Majestic wedge-tailed eagles soar above the new central gallery in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as if relishing release from the fusty old museum. Gone are the days when visitors had to pass the stuffed exhibits before they could go anywhere else.
Phase 1 of the redevelopment of the site is exciting and the Central Gallery – the old Zoology Gallery – sets the tone, with its ceiling lifted to reveal iron framework of the roof. It’s a great space that triggers the imagination.
There is a spectacular sculptural installation in the centre of the Central Gallery, with a section of an old cedar staircase sitting at a crazy angle over a tall, MONA-like ‘Aladdin’s cave’ in which there is a Sumatran tiger, butterflies, an Egyptian mummy and a range of objects that showcase TMAG’s diverse collections.
Years ago, I was among those who wanted to separate the museum from the art gallery – largely because contemporary art was a poor relation in both display and acquisitions. I’m glad it didn’t happen because there is vibrancy in the new displays and I’m won over by the possibility of layering of collections.
In February 2006, the Lennon Labor Government committed $30 million to develop a whole-of-site concept and master plan to redevelop TMAG – announced, as I recall, on Launceston Cup Day and thereby deflecting media attention from the flak the Premier was getting over a visit to Crown Casino in Melbourne. Johnson Pilton Walker did the master plan.
In October 2009, architects Francis-Jones Morehen Thorp won the contract; in November 2011, VOS Construction and Joinery Pty Ltd won the construction contract. In November last year, TMAG closed for final building works to be completed and new exhibitions installed, and reopened to the public on March 15th. A shame it was closed over summer, but hey, it’s open now.
The official opening took place on March 13th. Former Premier Paul Lennon was there and I imagine he must have felt pleased with the result of that long ago announcement. March 13th was also the date of the sesquicentenary of the establishment of the museum on the site.
Phase 1 ($10 million) included making all four floors of the Bond Store publicly accessible, with both a lift and a white, light-filled spiral staircase connecting them and the Bond Store with the Custom House. The stair well adds a modern element that melds perfectly with the historic stone building while the different floors tell the Tasmanian tale - natural history, colonization and the Aboriginal story.
The publicity material says the master plan weaves together the interpretation of place, buildings and collections, and yes, it does. It’s terrific. One gripe, however, is that signage is so low on the walls that you have to get down on bended knee to read it and if you wear specs, which I do, the magnification is then distorted – cantilevered signage would make a difference.
Some old favorites have been given little more than a facelift, but with good effect. Take the colonial gallery; the walls are now a vibrant violet. It sounds awful, and reproductions in print don’t do it justice, but it looks great and enhances the paintings, particularly Duterrau’s poignant Aboriginal portraits.
Among new offerings is an exhibition devoted to recent issues. This gallery is painted a wild aqua and has posters and other material relating to Lake Pedder, the Franklin, Farmhouse Creek, the Hydro Electric Commission, Gay Rights, and you name it. Elsewhere, there’s a contemporary exhibition with a survey of three decades of prints by Raymond Arnold. It’s at this point that I begin to wonder; not about these exhibitions, but about the context. How do they fit in with the whole?
I don’t have many gripes, but another is the seeming elimination of convict history. True, the Beattie Collection of convict artifacts is on display, including a terrifying restraining box. But I didn’t get a real sense of Van Diemen’s Land as a penal colony. And I’m sorry the Aboriginal diorama remains relegated to storage for political reasons, rather than on display within an historical context.
One small gripe – it’s sad to see the dinosaur with its head all but butting the roof of the veranda overlooking the new entrance – but the new entrance is a big plus. The new café, which is open daily from 7.30am, is also a plus.
My gripes are minor compared with what I like about the redevelopment. I’ve been three times, to the opening, on a media tour and as a member of the public, and there’s a new buzz to the place that’s great. But I do wonder if there is something I’ve missed – or not - that ties it all together as the Tasmanian story?
Director Bill Bleathman, nevertheless, deputy director Peter West, project manager Jennifer Storer, project architect James Perry, the VOS team and TMAG staff are to be congratulated. The State Government also, for honouring the commitment to Phase 1 at a time when budgets have been slashed.
Paul Lennon may be in mourning over his failed pulp mill, but he can take heart over his role in getting TMAG into the 21st century.