Discover hidden art and artefacts at the University of Melbourne

Ian Potter Museum/University of Melbourne
Ian Potter Museum/University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne is home to 32 cultural collections including libraries, prints, rare books and music archives, you just need to know how to find them – now there’s help.

By Fiona Gruber, University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne’s beating heart is its Parkville campus, 36 hectares rich in history and architecture. Its wealth also lies in its cultural holdings, its art and artefacts. But these are hidden treasures, says Professor Su Baker, its new Pro-Vice Chancellor, Engagement and she plans to change that.

“The university has a wonderful story to tell about what a visual arts and cultural storehouse it is,” Professor Baker says. “It has 32 cultural collections including libraries, prints, rare books and music archives, and it’s my new role to explore these and bring them to the attention of the broader community.”

Professor Baker, the former director of the University’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), says part of the campus’s ongoing major redesign includes a new Student Precinct and a new entrance orientation of the Ian Potter Museum of Art, welcoming people to standout cultural assets in an arts precinct.

These cultural sites traverse the campus on an east-west axis. From the Potter, past the Melbourne School of Design, through the soon to be refurbished Old Quad, a new focal point for the cultural collections and the historical centre of the University of Melbourne, and the stories this tells.

This shift in focus is about enhancing public encounters with its main treasure house, the Ian Potter Museum, she says. That includes stimulating the curiosity of the almost 60,000 students and staff who use the campus regularly and enticing locals and visitors to breach the invisible walls of the academic citadel.

“It’s a spacial reorientation that’s linked to an imaginative reorientation,” says Professor Baker. “We’re recognising that our cultural resources are a major asset and this re-orientation is about welcoming a wider public.”

The Potter, on the campus’s eastern edge at Swanston Street is the art precinct’s starting point; it’s about to undergo a major refit scheduled to be completed by the end of 2019.

While keeping the original footprint, the building’s entrance is swinging 90 degrees to open onto Masson Road. This leafy lane lined with old and new buildings leads visitors into the heart of the campus and on an architectural journey from Swanston Street to the east across to the Parkville campus’s western edge boundary at Royal Parade.

Designed by celebrated architect Nonda Katsilidis and opened in 1998, the Potter houses more than 15,000 objects, from antiquities through to contemporary art and its holdings include the University’s classical and archaeological collection, indigenous artefacts from Australia and the region, colonial history and contemporary art.

Kelly Gellatly, the museum’s director, emphasises that despite the redesign, the original building is being respected. “Nothing is broken, it’s a very beautiful space,” she says.

The alterations are a response to a change in visitor patterns, altered pedestrian movements on Swanston Street and the relocation of the conservation centre, now the Grimwade Centre, which frees up below-ground space for teaching programs. Another is changing expectations among today’s museum visitors.

“One of the magical things about this building is that you have no sense of what you’re entering. It’s a surprise but also a challenge,” she explains.

“The flip side is that contemporary and especially first time visitors don’t get a sense of what they’re about to experience, and research shows that if they get a sense of what they’re going to get on entrance, they’re more likely to cross the threshold.” That, she explains, includes obvious changes like a visible and easily accessible café and shop at the entrance, rather than the current, less fluid design.

She describes the Potter as being “encyclopaedic in miniature” and the perfect small to medium museum, an antidote to the “huge demands” of many of today’s mega treasure palaces with their blockbuster shows.

“I like the fact that you can come here and spend two hours and see the whole museum,” she says.

The museum’s role as the portal to an arts precinct starts a meandering journey through the campus that takes in a number of new and existing buildings, gallery spaces and collections on campus. Must-see additions include the John Wardle designed Melbourne School of Design, completed in 2014 and the 2016 Arts West Building, designed by Ashton Raggatt McDougall; both have extensive exhibition spaces, as does the Baillieu Library with its large collection of rare books, manuscripts and archives and its Noel Shaw Gallery.

The University has a total of nine museums and galleries and the 1930s Grainger Museum, dedicated to the eccentric life and highly regarded music of 20th century Australian composer Percy Grainger, marks the far end of the arts’ precinct’s East West axis.

The exploration will also take in the campus’s “spiritual heart,” says Ms Gellatly, the Old Quad, which dates back to the 1850s, and is another repository of the university’s myriad collections.

Ms Gellatly says that the arts precinct chimes with the larger redesign of the campus that includes a new student precinct that runs from the corner of Swanston and Grattan Streets and the developing of Australia’s leading innovation precincton the former site of the Royal Women’s Hospital across the Swanston Street.

The idea of a longer arts precinct is also taking shape, she says, that continues the journey down Swanston Street, incorporating the Science Gallery, which opens in 2020 and connects art with science and linking the Parkville campus with the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, and its collections, to the south. These include the Margaret Lawrence Gallery and the Buxton Contemporary Gallery, due to open in 2018 and designed by Melbourne architectural partnership Fender Katsilidis.

But for now, the focus is on opening as many eyes as possible to the wonders of the Ian Potter Museum and Melbourne’s first university campus.

It’s what her job is all about, says Ms Gellatly and it’s also the philosophy of the university;

“Why are we here? If you’re doing good work and you’re passionate about it you should be passionate about sharing it.”