We are all aflutter at the State Library as the finishing touches are being put on the Bohemian Melbourne exhibition, which opens this Friday. It’s an exciting moment as artworks are installed and banners go up outside, but work on the project has of course been going for months – countless people and hours have gone into readying Bohemian Melbourne.
To understand more about what happens to prepare for an exhibition, a week before installation we went behind the scenes to ask conservator Jane Hinwood and curator Clare Williamson exactly what they were up to.
We found Jane Hinwood in the Conservation department, where she explained that the team had finished preparing the works for exhibition, and were getting ready to install them in the gallery. ‘We start 18 months in advance. We bring everything in that’s been flagged for the exhibition, and assess and document an approach for each item – for Bohemian there are 240 objects and they can be anything from a photographs to rare books to costumes – we then prepare the material, each sticking to our specialisation, so the book people do books and paper people work with paper.’
Conservation is about maintaining the present condition of an item, so the Conservation team is responsible for the careful handling of material and ensuring items are protected. They prepare objects for exhibition by assessing their vulnerability, such as to light or temperature, and ensuring the condition of the object won’t be effected as a result of display. The team is tasked with framing works in the show, following conservation standards, and installing objects in the gallery.
Jane points to some contemporary bohemian portraits by Luke David Kellett to illustrate the conservation process, ‘This photographer took Polaroids, which are light sensitive and may have residual chemicals in the paper … We wear gloves when handling these because they can mark with fingerprints easily. Clare has asked that these appear to float in a frame. When we mount them we will ensure the reversible adhesive used doesn’t change the surface quality of the photograph. And we also need to make sure the gallery light levels are appropriate.’
We discovered curator Clare Williamson in a flurry of activity – juggling media interviews, writing a room brochure, finalising wall labels, preparing audiovisual material and briefing exhibition guides. Clare told us what was happening inside the gallery, ‘It’s being painted now and once it’s ready we will install the graphics and vinyl quotes, and then the framed and case-based material comes in. At that stage I’ll be down in the gallery as conservation and the crew install work, overseeing things and making any on-the-spot decisions.’
Clare explained that she had a wealth of material to choose from, and it was a challenge to decide on the works to exhibit. ‘We discovered so many great stories and such rich material spanning 150 years of bohemianism. To decide what goes in is always a challenge, but we do space planning to work out what will realistically fit, and then think about the common themes and stories. Everything has to work together visually of course, so we also consider what will speak to the viewer in that context.’
And what is Clare most looking forward to? ‘Just seeing it all come together – you’re working on all these strands for 12 months, so to see it all finally translated into the space will be really exciting.’
Bohemian Melbourne runs from Friday 12 December until Sunday 22 February. The exhibition will be accompanied by a summer program of live music, film screenings, tours, talks and pop-up performances. Check our website for more details.