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Not everyone is well travelled, and my recent trip to Sydney was my first. The preposition is important. This was a trip to Sydney: I didn't go over to Sydney, as cultural mileage-pointers do. Nor was I anything but a tourist. In saying that I don't think I'm subscribing to an outdated hyperconformism, since the tag 'traveller' has become so cliched that at least one travel agency has high-gloss posters announcing: 'For travellers, not tourists'. Cue documentation: photographs of, and a falsified Kerouac reference to, the well known jeans home, Route 66 (the relevant sentence in On the Road actually refers to Route 6). As a faithful tourist I did 'do' some galleries, but the pretext for this outburst is the Museum of Sydney, an institution whose name is the biggest thing about it. It's a boutique museum.

'There's nothing in it!' a New Zealand historian told me just before I went. I'd wanted to go to MoS since last February, when I heard one of its curators, Peter Emmet, speak at the last New Zealand Historical Association. That was not an ideal setting for a talk about 'the poetics of space and the politics of place' ('What's ontology?' one Dictionary of New Zealand Biography worker said to another behind me). And sure, MoS's inspirational-quote panels had a ton of Paul Carter gnomes about the museum being a theatre rather than a mirror. If they weren't always convincing, they certainly prodded one. How, for example, should one regard the cabinet system, where artefacts are arranged in instructive contrast or parallel, in drawers which the visitor pulls out at will? Certainly interactive: but what about the way this device replicates old cabinets of curiosity? Theatre and mirror together? Or a demonstration of the theatricality of the mirror?

My favourite display (or installation) was a room wallpapered with Australian Women's Weeklies from the fifties, and some homely couches, gathered round two television-sized video screens playing montages of (not overly personal) home movies of Sydney. It may sound dire, but it wasn't. It was uncannily affecting, partly because of the editing of the movies. Part of its power for me derived from its follow-through: you go into the room next to it, and it's just a lookout over Sydney, only one floor off street level. No Skytower panorama; a humble yet spectacular look down a city street, onward to the water, and thence to the apartments tumbling into the harbour from the north shore. I'm not sure about how even so innovative a museum as this can instantiate Walter Benjamin's famous comment about the point of history being the seizing of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger (quoted on a wall in the museum), but between the film and the newsprint there was a sense of flash, of a memory won against or in the face of danger.

Chris Hilliard
8 September 1997