The Value of the Local or Does Size Matter?
Lying awake one night in Robe, South Australia, I remembered this 2008 commercial for Bega Cheese.
“Robe isn’t famous for robes.” I realised it was the lady who ran the tourist park I was staying in. Then I noticed the YouTube comments. Like me recognising the tourist park lady, there was no spam, no abuse, just connections to place and people:
The “Tamborine is not famous for Tamborine’s” man is my grandad – so sadly passed away late last year. He will always be remembered – most famously for this!!
The Cardigan guy is my teacher!!!
The punchbowl one is shot in the same street as my grandparents house lol.
… and I grew up on a farm in the back ground of the cheese shot.
The commercial, it’s YouTube comments and all the community-level museums I’ve visited in towns across Australia all speak to me about connection to specific and local place. They do so with a clarity that our large collections, with their broad visions and mission statements, don’t have. The community-level museum doesn’t just tell local stories but also, like the YouTube comments, provides space for those expressing connection to them, often on a charmingly personal level.
At Glenrowan, an infamous site in Australian history, visitor’s imaginations are crucial to success. With the original buildings long gone, only grassy paddocks remain to gaze at. The interpretation is professionally designed and you can follow the clear numbering system or take your own path. I was doing just this when a burley local, walking his dog in nigh-40 degree heat, shouted warm regards and instructions for how best to see it all. This man was happy to shout his connection to place down the street.
In the tiny roadhouse at Belladonia, deep into the Nullarbor desert, a one-room museum entices you in with a huge lump of (fake) Skylab debris on the roof. Here I found objects displayed alongside their original handwritten donation letters, from people wanting to express their connection to the local story.
In Kingston, the Tractor Museum is one big expression of personal connection to place.
It seems to me that the tiny community-level museum has an advantage. Operating on a truly local scale, it doesn’t have to create common themes where there may not be obvious ones. At the community level, there’s a ready-made story waiting to be told based around the question “Why’s this town here?” with a readily identifiable community of people wanting to express their connection. These local museums may wish for features of our larger collecting bodies (money, designers, a curator), but they do have a focus and a clarity in the local narrative, a clear purpose in differentiating their town from the next.
For our larger museums, the clarity and resonance of stories and themes can be diluted by a broad remit and a widely diverse visiting community. I’m beginning to realise the final polish of a professionally designed exhibition case or text panel might contribute to this. There seems little room for the personal, for the handwritten donation letter or text panel, for the local to yell at you with enthusiasm. It’s in our larger museums in which our national or state communities appear more obviously imagined (pdf) than real.
After visiting the many small communities I have in the last month, I wonder if we can really remove ourselves from the specific, the local, the community-level in Australia? I wonder how we can identify narratives in our larger museums which tie together a majority but which don’t become so abstracted as to lose substance and meaning? At this point, I feel size absolutely matters. I wonder how to bring some of that clarity and the charmingly personal connections found in so many of our tiny, local museums into our big collecting institutions?