Touching the tipping points of history: Q&A with curator Jennifer Forest
‘When you look back at the grand sweep of time, you can almost touch the point of change.‘
Our new exhibition, Democracy DNA: the People, the Prime Ministers and the World, explores the events that shaped our nation and our democracy. Exhibition curator and ‘storyteller’ Jennifer Forest spoke to us about bringing it all together.
Can you explain your role at MoAD?
I’m a curator. Or a storyteller. This means that I look at the story we want to tell and why we want to tell it. I look at who our audience is and what matters to them, and then we go looking for that perfect meeting place between story, mission and people.
In an exhibition that spans over 100 years, how did you select the stories, issues and objects covered?
The passing of time is a great tool for discerning what’s important and what’s not. When you’re caught up living day to day, it is really easy to think that the latest news is vitally important. But when you look back on the past, it is curious to see what stands out as a really defining moment, and what turned out to be just not that important. There are some clear standout events – both at home and globally – that shaped our nation, just like there are some people and issues that really defined their times. It’s the same with objects, some objects clearly speak to the people and the issues of their day.
How long has the process taken?
My work on this project got underway in early 2020. And then we all know what happened! Soon after we started, the first COVID-19 lockdown hit Canberra. We later re-grouped and were very close to having an exhibition to install when the second Canberra lockdown happened. We also felt the impact of COVID-19 in other parts of the country, which had a flow on impact for object loans, suppliers and everyone’s deadlines.
What is your favourite object in the exhibition? Or your favourite story?
I like the Gold Record on loan from Frances Peters-Little. This is the Gold Record given to her father, Jimmy Little for his 1963 song ‘Royal Telephone’. This was the first recording by an Indigenous Australian to achieve mainstream success, reaching number one on the Sydney charts and number 10 nationally. I think it speaks to that interesting fusion of popular culture with politics and how change is created. In the lead-up to the 1967 referendum, Jimmy Little used his public profile to encourage Indigenous Australians to enrol to vote.
Is there anything surprising you learned?
How you can almost touch the tipping points of history. When you look back at the grand sweep of time, you can almost touch the point of change. You can see when an idea’s time has come. There’s a clear groundswell of support, with these tipping points, often, supported by all sides. To give a recent example, Prime Minister Julia Gillard initiated the Royal Commission into Institutional Reponses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2012, and it was Prime Minister Scott Morrison who gave the national apology in 2018.
What has been your greatest challenge in developing the exhibition?
The greatest challenge really has to be the truly unexpected things that kept happening over the last two years – like a global pandemic that caused us to rethink how we work, and when we could actually deliver an exhibition, and then when we thought we were almost there, the damage to the building caused by the fire.
What do you like about working on exhibitions at MoAD?
I like that the work matters. How our democracy works – and how well it is working – is seriously important. It matters what decisions are made in our name. It matters that we care and pay attention to what’s going on.
What do you hope people will walk away with after seeing this exhibition?
I hope people walk away from the exhibition feeling encouraged to care and to pay attention to what’s going on in our nation. I hope they feel our democracy is worth fighting for, that it’s worth fighting for the peoples’ voice to shape the future.