, encouraging an historic building to speak.
* Spencer R. Crew and James E. Sims, ‘Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue’, in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, ed Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1991, p. 159.