Performing History: The 'Circa' Theatre at the National Museum of Australia: Circa, the National Museum of Australia's Rotating Multimedia Theatre, Has Been a Site of Political and Historical Debate as Much as It Has Been a Site of Cultural Learning and Entertainment

Article excerpt

WHEN it opened in 2001, the National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra was notably influenced by the changing mediascape to which it also sought to contribute. It was influenced by the emergent aesthetic practices and technological possibilities of electronic media, by mainstream commodity culture, and it also used traditional press avenues to provoke interest in its programs and exhibitions. In short, it aimed to incorporate a variety of clever media technologies to attract audiences and to mark itself as a proponent of the new museology. This approach was contemporary. It responded to trends in museum-making globally, and it embodied an aim for the museum to become more democratic by making itself increasingly accessible to diverse publics. As such, the integration of media technologies was central to the museum's demonstration that it was new, and also signalled its interest in popular culture.

On the other hand, however, media technologies, and in particular Circa (which offers an orientation experience for visitors entering the museum's galleries), were deemed central to the 'history wars' debates that were held about the NMA in press articles and opinion pieces after the museum's opening. These culminated in the 2003 Review of the National Museum of Australia: its Exhibitions and Public Programs (hereafter referred to as the Review). (1) In this paper, I examine the Review's findings about and recommendations pertaining to Circa, and discuss the process by which museum staff are currently engaged in redeveloping Circa, which is due to reopen late 2007.

Theatre and performance: new media and museums

Museums today can generally be considered places that use audiovisual technologies and multimedia in both fascinating and strategic ways that are connected to the corporate goals of improved access, outreach, participation, experience and education. Museums are also contested sites subject to a wide range of interest by the popular and news media. Indeed, many new museums actively incite controversy on the understanding that it contributes to the ideal that they may provide an enhanced public forum for debate over current issues, as well as the dissemination of knowledge. (2) According to Dawn Casey (director of the NMA 1999-2003), the decision to invite public debate into the museum was purposeful: 'In designing the new museum facility we have provided a number of spaces where debate and discussion will be possible in an information-rich environment and within a framework of mutual respect'. (3)

Understood as vital if the institution was to win public support, the NMA's intention to both offer an 'information-rich environment' and engage with the mediascape already existing in everyday life contributed to the museum's goal of being self-consciously popular and populist, non-monumental and entertaining. Situated firmly in the leisure economy and competing with activities ranging from sport to shopping, it employed new media technologies to attract new audiences, and offered up controversial architecture that was colourful, playfully 'postmodern' and global rather than local in its points of reference. Indicating the extent to which global events impacted on the creation of the NMA, a great deal of media interest was directed to the question of whether its architects, Ashton Raggatt McDougall, had 'plagiarized' features from Daniel Libeskind's extensions to the Jewish Museum in Berlin (which opened in the same year as the NMA). (4)

In activating distinctions between global and local (where 'nation' hovers abstractly in between), through its guiding concepts and architectural form, the NMA can be seen as similar to many museums built globally at this time. Discussed most frequently in relation to its predecessor, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (which opened in 1998), the NMA also reflects the point made recently by Stephane Martin, President-directeur general of Musee du quai Branly (which opened in Paris in 2006):

The relation between a museum and its public has evolved a lot since television, travel and globalization. …