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How do museums remain relevant to their communities and share the stories that matter? These are questions that motivated Coffs Harbour Regional Museum to initiate the Community Curator Project. This ground-breaking project took place over 2021 and was funded by Create NSW through the Local Government Authority Arts and Cultural Programs stream in 2020. Community Curators was an innovative approach to working in partnership with communities to curate stories for the new Yarrila Arts and Museum (YAM), the combined museum and gallery scheduled to open in mid-2023 at Yarrila Place.
The project had the following guiding principles:
- Communities – and audiences – are at the heart of YAM;
- Local communities are experts in their own histories and have skills, networks and knowledge that are essential to the museum - but are currently untapped;
- Injustice can exist in forms of representation, interpretation and communication, including in cultural institutions such as museums that may neglect or exclude certain peoples from their programs;
- People from all walks of life need to see themselves in the museum’s exhibitions, collections and programs;
- Museums play a crucial role in fostering social cohesion - they are among the few open, accessible forums where communities can explore and express local distinctiveness and identity, celebrate achievements and grapple with issues of concern and difference within and between communities.
Eleven Community Curators were recruited to locate stories and objects currently missing from our collections. Following training in the essentials of museum practice, Community Curators worked with their communities and networks to identify stories that mattered to them and that they wanted to see in the new museum. They then worked with artsworkers such as photographers and filmmakers to create content for the new museum and Coffs Collections.
Fascinating stories from the Gumbaynggirr, refugee, surfing, alternative health and education communities were uncovered, including the family at the heart of NSW’s longest running Native Title claim at Wenonah Headland and the thrill of playing soccer for a Yazidi girl who was not allowed to play sport in her home country Iraq. Ultimately, six films, three written life stories, one manuscript, five interview transcripts, 15 photographs, one poem, one song, five pieces of ephemera, one recipe, a full set of 45 issues of a local magazine from the 1980s and 90s and 24 objects were accessioned into the collection.
This new material significantly enriches and diversifies the museum’s collection and is now accessible to the community online via Coffs Collections. The project will have a second life when YAM opens in 2023 and many of the Community Curator stories will feature in the new permanent exhibition and in temporary exhibitions and programs over coming years.
Sophie Gribble curated the Gulung project, which involved filming the making of a gulung (or coolamon) from a local tallowwood tree. The film includes a song written and performed by Manduway Dutton about the significance of gulung. Gulung are traditional Gumbaynggirr carrying vessels with curved sides. Their uses include cradling babies and carrying water and food. Nathan Brennan made the gulung, Amber Hamer created the film and Manduway’s song was recorded by Lizzy Rutten and Kobi Steward at local recording studio, Grow the Music.
Goitom Hidremichael worked together with Amanda Norman and Simon Portus of Headline Productions to make a film about the important role coffee has played in supporting his journey from a refugee camp in Eritrea to his new life in Coffs Harbour. Making and sharing traditional Eritrean coffee with others, along with his deep Catholic faith, has helped Goitom stay strong through difficult circumstances.
Emma Aspden worked with women from Coffs Harbour’s multicultural community to document and share some of their personal experiences, including life in their home countries, circumstances that forced them to leave their homes, their journeys to Australia and making a life in Coffs Harbour. Emma interviewed three women from Iraq, Eritrea and Myanmar and photographed items of cultural significance to each of them.