Museums can be hit or miss. Sometimes they are stuffy old buildings with boring displays of ancient artifacts and dusty paintings.
You know that the items you are looking at have some sort of significance, but they don’t mean much to you and you can’t connect in a meaningful way.
However, some museums are just great. They help you to relate to the past in a very human way. I remember seeing an exhibit about the Titanic at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada. There was a lot of information about the ill-fated ship packed into that show, but the artefact I remember the most was a white formal waistcoat uniforms that would have been worn by one of the waiters in first class.
Even that item might have just felt like a theatre costume – if it weren’t for a small detail. On the inside of the collar of the work uniform the waiter’s name was scrawled in pen. He would have written it there so that when he hung up his work uniform or sent it in for laundering, he could distinguish it from the others.
Suddenly, the waiter becomes more than just one of the 1,503 people who died when the Titanic sunk into the icy waters. He has a name and we can relate to him – we have all had a job where we had to wear a uniform. We can feel what he must have felt – the thrill of getting a job working on the most glamorous and exciting boat that had ever been built, then the devastation of realising that he would never see the end of the voyage.
Museums are at their best when they can cut straight through the layers of time, distance and culture and connect us directly with other people. We are all human and I believe that we have something in common with every human that has ever lived – no matter how strange or foreign their life seems to us.
I recently visited the Museum of Brisbane and saw a fantastic exhibit that exemplified this. It wasn’t about looking back through history – it’s subjects are still alive today. It was about choices, opinions, beliefs, culture and the way we live our lives, as well as how a diverse mosaic of different people make up a city.
Getting to the Museum of Brisbane
Just a quick note here about how to find the Museum of Brisbane, because I got lost and confused. It is the big Town Hall building in the square with the clock tower.
You’ll enter the town hall but don’t think you can just wander up the stairs and find the museum. You’ll end up lost like I did, wandering around the labyrinth of the Town Hall and having to ask for directions.
When you walk through the door, go right and take the elevator to the third floor. They are the only elevators that go there, the other elevators don’t.
For the “100% Brisbane” exhibit, 100 were people chosen to be a representation of the city of Brisbane. They were chosen to statistically represent the city – the percentage of them that are male vs female, black vs white, young vs old, etc. reflects the way that Brisbane’s demographic is distributed.
Then, the 100 people were profiled, interviewed and surveyed on lifestyle questions and their opinions on issues. The exhibit was created by Berlin based theatre company Rimini Protokoll and it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve seen in a museum.
I found it absolutely fascinating to watch and listen to the stories of the people, I could have sat there for hours. The 100 people appeared on the screen in a series of animated bubbles, each popping up for a moment to talk about their lives.
I listened to a woman whose family didn’t believe in education for women, so she got her degree on her own in her 40s. I listened to a young gay man talk about the gay scene in Brisbane and a little girl talk about how she loves gymnastics.
Then, questions popped up on the screen. They were surprisingly personal and complex questions, such as “have you ever been in an abusive relationship?” “do you believe in a god?” and “do you think violence is justified in order to achieve political aims?” The small bubbles with the faces of the 100 people on them hopped and bounced into “yes” or “no” categories. Sometimes the results were surprising and people didn’t answer the question the way you thought they would.
Watching the answers gave you a look into the personal opinions of a wide range of people, in a way that you don’t get to see. I think we naturally seek out echo chambers in our own social circle and surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. Even Facebook’s algoorhyms are designed to show us news and stories that it knows we will relate to. However, it’s important to hear from people whose experiences and opinions are different than yours, in order to understand them a bit better.
The 100% Brisbane exhibit is also interactive. You can take part by answering a number of questions in interactive surveys on touch screens. The questions are diverse and interesting, from “How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander friends do you have?” To “Do you believe gays should have the right to marry?” and “Have you ever suffered from depression?”
This part of the exhibit is great because it brings up a lot of questions and sparks discussion. I heard a mom and her young boy going through the questions,
“Mom, what is gay marriage?”
“That is when a boy marries a boy or a girl marries a girl”
“Oh” said the boy and tapped the “yes” button in support of it without a second thought.
I can see if that if you went to this exhibit with a friend or a relative, it could spark any number of complex and interesting discussions. There are a lot of hot issues touched on by the deceptively simple and cute bouncing bubbles on the screen – including religion, immigration, gay rights, feminism, the Aboriginal community, environmental issues, treatment of elders, cultural identity and much more.
You’ll find some of the 100 people whom you relate to because you fit within the same demographic, but you’ll also connect with others on different aspects, such as experiences and worldview.
The 100% Brisbane exhibit reminded me a lot of the very powerful global education toolbox “100 People: A World Portrait.” It breaks the entire world population down into a representation of 100 people.
In the worldwide version, there would be 60 Asians, 16 Africans, 14 people from the Americas and 10 Europeans. Only 7 would have a college degree and 9 would have no clean water to drink. 11 would live on less than 1.90 USD per day and 18 would not have electricity. Statistics such as these reduce the enormous population of the earth to a scale small enough for us to imagine and make it easier to understand how wealth and privilege is distributed and what life is like for people around the world.
The amount of detail in the exhibit must have taken years to gather. There were even fragrances available in the gift shop that represented the top scents named when the participants were asked “what smell reminds you of Brisbane?” I can understand the “Sunshine” fragrance, but why would anyone want to wear the “Mildew” scent?
The idea of putting a city under the microscope in this way is so interesting. I was only in Brisbane for a week, but I feel like the exhibit gave me a much deeper understanding of the city than I could have gotten as a tourist.
100% Brisbane will be displayed at the Museum of Brisbane, located at City Hall until 2019. Admission is free.
What Else is On at the Museum of Brisbane?
Go Up the Clock Tower
While you are at the museum, take the opportunity to go up to the top of the the clock tower and admire the view. There is usually a wait, but you can get a timed ticket and return when your 15 minute slot arrives. Only 8 people can fit in the lift at any one time.
You’ll be taken up to the tower in the gorgeous 1930s era elevator and you’ll stop halfway up to admire the backs of the huge clock faces and the complex machinery that keeps them ticking.
The other exhibit that is currently on at the Museum of Brisbane is called Ink Remix, which will be on display until February 19, 2017. It showcases contemporary art from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong and while the works in the show have their influences in traditional Chinese painting, they all have a very modern twist.
If you know me, you’ll know that I love traditional Asian art and calligraphy. I once spent so long looking at an exhibition of Japanese woodblock prints that Lee nearly died of boredom waiting for me and has refused to go to art galleries or museums with me ever since. So, I was excited to see how these contemporary artists used traditional techniques and imagery in their 21st century work.
One of my favourite pieces was a video projection called “Rising Mist” by an artist called Yang Yongliang. It is projected on a wall in a format larger than me. At first glance the static scene it followed all of the conventions of a Chinese brush painting, the flat background of mist-shrouded mountains, the rushing waterfalls, the dense trees. But as you look closer you see busy freeways snaking through the mountains and pockets of paved industrial space hidden within.
Over the roar of the waterfalls and the twittering of birds you hear horns honking. Suddenly you realise that the misty fog might be air pollution instead. It is a hypnotic moving picture of the traditional Chinese landscape, drawn over by modern technology. If you want you can watch it on Youtube, but it’s much more impressive when projected on a wall at the gallery.
As museums go, the Museum of Brisbane is a small one but the exhibits are high quality. It’s definitely worth a look- especially since it is free and it located right in the heart of downtown Brisbane.
If you do go and take a look at the Museum of Brisbane, let me know what you thought in the comments below.
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