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Memento : Issue 29
‘Well, there it is. The topic has been chosen and the research is done. We have at our disposal folders and folders of fascinating material from the Archives’ collection including a fantastic swag of photographs and a couple of great historic film clips from our film archive. The Just Add Water exhibition engages with a crucial and very topical subject – water management in Australia. It explores the places where Commonwealth activity has intersected with water management over the last hundred years. From the designs and implementation of big infrastructure projects to the dreams of even bigger infrastructure projects that never happened. And of course, the unexpected finds – the heartbreaking letters begging Prime Minister Chifley to hold a day of prayer for rain and a range of idiosyncratic, boldly confident weather-forecasting booklets from our copyright collection. The challenge lies in working out how to display these schemes and dreams. An exhibition is a three-dimensional experience that visitors explore by moving around. The curatorial process involves transforming the piles of fascinating material – all of it two- dimensional – into an enjoyable, informative spatial experience. The process of transformation begins with an ‘exhibition geography’ – a way of organising the material so that each item can find its logical place. The geography chosen for Just Add Water was the movement of water itself, which was then connected to relevant stories from the Archives’ collection. ■ Water falls from the sky – CSIRO’s cloud seeding is part of a long tradition of trying to make it rain in Australia. ■ Water collects in lakes and dams – dam-building schemes and dreams feature strongly in our collection. ■ Water moves across the country – stories of river modification, irrigation works and dreams of very long canals wind their way through our files. ■ Water sinks down below the earth to form groundwater – and is pumped up again by government bores. The next step is to choose which of the hundreds of dormant stories in our collection to include – a step that is much harder than it sounds. The stories are developed and condensed into text panels illustrated by photographs. In Just Add Water, quotes taken from documents in our collection can be both seen and heard through text panels and audio material. We have also re-created some documents as facsimile files which are distributed around the exhibition space for visitors to browse. Sometimes we need to borrow objects to help illustrate our stories. In Just Add Water, a huge 200kg rusty bore head accompanies the story about artesian Jay Arthur is curator of the National Archives’ latest exhibition, Just Add Water: Schemes and Dreams for a Sunburnt Country. Currently on display at the Archives in Canberra, Just Add Water begins its national tour later in the year. In the following article, Jay guides us through the painstaking process of building an exhibition – from its conception to installation. 16 MEMENTO News from the National Archives