At a meeting recently, I was asked to define our museum … I always explain it like this….
The day before we opened the Museum (Saturday, 1 May, 1982) we had a visit from Premier Neville Wran and Dr Lindsay Sharpe, Director of the new Sydney Powerhouse Museum. Lindsay told me, “Your first and enduring exhibition is this superb Mill building itself”
Those of us who’d been involved in the back-breaking work of the two-year restoration knew exactly what he meant. So that is why we’ve always been respectful to maintain the restored structure and in the installation of exhibitions.
We began McCrossin’s Mill Museum with a clean slate. No collection! Nil! Nothing! But we decided we didn’t want to be a ‘Folk Museum’ which were all the rage at the time. Armidale has a fine Folk Museum, as does lnverell and Glen Innes. Mischievously, we called them “Flat Iron Museums”.
Many of our team back then were involved in “Mrs O’Malley’s Magnificent Music Hall” (which donated the funds for the purchase of the Mill, because we had no money either!) so they had a sense of the theatrical.
We were the first museum· to adopt an exhibition policy based on empathy. That is, we wanted our exhibits to elicit an emotive response from our audience. (‘Audience’ is now a term used the world over for ‘museum visitors’.) As kids, we all found school museum excursions ‘boring’, because they were. So we resolved to create some excitement!
Our first ‘show’ at the Mill was “Thunderbolt”, prepared by Michael van Leeuwin, who managed to borrow some artefacts from the Armidale Museum, and scrounge others from here and there.
Because we were given the original table upon which the body of Thunderbolt was laid out in the Uralla Courthouse, Michael ordered a professionally-made mannequin of the body. This proved to be a most · effective, though rather scary feature, certainly more memorable than a photograph!
There followed discoveries of various and wonderful collections which lent themselves to this empathic approach. The Chinese at Rocky River; what a fluke discovering this collection of National Significance. Our ‘spooky’ Joss House really connects, as does the emphasis on the overt racism of those days. The Anaiwan? Thanks to a creative team of locals, and the expertise of Peter Feitz, a dramatic night scene appeared, giving the audience a pause to reflect. The Tin Man; relics of the Great Depression, but not depressing. The Stoker Collection; hidden inside a tin trunk inside another tin trunk in a fireplace! (This is NOT an exhibition about “a soldier” or “WWI” … it is about a family and a mother’s son. The Ned Trickett story came about because his memorial in Uralla Cemetery was vandalised in 1982, and we rescued it!
Sunny Jim Mackay? Only because in 1985, a friend in Armidale told me about a new book which related Mackay’s amazing and tragic story.
“She’ll Be Right, Mate”; a folk museum exhibit, but with a very personal touch in the text panels. “Down In The Shed”; each of the large artefacts is “personified”. “It’s Just Not Cricket”; a blatant provocative dig at strictly traditional museums. “That is the funniest, most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in a museum, anywhere!” (Head Curator, Australia Museum, Sydney c2001).
”The Sandilands Brothers”; unbelievably sad.
Ironically, the only large exhibition that is quite clinical, is Thunderbolt on the top floor of the Mill.
We employed 3-D Projects of Sydney to do this because we knew it would be permanent, and there were so many fanciful stories about “our” bushranger that we wanted to dispel the myths.
So, a museum can educate people, which is what museums are about, in a passionate manner without tarnishing the integrity of artefacts or the truth.
Education can/should be entertaining. The Melbourne Museum has such a· strong empathic flavour that I sent for a copy of its Exhibition Policy. I knew that McCrossin’s Mill was on the right track when I discovered that a most frequently used term in the policy document was “fascinate”!
This attitude was solidly reinforced at the National Conference in Perth. An authority on museums (from the U.K.) said, “Museums used to be storehouses of artefacts. Now they are showcases of emotion.”
At McCrossin’s Mill we had decided that a long time ago!
By Kent Mayo (Hon. Museum Director)