Migration Memories

Exhibition design


This section discusses the visual and sound design of the three Migration Memories exhibitions; the separate local exhibitions in Lightning Ridge and Robinvale, and their combined display at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Migration Memories Lightning Ridge at the Lightning Ridge Historical Society Gallery. Photograph: Ursula Frederick, 2006. Migration Memories Robinvale at the Robinvale Leisure Centre. Photograph: Mary Hutchison, 2007. Migration Memories: Researching Migration in Regional Australia at the the National Museum of Australia. Photograph: Lannon Harley, 2007. Courtesy National Museum of Australia.

The research interest in design

An important premise of the research was that content and form work together to create meaning. The designers' work concerned how graphic and fabrication elements could support and highlight three distinct but interconnected dimensions of the exhibitions: the historical, the personal and the local. They worked with the curator on the development of the exhibitions from the beginning, which meant that a feeling for the stories, people and places was embedded in the design. 

Iona Walsh, designer, Lightning Ridge

Going to Lightning Ridge was very significant. I had the visual impression of a place which was largely underground, marked on the surface by stakes and signs which marked out claims and the location of vertical mining shafts. There were also haphazardly-placed rusting metal structures and bits of equipment. That’s where the idea for propping the panels came from. I wanted to do something that wasn’t allied to the walls. It’s not that kind of town! 

Drawing by designer Iona Walsh for Migration Memories Lightning Ridge exhibition.


Paula McKindlay, designer, Robinvale

Unlike Lightning Ridge, we weren’t using three dimensional objects and I was trying to get the 3D into it by creating something that had body. The curved shapes came in when we were thinking what it was about Robinvale that could be used to characterise the design, and we looked at the river.

Floor-plan by designer Paula MacKindlay for Migration Memories Robinvale exhibition.


Sound installations

The sound installations were an integral part of the exhibitions. They were designed to give an aural sense of local cultural diversity and were composed primarily of people’s voices, speaking in a number of languages, including English. The voices were often in conversation and sometimes in song. This aural texture was part of the experience of walking around the whole exhibition. 

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Conversation from sound installation, Migration Memories: Lightning Ridge. Recording: OpalFM. Design: Lea Collins.

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Tongan Christian Fellowship Choir from sound installation, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Recording and design: Lea Collins.

The personal and historical

The idea was that the personal perspectives should speak for themselves. The seven personal stories in each local exhibition were presented as distinct stand-alone displays. Within each individual display, relevant historical context was provided in dialogue with the personal story. This was achieved through text identified with either the curator’s or the individual storyteller’s name. It was also conveyed by using documents and photographs which set the historical scene as well as personal photographs and memorabilia (see Showing history and place for more details).

  sothea panel
Dusan Malinovic display, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Photograph: Mary Hutchison.
  Detail from Sothea Thea, panel two, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Design: Paula McKindlay.

Personal objects

Objects were used for the personal memories they embodied rather than their cultural meaning. Each storyteller was asked to choose an object, or group of objects, that expressed their story. In the exhibitions, ways of presenting the objects at the heart of each individual display were explored, with the inclusion of the actual objects in the Lightning Ridge exhibition and photographs of objects in Robinvale.

Jennifer Colless' grandfather’s opal cutting machine, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Photograph: Ursula Frederick.
  Panel showing John Katis' mother’s mortar and pestle, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Photographs: Jo Sheldrick.


The local

The exhibitions experimented with ways of conveying a sense of each locality and its different cultures in both visual and aural forms. Introductory panels highlighted the peopling of the locality with maps that showed ‘the world in Lightning Ridge’ and ‘the world in Robinvale’. Contemporary and historical images of the particular place were another introductory feature. The Robinvale design used an orthophoto of the River Murray as a panel graphic.


Detail from Introduction, panel two, Migration Memories: Lightning Ridge. Design: Iona Walsh.
  Detail from Introduction, panel one, Migration Memories: Robinvale. Design: Paula McKindlay.


The local venues

The exhibition venues in each location were very different. The Lightning Ridge exhibition was developed for display at the Gallery of the Lightning Ridge Historical Society; a heritage building that was originally constructed as the bush nurse’s residence and hospital in 1915. In Robinvale a room designed for childcare in the recently constructed Robinvale Leisure Centre, became an exhibition venue. 


Barbara Moritz, Secretary of Lightning Ridge Historical Society, outside their gallery. Photograph: Len Cram, 2006.
  The Robinvale Leisure Centre. Photograph: Mary Hutchison, 2007.

From the local to the national

At the National Museum, the exhibitions were displayed together in a temporary exhibition space adjacent to a complex of galleries dedicated to the Museum’s own permanent exhibitions of Australian culture and history. An important question for the research was how the focus on personal histories within the shared experience of place would come across in a venue concerned with the national experience as a whole.

National Museum of Australia, Canberra.
Photograph: Pip Deveson, 2009.
  Entry to the exhibtion at the National Museum. Photograph: Lannon Harley, 2007. Courtesy National Museum of Australia.


Tim Moore, exhibition designer, Thylacine

The challenge with the NMA exhibition was that the space available was quite restrictive and there were two exhibitions. We used new introductory graphics to bring them together. We decided to divide the space between the two exhibitions so people could see that they were from two distinct places – if we’d had more space I would definitely have emphasised the distinction between places. As it was we were lucky that a lot of the material could sit against walls and the 3-D material went into the middle of the room.


Inside the exhibition at the the National Museum
Inside the exhibition at the the National Museum. Photograph: Lannon Harley, 2007. Courtesy National Museum of Australia.