The Chau Chak Wing Museum
Updated: Mar 19
Dr Alex Burchmore, Lecturer in Museum & Heritage Studies
This article was originally written for and published by Mainly Museums on 22 June 2021
The opening of the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum last November roughly coincided with my own arrival on campus two months later, as a newly appointed Lecturer of Museum and Heritage Studies. This chance alignment of personal and institutional beginnings seemed like fate: I had accepted my first academic position, in the field of museum studies, just a few short months after one of the largest and most significant university museums in Australia opened its doors. I couldn’t believe my luck, and I determined to seize as many opportunities as possible to bring my teaching and research into this shiny new institution.
While the building is new, however, the history of the substantial collections now on display in the Museum can be dated to the late eighteenth century, predating even the foundation of the University itself. Inspired perhaps by the pervasive mood of curiosity about the world that characterised this era, and the fervent ambition among European elites to understand that which inspired such curiosity, by the time of his election to the Linnaean Society in 1794, gentleman scientist Alexander Macleay (1767-1848) had amassed a significant collection of entomological specimens. His son, William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) and nephew, William John Macleay (1820-91) inherited their progenitor’s enthusiasm, adding yet more specimens to the family holdings and expanding the range of material into the broader field of zoology. In 1884, William John donated the combined collections to the University of Sydney, providing for the construction of a purpose-built museum where they were housed until their relocation last year to their new home.
This legacy and the acquisitive curiosity that inspired three generations of the Macleay family have not been forgotten. The origins of the MacLeay Collection are handsomely celebrated in ‘Natural Selections: Animal Worlds’, a display of zoological and entomological specimens on the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s ground floor that recreates the densely packed curatorial style of the cabinets-of-curiosity in which these insects, birds, and animals would once have been arranged. While the sight of a stuffed and mounted specimen usually sends shivers down my spine, there is something strangely endearing about these particular examples, some of which look a little worse for wear after two centuries of museum storage. The style of display and careful preservation of the Macleays’ classificatory systems called to mind another lovingly preserved specimen of the same era: the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, South Australia, established in 1881 and now the only remaining museum of its kind in the country. Both displays offer a unique window onto the evolution of natural history in Australia and the idiosyncratic lens through which early colonial collectors came to understand the flora and fauna of the lands they claimed as their own.
This was a vision of the world shared by another prominent figure in the history of University and Museum alike: Sir Charles Nicholson (1808-1903), the first Vice-Provost (a position equal to that of today’s Vice-Chancellor) from 1851-4 and the man behind an extensive collection of antiquities donated to the University in his name in 1860. Augmented over the last century and a half by many subsequent acquisitions and donations, this founding gift of around 3000 ancient Italian and Egyptian artefacts became the seed for what is now acknowledged as the most significant accumulation of such material in the southern hemisphere. This achievement is a testament not only to Nicholson’s passion for the classical cultures of Rome, Etruria, and the Pharaohs, but the efforts of generations of curators, intrepid archaeologists, and scholars of the ancient world, whose gifts and bequests have expanded the scope of the collection to include civilisations across the Mediterranean and Middle East.
Once housed, like the Macleay Collection, in a purpose-built museum founded in 1860 and named in Nicholson’s honour, these antiquities are now showcased in a series of displays on the second floor of the Chau Chak Wing Museum. ‘Roman Spectres’, a trio of installations in the atrium looking out over the balcony café and the manicured lawns of Victoria Park below, is likely the first of these displays that most visitors encounter. Turning right after descending the stairs from the entrance, visitors are faced with a wall of memorial plaques to the ancient dead, arranged to emulate a columbarium – a structure for the storage and display of funerary urns. While this may seem maudlin, the dedications recorded on these plaques breathe new life into the distant past and perfectly complement the display of marble portrait heads and other artefacts directly opposite. We are presented here with two of the most infuriating yet tantalising conundrums for those who study antiquity: faceless names and nameless faces.
The third installation in ‘Roman Spectres’ is one of the most recent but beloved additions to the former Nicholson Museum, certain to become an iconic feature of its new home as well: an impressive model of Pompeii recreated entirely in Lego by Ryan ‘The Brickman’ McNaught. Officially unveiled in 2015, this is the largest of three commissioned models – following a Lego Colosseum in 2013 and Acropolis in 2014 – with a total of 190,000 bricks assembled over 470 hours. Like the Chau Chak Wing Museum, the model brings together disparate moments in time, showing the city simultaneously as archaeologists imagine it to have appeared before its volcanic destruction in 79 CE, as it likely emerged when first rediscovered in the eighteenth century, and in its current state.
Pompeii has long provided a potent metaphor for the passage of time and the effervescence of cultural achievement in the face of natural catastrophe, yet this model illustrates the extent to which it also offers an analogy for the thrill of archaeological discovery and reconstruction. As such, it serves as the perfect introduction to the generous selections from the Nicholson Collection that occupy most of the museum’s second floor. Both model and antiquities alike are complemented, in turn, by an installation on the first floor by Kudjila/Gangalu artist Daniel Boyd; ‘Pediment/Impediment’ (on display until 27 June 2021), the inaugural work in a series of contemporary interventions commissioned for the Penelope Gallery. Uncovering another scale model of the Acropolis in the Nicholson Collection, shaped in this case in plaster in the nineteenth century, as well as a group of casts taken from classical statuary in the same era, Boyd uses the play of light and darkness on these facsimiles to invite new perspectives on the classical past. Dispersing and interrupting our gaze, he implicitly casts doubt on the narratives of unimpeded enlightenment to which we have grown accustomed, drawing attention at the same time to the celestial frames of reference that inform First Nations understandings of history and community.
Also on the first floor of the museum, in ‘Coastline’, a display of works by forty contemporary and modern artists dedicated to the poetic and political resonance of the contact zone where the land meets the ocean, Boyd’s Untitled (2012) offers another take on this theme. Although it might appear at first to be an abstract design, this painting is in fact a recreation in oils and archival glue of a Micronesian rebbelib or ‘stick map’ acquired by the British Museum in 1904, not long after its creation by an unknown navigator of the Marshall Islands. Untitled and the other works included in ‘Coastline’ are drawn from the third significant collection now housed in the Chau Chak Wing Museum: the University Art Collection, an accumulation of over 8,000 works in a range of media donated by generations of staff, students, and alumni since the University’s foundation in 1850, including Nicholson and other luminaries in the history of the institution. The sheer breadth and depth of this enviable legacy, as well as the many points of intersection with the Macleay and Nicholson Collections, evident throughout the museum, are most visibly showcased on the third floor in ‘Object/Art/Specimen’ – a display of collection highlights that surpasses all disciplinary, historic, and geographic boundaries by appealing to broader human themes, like our shared mortality and desire to create order out of chaos.
Bearing in mind the illustrious history and extensive collections of this innovative institution, when Dr Craig Barker, the Museum’s Manager of Education and Public Programs, invited me to speak with two of my new colleagues in a public panel on the future of museums, once again I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The subject of this panel drew inspiration from the theme of International Museum Day 2021 – ‘The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine’ – and we kicked off our discussion with some reflection on the new definition of the museum proposed by the Executive Board of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in July 2019. What followed was a lively debate on many topics currently occupying the thoughts of those who work in, study, or enjoy museums across the world, including the need to attract more diverse audiences, questions of repatriation and decolonisation, and the central importance of digital engagement. A recording of the event is now available on the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s website as a special episode of their regular Object Matters podcast series.
The Museum itself is an ideal case-study for many of the possible trajectories of change that I, Dr James Flexner, Dr Anna Lawrenson, and Dr Helena Robinson discussed at that event. On one hand, as a testament to the philanthropy of wealthy benefactors – including Dr Chau Chak Wing’s founding donation of $15 million as well as subsequent gifts from the Nelson Meers and Ian Potter Foundations, and eminent architect Penelope Seidler – it perhaps heralds a return to the patronage model of museum funding, as access to public coffers becomes more restricted. On a more positive note, however, the eight ‘Ambassador’ displays of First Nations cultural materials that occupy prominent positions on every floor of the building and the spectacular ‘Gululu dhuwala djalkiri’ display of 350 works by generations of Yolŋu artists that takes pride of place on the museum’s top floor point to another possible future. This is the direction in which I would like to see museums develop, and of which the Chau Chak Wing Museum is an exemplary model: a future, to paraphrase the new definition for the museum proposed by ICOM, that is democratic and inclusive, acknowledging conflict and debate while safeguarding diverse forms of heritage and ensuring equal access for all.
Dr Alex Burchmore is an art historian specialising in the study of Chinese and Southeast Asian art of the past and present, with a particular focus on ceramics, trade and exchange, and the interweaving of the personal and material. His first book, New Export China: Translations Across Time and Place in Contemporary Chinese Porcelain Art (University of California Press, forthcoming in 2023), traces the extent to which artists in China have used porcelain to shape their personal, historical, and cultural identities.