‘How I got here’. Susan van Wyk reflects on her work at the NGV

Last year the Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies program at Deakin turned 40, a milestone marked by a celebration at the National Gallery of Victoria.  We were delighted that alumna Susan van Wyk agreed to speak at the event and gave us permission to reproduce her thoughts on her career to date and her work at the NGV.

My earliest memory of the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is visiting a Gilbert and George exhibition here in 1973. I don’t recall what my response to that show was, I can’t even imagine what my 10-year old self made of it. What I could not have known at that time was that it was a starting point for what has turned out to be a life long engagement with this institution.

During the last years of my undergraduate study I became increasingly interested in working in the museum sector, but I had no idea how to do this. It wasn’t until I learned about Museums Studies, at what was at that time Victoria College and is now Deakin University, that things became clearer to me. I can distinctly remember the anxiety I felt preparing my application and then attending an entrance interview. Equally, I recall my elation at being offered a place in the 1988 cohort.

In the 1980s, the intake of students was relatively small, twelve full time and six part time students, and we met in what looked an awful lot like a secondary school classroom. But within this modest room the opportunities were extraordinary. The students brought varied experiences and expectations, and under the guidance of our principal lecturers, Roger Trudgeon and Anthea Hancock, along with the other museum professionals that came into that room each week, we all came to understand the possibilities that were out there. The learning experience was rich and thoughtful, and pushed us into areas that I for one had never even considered. One of the most valuable opportunities that was provided was the professional placements. For many of us, myself included, they were the first steps in building a rich network of colleagues. I had the opportunity to work at the Monash University Gallery, Werribbee Park Mansion, and best of all in the Photography Department of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. I say best of all because even before I enrolled at Deakin, I was a self-confessed photo-nerd.

Graduates from the class of 1988 went on to work in a remarkable variety of places: artist run spaces, botanical gardens, the Chinese Museum, Creative Victoria (then called the Ministry for the Arts), historical societies, Museum Victoria, universities and university galleries, and the NGV. Thirty years later many of these people continue to work in creative industries and some have gone on to become nationally and internationally renowned in their fields.

I started work here at the NGV in January 1989, about ten weeks after completing my studies at Deakin. The job was advertised in the newspaper. I had a degree, majoring in photography and a post graduate diploma of museum studies, so I applied, called on some of the people who had supervised my placements for references, and I got the job as Assistant Curator of Photography.

I have no doubt that what differentiated me from the other applicants was the time I spent at Deakin University: the experiences I gained there, and the contacts that I made. In the subsequent years it has been my great privilege to have worked with many Museum Studies students through the internship component of the course. They have all had stellar careers, some have become good friends, and I feel very fortunate to have this ongoing connection to Deakin University.  

Recently, during a conversation with someone I had just met, I was asked where I worked and what I did. I explained that I was a Senior Curator at the NGV and to my surprise they responded by saying, ‘Oh my god – you’re a unicorn!’.

This person seemed to think that curators are rare, mythological creatures – but in actual fact many of us are Deakin University Museum Studies graduates – we are certainly special, but there are plenty of us and it is my great privilege to be counted among the Alumni of Deakin University.

Susan van Wyk

Senior Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria

Ancestral remains, repatriation, and contemporary Indigenous Art

Alexandra Roginski will be giving our next seminar on Wednesday 30th October, when she will be speaking on ‘Somatic histories, stolen remains and contemporary Indigenous art in the settler-colonial state’

Alex writes ‘The histories of European researchers, doctors and collectors exhuming and hoarding Indigenous ancestral remains ripple through public memory as some of the greatest transgressions of western knowledge practices. Since the 1960s, Indigenous activists and groups, and (increasingly) the settler state have sought to remediate the material legacies of these practices by campaigning for the repatriation and respectful reburial of ancestral remains still held in historical collections. The symbolic powers of these narratives of bodily desecration resonate through the respective works of Daniel Boyd and Brook Andrew, who hold dual roles in Australian culture as celebrated Indigenous artists and contributors to public memory. As examples of what I call “somatic histories”, many of their works localise stories of past transgressions – together with the lived experience and aspirations of present-day Indigenous Australians – within human remains. In charting connections between historical violence and contemporary Australian life, they ultimately challenge the settler state’s search for symbolic closure’.

Please join us for what will be a fascinating and provocative talk.

Replica of a nineteenth-century phrenological bust produced by the Fowler phrenological empire. The cranial science of phrenology contributed to a flurry of skull collecting during the long nineteenth century.











Date: Wednesday 30 October, 2019
Time: 5pm – 6pm
Venue: Deakin Downtown, 727 Collins St, Tower 2, Level 12

Free of charge, all welcome.

For further information: contact Steve Cooke (Steven.cooke@deakin.edu.au) 

Venue Tip: Deakin’s city centre campus is a short walk from Southern Cross Station towards Docklands and on part of the free city centre tram network (Stop D15 on routes 11 and 48).  Entry is via Tower Two.  The reception desk directs you to an escalator to a bank

Edgy heritages: the Forcefields of Europe

Chris Whitehead will be discussing ‘Edgy heritage’ in our cultural heritage seminar on Wednesday 28th August.  Chris writes: ‘What does Europe look like from its edges? What kinds of heritage do we find there? Edge places are geopolitical, affective and symbolic zonings in struggles to determine what is what (e.g. ‘Europe’), where it is, who can belong there and where it is heading.

‘It is almost an adage that we best understand the centre by attending to the periphery, or that work on the boundaries of a thing is necessarily a determination of the thing itself. Edgy connotes relationships that may be tense, nervous, and/or bold, provocative or volatile.  Drawing on examples from Gallipoli, Ireland, Berlin and Andalusia, Chis argues that they turn out to be sites of discrepancy and cultural dissonance that test the very nature of ‘Europe’ as a geopolitical reality, as a discursive formation, as marker of identity and as a moral ground. These spaces of cultural confusion, hybrid histories and geopolitical contingencies prompt us to rethink the meanings of Europe at a time when its backstory is both politicised and contested’.

Chris is Professor of Museology at Newcastle University (UK) and Professor II in Cultural Heritage Studies at the University of Oslo (Norway). He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University. He has written on museum history, art interpretation, migration museums, communities and co-production, knowledge construction, museum display and the politics of heritage and memory. His latest book is Dimensions of Heritage and Memory: multiple Europes and the politics of crisis (Routledge 2019), resulting from the large-scale EU-funded CoHERE project that he led from 2015 until 2019. He is co-director of the Newcastle University Centre of Research Excellence in Heritage.

For those of you who want a preview of Chris, he gave an excellent presentation for International Museum Day 2017 on ‘Museums and Contested Stories – saying the unspeakable in museums’.


Date: Wednesday 28 August, 2019
Time: 5pm – 6pm
Venue: Deakin Downtown, 727 Collins St, Tower 2, Level 12

Free of charge, all welcome.

For further information: contact Beatrice Harris harrisbe@deakin.edu.au

Venue Tip: Deakin’s city centre campus is a short walk from Southern Cross Station towards Docklands and on part of the free city centre tram network (Stop D15 on routes 11 and 48).  Entry is via Tower Two.  The reception desk directs via an escalator to a bank of lifts and Deakin Downtown is on Level 12.