The decorative arts have always had a tremendous appeal for collectors, and perhaps the greatest collectors of all time have been the big museums that are to be found in every capital city of the world. Many of these public collections had their origins in royal or noble collections. In Australia, the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, formerly the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, was conceived in 1879 as a spin-off from the Sydney International Exhibition which had been held to great acclaim in the Garden Palace, a sort of antipodean crystal palace, sited in the Botanic Gardens. It presented displays of collections of indigenous artefacts from the earliest days of the colony, international wares, and local and interstate productions to much local acclaim. These wonders were all destroyed when on the night of 22 September 1882, the building burnt to the ground. One of the few surviving artefacts of the conflagration was an elephant from the Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) display that had been carved from graphite, and despite falling through three floors, survived.
The Powerhouse Museum’s latest exhibition, 1001 Remarkable Objects has this elephant on display along with one thousand more objects from its holdings of over 500,000. The exhibition curatorium was chaired by Leo Schofield AM whose stated aim was to put on a show that presented a snapshot of the incredibly eclectic holdings of the Powerhouse, but also to ensure that it had the broadest possible appeal to all visitors, from the youngest to the oldest, from seasoned museum goers to curious onlookers. Employing the skills of three different theatre designers, the presentation is designed to excite and enthuse. Entered through a huge triumphal arch decorated to one side with clouds and classical statuary and surmounted by a Marilyn Lips sofa, the exhibition is a wunderkammer presented in over twenty-five different rooms. The design of each room is inspired by the themes of nature, power, movement, and joy, and the arrangement of the objects is deliberately quirky and at times eccentric, with unusual juxtapositions between objects from different eras or materials in fascinating dialogues.
The diversity on display is totally staggering, ranging from an electric car made in 1917, to an 18th century sedan chair; Venetian glass bought for the museum in the 1880s on display with amusing modern pieces that add a witty twist to the same aesthetic. Indigenous art from remote townships as well as urban practitioners sit happily with 1950s Italian art glass. A totally zany mousetrap making machine is on display next to the museum’s prized and incredibly rare 18th century Meissen bust of Schmiedel, the court jester whose tricks with the mice that dangle from his mouth and sit on his hat amused the King of Saxony. There are famous masterpieces like the Egyptian suite by Thomas Hope and other pieces never before seen by the public such as the Japanese okimono of monkeys playing with a netsuke and being stung by a wasp. The labyrinth of arched rooms opens out to the Joy section which is surmounted by one of the giant kewpie dolls from the Sydney Olympic Games closing ceremony, and has displays of costume and childhood memorabilia, as well as rarities such as the wind tunnel model of the Sydney Opera House and Kylie Minogue’s iconic Showgirl costume.
Remarkable in every sense, this exhibition deserves to be seen more than once, indeed, it would be almost impossible to take it all in in one visitation. As someone commented on Instagram: “Run, don’t walk to 1001 Remarkable Objects… a wonderful wunderkammer of the museum’s treasures!”
1001 Remarkable Objects is on display at the Powerhouse Museum until 31 December 2023. Learn more at powerhouse.com.au
RONAN SULICH / Senior Adviser, Sydney
Banner Image: Powerhouse Museum, 1001 Remarkable Objects | Photo by Zan Wimberley