Macquarie and the ropes

In the last couple of weeks I’ve begun a volunteer internship at Powerhouse Museum here in Sydney. I’m working with the curatorial department on preparing display cases for the Macquarie 2010 Bicentenary Commemorations.



2010 marks 200 years since the inauguration of Lachlan Macquarie, arguably New South Wales’ most influential governor. Here’s his Wikipedia, Dictionary of Sydney and Australian Dictionary of Biography entries. His current successor, Professor Marie Bashir, notes that, “…he can be rightfully acclaimed as ‘the Founder of Modern Australia’…who officially endorsed the name ‘Australia’ [and]…It was Macquarie who declared that ‘January 26’ then designated ‘Anniversary Day’ would be a public holiday of celebration for all workers.”

Portrait (probably) of Macquarie ca.1805-1824 from the Collection of the State Library of NSW. Public Domain.

Portrait (probably) of Macquarie ca.1805-1824. In the State Library of NSW - a128471. Public Domain.

He is such a significant force even in today’s Sydney that you still see him everywhere. There’s Macquarie Bank, Macquarie University, Macquarie Street, and even a whole electorate named after him.

Importantly for me, he also invented the first local currency. He imported 40,000 Spanish silver dollars from the ‘new world’, had them re-struck with a new design, cut the middle out to create a second coin and then issued them to the general public with the imaginative title of the Holey Dollar and the Dump. Why I say importantly to me is because the Powerhouse Museum has quite a few originals and I’m doing the research to put them on display.

The original shipping news announcing the arrival of the coins. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 28 November 1812, page 2.

The original shipping news announcing the arrival of the coins - 'treasure'. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 28 November 1812, page 2.

Another of the objects that I’m researching for display is the World’s.Funkiest.Chair. (Not to be confused with the Sydney harbourside location known as Mrs. Macquarie’s chair.) It is carved in Gothic revival style from local timber and is upholstered in Eastern Grey Kangaroo fur. Most striking of all is the great big arm-with-dirk sticking out the top! Macquarie had a pair of them commissioned (the other is at his eponymous university’s library) probably for ceremonial duty. Therefore, given he was the last autocratic governor of NSW, maybe that means you could call these Australia’s first and only thrones? 🙂

The Ropes

I’ve always been a believer of the phrase “before you can change the game, first you have to learn the ropes.” That is, if I’m going to come in to GLAMs to say how I would like to see them change their copyright policies, access policies, relationship to Wikipedia etc. etc. then it’s pretty important that I understand how and why they do things the way they do them currently.

This is for several reasons:

  1. Understanding museums’ perspective
  2. Leaning best-practices
  3. Demonstrating respect building trust

This is why I asked to undertake an internship in the curatorial department – not the web. My non-net GLAM-fu is weak.

For example, when discussing how to present the objects in their display cases my initial suggestions were effectively attempts to create didactic descriptions and pseudo-hyperlinks such as ‘see also’ breakout texts. Instead, what is called for is thematic or ‘storytelling’ labels. Clearly my instinct comes from my Wikipedia experience but is not particularly useful in an environment that is physical not digital and object not concept-centric.

More lessons are sure to be learned soon.

In the mean time, if you’ve got a specific story you’d like to be told through the curation of these objects – let me know in the comments!

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