The New Wave of Wunderkammers: the ‘Inside Out’ exhibition at the Melbourne Museum

We went to the Inside Out exhibition at the Melbourne Museum today.


It’s a dreamlike, theatrical, slightly creepy experience. The Museum has essentially pulled a hodge-podge of items from their collection, and arranged them to create something that feels more like art than education.

It feels weird to put a spoiler tag on an exhibition review, but: mild spoilers below…

Visitors are guided through the exhibition via a voice-over on an iPhone. The voice is warm, chatty,  a little bit flirtatious. It acknowledges that it is a disembodied voice, and that we the listeners are living creatures. Then it takes us on a tour: of taxidermied animals arranged in a Victorian salon, of a disco dancefloor beneath model pteranodons, of coral skeletons next to an Egyptian funeral casket.


“We always took into account the past, the present and the future,” fashion designer Prue Acton says in a recorded interview about one of her gowns, “And a really good, beautifully designed garment should be able to be worn again and again, decade after decade. Why not?”



It’s a theme the disembodied voice comes back to. Beauty is timeless. The past and the future are one.

Wouldn’t you like to be timeless? To be still and eternal in the Museum’s collection?


The exhibition finishes with a wall of vintage motorcycles and an engineer expressing her frustration that these machines built for movement have to remain still if they are to survive.

There’s a subtext here: flee while you still can!

The very final item is the first black-box flight recorder, invented here in Melbourne. But this scientific instrument, invented to improve air safety, is described by the disembodied voice in almost Buddhist terms as bearing witness as passengers and crew cross over from their mundane lives into eternity.




The narration ends. You take off your headphones. You blink. The glass-lined foyer of the Museum is bright after the dimly lit exhibition. Small children run about, pigeons steal crumbs from the cafe, and in the courtyard outside young men are pulling stunts on their bikes.

Perhaps you flex your hand, just to check you’re still one of the living.

Or perhaps not.


The first thing that struck me about Inside Out was the debt it owes to MONA.


There’s the obvious details: the iPhones replacing wall labels, the red velvet curtains. There’s that hint that you too could become part of the exhibition (for a hefty “lifetime membership fee”, MONA will interr your ashes in a Julia DeVille funerary display).

Above all, there’s the attitude: the post-modern rejection of the cool, authoritative gallery voice in favour of–as I once put it— the “bugfuck insane”.

It’s the new wave of wunderkammer, the cabinet of curiosities designed as much to astonish and delight as it is to educate and inform.

The Museum proper is still there, above the special exhibition hall, still providing facts and context and history.  Inside Out is the literal underside of a museum: the messy emotional connection we form with collections. (Another tie to MONA, perhaps? MONA’s founder David Walsh was inspired to start collecting by his visits to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as a child.)

I said there’s something slightly creepy about Inside Out. I meant that as a complement. I remember visiting the Museum as a child, and feeling there was something eerie and dreamlike about dinosaur skeletons and taxidermied beasts.

Inside Out is a celebration of that feeling. Museum artefacts are not just preserved in displays and storerooms: they are preserved in our memories, and our hearts.


There’s an interview with the Inside Out Experience Designer Zoe Meagher over on Design Files, in which she talks about her role in creating the exhibition, and how her background in creative arts informs her work.



So. What can we steal?

The first stealable idea is emotional connection — designing an exhibition to make people feel as much as learn.

The second is narrative — leading visitors through an exhibition by telling a story.

The third is artistic design — creating displays that are exciting and beautiful.

The fourth is unexpected connections — engage your audiences by making them rethink how they see the items.

And finally: steal. The iPhones are from MONA. The disembodied voice is GLaDOS from the Portal video game. The design is from the stage. Inspiration is everywhere. Steal it and make something new.





About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
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