Museums moving on

USyd's relics are being relocated

You probably didn’t notice.

Exams had just finished. Maybe you were settling into summer school, heading far away, or just enjoying the beginning of the holidays. But at the end of last year, the University of Sydney’s historic Macleay Museum and the USyd Art Gallery closed their doors for the final time. At the end of next year, the Nicholson Museum will join them.

Their collections will be moved to the Chau Chak Wing Museum, a new development endowed by a $15 million donation from a Chinese-Australian property magnate of the same name.  Due to open in late 2018, the Chau Chak Wing Museum will be constructed near Victoria Park on the corner of Parramatta Road and University Avenue at an estimated cost of $40 million. The University scrapped previous plans to adapt the existing Macleay and Edgeworth David buildings due to escalating costs in keeping them environmentally sound.

Located underneath MacLaurin Hall in the main quadrangle, the Nicholson Museum holds collections of Egyptian, Cypriot, Greek, Italian and Middle Eastern artefacts. The neo-gothic setting of the museum’s arches has always been a fitting home for the venerable items it shelters – a rich collection of fine arts and classical antiquities, which Sir Charles Nicholson, an English-born politician, landowner and physician, donated to the University in 1860.

Nicholson also donated many valuable paintings, sculptures and tapestries, which formed the basis of what would later become the University of Sydney art collection. Located above the War Memorial Arch on the northern side of the Quadrangle from 1958 until its closure last year, the University of Sydney Art Gallery displayed a significant collection of Australian and East Asian art. The intimacy of the exhibition space, accessed via a discrete spiral staircase, and its surreal position suspended above one of the University’s busy thoroughfares, made it a delightful place to visit.

Mere metres from the Art Gallery stood Macleay Museum, a purpose-built fire-proof building off Science Road, constructed in 1886–87. Its aged cedar cabinets housed the extensive zoological collections which William John Macleay donated in 1873.

The museums were unique spaces, each in plain sight, yet somehow hidden at the same time.

That inaccessibility was one reason given for the change. Speaking to Honi, Dr Paul Donnelly, Associate Director of Museum Content at the new Chau Chak Wing Museum, expressed concern that “even for hardened museum-goers, the old museums [were] hard to find.” When I voiced my own sadness at the loss of those spaces, Donnelly remained optimistic. “Parts of those buildings are beautiful – and I lament losing that – but having a purpose-built building is more efficient and cost-effective.”

The erection of the new development will permit a greater proportion of the three collections’ 850,000 items to be shown, as the proposed increase to 1900m2 of exhibition space will treble the previous display capacity. Such an increase should, of course, be celebrated, and Donnelly was adamant it would be “more efficient to gather [the museums’] infrastructure, hardware and technology” in one single place.

But the concentration of the three collections together might also lose the sense of definition that three separate museums, each with a different focus, formerly provided. Although Donnelly confirmed that distinct galleries within the new museum would perpetuate the legacy of the Nicholson and Macleay donations, this demotion from ‘museum’ to ‘gallery’ seems at variance with his insistence that “any institution relying on philanthropy must demonstrate its indebtedness.”

It is difficult to doubt the philanthropic generosity of Dr Chau Chak Wing, who considered his donation a “heartfelt contribution to developing the Australia-China friendship”. Universities depend on donors like him, and such extraordinary benefaction merits recognition. But one has to wonder if the same fate which has befallen the Art Gallery, Nicholson and Macleay Museums might someday befall the Chau Chak Wing Museum too.

Donnelly denied that was likely, calling the development “a really magnanimous decision” which was merely part of a “general worldwide trend” to make better use of university collections by “emphasising material-based learning”. Such a learning style holds a personal significance for Donnelly, who studied archaeology at USyd and recalls “pushing dust [from artefacts in the Nicholson] into the corner of [his] notes because it was ancient.”

Visiting the Macleay Museum and the Art Gallery on their final day was especially poignant. Most of the other visitors were oldies, perhaps entering those spaces for the first time, perhaps coming back to a familiar place for the last. Maybe, as an old man myself, I will be visiting the Chau Chak Wing Museum on its own final day, before it too gives way to a new donation, location and name.

Call me a fossil, but I am sad to say goodbye.

The Nicholson Museum is open (for now) weekdays 10.00am to 4.30pm in the Quadrangle.