‘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