It’s Personal – Exploring Identity Through Appearance

by Alessandra Boi 

I was one of those curious and mischievous children who, at any opportunity, secretly went through their mother’s cosmetics bag, played with pretty perfume bottles off grandma’s dressing table, or giggled at finding their older sister’s black lingerie carefully hidden at the back of a drawer.

The chance of experiencing again those feelings of awe and mild shame attracted and accompanied me to It’s personal, a special exhibition at the Moreton Bay Regional Council’s Redcliffe Museum, in the ancestral country of the Ningy Ningy people.

The marketing online offered a journey through the evolution of personal hygiene standards, secretive and gruelling beauty regimes long forgotten [Image 1] I did enjoy the Council museums’ earlier exhibition of a similar topic of everyday life. Good night, sleep tight, about sleep habits through the ages, exemplified well the undercurrent trend to transform the private or mundane into identity markers through the pathway of nostalgic sentimentality: It’s personal promised more of that comforting type of cultural reclamation, always welcome especially in our fast-changing and fragmented world, after two years of pandemic.

The exhibition room’s plain glass doors are disguised by a shiny boho-boudoir black fabric fringe, cut out in arches over the entry. The same fringe curtains cover the walls inside the softly lit room and roughly demarcate thematic areas. I assume the design brief was recreating the privacy of one’s own room while making good use of an obviously very tight budget.

Once through the doors, a small sign invites to take one of the visibly well-loved exhibition guides from one pile and return in at the end. Thankful for what I thought was a choice, but hesitant to pick up already perused copies in the middle of a pandemic, I enter without one, only to discover that all objects are just numbered. No labels or secondary panels whatsoever outside of those guides, and no choice to use a QR code or refer to an online catalogue for the description. Only the mannequin outfits are quirkily named for the fashion ‘mood’ they represent, like in a fashion magazine. I reluctantly go back to pick up the guide, struggling for the rest of the visit to match numbers with listings as if I were at an auction.

The shiny black of the fringes contrasts with the introductory and narrative panels, printed on hanging boards shaped as oval mirrors with vintage gold frames. The effect is you are about to pass through theatre backstage changerooms or a glamorous boudoir rather than a ‘personal space’ reflecting the identity of everyday people. The addition of a classic lipstick red, or soft baby powder blues for example, would have better suggested either cosmetics or the intimacy of a bathroom.

At the centre is a circular pod showcasing clothing fashion of the 1940s until 1970s through four female outfits on faceless mannequins, including shoes and bags laid out next to the base, and various hats. Not much of anything else is discernible from here, apart from other apparel (one a man’s) and textiles. Most objects are hidden in cases, and the walls are all covered by the ubiquitous black silky fringe. No staging of bathroom cabinets or dressing tables in sight. For a moment I think I entered the wrong exhibition: was this all about female fashion, rather than hygiene routines or what it meant to be ‘presentable’ in grandma’s everyday life? I decide the idea is to imagine getting ready for a party in my twenties and start my journey into It’s personal by reading about Fanology and looking at fans – produced centuries after the language of fans had been a thing.

The pod suggests a circular flow around the room. More fringy curtains are used to separate a ‘taboo area’ towards the far corner about halfway, because of its ‘adult content’: namely, a medical device precursor of electric vibrators, and menstrual pads and belts. That menstruation and (female) sexual pleasure needed a warning of adult content and viewer discretion, is at odds with the claim that the exhibition wants to show that ‘nothing is taboo’ anymore. It’s giving in to old superstitions and poor education, perhaps in the name of a misguided sensitivity towards a prudish older generation or visitors from other cultures where, sadly, these taboos persist.

The perfume display of signature scents from the 1950s to 1980s, would have benefited from lingering scents in the area or perfumed cards, but I recognize it may have been a budget constraint. The sense of touch is better engaged through the Up çlose and personal sensorial interactives, usually textile swatches which invited reflection on freshness against skin, or heaviness of sequined fabrics.

The soft lighting and boudoir vibe suggested a trousseau lingerie exhibit. Basic underwear was indeed on display, not from an ornate chest of drawers, but as if hanging from a laundry line; white lace slips spur a reflection on how our grandmas’ under layers became the actual slip dress in the Nineties.

The promise of discovering the makeup techniques of the 1920s is (un)fulfilled by one mirror-shaped text panel and a couple of lipsticks on display. Virtual try-ons of vintage looks with a mirror app or filters would have brought great interactivity, however a few magazine pages from the era or a YouTube video tutorial produced with a local makeup artist, would have done just as well, no tight Council budget excuse here.

While I did learn the connection between the now mainstream contouring makeup trend and the drag queen culture, overall, I found the content of the panels not especially well researched or cohesive; mostly superficial historical analysis that sounded as if taken straight from a few poorly written web blog articles or a Wikipedia ‘medley’.

Some use of personae and their stories for the visitor to follow would have added genuine context and improved storytelling and connection with different audiences, from retirees to creatives to teenagers: e.g.: Miss Eileen Fictitious, 16 in 1960s middle class suburbia, would have given a more genuine context to the objects on show. What products would she have had available typically? And her mother Mary or grandma Ethel? Or her beau, Desmond’s hair routine?

To add to the missed opportunities, the display is heavily centred on Western (white) female beauty methods, with a lack of inclusivity perspectives that in itself is as passé as some of the makeup fashions recorded here.

A final interactive station invites us(women) to empty our handbag. A photo of its contents would be added to the feature wall and thus become part of the exhibition. I choose not to expose my messy personal effects to more shared surfaces or posterity. The empty feature wall suggests I am not the only one.

It’s personal is an exhibition that wants badly to be about fashion statements and textiles, an inspiration for modern designers, rather than talk to the usual audiences about nostalgia of the everyday of yesteryear’s. The regional museum brief of keeping the community connection must however be followed. We end up with an odd setup, mildly suggestive of a soiree of sexual encounters, yet devoid of nostalgic staging. We’re invited to peep behind curtains, only to find standard display cases with unlabeled objects lined up dryly as specimens. It only hints at, or outright forgets the interconnection between health, hygiene, industry, and beauty standards. The focus is too much on the appearance rather than identity, or what’s ‘good & proper’ rather than on the personal effects and routines that make us presentable.

Alessandra Boi is a Masters student at CHMS.

Charlie’s Auto Museum

by Olly Brayne

When contemplating the compelling attractions of the Mornington Peninsula’s Arthur’s Seat, one might think of the thrilling gondola lift or the spectacular view overlooking Port Phillip Bay. However, a lesser-known gem, tucked away in this beautiful part of the peninsula, can also be found atop this mountainous locality. Since 1988, Charlie’s Auto Museum has captivated tourists and locals alike, capturing the essence of historical progress, both locally and on a global scale.

Upon entering this generously sized museum, visitors will often be greeted by the man himself. Charlie Schwerkolt, now in his late eighties, has spent a lifetime building this vast collection of cars and transport memorabilia, as well as a large array of historical household objects. Visitors may feel overwhelmed when they first walk through the doors of the warehouse which holds Charlie’s cram-packed collection. A selection of walkways create something of a maze around the museum’s exhibits, meandering this way and that in an attempt to promote an intended direction of observation. To help visitors find their bearings, arrows are printed clearly throughout these pathways. At first, one might assume that these arrows are pointing along a linear timeline of the cars and objects, creating a narrative from start to finish that must be followed. However, these directions seem to be mere suggestions, the objects most likely being arranged by acquisition and/or aesthetic placing, rather than by order of their manufacture date.

Nevertheless, there is evidence of some groupings of specific themes within certain areas of the collection. For instance, a designated race car area, a corner in which two mail trucks from two different countries stand side by side, and a line of motorcycles stretched out beside the entrance. Other types of objects within the museum include: twentieth century kitchenware, radios, ornaments, sewing machines, spare car parts and engines, and a great many more interesting forms of memorabilia.

At times, one may find this substantial number of objects to be somewhat questionable and chaotic; for example, many of the exhibits and display cases feature multiple objects crammed in together, almost on top of each other, making it difficult to observe them all properly. Yet, despite this apparent chaos, the museum works. There is a certain comfort to be found in the disregard for order and linear storytelling. With its lines of beer bottles along the walls and overall cluttered appearance, the museum fosters a familiar atmosphere, mimicking that of a garage or shed; a welcoming place, telling a narrative that many can relate to. This of course would not be an acceptable practice in a more substantial museum; but it is an enjoyable attribution for a museum of this size. In relation to this, the presence of a large assortment of exhibit items – such as household objects and ornaments – may appear a bit out of place in a designated car museum; however, it can easily be argued that this too adds to the particular nature of the museum’s narrative.

At the heart of it, the true nature of this narrative is the story of Charlie himself. It tells the tale of a lifetime of triumphant collecting, which began as early as the 1960s, and it suggests a passion for sharing this collecting with others. In many ways, this visitor focus is reflected in the specifics and layout of the museum; it does a relatively good job at catering to its audience. The mapped-out walkways run along a smooth and wide surface, making it easy to navigate through, whilst simultaneously being wheelchair accessible. Furthermore, chairs and benches are placed at either end of the museum, allowing a place to rest for those who need it. Along with visitor wellbeing, measures have been taken to protect the exhibition’s vehicles and objects. These are rather simple techniques – including roping off certain areas and displaying items in glass cases – but they are effective, nonetheless. An individual might be tempted to seat themselves in a snazzy, red MG [pictured in figure 1] but, upon inspecting the vehicle closer, they will encounter a ‘Look But Do Not Touch’ sign. These types of signs are scattered throughout the exhibits, encouraging the protection of this fascinating collection.

Information labels can also be found on some of the objects and exhibits. Many of these labels work well, with appropriate height and placement; others are placed in quite hard to see positions, some in such a fashion that the viewer may have to physically move it in order to read it properly. Despite this, there is a sensible balance between the objects and their textual interpretations, with many juxtaposed by newspaper clippings on the specific vehicle or object featured. Photographs, lined up in albums, can also be perused by visitors at their leisure.

In addition to this, the incorporation of digital interpretative practices can be found briefly in two places: firstly, in the form of audible broadcasted commentary of a professional car race; and secondly, with a wall-mounted television playing racing events on a loop. These additions are ample enough to be noticed by visitors, but subtle enough so as not to be a distraction, instead working alongside the exhibits in providing an engaging experience.

Upon exiting the museum, visitors have the option to relax and contemplate what they have seen in a 1950s styled dining area, with snacks and drinks available for purchase. This will usually be experienced with company, as Charlie is always up for a chat about the museum and his collecting career; if you are lucky, you may even be offered a cup of tea. Whether you are an automobile enthusiast, or simply someone interested in museums and history, there’s something for everyone at Charlie’s Auto Museum.  

Olly Brayne is a postgraduate student at CHMS, Deakin University

A review of Ron Mueck’s Mass

By Bridget Slattery

On level three of the Ian Potter Centre there lives a small exhibition that is very different in colour and appearance to the rest of the gallery. Here the floor and walls are not simply housing works like the rest of the gallery, but instead are coloured a dark grey, almost black, which both complements and enhances the works. The works it houses belong to the exhibition ‘Mass’ by Ron Mueck. A fitting name; equally as ominous as its dark entrance and atmosphere. This cave like exhibition may be short, comprising of only two rooms of installations and one short documentary at the end, but that certainly does not stop the works from sticking with you long after you leave the final room. As with many works by Ron Mueck, ‘Mass’ is an exhibit depicting extremely life like sculptures which use their scale to create a sense of awe, intrigue and curiosity.

As one steps into first room of the exhibit, they are faced with four large-scale, resin human skulls. At this point the meaning behind the ominous name starts to reveal itself. The term mass denotes volume, size, and an occupation of space; a perfect title for such large and commanding works. This meaning is even more prevalent in the main room of the exhibition which holds what can only be described as a mountain of skulls. These skulls that soar metres into the sky certainly occupy space and command the room. They perfectly fit their title. The confusion and intrigue around these large ornate skulls, however, continues once passing the two main rooms. The intrigue around how an instillation like this comes to be is then partially explained in a short documentary placed just after the exhibits themselves.

While the exhibit may be quite short in length it is clear from both the documentary and the attention to detail within the space itself that many hours were spent on designing a cohesive exhibit that has made the most of the floor space provided. Not only are the skulls of the mountain almost all slightly different in appearance, but they have all been perfectly placed in a way that looks effortless but was certainly a major engineering feat. Even the lighting perfectly glows only on the major installation drawing the visitors eye in and up to the top of the mountain. This use of lighting and colour throughout the exhibit not only draws the eye but also aids viewers to create their own cohesive story without requiring any written text.

The lighting sets the mood of the exhibit right from the entrance; creating a sense of mystery as if one is stepping into an unexplored cave. The lighting mixed with the lack of sound and the dark interior walls created the perfect concoction for visitor’s imaginations to run wild. The atmosphere creates a story, similar to that of a children’s book. One asks themselves who was this large monster or how did these skulls come to be. This intrigue and lack of written information allows visitors to speculate and create their own interpretation. Everyone, no matter their age, could come up with their own ideas for how the installation came to be. For children, it could give a sense of wonder, while adults can revel in the details and intricate nature of the installation. Even those who prefer concrete explanation can piece together a story through the construction process documentary.

‘Mass’ is ultimately a well put together and extremely thought-out exhibition. It is clear through its ability to make such large instillations appear to be so delicate. Yet it is not without minor imperfections. One such issue would be the positioning of the documentary portion of the exhibit. It is placed right at the end of the exhibit, as is often the case with these sorts of behind-the-scenes videography components, yet in the case of this gallery space this means it had to be installed in a small walkway. Generally, this would not be an issue except for the fact that this walkway is also the bridge between ‘Mass’ and another exhibition. Consequently, while visiting the exhibit multiple people simply walked past this amazing look into the exhibition design process. It is however important to note that this iteration of ‘Mass’ is a re-imagining of the original installation that appeared in a different NGV space for the 2017 triennial. This may have resulted in the need to place the documentary separately to the skulls installation in order to preserve the emotive value of the skulls.

While the documentary component may have suffered due to the limited space available, it remains an integral component of the exhibition. I implore all those who visit ‘Mass’ to please make the effort to sit down and watch this short documentary as it adds greatly to the experience, and you will look back and notice details that would have otherwise been missed. The exhibit, as a whole, is so curious you can’t help but ponder the effort involved in the construction even once out of the room. ‘Mass’ may be a short two and a half room exhibition with little to no written displays or explanation, but it certainly makes up for it with the wonder it creates and the behind-the-scenes documentary it includes. The exhibition is open until January 15, 2023, and definitely worth a visit, or two, just to stand in awe of this monstrous creation.

Figure 1. Close up of skulls from the mountain room. Photo by Bridget Slattery.

Bridget Slattery is a student of the Graduate Diploma of Museum Studies at Deakin University.