Sound and say: The Pomona Museum project

Gretchen Hillhouse & Dan Armstrong
Noosa Regional Gallery, Tewantin

Community History Museums are frequently perceived as repositories for a diverse array of memorabilia, accumulated from miscellaneous sources, labelled and archived for posterity in an enthusiastically amateur manner. History is located in the past tense: once-functional objects are arrested in dustproof cabinets and recontextualised as historical displays, serving to evoke long-forgotten memories and speculations on mortality. Strange connections arise between past and present epochs through the presentation and interaction of numerous, disparate objects. Crowded displays form surrealistic juxtapositions: here, a pickled snake in a jar through which a set of gleaming (false) teeth can be dimly observed; there, an ancient hypodermic syringe menacingly pointing to a WWI gas mask. Without the objectivity afforded by a view at a distance, many stories simultaneously clamour to be heard in a tiny space. Such displays inspire comparisons to the modern museum 's own ancestor, the treasure trove of the Wunderkammer or curiosity cabinet of the 16th century.

Recently, Noosa Regional Art Gallery invited Adelaide based artists Gretchen Hillhouse and Dan Armstrong to provide a contemporary artistic perspective on the history of Noosa through an innovative collaboration with the Noosa Museum at Pomona. Their resulting installation at the gallery, entitled Sound and Say, selected material from the local historical museum that commented on both the human and material aspects of the museum as an institution.

Connections between the people and the objects in the museum became crucial in determining both the format and content of the artists' intended installation, and were developed through discussions with the museum's volunteers over an informal lunch. While material objects formed the basis of a museum's collection, it was their tangible, but transient, link to humanity that underscored the objects on display. Where the objects remained in the collection , the people- who might have been the original user, collector, donator or voluntary keeper of the collection - eventually moved on. Often mortality, or the ephemeral nature of life, is our most vivid memory of the dusty archives of objects.

As a means by which the temporal nature of this brief connection could be understood, the artists chose to record, onto video, local oral histories and anecdotes from the museum's volunteers. Two edited versions were projected onto suspended perspex sheets to become the nucleus of the installation, around which a selection of objects relating to the interviews were placed. The quietly murmuring voices revealed their own histories in relation to place, and also functioned as a prompt to the viewer, who was able to discern snatches of conversation as the actual objects were being viewed. Language played a significant role and was evidenced through the spoken word, the illustrated 'sound and say' teaching aid, a writing slate, and the language of representation within the museum itself where we, as viewers, play an integral part.

The artists' emphasis on humanity and the human condition was mapped out through revealing certain rites of passage: a pristine christening dress suspended in the gallery floated for a (then) new-born infant; photocopies of police station lock-up records revealed the body at a particular (criminal) moment in time; and rows of anatoform teeth on a dental technician 's mould guide reflected the inevitability of ageing. An old photograph of Mount Cooroora, the area's significant geological feature, was photocopied to wall size, and underscored the monumental nature of geological time and the pathetic attempts by humanity to preserve its image. Idiosyncratic personal contributions that effected the visitor's experience were playfully integrated: for example, the museum's basement has an intricate system of twelve volt lighting, devised by one of its volunteers, which the artists reconstructed in the gallery. While appearing fashionably low-tech and post-modern, visitors acquainted with the quirky basement electrical wiring would instantly recognize its appropriation. In a double entendre, the exhibition paid homage to 'installation' as a fashionable means of representation, and also to volunteer Doug's handiwork.

Hillhouse and Armstrong showed the museum to be a place that simultaneously addressed many issues, as a tool to reconstruct the past on an institutional level, and also a place that evolved through opportunity and chance on a personal level and not always through careful planning. The connection between lived histories and objects became the catalyst for other people's memories, people who could clearly view the objects unhindered by an overwhelming sense of an historical, generic 'past', to which their personal story might not have belonged. The strong connection to community was important to the artists, who saw their role as offering something in return, not just 'taking' from the community. Hence, the video project and hours of interviews now form part of the Museum's own collection, and hopefully will be continued in the future.