Thursday June 2, 2011

Unleashed - Waratahs and Kookaburras in the Library

I relish the challenge of Local Studies, I love Australian decorative arts and I am passionate about the need to promote both these areas.

Exhibitions are an essential part of the Mosman Library Local Studies Service having the potential to attract an audience – old and new and impart and gather information. Each year I curate four small exhibitions, one for History Week and a major one for the annual National Trust Heritage Festival which has an official opening with invited guests, wine and food.

Before proceeding I should explain there are two spaces available for exhibitions at Mosman Library. The Local Studies Room, which is downstairs and in a large display wall cabinet which is upstairs on the entry level.

From the bottom drawer

With a large collection of photographs, ephemera, realia, local pottery and architectural plans there is always something available for exhibitions. However, as with many things, we tire of the familiar and even though I had not exhausted the collection I felt I wanted to look at something new. So in 2007 I invited the community, through the local paper, library newsletter and the website, to lend items which reflected their personal history of Mosman along with a paragraph explaining the significance.

This exhibition From the Bottom Drawer appealed to many people who were pleased to be able to share precious mementos and have their fifteen minutes of fame. Amazingly the word spread quickly to ex-residents and to others who were completely oblivious to the existence of a Local Studies Collection. Unfortunately my ulterior motive, an attempt to cheat and not have to write any text, was foiled as most preferred to talk to me about the pieces rather than write!

This exhibition was a success providing an opportunity to see materials from private collections which may not have been seen, as well as creating an awareness of the Local Studies Service and gaining a new audience.

Mosman & Friends: Bush flora & fauna in the decorative arts

A dilemma – what next?

Then, one day a collector of Australiana, offered pieces from his collection for any exhibition I would like to do – of course I needed a Mosman theme – and after a little thought we came up with two possible exhibitions.

The first Mosman and Friends: bush flora and fauna in the decorative arts looked at the inspiration of native flora and fauna in the decorative arts with a Mosman connection. On view were pieces by local art potters Ada Newman, Olive Nock and Harry Lindeman along with pottery by Grace Seccombe, a resident of Eastwood, who made souvenir ware which was sold at Taronga Zoo. There were watercolours by Neville Cayley, artist, ornithologist and member of the Royal Zoological Society, its home at Taronga Zoo. Works by his sister, Alice and pottery by her husband, renowned art potter, Jack Castle Harris.

Displayed on the library’s entrance level Mosman and Friends was seen by all who entered the library and generated a lot of interest. Promotion was in local papers, magazines and by word of mouth. The response was excellent and many travelled from other parts of Sydney. This gave me confidence to proceed with the next exhibition to be held during the 2009 National Trust Heritage Festival – All Fired Up: the Society of Arts and Crafts 1908 -1950.

The Waratah Vase - Marian Munday, 1912

All fired up

The Society of Arts and Crafts New South Wales was founded in Mosman in 1906 and played an important role in the promotion of a uniquely Australian tradition of decorative arts in the early to mid-20th century. Members were talented and skilled artists and crafts people. However, it was the art pottery that was the most popular and it is the art pottery that has had a lasting impact.

Focusing on the early years up to 1950 the collection, of the Australiana collector, was raided for significant examples of art pottery by Society members. As there were a few major potters not represented in this collection I borrowed pieces from The Society, Shapiro Auctioneers, Woollahra and four other collectors. The result was 60 unique pieces of art pottery including rarely seen works by such luminaries as Merric Boyd, Philippa James, Grace Seccombe and William Ricketts.

The hero piece was The Waratah Vase by Marian Munday, 1912. Purchased from a Mosman estate auction it seemed fitting that Mosman was the first place it was exhibited. This pot was used on the invitation, catalogue and a limited edition collector’s poster and its story was popular with the press. The auction house believed it had been filled with sand and used as a doorstop by one of its previous owners. This was quite likely as the damage displayed was consistent with such a use. Throughout the exhibition we often overheard visitors say “there’s that vase.”

In the lead up to the exhibition I wrote articles for collecting magazines – it is amazing how many times the same information can be rewritten, although each magazine was given different pieces to photograph. Publicity was obtained in local newspapers – in hard copy and online versions. There was ongoing publicity during the exhibition in national papers. We even rated a mention in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Column 8 in relation to one of the item descriptions in the catalogue. We targeted promotion to decorative arts and design societies, colleges and of course The Society of Arts & Crafts of New South Wales. We uploaded photographs to Flickr selecting pieces that would attract attention.

As this was a significant survey exhibition it seemed essential to have a permanent record. A catalogue was needed but this costs money, requires good photographs, a designer and a printer. This was not in my budget. However a professional photographer, a friend of a friend, offered to shot the pieces for free. At the eleventh hour Sydney auction house Bonhams & Goodman offered to pay for the printing and and a sister of a friend designed the catalogue. It was a simple catalogue, arranged in chronological order by year, reflecting the exhibition layout. Text was minimal with the name of the artist and the physical details of the pots – the term we choose to use rather than “vase” or “plate”. The catalogue was free to all those who viewed the exhibition and posted to those who could not travel to Sydney.

'All Fired Up' exhibition

An exhibition space reminiscent of the Society’s exhibition rooms

The exhibition was set up the weekend prior to the opening. The display cabinet was used to provide a history of the Society and to show other examples of work by members –such as textiles, pokerwork and silver. The main pottery exhibits were to be displayed in the Local Studies room. Tables and chairs were removed from the room and the filing cabinets and bookshelves were covered with a cream hessian. The hessian was arranged in metre wide lengths which could be lifted, for access to the resources, during the exhibition period. Display cases were borrowed from a local antique business and Bonhams and Goodman; additional props included Australian Arts & Crafts oak furnishings, carved frames, pokerwork, native ferns, gumnuts and gum blossoms; the lighting was altered and the room transformed into an exhibition space reminiscent of the Society’s exhibition rooms in the 1920s and 1930s.

The President of the Australian Antique and Art Dealers Association flew from Tasmania to open the exhibition to the largest audience we have had at an opening. Most of those present were not the usual heritage voyeurs but members of the Society, antique dealers, auctioneers and collectors who would not usually associate a library with this type of cultural event – attracted by the chance to view part of a collection they all knew about but had not seen.

Following the opening night a Good Samaritan placed the catalogue on eBay, not to sell, but to promote the exhibition, and the response was amazing with requests for copies from all over Australia and the UK. The stream of visitors to the exhibition was constant with many travelling interstate and the exhibition period was extended from three to five weeks.

Finally we approached Peter Murphy from Media VR and asked if he was interested in doing a 360 degree panorama of the exhibition and selected pots. This was placed on the web as a permanent record.

Bookends: seven out of ten people owned up to having at least one set

Remued Koalas, ceramic 1930s

We didn’t do a major exhibition in 2010 but by mid-year I knew it was possible to do one in 2011… and so Bookends: another chapter focusing on the story of the bookends. It evolved as a result of a present I had given my sister – a pair of German Shepherd bookends.

Initial research found only three bookend exhibitions. There were two, the most recent in 2008, in the Netherlands to commemorate the jubilee of a secondhand book market. In 2006 Melbourne antiquarian bookseller, Kay Craddock, was selling her collection of Australian bookends, complementing the exhibition with a catalogue.

Prior to this I hadn’t given bookends much thought but when the idea was mentioned seven out of ten people owned up to having at least one set. When the theme for the Heritage Festival was announced – “Amazing Stories” – I knew I had the ideal subject.

You may wonder about the relevance of bookends to Mosman’s heritage – there is none. However, I view the Festival as an opportunity to promote the library to a wider audience and bookends are relevant to books!

I made contact with various collectors, staff and friends offered bookends and members of the public, unasked, dropped in with bookends. The result was over 180 bookends – I think it’s worth remembering that this translates to at least 360 pieces!

Further research, using Trove, showed bookends were incredibly popular in the twentieth century, the subject of numerous articles, cartons, news reports as well as playing a significant role as an indicator of one’s sense of style. I discovered there was very little information on bookends in Australia (apart from the Craddock catalogue) while there were at least three books published on the subject in America.

Fitz and Floyd, 1980s Art Deco

Courting couples and catalogues

Promotion was similar to that of All Fired Up with articles in local and collecting magazines and papers. Decorative arts, collecting societies, antique associations, antique centres and book shops were targeted with posters and flyers that they displayed. We took advantage of social media opportunities and posted images to Flickr, listed the event in free “what’s on” listings, collectors online sites and a friend posted it on Facebook.

As this would be another unique exhibition I budgeted for a catalogue and engaged a designer to work on the invitations, poster and catalogue. The catalogue was to be simple with the focus on the bookends and their stories. As there is already information available about the decorative arts I did not see a need for the catalogue to be anything but a record of the event. Due to the large number of bookends the best approach was grouping exhibits and after some thought subject categories were devised – this may sound like a librarian – but it worked well. Groups consisted of general subjects such as Kookaburras, Courting Couples and Noah’s Ark as well as works by some of the major art potters – Grace Seccombe and Eric Bryce Carter. Single shots were taken of the important pieces. The photographer was so patient as the layout was arranged as we photographed.

As with All Fired Up the Local Studies room was reinvented. Calico covered cabinets and screened the bookshelves (staff had complained of the smell of hessian used in All Fired Up). The filing cabinets were transformed, black velvet applied at each end to create bookends which “supported” wrapping paper decorated with book spines and covers. This time access to the local studies files was a little more difficult although the books were easily accessed. A children’s coverlet covered with bears on bookshelves was the backdrop to the children’s examples. Cedar bookshelves and whatnots were borrowed, from the major collector, to display the exhibits. The room’s lighting was disconnected and spotlights installed to create the ambience of a cosy reading room. The exhibition layout followed the catalogue subject themes.

'All Fired Up' exhibition opening

New audiences

Once again we had a large, varied and excited audience at the opening. A steady flow of visitors for the next fortnight and following an article on collecting bookends in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Money section and my article in Collectables Trader we had a huge numbers coming through the doors for the next two weeks. There were many return visits with the purpose of bringing friends along and numerous requests for the catalogue.

The exhibitions were very different. All Fired Up was about the art of Australian studio pottery and a number of people asked why the exhibition was held in the library and not in the Mosman Art Gallery. A valid question as the pots are works of art but it came down to connections and I took the opportunity of using my contacts to mount the exhibition. Bookends: another chapter was about the stories that bookends could tell, about the pieces themselves and the imagination that created them -attracting a slightly different audience – collectors and booklovers.

I think an indicator of the success of All Fired Up is the fact that I continue to be contacted by people requesting a copy of the catalogue and wanting pottery to be identified or valued. Others just want to let me know how wonderful it was that the exhibition was done and others wish me to know they have pieces I may like to use in future exhibitions. A year after the exhibition the sister of the previous owner of the Waratah Vase, found the exhibition on the web and contacted me concerned people would think her sister the culprit who had used the vase as a doorstop. However as we had never known her sister’s name it had never been mentioned. Finally the catalogue now fetches between $45 and $75 on eBay.

Mosman Faces launch

New roles for libraries

Bookends: another chapter is still on view [at the time this paper was presented!] and like All Fired Up has been a wonderful exhibition and experience. The overall interest is incredibly satisfying [see our exhibition ‘Story’] and both visitors’ books are a testimony to the enjoyment and immense appreciation of those who saw these exhibitions.

However, I feel libraries are still defined by traditional roles and working on the decorative arts exhibitions I encountered many people who were unaware of free library services and of Local Studies. I do believe that the main challenge in mounting these exhibitions was the ongoing promotion which took up a lot of time and sadly, I found the daily papers were not particularly interested in including a ‘local public library’ event in their diaries. I do believe libraries need to look at how they are seen in the community and may need to redefine goals in this changing ‘information world.’

In conclusion I achieved what I set out to do which was to give our regular audience (and myself) something new to view and to attract a new audience and create an awareness of Local Studies and public libraries.

From a paper ‘Unleashed – Waratahs and Kookaburras in the Library, The role of exhibitions at Mosman Library’ by Donna Braye, presented at ‘A sense of place: local studies in Australia and New Zealand’, Sydney 5- 6 May 2011.

— Posted by Donna Braye, Local Studies Librarian in ,  |  Permalink





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