In addition to the numerous treasures on display in the exhibition spaces of the National Gallery of Australia, many wonderful works of art remain in storage. It may come as a surprise to know that only 1.5 per cent of the national art collection is exhibited at the Gallery and other venues at any one time, leaving the greater part of the collection stored behind the scenes. However, although not on display, these works are not out of the public’s reach and can be accessible through the Collection Study Room.
The Collection Study Room was established in 1984 with the specific purpose of facilitating public access to works of art that are not currently on display. During the past 25 years of operation, it has allowed visitors to request and view many works of art, including paintings and sculpture, prints and photographs. From Ballets Russes costumes to Australian political posters of the 1980s, the Collection Study Room has accommodated people’s desires to engage with particular works in the collection.
In this informal environment, visitors are encouraged to spend uninterrupted periods of time studying the works of art that they have requested to view. While people are not allowed to touch the objects, with the assistance of the Collection Study Room Coordinator, visitors are able to get close to, connect with and study art in ways not always possible in gallery spaces.
Over many years of operation, the Collection Study Room has hosted a variety of visitors who are interested in and enthusiastic about art. Every person has their own story about why they want to see particular works, whether it is research into the history of art, an avid interest in the life of an artist or a more personal connection.
A recent memorable example was a visit by members of the Canberra and Queanbeyan Maori community, who were invited to come to the Gallery as part of the Pacific Art department’s community access program. Initiated by Curator Crispin Howarth, this program offers an invitation to all Pacific communities to access, discuss and respond to objects from their homelands. The visit by the Canberra and Queanbeyan Maori community was significant as it not only provided an opportunity for these community members to reconnect with historical and cultural objects but it also allowed for the Gallery’s collection of Maori objects to be respectfully prepared for future display.
During the hour-long event, a traditional blessing was placed over the Gallery’s entire collection of traditional Maori art, which involved prayers and songs that were delivered by the senior members of the community and a traditional song performed by a senior elder. It was a privilege to witness the ceremony, which brought together a community and their cultural objects—it will remain etched into the memories of Gallery staff and visitors alike.
A very different appointment involved a Canberra family’s request to view the Gallery’s famous sculpture Pear—version number 2 1973 by George Baldessin. Until recently, this iconic work was positioned near the entrance to the Gallery, but is currently in storage due to construction of the Gallery’s building extension, which will provide new display spaces and facilities for visitors.
The family’s request posed a number of difficult logistical problems for the Gallery and staff; however, the family explained that they had started a tradition of marking their daughter’s birthday every year with a family photograph taken in front of the sculpture—a ritual they had performed since their daughter was born. They also revealed that the young girl had been suffering from health issues since birth, which made the family portrait all the more important. Due to these special circumstances, extra effort was made to realise their wish, and the family was able to take photographs in front of the pears at the Gallery’s off-site warehouse, which is where the work awaits re-installation at the Gallery once the extensions are completed in 2010. Not only will the family treasure another photograph and another year but the staff involved will also value this poignant memory.
People make appointments in the Collection Study Room for many reasons and, as the above stories show, this room is more than just a room: it is a significant public service connecting people with art. People’s reasons for using this service may be academic, cultural, spiritual or sentimental but, for whatever reason, as one of Australia’s premier public venues, the Gallery hopes to provide service that is both memorable and significant for our visitors.