Living the dream

Master of Art Curatorship student Sofia Wang reflects on her internship at the NGV

My first journey at National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) was in 2012. The building architecture, artworks, and service within, all made a big impression on me. I was working as a collection assistant in China at that time and was visiting Australia chiefly to see the Asian Art Gallery at the NGV International (NGVI).

Five years later I began an internship as part of my Master of Art Curatorship degree in the very gallery I had marvelled at all those years ago. Not only was this internship a dream come true, but it provided me with valuable hands-on experience in the Australian arts sector. As a student from overseas particularly, the internship gives me the opportunity to better understand the Australian approach to museum practices.

During the second week of my placement, I had a meeting with my internship supervisor; Senior Curator of Asian Art, Wayne Crothers. We had a brief discussion with respect to the main aim of my placement: make the Asian Gallery, particularly the Chinese Gallery more accessible to a larger audience. We spoke about how researching collection pieces would be essential to achieve our goals. This entails researching seals and titles, inscriptions, provenance and writing measuring collection items. It was going to be my job to help with this process.

One interesting aspect of my NGV experience was realising how much curators and conservators work together to develop, preserve and present works. I also took a conservation tour with Wayne during the second week of my placement. The tour provided an overview of the activities of the Conservation Department and the role it plays at the museum. The department operates through seven specialist areas:  exhibition loan works, frames & furniture, metal and ceramic objects, oil paintings, works on paper & photography, and textiles. The Asian Art department recently acquired several paintings on silk and paper, Wayne and I spent an hour at the works on paper & photography studio to discuss the best way of exhibiting and storing these new acquisitions.

My key task has been to research and catalogue artworks, particularly writing bilingual labels and descriptions (Chinese and English) for Chinese Gallery’s new display. The Chinese Art Gallery’s changeover and new display took place over two months. In the new display we focused on several historical themed sections and narratives with contemporary artists.

Themes consisted of: ceramic in ancient China, bronze ware in the Shang dynasty, tomb ware in the Tang dynasty, scholar’s objects in the Song dynasty, and imperial tastes in the Ming and Qing dynasty. Contemporary works including installation, mix media and sculpture made by Ai Weiwei, Yang Yongliang and Guan Wei are displayed along with these historical objects.

This time we have grouped works based on common features such as colour, theme, shape, and pattern. For example, bright yellow glazed porcelains from a variety of dynasties have been presented together. This way of displaying generates a new curatorial perspective. Curating the exhibition unconventionally is the gallery’s attempt to embrace contemporary culture and attract the changing museum audience.  The exhibition links ‘Old China’ and ‘New China”, highlighting how the old has influenced the new, in subtle and interesting ways. Wayne has given me valuable insight into the curation of Asian historical exhibitions – placing historical pieces with contemporary works is important for creating an engaging story with an unfamiliar culture in the Australian context.

An unconventional  perspective: ceramic works curated around colour, not dynasty

One challenge is to write description label texts in a limited amount of words. Lengthy labels can be less engaging for audiences, particularly in our fast-paced society; fewer people are taking time to read complete descriptions. Consequently, the shorter descriptions help to achieve museum’s educational goals and at the same time, engage with the museum's increasingly changing audience. The challenge is to summarise the object in just a few sentences.

It was experiences like this that allowed me to gain a more rounded picture of the structure the NGV, and to appreciate just how many people it takes to make such a large and esteemed gallery to maintain academic displays and popularity with the public.

Many thanks to my supervisor Wayne and the NGV for their support, I have gained lots of hands-on experience that I would have never learned from class alone. Over the last a couple of weeks of learning and adapting, I have developed some fundamental curatorial skills that will be essential for my future career.