I don’t know how many years I’ve been waiting to get into this gem of a museum. Mostly its been due to not being there on the right day or at the right time and then it was closed for restoration. But now at last I have been able to visit the Museum of Economic Botany and it has been well worth the wait.
The building is a ‘Greek revival’ style and was commissioned in 1879 by Dr Richard Schomburgk, the second Director of the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide, and was first opened to the public in 1881. The principal architect was William Thomas Gore, but additional design and architectural oversight was provided by George Thomas Light and Edward John Woods, who was Architect-in-Chief at the time of the construction. An interesting aside for the architecturally minded is that Woods went on to form various partnerships including one with Walter Bagot in 1905 establishing the well-known architectural firm Woods Bagot which is still prominent today. Canberra residents may be familiar with one of their more recent buildings 7 London Circuit which houses National Information Communication Technology Australia (NICTA).
A look at the window decorations gives you an idea of the decorative style of the architecture. The palmette motif above the window is also repeated in the interior decorations. Inside the building there is a beautiful timber ceiling painted a pale duck egg blue with decoration picked out in gold. The ceiling decoration is in original condition.
Around the walls a frieze runs just underneath the ceiling and there is also a dado frieze around the middle of the walls. All of the wall paint was submerged under an overcoat of government grey paint in the 1950’s. When the restoration was first contemplated a section of the original dado frieze was uncovered. Given the good condition of this frieze it was decided to expose the original frieze rather than reproduce it. The artist of the internal decorations was James W Williams.
On the inside you get to the heart of the matter, a museum designed to demonstrate “the ‘value’ that the botanical world brings to our society and the importance of plants in our way of life”. It is one large room, roughly divided in half with a series of central display cases containing examples of individual plant families. Around the wall stand cabinets containing collections of related objects such as displays of ‘fibres’, ‘timbers of the world’, ‘cereals’, including the wheat collection made by SA farmer Don Whiting from 1970 to 2009. The other half of the building has been given over to an exhibition space.
Just trawling around the display cases took a long time and I was continually and fascinatedly distracted by the cabinets with their artistically monumental displays reminiscent of those at the produce halls of the Royal Easter Shows. As can be imagined many of the specimens need to be regularly replaced. Recent specimens are freeze dried and result in strangely pale versions of themselves as can be seen in the case which contains members of the brassica family.
But sometimes the contents are older such as these pea and bean seeds,
and some are those orginally obtained for the museum. The latter include their superb papier mache apple, pear and mushroom displays made in Germany by Heinrich Arnoldi and Co. The fruit is hand painted in the most remarkable detail and is of interest not only for its depictions of many fruit varieties which are no longer in production (let alone existence), but as historial artefacts in their own right. This is where the museum just gets it so right, acknowledging and higlighting all the layers and complexity of its displays.
The receipt visible in the bottom corner of display cabinet is for the sum of £2/1-10 (or in translation two pounds, one shilling and ten pence), as “payment for a consignment of artificial fruits and mushrooms“. And here are the mushrooms!
The coloured labels were designed to differentiate the edible and the merely digestible from the poisonous (the current signage does indicate that these are not a reliable guide!).
If all this was not enough the museum has commissioned two magnificent contemporary works. Fiona Hall’s amazing work Like a Shady Grove is so in tune with the museum that at first I struggled to decide whether it was an original ‘Victorian ‘ or a contemporary piece. (Sorry about the crap photo quality as no flash was allowed and I was wildly excited at the time). With all the exquisite cabinetry detailing and inlay, the myriad Buddhas inside and the gnarled root on the top it is a close thing, until you noticed the small label discreetly placed on one side.
In the exhibition space master designer and maker Khai Liew has constructed a free-standing exhibition enclosure of Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). This houses temporary exhibitions. Currently on display is The Garden of Ideas: Imagining the Australian Garden (until 27 February 2011).
I can only agree with Peter Emmett, the Project Director and Curator for the MEB refurbishment (2004-2010), who quite rightly describes this museum as a “delerium of delight and drowsiness”.