Tessa Wynne: Winter in the Museum

Welcome to our Young Writer in the City stories! The works in this series were written by young writers who sourced inspiration from Launceston’s prominent sites and buildings during their 2016 residency.


About Tessa Wynne, 2016 Young Writer in the City

I am a 23-year-old student, feminist, artist, writer, mum and recent discoverer of Gilmore Girls. Having grown up in Launceston and now raising my seven-year-old son here, I have a soft spot for this beautiful city and state. I feel very lucky to live somewhere that I can walk for ten minutes in any direction and find myself either at the Gorge, in a beautiful park, at the river looking at sludge or my personal favorite, at the Museum.

Having spent hours upon hours wandering around the Museum and Art Gallery, Winter in the Museum was inspired by a variety of things including visiting QVMAG with my seven-year-old, philosophical thoughts spurred by constellations and, as usual, concluding with thoughts about society trying to make us conform but realizing the beauty in our so-called flaws.


Winter in the Museum

Tessa Wynne

The Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery has a rich and intriguing history: did you know that the building was home to one of the earliest curators of the Museum, and he lived in the attic? If this doesn’t sound like the premise of a Young Adult fiction novel, I don’t know what does. I’d like to say straight up that it should be assumed that any details I share need to be fact-checked (not because I doubt the people I have spoken to, rather I doubt the accuracy of my note-taking and I won’t let anything get in the way of a good story), but apparently the building is also haunted – all the best places are though, right? Apparently the original building – now the Art Gallery – was planned to be a few meters further across from where it currently is, however, at the time (and again, I have not fact-checked this) it was hoped that you would be able to see the Gorge from City Park, and the building would have interfered with that view. It is hard to imagine an uninterrupted view between those two iconic Launceston locations today, but clearly a lot of thought went into the town planning and I suppose nobody anticipated how much Launceston would grow. To achieve that line of sight these days you would probably need x-ray goggles. Both spaces, the Museum at Inveresk and the Art Gallery at Royal Park, are filled with stories both old and new, and some of these more contemporary stories are interwoven into my own personal life’s tapestry of memories – as would probably be the case for many other people who have grown up or lived in Launceston.

It is 2016, I’m 23, and the last time I visited the Art Gallery was on my first date with my now-fiancé, which I think says something – although I’m not really sure what, perhaps that the Art Gallery is an exceptional place for a first date? It was a very cliché date, we walked around the Art Gallery, embellished stories about ourselves to try and create enhanced pictures of what our lives looked like, pretended we knew things about art and that we were generally more successful people than we actually were, and I believe there was ice cream involved too. It was so lovely and despite presenting somewhat fabricated versions of ourselves things clearly went well. Anyway, nearly five years later, reflecting on the fact that the last time I was there was on a fairly significant day in my life, it made me wonder how many other times QVMAG has popped up in my personal history – the answer is very many.

I grew up in Launceston, and having been here since I was a baby I have several memories of visiting QVMAG at the Royal Park site before it was refurbished in recent years, both with school and also with my family. Of course (for me at least) memories from childhood are often somewhat exaggerated versions of the truth, so I remember it as being a massive, dark, rabbit warren of maze-like hallways, with a prehistoric elevator – once when riding in it I was sure it would cease to work and that I would die there – my parents will tell you I was a very dramatic child. I remember visiting a room filled with amazing and wonderful children’s activities, with a plush solar system that stuck to the wall with Velcro (this was before Pluto was banished from being a planet), draws full of beautiful insects, and of course the real life snakes behind glass, which today would not sit well with me ethically, but at the time was awfully exciting. Part of me wished that the glass could have vanished in a Harry Potter-esque fashion just to see what would happen, although in reality I don’t know how well that would have gone. I also remember the Natural History collection with creatures set up in front of various painted backdrops, the infamous tree/burrow which children could climb through and scare themselves because it was so dark while looking at a platypus, and also the Joss House (now known as the Guan Di Temple), which again my memory has constructed as being massive, very dark and also quite spooky.

Upon re-visiting the Guan Di Temple I see it very differently – it isn’t scary for starters, it is beautiful and full of so many ornate and intricate pieces collected and donated from various locations to create what is almost like a three dimensional collage which tells part of the story of the early Chinese community in Tasmania. In year 11, I did a Psychology project on olfactory memory –memory associated with smell – and to be honest, while I did quite well on the project I don’t really remember the findings, however, there is something about the Guan Di Temple (specifically it’s smell) that really stuck with me. Perhaps it is all in my head, but every time I think about the temple I am sure I can smell the spicy aroma which I assume is from the incense contained in the space, and likewise when standing in the space the aroma reminds me of childhood visits to the Museum.

More recently, once my son started school a few years ago, his class went on an excursion to the Museum and I went along as parent help during Science Week. This showed me the Museum in an entirely different light – it is totally overwhelming when filled with small children who are all similar sizes and dressed basically the same and you have to keep your eye on six of them at once – parent help is NOT relaxing, although it is very fun and amazing to watch the kids learn and interact. I have so much respect for early childhood teachers! Anyway, what was equally as exciting as the content was seeing all the kids getting so excited about learning new things and absorbing information, kind of like a ShamWow [1]dropped in a puddle.

Even more recently again I was sitting in the Tea Room at the Art Gallery waiting for my mum (she wasn’t late, I was just early!) and admiring the brightly lit space, almost literally drinking in the sunshine – winter in Launceston is beautiful but one gets pretty sick of constant cloud coverage after a few months. The walls in the Tea Room are lined with amazing paintings and collages in blue, aqua, green, and yellow – some with shimmering, sparkling and shining elements too, which makes me think of the Rainbow Fish, but way cooler. These pictures depict multi-coloured fish, mermaids, and underwater scenes created by primary school children. This is seriously some of my favorite art in the whole gallery – children have the most incredible imaginations and are bursting with creativity and insight. On this day, my first day writing in fact, I had forgotten my biro and the only one available for sale at the Art Gallery gift shop was a pen with an incredibly large, bright feather on the end. I was tempted, but as I explained to the Museum attendant who was helping me, it felt a little extravagant, so she very kindly offered me a Papermate Ink Joy 100 (aka a regular black pen) to borrow. I promised I wouldn’t steal it! Sitting back in the Tea Room it was fascinating to observe all the different people coming and going, families with several teenage children, an elderly couple with their grandkids, some tourists and several people from nearby workplaces having lunch. I often forget just how close to the CBD the Art Gallery is and I have made a mental note to spend more time here. Anyway, people-watching is one of my all-time favorite activities and can be enjoyed thoroughly at both the Art Gallery and the Museum.

A few weeks ago I was sitting upstairs in Tas Connections at the Museum, from up there everything looks beautiful and glowing, kind of in the way a wood fire fills a room with warm light, but without the flickering, the mess or the smoky smell. Everything is so carefully displayed – the taxidermy birds and animals are made to swoop, dive, sprawl and hide on their display. There are artifacts and treasures behind glass, including a Phrenology display that makes my skin crawl and my stomach churn imagining the unthinkable actions that a pseudo science could justify. But I guess that is part of the importance of museums, not necessarily to romanticize the past, but also as a reminder of wrongdoings and not to repeat ourselves in the present and future. The whole space itself is a work of art, full of stories and secrets, pledges to people lost in the Great War, remnants of the shipwrecked Sydney Cove, preserved animals in jars, vintage bikes and cars, and furniture – all of which if they could speak would have endless tales to tell.

I was half expecting the displays to come to life – the birds to fly away, the plane to escape from its hangings and glide across the hall, the dinosaurs to crash their giant feet to the ground and swing their long necks. I expect the sculpted faces to start revealing their deep dark secrets and the giant triceratops skull to let out a roar. I can see kids running around and parents patiently telling them to slow down, stop touching things and keep quiet. A child is hiding under one of the bench seats, a group of adults are perusing the collections, and the lift is full of people. It is like looking at a page from a Where’s Wally book – so much is going on and if you look away you’ll miss it. There is a weird rhythm to the flows of people coming in, going out, coming in, and going out – it is kind of like the Museum is breathing. It is warm and insular and the more I think about it the more I imagine I am sitting inside the belly of some strange, giant creature.

On day seven-ish of my writing residency I brought my now seven-year-old Oskar with me to the Museum. We decided to make a day of it, which included playing in the Phenomena Factory, visiting the Blacksmith Workshop, looking at the Permian Monsters exhibit and watching a Planetarium show. The day was extremely fun and also rather exhausting. The Planetarium has a huge domed ceiling with an amazing sci-fi looking device in the centre of the room. The show was fascinating for a number of reasons, but the main thing that stuck with me was about perspective. It was highlighted that all of the stars that we can see in the night sky are at varying distances away from Earth, so if we were to look out at the sky from a different location, for example from on another planet, the constellations that we know so well (although let’s face it, some of them are a bit of a stretch of the imagination) are not really there at all. If this were turned into a metaphor about perspective I’m not sure whether it would be inspiring or disheartening. But I guess it has made me think about how we can look at something over and over again and it might always appear to be basically the same, but if we take a step to the side and look from a different angle we can see it in a totally new light. In addition to sparking philosophical thoughts, Oskar and I learnt a lot about the cosmos and are very keen to go back and learn more – we also have a renewed interest in stargazing once we relocate our binoculars which have temporarily gone AWOL.

On the final day of my residency I was eating lunch in the Tea Room at the Art Gallery when I heard an announcement over the PA system stating that there was a free guided tour beginning at 12pm (it was 11.55am at this time – I eat my lunch pretty early ok!) so I essentially inhaled my soup and rushed to the counter. The tour was excellent and it is something that I now wish I had done weeks ago. I am someone with a rather short attention span and in order to look at and appreciate art I need context, to make sense of it and have an idea of its significance. Maybe this is a sign that I am quite superficial or maybe juvenile, I don’t know? But anyway, in this half hour I learnt so much more about the art displayed here and the stories behind it than I had in a month of wandering around on my own pretending I knew things about stuff (I think I had been wandering around worrying about whether I would be inspired to the point that I was overthinking everything!). To me the paintings are like magical portholes, each one a glimpse into the stories of both the artists themselves and the social and political world of the time. This made me reflect on my love of history and the fact that spoken and written words as well as paintings are more than just something aesthetically pleasing to look at, they are significant tools to learn about ourselves and our world. I also realised that art doesn’t need to be perfect (I mean, there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ anyway, but I guess I’m referring to whatever unattainable goalpost society has set and insisted we strive for), there can be imperfections and flaws even in the most amazing, wonderful and highly acclaimed pieces of art. An example – and this can be kind of a scavenger hunt for you to find it – is a painting hung in the Art Gallery which depicts several horses in a field, and I noticed a faint outline, almost like a shadow, of a horse which looks as though it was painted and then covered up. Yet with this painting this doesn’t take away from it at all, if anything it adds to it. This made me realize that perhaps we should just embrace the so-called ‘flaws’ in our writing, our art, and all other facets of our lives, these are literally what make us human. Our faults and imperfections set us apart from being like computers or clones of one another, and it is our way of rebelling against the social expectations of how we ‘should’ behave and express ourselves and our creativity.

[1] ShamWow: extremely absorbent sponge often advertised on infomercials at bizarre times of day.