Inside the Collection

Meet the curator – Deborah Turnbull

Photograph of Deborah Turnbull, Assistant Curator
Deborah Turnbull, Assistant Curator, in the basement with a few of her favourite things. Image Powerhouse Photography

What is your specialty area?
Well, I have two art history degrees, so the short answer is art. The long answer is I used to be thoroughly obsessed with gendered architecture, until I discovered contemporary art in the last year of my undergraduate degree. I knew of it from a year 11 trip to the Vancouver Art Gallery where Andy Warhol was featured, but I think the turning points for me were when I discovered the sculptures of Eva Hesse and the film works of Matthew Barney. I was hooked!

A techno-addict from a young age, a new obsession with contemporary art was honed to a fascination with how technology could augment traditional art practice. I am always curious about how far our discussions into art and technology can extend, particularly in terms of how the works (through their technology) end up speaking back or reacting to us humans.

How long have you been working at the Museum?
I have worked in the PHM in different capacities since 2005. I came on as an independent curator for the Beta_space project through the Creativity and Cognition Studios at UTS, then worked across Front of House, and the FACE and Contemporary education departments. I simultaneously ran my own consultancy, New Media Curation, and independent projects carried out in league with the PHM lead to my being hired as Assistant Curator in Design and Technology in July 2012.

What is your favourite object in the collection?
I am still getting to know our vast collection, but so far I’m very fond of the early communications objects, particularly the ones that have allowed for mass communication over distance. I see them as historical artefacts, or proof, of the part of our humanity that wants to organise, communicate, keep, record, and disseminate information as a collective. These days we do it with mobile phones, email, Twitter and Facebook. To some digital immigrants, these technologies can be intimidating, but for those born into the digital era (after 1980), it’s all very normal. I love the morse code machines, the telegraphy machines and wires as well as paper telegrams. I love the retro computer gear and the fact that there’s a laptop in the collection that bears a striking similarity to the one my dad sent me off to college with, though mine was 11 years old and almost retro when I used it. It’s a gold mine down there!

What piece of research or exhibition are you most proud of in the Museum?
I’m very proud of the work we did on Beta_space. What started out as a public laboratory for interactive art, became a place for experimenting with computer systems that drive interactivity and with the museum visitors as a medium. What started out as a bit of a nuisance to the staff and an oddity to the visitors, through perseverance and some guerrilla manoeuvring, became, over time, a museum ethos. Matthew Connell and I co-authored a book chapter on the collection of case studies the exhibitions represent, Prototyping Places: the museum, in  INTERACTING : Art , Research and the creative practitioner.

Over the course of the project, there were 3 curators bringing 3 different voices and experiences to the space. We exhibited 30 prototype exhibitions over 7 years, each with a launch and a public program attached. There are a number of Masters and PhD research methodologies that were proven or disproven in public with others, rather than closed off in an office, by oneself. Most of these Tertiary degrees were awarded, or will be eventually. I’m particularly proud of the publication list, which sites 20 academic and peer reviewed publications.

Deborah Turnbull, assistant curator, design and technology

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