Inside the Collection

Farewell to curator, Christina Sumner, OAM

Photograph of Christina Summer showing textiles
Christina Sumner, Principal Curator, Design & Society in the basement with textiles, including 92/775 Suzani (needlework), Collection: Powerhouse Museum

On the eve of of Christina Sumner’s departure we asked her a few questions about her experiences at the Museum over the last 28 years.

What have you enjoyed the most about working in the Museum?

Always always always it’s been the people and the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to spend every working day with curatorial and other colleagues who are bright, interested, articulate and as passionate as I am about the collection – building it, and committing ourselves to interpret, tell stories about and communicate the meaning of our objects to the wider community.

Can you nominate 3 favourite objects you have acquired for the permanent collection?
The first great treasure I acquired was the Anzac House Australia tapestry in 1988. I’ll never forget the goosebumps and excitement as this great tapestry was unrolled in a warehouse for me to see, and I realised what I was looking at. The tapestry was designed by Jean Lurçat, who is known as the father of modern tapestry, and woven at Aubusson in France between 1960 and 1962. In 1987 the Anzac House Trust moved to smaller premises and presented the tapestry to the Musuem as a bicentennial gift to the people of New South Wales.

Another beloved textile is the early 19th century suzani from Bukhara that I acquired in 1992. This was the start of a long love affair with these beautiful dowry embroideries that eventually resulted in the 2004 loan exhibition Bright flowers: textiles and ceramics of Central Asia, for which we borrowed suzanis, other embroideries, costume and 10th to 20th century ceramics from the amazing collections of state museums in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. It was quite an experience to see our suzani displayed in its own cultural context, with other embroideries from Central Asia.

Rather than pick a third favourite, I’ll mention two collections within the collection overall that I’ve had a great deal to do with over the last twenty-eight years. They are the oriental rug and quilt collections, both of which I’m happy to say I’ve been instrumental in developing considerably. Very hard to choose one rug over the others, though the very fine Senneh kilim donated by Dr George Soutter AM comes to mind, as does the fragment of a huge Ushak medallion carpet dated about 1600 and the lovely Baluchi prayer rug , both purchased for the collection by the Oriental Rug Society of NSW. Now in the process of being acquired are two great donations: a spectacular collection of Yomud Turkmen rugs and trappings and a Turkmen yurt that we’ve borrowed more than once in the past and are very happy to be able to bring into the collection.

It’s equally difficult to choose favourite acquisitions for the quilt collection! Two that came to us at the same time are the late 19th century ‘Logo’ quilt, so called as its central applique motif was used as the logo for the Quilters Guild’s bicentennial exhibition, and Marion Gibson’s embroidered crazy patchwork ‘Friendship’ quilt . Another favourite is Jocelyn Campbell’s ‘Goodnight, sleep tight‘ which I first saw in 1990 and was delighted to acquire for the collection six years later.

Do you have a favourite overall Museum object?

Too hard! There are so many!

What have been the highlights of your career?

Being part of the team that researched and developed exhibitions for the Museum’s new venue in the Powerhouse in the mid 80s – a fabulous way to learn about museology and the business of being a curator.

The opening of my first exhibition A material world: fibre colour and pattern in 1990 in what is now the Harwood Building and our offices. I led a large team of curators and did all the coordination as well as curatorial work. A fabulous experience to bring my own expertise in textile technology to the interpretation of our specialist textile collection.

I’ve loved being a curator, working with the collection, seeing so many beautiful things at close quarters and experiencing directly the wonders of human creativity and imagination and tenacity. Textiles are one of the loves of my life – and through the exhibitions I’ve done I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a huge variety from cultures around the world.

Photograph of textiles and ceramics of central Asia
Bright Flowers: textiles and ceramics of central Asia, exhibition views. Powerhouse Museum

Making four visits to Central Asia between 1999 and 2004 to develop the exhibition Bright flowers: textiles and ceramics of Central Asia which I mentioned above. This was an extreme and extraordinary experience that was facilitated by UNESCO and generated unexpected opportunities to grow both personally and professionally. With another member of staff I ran a training program in Almaty in Kazakhstan, through an interpreter, on online object documentation, databases and standards. In 2000, I was invited to talk on object documentation at a UNESCO conference on traditional Miao embroidery skills in Kunming, and devised and ran a fieldwork training program for Chinese students.

What were the greatest challenges?

My appointment to the permanent staff in 1988, after three years as a temporary research assistant, was as Curator Australian Historical Decorative Arts. As I grew up in Scotland and had minimal knowledge of Australian history, let alone its material culture, this was a huge challenge – but one I’ve always been grateful for. As an Australian, it was a very good thing for me to have to learn about my adopted country very quickly! Working to redevelop displays at the beautiful Mint in Macquarie Street was an associated challenge that required all of us to take a deep breath in what were then challenging economic circumstances.

For the fast five years you have led the Design and Society Curatorial Department as Principal Curator. How did this role differ from working as a Curator?

I guess it’s a broader platform that requires a broader perspective. Leading the team has required a breadth of content knowledge, institutional understanding, and good communications and people management skills. Content knowledge is certainly necessary, in my view, in order to understand fully the diverse theoretical and practical issues that arise in the curatorial environment, but I’ve been particularly grateful for and dependent on management skills acquired over the years. The role encompasses curatorial work, I’m happy to say, but it’s had to take second place to the management of the Museum’s fabulous Design and Society curatorial team and being available for them as sounding board, adviser and champion, in addition to functioning as a member of the Museum’s Executive.

What do you personally feel are the strengths of the Powerhouse Museum and what direction and role do you see it playing in the future?

And here we are back again at the heart of it all, the terrific people and the staggeringly amazing collection. Losing so many fine staff members in the recent round of Voluntary Redundancy has been a blow, but those who remain at the Powerhouse are strong, hugely talented and very committed. They will together carry the institution forward in the spirit of open enquiry and engagement, encouraging the co-creation of experiences. My own vision for our beloved Powerhouse Museum is to become increasingly established as a forum for lively and relevant discussion about contemporary issues, that it will always foster a deepening of cross cultural understanding, and serve as a springboard for design in its broadest context as an agent for constructive change.

Photograph of Christina Summer showing textiles
Christina Sumner, Principal Curator, Design & Society in the basement with textiles.

4 responses to “Farewell to curator, Christina Sumner, OAM

  • Having the privilege of working with Christina Sumner over the past couple of years, I appreciated greatly learning about her history with the Powerhouse. I trust the museum will maintain her high standards.

  • Obviously eventually everyone has to stop having frantic work committments but Christine’s departure is a big gap for the Powerhouse Museum to fill and we must hope the Powerhouse Museum management is aware of this.

  • Yes loss of specialist knowledge and expertise always leaves a huge gap. Jane and Kevin, you will be pleased to hear Chris, like several colleagues before her, continues to work with the collection as a Volunteer.

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