“The problem with things is that they are dumb. They are not eloquent, as some thinkers in art museums claim. They are dumb. And if by some ventriloquism they seem to speak, they lie.” This passage, which opens Spencer Crew and James Sims’s seminal essay “Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue”, is frequently quoted in the literature of museums. The “things” that Spencer and Sims refer to are historic artefacts, recontextualised and reinterpreted in museums. But buildings are also objects of culture – also “things” – and the idea that architecture too is dumb, that it does not speak directly but must be translated by an intermediary, gives rise to the contemporary phenomenon of the “interpretation”.
Interpretative installations are interesting for several reasons. Aside from the challenge they pose to dearly held notions that architecture somehow communicates automatically with its audience, they can offer a genuine collaboration between architecture and its sister disciplines – exhibition design and site-specific installation. At their best, particularly in historic buildings, such installations can evoke the history, past occupants and use of a space in a way that is both informative and richly allusive.
Such is the case in a recently completed project for the Order of the Sisters of St Joseph, who invited Freeman Ryan Design and curators Sally Gray & Associates to produce an interpretation of a newly refurbished schoolhouse on the grounds of their North Sydney convent. Founded in 1900 by Mary MacKillop, the school holds a deep significance for the Sisters, since she was also the founder of their Order. The brief asked the curators to gather and present artefacts and anecdotes from the school’s history. The curators also conceived of the space as a place for memory, reflection, and contemplation.
There is an unusual level of cohesion here between the design and its conceptual or museological basis – both are richly layered with symbolism and metaphor. Just as there is little division between form and content, installation and interpretation, the exhibition fits sympathetically within its site in the interior of the schoolhouse. The designers have left much of the space strategically empty, emphasising the value of the building itself as an artefact. The space is defined by a long, low axial timber bench, which functions as both seat and display case for objects, and divides the room along its length. The other principal element is vertical – a wall which acts as a screen for large projections, and behind which is an intricately modelled and crafted series of showcases.
This section was conceived as having been carved out of a single monolithic block.
Artefacts, textual and audio visual elements, and religious figure statues are recessed into, or projected on, a complex interconnecting series of niches and grooves. This intimate, chapel-like space is remarkable for its finish as much as its form: a long process of experimentation has resulted in a plaster surface treatment that glows with a quality similar to egg tempera.
Audiovisual elements are employed subtly – a video sequence of candles burning is particularly effective, as it is only when the flame occasionally wavers that the onlooker realises it is a moving image at all. This level of restraint, even quietude, is marked throughout the installation – the design is distinguished by what it doesn’t do, as much as what it does. The intricacy and finesse of detailing and construction is an indication of the priorities of the clients, for whom the installation has a meaning which is conceptually and spiritually more sophisticated than in most museum displays. Indeed, the purpose of the installation can be seen to run at odds to the trend in contemporary museum exhibitions – there is no specific educational purpose, no facts to be drilled into school-aged children.
This meditative rather than didactic air is evident throughout. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment of objects, which is “interactive” not in the contemporary sense of having buttons to push, but in its older meaning, of an interaction between a human subject and a specific object, borne of self-reflexivity and contemplation. Such a relationship is characteristic of the interaction between a worshipper and a sacred object or relic. But aside from a magnificent marble head of the Virgin Mary, and a series of three religious figure statues, the artefacts on display in the installation are of a largely humble, quotidian type. The sacral character of the installation springs more from the reverential treatment of these objects than their scale or tone. This reverence is not manifest in pedestals and railings, but rather in the accessibility of the artefacts – the fact that some are relatively vulnerable, and physically much closer to the visitor than is usually allowed in a museum. This expression of trust is a poignant statement of the objects’ value, and has the effect of bringing the viewer and the object into both physical and metaphorical proximity. A rapport is established between spectator and spectacle which also draws in the ambient spatial and temporal context – the building itself.
This installation for the Sisters of St Joseph draws a tangible link between the building, in its mute physical presence, and the minutiae of event, experience, and memory that pervades it. It is a subtle and sophisticated interlocutor, encouraging an historic building to speak.
Naomi Stead is a Sydney-based architectural writer
The Recollection Room Designers Freeman Ryan Design—design director Stephen Ryan; project designer Paula Murray.
Curators Sally Gray and John Murphy. Multimedia Design CDP Media. Construction Designcraft.
Client Sisters of St Joseph.