On a Tuesday night at the Australian Museum visitors scan e-tickets, tilt bottles of cider to their lips, and pass to and fro under a 17.4-metre-long sperm whale skeleton. The whale doesn’t have a name, but it washed up on a Wollongong beach in 1871 and eventually found itself – minus skin and blubber – hanging above the College Street entrance of Australia’s oldest museum. Two rooms across, sage primates and lackadaisical big cats stare down from the walls of Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. In the room adjoining this year’s most photogenic animals and the 19th century’s second-most enduring whale (Moby-Dick being number one) a woman in white sneakers, knee high fluorescent orange leg warmers, a black leotard, and a cut-off pink-yellow-green-blue striped singlet bounces along to eighties dance hits.
It’s the last season of Jurassic Lounge, the Australian Museum’s popular after-hours program which it claims has brought 55 000 guests through its doors since 2011. On Tuesday nights the Museum allows musicians, face painters, burlesque dancers, and even Labrador puppies to wander between its exhibitions, as patrons stroll the halls with drinks in hand. The Museum has weathered a trying decade with ‘efficiency dividends’ enforced by both Labor and Liberal state governments cutting revenue and forcing staff redundancies. “Death by a thousand cuts,” says David Bock, Events Coordinator at the Museum.
In search of new patrons, Bock and the Museum’s administrators set their sights on the inbetweeners, 18 to 30-year-olds who haven’t had been to a museum since they were in primary school but don’t have any kids of their own to bring. The problem is, according to the Museum’s market research, they see the place as “dusty, musty, a bit boring”. So Bock and co reached out to The Festivalists, an events group who helped plan and run the nights.
Perhaps because of its carefully marketed-to target audience, some of the event’s quirkiness could comes off as too self-consciously so. There’s also only so long the juxtaposition between contemporary performance and ancient skeletons can sustain its entertainment value and overcome the desire for a cheaper drink and a comfortable bar stool. Seemingly aware of its diminishing novelty over time, the Museum higher-ups have decided to call it a day, and November 5 will mark the Lounge’s last night. Government funding is one thing but museums have also lost their edge as emporiums of curiosity and scientific wonder. While hinting a new youth-targeted program will take Jurassic Lounge’s place, Bock still holds hope that the traditional museum experience will sustain public interest in his institution.
“One of the strengths that the museum has is that it is real. I think people overplay the fact that you can see it on the Internet and then you won’t want to go and see the real thing. If you take something iconic, say the Mona Lisa, people can get that online but they would still pay even to go to Paris and see it at the Louvre,” he tells me. Aside from the research and collecting the Australian Museum still quietly attends to, Bock hopes the immediacy of its objects will leave children and adults with an experience they can’t have anywhere else, “I was in the museum and saw the dinosaurs”.