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  • Writer's pictureMUSEUM STUDIES

Critical Connections in Wagga Wagga

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

This week we hear from Dr Chiara O'Reilly and Dr Anna Lawrenson who recently travelled to Wagga Wagga to undertake research into the role of cultural institutions in times of environmental crises. Chiara and Anna are researchers and teachers in the Museum and Heritage Studies discipline at the University of Sydney. READ more about the program HERE.

Like much of regional Australia Wagga Wagga and its environs have become increasingly subject to extremes of climate including drought, flood and fire. Wagga Wagga is on Wiradjuri Country, almost equidistant between Sydney and Melbourne.
FASS External Engagement Funding allowed Museum and Heritage Studies academics Dr Chiara O’Reilly and Dr Anna Lawrenson to travel to Wagga Wagga to undertake critical, embedded research into the role of cultural institutions in times of environmental crises coupled with social and political change.

Installation view Said Hanrahan: Land. Care. Climate. Crisis featuring work by Wendy Teakel (b.1957), Grove, 2014, wood, steel, cable ties, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. Photo: A Lawrenson

For this project - Critical Connections: the social value of cultural institutions - we are exploring how Wagga Wagga Art Gallery, is creating a space for community dialogue on issues like climate change through its year of environmental exhibitions and programming: Green 2023. This project builds on the ongoing research collaborations we have undertaken with Director of Wagga Wagga Art Gallery Dr Lee-Anne Hall.

Our visit coincided with the installation of a ground-breaking exhibition, curated by Lee-Anne Hall, that demonstrates this approach. We were lucky enough to closely observe, and assist, in realising this show; Said Hanrahan: Land. Care. Climate. Crisis. The show responds to, and continues the conversation started in, the iconic bush poem of the same name by John O’Brien written in 1919 in Narrandera and published in 1921. It is an interdisciplinary and collaborative project between Wagga Wagga Art Gallery and the Museum of the Riverina, involving the use of historic photographs from the collection of the Museum, alongside artwork loans, and the commission of a major new work by Wiradjuri artist Lorraine Connelly Northey. The historical photographs, depicting the process of colonisation through land and farm settlement, provide a record of land degradation. These are juxtaposed against contemporary photos of recent floods and fires by local photographer Tayla Martin and sculptural and painted works by Canberra-based, Wagga Wagga raised artist Wendy Teakel. The result is revealing and evocative, providing visual representation of the impact of regional land management as a result of climate change.

Installation view Said Hanrahan: Land. Care. Climate. Crisis featuring work by Lorraine Connelly-Northey (b. 1962), Murnong, Harvesting Yam Daisy, 2023, metal, Museum of the Riverina. Photo: C O’Reilly

Our research is concerned to document the less tangible means through which cultural institutions are responding to environmental change in the regions, such as by fostering community-based dialogue. Beyond the exhibition, an innovative associated program at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery involves the commissioning of a one-act play, drawing on extensive community consultation and research, to reflect on the lived experience of the climate crisis. We have been working with playwright Ang Collins to identify her community engagement model, understand how it feeds into her writing and critically analyse its impact when it is performed. We argue that this play represents a novel approach to museum and gallery programming that affords community a sense of agency within the museum and creates a dynamic feedback loop for continued conversations around, in this case, the impact of a changing climate. It is also a unique document of and receptacle for community perspectives on climate change and engagement with Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. The play has received the support of the Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre in providing funds for its rehearsal and a series of ‘moved’ readings by local professional theatre troupe Free Roam Theatre. To date the play has been performed three times, in the Museum, in the Civic Theatre and on a farm 25 kms out of town. Initial findings from this research were presented at Recentring the Region, a conference organised by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature and the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture (Australia and New Zealand) held in July at RMIT and Deakin University in Melbourne.

While in Wagga Wagga we were immersed in the cultural landscape of this regional centre and its surrounds. As with all small-medium size institutions, it is a hive of activity staffed by passionate professionals. Where invited, we assisted in the final week of exhibition preparation and installation, including text edits, gallery marketing, planning public programs and staff development. We spoke to artists and community members about the role of the museum in their lives.

We sampled the region’s wider cultural offerings, too, and explored their relationship with their communities. Outside of Wagga Wagga we visited major cultural facilities including Albury Library Museum, Murray Art Museum Albury and Bonegilla Migrant Experience. We also had the delight of discovering smaller museums and heritage sites like the Up-to-Date Store Cultural Precinct, Coolamon Fire Museum, the National Museum of Australian Pottery and Holbrook Submarine Museum.

As always, one of the highlights of visiting cultural facilities is the chance to reconnect with alumni. We were fortunate to meet up with Emma Williams, Team Leader Libraries and Museum, Albury City Council and Marian Simpson, Gallery Installer, Wagga Wagga Art Gallery. Keep an eye out for a spotlight on them in future blogs!

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