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The McCoy Hall Victorian Fauna Dioramas: at least some things stay the same

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JShore Birds Diorama mm008198
The Shore Birds diorama completed in 1953 featured nine species of shore birds on a sandy strand at Shallow Inlet in early autumn when the Siberian migrants were about to leave and the double-banded dotterels had just arrived from their nesting grounds in New Zealand. The hills of Wilsons Promontory can be seen in the background across Waratah Bay. Photographer: David Loram.

Australia's flatness was reflected in the way most of the views terminate in an even horizon, the light in most examples was subdued (a condition made more pronounced because the exhibition lighting available was limited) and there are surprisingly few attempts to create dramatic moments. The Victorian Fauna Series represented a secluded, pacified nature, seemingly content with its isolation on the southern fringes of Australia. Most of the dioramas depicted animals concerned with the affairs of their own species and there were no mortal combats and certainly no challenge to humans.

Created in wartime and working as the central dramatic moment in the sequence of seventeen diorama settings, the male eastern grey kangaroo was represented up-stretched and magnificent in stature, implying authority over his passive does. But even in this, the largest of the dioramas, the dramatic possibilities of the nearby cliffs were avoided; the selected site is pulled back from the precipice, with only the most subtle indication of the Loch Ard Gorge (and the tragedy of the well-known shipwreck that had occurred there) on the horizon. Surely the diorama makers in the Northern hemisphere would not have exercised such restraint.

The common wombat (1954) depicted at Coldstream in the Dandenong Ranges is for me the most intriguing of the McCoy dioramas. It created an intimate atmosphere where the typically solitary and aggressively territorial wombat appeared docile and communal, mirroring a model nuclear family: mum, dad and the two kids. The setting while domestic was also mesmeric. The wombat's home in the gully was surrounded by bracken with whole fronds lovingly depicted in all their ferny detail. The patterns of the tree ferns interlocked with a lacy delicacy that recognised the beauty of detail, and the importance of observation and consistency over grand statement in painting the Australian environment. In a quaint and curious way, this was a very modern achievement, paralleled in the mainstream art of the period by the much more academic Victorian landscapes of Fred Williams. The straight restrained trunks of the messmate gums reached heavenward, making this Victorian environment in all its humility a deeply religious creation. The wombats are the bumbling congregation clustered symmetrically in front of their burrow.

The resistance of the dramatic moment, the urge toward detail rather than grandeur and the restrained palette of the McCoy Hall dioramas made them a fascinating artefact of visual culture in 1950s Melbourne. They represented a reconciliation with the Australian environment, recognising it as being both subtle and cryptic. At the chromatic level the Victorian Fauna Series worked in the slightly dampened palette that is Melbourne in that period. On the weekend they could well have been visited by the fawn and beige workers from John Brack's Five O'Clock Collins Street, but with their children in tow. In the fifties and on into the sixties a visit to the National Museum was one of several alternative family weekend outings; another was going for a 'drive' to the hills, an activity so acerbically depicted by Brack in his 1955 painting The Car.

As a group the dioramas were modest and serious, they enshrined family values. The scenes are intimate, the scale is human. Their location in the darkened formal surrounds of McCoy Hall gave them a stern but restrained authority. These were not dioramas that jumped out from their alcoves and threatened or lectured the visitor . Rather they drew them into a safe, intimate moment of curiosity-satisfying observation. They were artefacts of a Melbourne that was secure in a view of itself as a modest, sedate haven in which to raise families. While the Victorian Fauna Series were exquisitely observed depictions of various habitats, they tell us more about the psyche of Melbourne in the two decades after World War II than the dynamic ecology of 'natural Australia'.

John Kean is an exhibition producer who has been at with Museum for six years. He has previously introduced the work of regionally based artists and communities to audiences in southern Australia. He was Exhibition Coordinator at the Fremantle Arts Centre and Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide. In the late 1970's he was the Art Adviser to Papunya Tula Artists

An essay in Carolyn Rasmussen, A Museum for the People: A History of Museum Victoria and its predecessor institutions, 1854-2000, Carlton North: Scribe Publications, 2001, ISBN 0 908011 69 5. Available at Museum Shops and all good book stores for $49.95.

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