An acquisitions renaissance
Historians and curators are constantly interpreting and reinterpreting primary source material such as archival records, oral histories, objects, artefacts, heritage sites and buildings. Contemporary artists do the same; however, creativity and the imagination are their tools of trade. Contemporary art in all its wonderfully diverse forms can provide a powerful medium to interpret places, events and people, and to carry these insights to audiences near, far and in the virtual realm. This combination of elements is perfectly suited to the work of SLM.
A recent acquisition is the work with whom I was united by every tie (Captain Moonlite) by Sydney-based artist Todd Fuller. This hand-drawn animation engages with the story of bushranger ‘Captain Moonlite’, aka Andrew George Scott (c1842–1880), through the lens of Australian queer histories. Fuller drew inspiration from a letter held in the NSW State Archives Collection that Moonlite wrote concerning fellow gang member James ‘Jim’ Nesbitt while awaiting execution:
My dying wish is to be buried beside my beloved James Nesbitt, the man with whom I was united by every tie which could bind human friendship, we were one in hopes, in heart and soul and this unity lasted until he died in my arms …1
The animation is an important addition to the collection of Moonlite-related material held at the Justice & Police Museum, including the pistol used during his final shootout with police and a death mask made after his execution at Darlinghurst Gaol in 1880.
Another acquisition is Transubstantiation by Danie Mellor, an artist whose practice explores his connection to place through Aboriginal heritage. Mellor was commissioned by NSW State Archives to create an artwork for the Marriage: Love and Law exhibition (2019), and he developed Transubstantiation by engaging with a set of Colonial Secretary records from the State Archives Collection about a ‘marriage portions’ scheme introduced by Governor Ralph Darling. This ran from 1828 to 1831 and granted land to women from the ‘respectable’ classes who were promised in marriage. Mellor’s work speaks to how the ‘side effect of an apparently well-intended initiative was the displacement of Aboriginal people’.2 Transubstantiation has been generously donated by Mellor to SLM – a significant gift which we’re truly grateful for.
Christopher Zanko, an early career artist from the Wollongong area, was commissioned by SLM in December 2020 to create an acquisitive work for the 70th anniversary of Rose Seidler House. The Rose Seidler House is an extension of Zanko’s interest in and depictions of mid-20th-century houses and their once ubiquitous but gradually disappearing presence in Australia’s towns and suburbs. Importantly, it documents one of SLM’s most popular properties through a lens that isn’t only conceptually contemporaneous but also situates the subject within a broader study of suburban Australian architecture.
Also acquired in 2020 was Gordon Syron’s Invasion III, joining two other paintings in the Invasion series that have been on display at the Museum of Sydney for some time. The three works combine to channel Syron’s anger at the idea of terra nullius (land belonging to no‑one) – a concept that’s proven false by his depictions of Aboriginal people and Mimi spirits watching from the shore as the invaders arrive.
As well as the Mellor and Syron works, SLM acquired Truism Australia by Blak Douglas for the Museum of Sydney collection (see Unlocked, Spring 2020). The opportunity to acquire works by these three leading Indigenous artists in 2020 was not to be missed. However, SLM also recognised the need to develop a longer term, phased and multi-pronged approach to the acquisition of contemporary Indigenous art. To this end, SLM has engaged independent curator Tess Allas to develop a five-year Indigenous contemporary art acquisition strategy for the Museum of Sydney, which is on Gadigal land.
Allas, who has worked in the Indigenous cultural arena for close to three decades, is the author of numerous publications and has curated groundbreaking exhibitions, including With Secrecy and Despatch (Campbelltown Arts Centre, 2016), and shows across Sydney, Wollongong and transnational jurisdictions.
Recently, Allas facilitated a coup for SLM: securing a landmark work by Dennis Golding, winner of the 2020 NSW Visual Arts Emerging Fellowship. Golding is the first Aboriginal artist to receive the award in its more than 100-year history. As a university student, Golding was mentored by Allas. With the critical acclaim and accolades coming in fast, Golding and Allas speak warmly of their changed relationship. He’s no longer her student; she’s no longer his mentor: they’re friends, equals and peers.
Later this year, SLM will combine these and other recent acquisitions at the Museum of Sydney in a specially curated exhibition.
COVID-19 updateFriday 25 June 2021
In line with decisions made by the NSW Government, Sydney Living Museums will close to the public from Saturday 26 June to Friday 9 July (inclusive) to help protect the health of all visitors and staff and minimise the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) in the state.
Conservation in action: Rum Hospital's verandah and columnsThursday 9 September 2021
Structural repairs and conservation of the timber verandah and columns of the former ‘Rum Hospital’