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Chau Chak Wing Museum begins a new era in contemporary museology

Fostering an inter-generational and cross-cultural dialogue, and facilitating a space for connection, reflection and ideas, museums have always been critical to the functioning of a modern society.


April 26th, 2021

With the onset of the global pandemic, and in light of the rapidly growing importance of human-centric values, museums have been undergoing a dynamic transformation. Today, they play a pivotal role in representing a diverse intersection of international and local communities with the view of building a better understanding of the world around us – and contributing to protecting human dignity, fostering social justice and striving to improve global equality and well-being.

Contemporary Museums: Cultural Investment & Wellbeing

“There is a better recognition that cultural investments are just as critical to the wellbeing of our communities as any other infrastructure that sustains quality of life”, say Graeme Dix and Kiong Lee, Directors of Johnson Pilton Walker (JPW).

As the creative design minds behind Sydney’s new Chau Chak Wing Museum, Dix and Lee are well-placed to comment on the contributions of museums to community wellbeing. “The Chau Chak Wing Museum continues our interest in rethinking new forms and relationships, diversity and spatial conditions – between inside and outside, building and landscape, civic and nature,” Dix and Lee add.

Bringing together the University of Sydney’s most significant cultural, scientific and art collections, Chau Chak Wing Museum offers a potent indication of a new turn in contemporary museology. As Dix and Lee explain, “the diversity of the collection and how the items can ‘speak’ to each other is unique in Australia, where most museums tend to be highly specialised.” In contrast, Chau Chak Wing Museum provides a rare opportunity to juxtapose the cultural understanding with the knowledge systems.

This incredible diversity of holdings presents a new curatorial opportunity to not only investigate different forms of understanding, but also to provoke, challenge and delight. According to the institution’s Deputy Director, Paul Donnelly, “the visual and conceptual impact provided by combining a variety of objects in a single display, or variety of exhibitions across the Museum, is ideal for engaging with our increasingly interdisciplinary world.” In all instances – whether visitors are gazing upon modern artworks, Egyptian mummies, preserved shark specimens, ancient Chinese ceramics or West Papuan weaving – the relationship between viewer and object is heightened.

“Through this, we hope to give a sense that there are other or different ways of knowing”, say Dix and Lee – and within Chau Chak Wing Museum’s university context, such a contribution cannot be overstated. Providing rich pedagogical freedom, the Museum’s curatorial teams are driven by what Donnelly describes as “new ways of embedding objects in the learning experience across campus – from frequent users such as archaeology students, to recent converts from the Business School.”

Each of these curatorial teams collaborated with four independent design firms to create the distinct exhibition spaces. Youssofzay and Hart, Five Spaces Design, studioplusthree and Trina Day Architects with Catseye Bay were each engaged to provide designs which would facilitate the presentation and exhibition of the museum’s artefacts. 

Care and Consideration: from Macro to Micro

With the rich assortment of artworks, artefacts, documents and media comes the need for storage solutions that celebrate the diverse character of the holdings, and provide the most optimum conditions for each and single one of them. “The incredible diversity of collections such as these requires addressing the individual handling and storage needs of very different types of artefacts and media”, says CSM Office Furniture Solutions Director, Peter Letton.

As one of the collaborators on Chau Chak Wing Museum’s extensive storage requirements, Letton highlights the advanced care and consideration required for such broad and diverse holdings: “For instance, large heavy vessels, pots and ceramics require different engineering requirements to long spears, bark paintings, tapestries and fabrics.” As part of the project, CSM Office Furniture also designed extra deep till cabinets for fine-art storage. They’re housed in rolling mobile shelving which allows for the appropriate sensitive casing to stand delicate artworks.

“Our design for Chau Chak Wing Museum was also driven by wanting to provide curatorial and conservation teams with frictionless access to these stored paintings – something that is paramount for the items’ safety and the teams’ utility,” Letton adds and goes on to explain why customisation was the vital part of the design approach: “Achieving the high volume density storage of these extensive collections presented unique engineering problems which could only be resolved through customisation in the design process.”


Starting From Scratch: Improved Operational Control

Rare as curatorial opportunities Chau Chak Wing Museum has the capacity to now embrace, it is rarer still for a museum to have such a similar degree of flexibility and control over its operational capabilities. Being able to design it from ground up, incorporating custom-made solutions along the way, certainly enhanced the operational potential of the museum. “Many museums are used to making do with compromised spaces and constrained operations,” say JPW Directors. “They can still put on the most talked-about exhibitions and memorable visitor experiences. For Chau Chak Wing Museum, we were able to start from scratch; from crafting the public experiences to equally consider vital back-of-house functions.”

Mastering the balancing act of aligning aspirations, technical challenges and the budget requirements, JPW managed to achieve all the necessary operational capabilities on a much larger scale. Elements such as a secure loading dock, quarantine facility, handling and storage and reliable environmental control greatly improve operational outcomes for the museum. The secure loading dock has been particularly meaningful to the Museum’s Director, David Ellis – for the first time, his dream to share with and borrow from other museums has finally become a reality. “Fellow professionals are envious of our voluminous loading dock and bespoke viewing, quarantine and exhibitions preparation rooms”, says Ellis.  “Not to mention the enormous flat work hanging racks!,” he adds enthusiastically.

The JPW-designed highly accessible storage represents a real coup for curatorial and conservation teams alike. It’s abundantly clear the designers invested just as much thought, time and care into those spaces as they did with front-of-house, highlighting that the new wave in contemporary museology requires a new and bespoke kind of storage facilities.

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