No visitors, but museums and galleries busier than ever

It’s not quite like Night at the Museum with the exhibits coming to life, but Brisbane’s museum, art galleries and state library are remaining busy despite the absent visitors.

Jun 01, 2020, updated Jun 01, 2020

Hundreds of teacups on display at the State Library of Queensland have been painstakingly removed from display and washed.

Beads are being meticulously resewn onto stunning Easton Pearson designer dresses on display at the Museum of Brisbane.

At the Queensland Art Gallery and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), valuable artworks and frames are being restored and cleaned.

Gallery directors and curators are using the time without the steady stream of art lovers to do over the art spaces of Brisbane.

‘Very time-consuming work’

Louise McCullagh is one of the most in-demand textile conservators in the country, having worked on projects such as the prestigious Dior collection at the National Gallery of Victoria.

She’s been hired by the Museum of Brisbane during the coronavirus shutdown to assess the massive Easton Pearson Archive, which is considered the most complete collection of items from an Australian fashion house anywhere in the country.

It is a collection of thousands of innovative and bold garments produced during the 28-year partnership of the Brisbane-based designers, Pamela Easton and Lydia Pearson, who had a major impact on Australian fashion for decades.

The museum’s collections manager, Meg McKavanagh, said the archive was acquired five years ago and many of the garments were vintage and very fragile.

“This has been the perfect time to take these garments off display and conserve them,” she said.

“It’s every collection manager’s dream to have all of the objects returned to the stores so we can look at them, we can audit them, assess their condition and conservation requirements and get that work done before they go back on display.”

She said McCullagh had been painstakingly cataloguing and conserving the collection.

“The work we’re doing now, we’re having a look at conserving the mostly vintage pieces collected from flea markets across the world,” McKavanagh said.

“It’s very intricate work that she’s been doing for the last 10 weeks, focusing on some of the oldest pieces in the collection.

“It’s tiny, tiny fragile work and very time-consuming work.

“We gave up counting individual beads and sequins long ago.”

‘A great opportunity’

The State Library of Queensland has also used the coronavirus shutdown for its own intricate conservation project.

State Librarian Vicki McDonald said 500 teacups and saucers had been carefully removed from a display on the library’s terrace and cleaned.

“They are up very high so it’s a bit of a delicate operation but it’s a good time to be focusing on doing some of those things we can’t do normally,” she said.

“It’s delicate work, they’re fragile and we only clean them every couple of years so it’s important that they look fantastic, because they’re such a feature on the Queensland Terrace.”

McDonald said the library had also fast-tracked a stocktake of its collection.

“We have nearly a million items within our collection so the staff need to verify each item in the catalogue and indicate that they’ve sighted it and handled it,” she said.

“During the past eight weeks, we’ve verified 81,867 items and if you were to lay out our collection end to end, that’s the equivalent of 42km of collections.

“It’s a huge task to stocktake our collection but it has been a great opportunity for us to do this work at this time.”

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Chris Saines, the director of the Queensland Art Gallery and GOMA, said this was an unprecedented time in the history of the gallery.

“This is not an experience that we’ve had before, except for the [2011] Brisbane floods, when the gallery was closed for a short period of time,” he said.

He said they were using the shutdown for conservation work.

“The painting conservation team is working full tilt on large works by Gordon Bennett, the late Brisbane painter, whose exhibition we plan to open later in the year,” Saines said.

“There’s a lot going on despite the fact that obviously we’re not doing the thing that we love the most, and that’s welcoming people to the gallery.”

The galleries and museums are also working to document the coronavirus shutdown in future exhibitions.

Renai Grace, the director of the Museum of Brisbane, said artists had been commissioned to reflect on the time.

“We have engaged a number of artists to go out into communities safely and to really document what’s happening through their perspectives as well,” she said.

“We’re hoping it will become something of significance that might turn into a major exhibition in the future.”

McDonald said the State Library of Queensland had a responsibility to document the pandemic.

“We’ve been collecting the fliers and signs that people have in their shops and businesses and we also had some photographers taking photographs of what Brisbane and Queensland looks like during COVID-19,” she said.

“It is a really important part of our role in documenting Queensland’s history.”

Up to 10 visitors at a time are now allowed back in the State Library, and by July, up to 100 people will be allowed in the space.

The museum, the Queensland Art Gallery and GOMA remain closed but expect to reopen under stage two of the roadmap to easing coronavirus restrictions.

– ABC / Shelley Lloyd

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