Negotiating the Nation: Knowledge and Meaning at Vaucluse House in its First Curatorial Period

Susan McClean

Abstract


Inaugurated during World War I, Vaucluse House museum aimed to educate visitors of the work of nineteenth century parliamentarian William Charles Wentworth, in particular his role in the installation of responsible government in New South Wales, indeed his writing of the first Constitution, for this and other Wentworth projects were among those which underpinned twentieth century democracy. This article uses museum theory concerning the character of the modern disciplinary museum, and also the tendency of that institution to shape knowledge, to investigate the experience offered to audiences at Vaucluse House over the museum’s first curatorial period. It argues that, in the context of war and an official need to press empire nationalist identity, particular curatorial practices and museological assumptions shaped the themes available and assumed certain audience responses. In the absence of any contemporary methods for assessing museum work in detail, the decision to install a major thematic display of constitutional history intermingled with a house museum interpretation produced mixed messages. Unexpected new evidence and ingenuous curatorial expansion of the rooms available for inspection soon produced unintended consequences. In a changing historical and cultural context, the major theme and rationale of the museum began to be undermined and the house museum interpretation began to dominate. It was this focus which was finally and belatedly endorsed by the museum Trustees in the mid 1950s.

Keywords


Vaucluse House; museum history; curatorship; interpretation; modernity; national identity.

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