Between Old and New: Reflections of a Gallery Attendant at Old Quad

Guest post by Gallery Attendant, Ada Coxall, reflecting on her work at Old Quad where she bridges the gap between art and audiences.

There always seems to be something quite poetic about being alone in Old Quad at the beginning and close of the day, before the doors open and visitors filter in. Standing in the stillness of the early morning or late afternoon never ceases to strike a chord with me, as I reflect on the building’s past guises and the many who have walked its halls.

Taking in these moments before I begin my duties as Gallery Attendant helps to centre me, helps me to engage with this ‘new-old’ space – and the objects it holds. I have the history and the story of the place in my mind as I go through the motions, checking the lights are all on and everything is in order. One of my opening duties is to examine the works on display, looking for any damages or issues. Moving into the North Annex of Old Quad, I find that a brief once-over never applies to Tom Nicholson’s work, Towards a Glass Monument, as my attention is naturally grabbed by the beauty of the piece. I find that the artwork changes day by day, and it is hard to not stand and admire the many ways it reacts to the light. Nicholson brings my early morning thoughts on the history of the building alive in this piece, offering multiple angles through which to view its significance. The arched neo-gothic lancets, which frame the stained glass, hark back to the original Old Quad windows, thereby using the structure of the old to hold something new. My interactions with visitors as they come across this piece is always a highlight, as we share our thoughts and feelings about the work.

Tom Nicholson, Towards a glass monument 2017-19 (installation photograph).
Tom Nicholson, Towards a glass monument 2017-19 (installation photograph).  Stained glass lead and steel frame in 2 screens, each containing 20 lancets. Realised through Monash Art Projects, Melbourne; Geoffrey Wallace Stained Glass, Melbourne; and courtesy of Milani Gallery, Brisbane. Photograph: Christian Capurro. © Tom Nicholson

In the East Bay Room, I look over the original Council chairs and table, ensuring they are all lined up and nothing is askew. Looking at these, I cannot help but picture them as they would have been, while the Council gathered around to make decisions about University matters. The chairs would have contributed to a palpable air of importance and hierarchy. Their polished decorative wood glints in the light, with the red puckered seats making many visitors believe these were for royalty. A common question asked by visitors is whether the Council still meets using such elaborate furniture, to which I assure them that these are here for historical allusion only – though it would be quite the image. Their presence here speaks to the fact that Western Euro-centric and colonial tradition and ceremony are still a large part of University life. Importantly though, as a part of the Cultural Collections of the University of Melbourne, these chairs are not left to be a static emblem of the past, and instead are on display to engage with important contemporary ideas and realities. The addition to the space of Mandy Nicholson’s Possum Skin Cloak speaks to the importance – and indeed the necessity – of recognizing the continued culture and ceremony of First Peoples, the traditional custodians of the land on which the University rests.

Joseph Reed (designer), George Thwaites & Son (manufacturer), Heritage Council Chamber furniture c. 1864–66
Joseph Reed (designer), George Thwaites & Son (manufacturer), Heritage Council Chamber furniture c. 1864–66. Carved oak and non-original leather; nineteen chairs, two thrones, two footstools, one large table, one small table, one replica throne. University of Melbourne Collection.
Mandy Nicholson, Wurundjeri-willam, Possum Skin Cloak 2014. Possum pelts, nylon wax string, woodburnt design. University of Melbourne Collection.
Mandy Nicholson, Wurundjeri-willam, Possum Skin Cloak 2014.Possum pelts, nylon wax string, woodburnt design. University of Melbourne Collection.

The building itself in its new identity as exhibition space also, like the Council furniture, is no longer simply a static emblem to the early life of the University. Its temporary exhibitions activate the space in significant ways. As a Gallery Attendant, I found myself to be especially attentive when Maree Clarke’s exhibition, Ancestral Memory, was on view, and not for just supervision reasons. The delicacy of Clarke’s glass eel kept me on my toes throughout – while I ensured visitors were not inclined to touch – however, this was all worth it for the poignant story this brought to Old Quad. Clarke’s pieces brought the land on which the Old Quad stands into high relief, talking to the migration of the short-finned eel under our feet, a thousand-year-old tradition. Clarke’s work and curation added a whole other level to my reflections on the building and extended my imaginative reach far beyond Old Quad’s walls – and far beyond its own history – to the land itself and the culture of its First Peoples. I found visitors equally engaged with this show, often bringing with them their own interesting stories and understandings.

Installation photography of Ancestral Memory exhibition, 2019
Installation photography of Ancestral Memory exhibition, 2019. Photograph: Christian Capurro. Image © the artists. This installation included a map from the University of Melbourne’s Special Collections (Robert Russell, Map showing the site of Melbourne and the position of the huts and building previous to the foundation of the township by Richard Bourke 1837).

I feel I am in a unique position as Gallery Attendant, to hold a more intimate and attentive awareness of the objects and the space in which I work. More than that though, I am excited by Old Quad’s continued mission in the space, which is to not just to display Cultural Collections from the University of Melbourne, but to activate them and engage them in new and bold ways.

Ada Coxall.

One Response to “Between Old and New: Reflections of a Gallery Attendant at Old Quad”

  1. Mark Elgar says:

    Thank you for sharing your reflections in such an interesting piece. I’m looking forward to wandering through Old Quad again …

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