The double life of a museum presenter

I need your help…

Historians have debated for a long time what Ann Curthoys describes as “…history’s double character, it’s attachment both to literature and science”. As a museum presenter, sharing history in an active role, I am interested in exploring the crossover between performance and teaching in delivering an education program.

How best can we give freedom to people’s creative imagination about the past whilst maintaining a discipline of historical thinking? How does the Museum context and Handling collections facilitate the process of historical imagination? If we exchange the word ‘object’ with ‘prop’ what would we lose? What would we gain? How can presenters best draw on other art forms such as story-telling and stage theatrics to enhance the discussion of history?

Presented by Jeni White, Learning Services and Community Outreach, National Museum of Australia



As per Greg Denning’s quotes, “I wish to do no disservice to history by simply portraying people from the past as me with a funny accent.” But as a museum presenter, delivering history in an active role neither do I wish to deny myself the spontaneity, the creativity, the energy, and the buzz of a live performance.

One of my heroes is historian Ann Curthoys. And she’s written a great deal on what she describes as the double character of history and its attachment to both literature and science.

What I’d like to do today is think about how I can use drama– how we can use drama– in the delivery and the communication of historic knowledge. I don’t think it’s any coincidence– and I can only speak from my own experience– but the overwhelming majority of my colleagues have had a background in either teaching or theatre. I, myself, am more like this one—Ballekidna, I’m a dancer.

What I’m really interested in, though, is how our audience and, in my case, largely visiting students and teachers, perceive us. In the space of one hour last week, I was asked these three questions. Are you a teacher? No. Are you an improv theatre performer? No. Hang on, you must be a curator? No again. And whether we do this consciously or not, in the course of our daily work, we draw on dramatic elements. We use voice. We use space. And we use movements.

What I’d like to do is use these dramatic elements to the maximum effect and use them deliberately and experiment with them. At the National Museum of Australia, we have an extensive handling collection. Objects we can put into people’s hands they can touch and feel and ask questions of. So I’d like to marry drama with these objects. But by using this object as both an artefact and a prop, do I compromise its integrity or my own? And if I take that risk, what do I lose and what do I gain? Ideally, I’d like to get the mix right and use this object both as an object of fun and one of gravitas.

Again, like Ballekidna, I’m a little bit prickly around the subject of role-play, which I have used extensively in past experience. I’ve always found it to be an immediate and engaging way for students to quickly hop on board and start using their imaginations to think about what life was like in the past. And I understand it needs to be facilitated correctly to be effective, and for me, that would look at being well contextualised, peppered with specific knowledge throughout the role play, and then well rounded with questions at the end.

But outside observers who have watched me deliver role-plays, I’ve always been a bit wary of their response because it’s either one way or the other– it’s either hot or cold. I’m either well praised or heavily criticised. What really bugs me, though, is what is it about role-play that gets us to this extreme of reactions? Why? What I don’t want to risk is imagination, and we all know the famous saying. Einstein said “imagination is more important than knowledge.” But of course, in history, we need both.
Back to Cookie or Quokkacop as he’s also known. I read a newspaper article Sergeant Cook which was written the year after he retired as he was going to be awarded with the King’s Police Medal. So what I’ve tried to do is extract the oral history back out of the written word. And in doing that, how much can I trust is actually Cookie’s real voice, how much input, influence, and dramatisation, if you like, has the journalist added, or simply how much is the article a reflection of the general stereotypes of the day? I can’t answer these questions, but I think they are questions that we need to ask.

Continually, we’re asking students to use as many avenues or pathways to the past as they can lay their hands on. How do we as presenters reflect this? My final question is how can we best give freedom to people’s creative imaginations about the past whilst maintaining a discipline of historic thinking? I guess, how do we remain grounded but unshackled?

Thank you




Header image courtesy of Kurinji Music

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