Blessed by the munificence of the benevolent billionaire Dr. Chau Chak Wing – a veritable modern-day Medici – Sydney University has acquired for itself a magnificent new museum on University Place. Made possible by a $15 million donation from Dr. Chau, the $66 million project brings together the University’s Nicholson, Macleay and Art collections together for the very first time. Honi Soit took a look.
Described by its own architects as “a floating white concrete box,” the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s design is resoundingly dull, concreting over city views and presenting as a dark cloud on campus. Mercifully, however, JPW architects “were motivated to recreate elements of landscape…and reference the sandstone buildings that are the foundation of the University of Sydney” by throwing down a few sandstone blocks outside the front entrance. Nonetheless, the museum does incorporate the obligatory polished concrete and arctic air-conditioning which succeeds in inducing the fugue state necessary for the enjoyment of any casual museum visit.
Happily, the museum itself does succeed in overcoming its architectural shortfalls. The liberation of the university’s three previously disparate collections from storage and dark, inaccessible corners of the quadrangle is a genuine public good. Previously only 1% of the university’s collection could be displayed at any one time, while upwards of 400,000 items sat unexhibited. The new museum significantly increases the exhibition space available, allowing for artefacts, artworks and even entire collections to be publicly displayed for the first time.
The benefits of the new museum can be seen throughout its inaugural exhibitions and galleries. The flagship exhibition Gululu dhuwala djalkiri: welcome to the Yolŋu foundations takes advantage of the extra space offered by the new facility to exhibit over 350 works from over 100 Yolnu artists from the 19th century to contemporary times, allowing for a depth and breadth of public display previously impossible given the restrictions of university gallery space.
Interdisciplinarity — that recent obsession of the university — is on display throughout the museum. In contrast to its ham-fisted academic incarnations, the interdisciplinarity on display at the Chau Chak Wing museum is well thought out, combining seemingly unrelated objects from previously disparate collections, and adds to the overall experience of the visitor. One display, for example, uses specimens of the Polites genus of butterflies from the natural history collection, named after characters from The Iliad, to tell the story of the Trojan War.
Object/Art/Specimen is an exhibition dedicated to this interdisciplinary theme. Pop Art hangs alongside Egyptian sarcophagi and a thylacine is positioned in front of a modernist industrial painting – the diagonal stripes of both (or so Honi Soit is told) acknowledge human impact on nature. Museum Deputy Director Paul Donnelly said that “not many museums can bring art, natural history, ethnography, science and antiquity together like this…Object/Art/Specimen shows the world of possibilities available to the museum now its collections will be shown in one building.”
The Chau Chak Wing museum is an impressive addition to the cultural life of the University of Sydney. Academics, students, and Sydneysiders as a whole will be grateful for the generosity of Dr. Chau Chak Wing in making this innovative and vital contemporary cultural centrepiece a reality. In the words of Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and a curious array of former Eastern European politicians, “we commend the vision and generosity of Dr. Chau Chak Wing for making this world-class institution a reality…this inspiring museum will benefit not only Sydney and Australia, but the larger world as a whole.”