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Under the guidance of the Australian Print Workshop, three Australian artists have reinterpreted some of Britain's most significant museum collections.

Founded in 1981, Australian Print Workshop (APW) is the country's leading facility for print-based creative practice. Led by Director Anne Virgo OAM, the APW has long sought opportunities for Australian artists overseas, forging fruitful relationships with world-leading organisations including The British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A recent collaboration with the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) has proved to be the organisation's most ambitious and successful international partnership.

The wealth of the world

For more than a hundred years, the MAA has housed antiquities and artefacts from around the world, including significant collections from Australia and the Pacific - among some of their most prized artefacts is material collected on the three expeditions of Captain James Cook. In recent years, the MAA added a major series of Indigenous prints from the Australian Print Workshop to its collection, opening a new dialogue between Cambridge and Victoria.

With such a rich trove of Australian history hidden in the MAA vaults, Virgo saw a great opportunity for cross-continental communication and discovery. Over several years, in discussions with Professor Nicholas Thomas, Director of the MAA, the Antipodes project was born.

Six People

'Antipodes' projects participants in Cambridge – March 2015. From left: Anne Virgo OAM (APW Director), Brook Andrew, Tom Nicholson, Martin King (APW Senior Printer), Caroline Rothwell, Professor Nicholas Thomas (MAA Director)

A ground-breaking collaboration

Antipodes is a project in three parts: the expedition, the expression and the exhibition.

In March 2015, three Australian artists selected by the APW travelled to Cambridge for an intensive research trip to meet with scholars and curators, and gain privileged 'behind-the-scenes' access to some of the most precious objects held not just at the MAA but at the entire network of Cambridge Museums: the Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettle's Yard, the Museum of Zoology, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Polar Museum and Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Herbarium. The group also spent time visiting curators and accessing important collections held at the National History Museum and The British Museum in London.

In the twelve months following their UK trip, the artists worked with the Australian Print Workshop to produce a series of printworks based on their experiences in Cambridge. In 2016, the work will be presented in a season of three solo exhibitions at the Australian Print Workshop Gallery, followed by a major summer exhibition at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Brook Andrew, Tom Nicholson and Caroline Rothwell were the Australian artists selected for Antipodes.

With MAA's Professor Nicholas Thomas and APW's Director Anne Virgo working together as co-curators, the artists had the wealth of Cambridge collections laid at their feet.

A man taking a photograph of a thing

Tom Nicholson researching in the Herbarium, Cambridge

A finch in the hand 

In the initial phase of the project the artists, Anne Virgo and APW Senior Printer Martin King were embedded in Cambridge for an intensive two week period. The APW delegation visited various museums to meet with scholars and go 'behind-the-scenes' to look at some of the most valuable works in the collections, uncovered many treasures.

'At the Zoology Museum we saw a thylacine skin - this weird looking dehydrated thing that had been collected in the 1850s.  At the Herbarium we saw some of the plant materials that Charles Darwin had collected on the Beagle voyages - we were even able to hold one of Charles Darwin's finches at the Cambridge Museum of Zoology (collected on the Beagle) that formed the basis of his theory of evolution - remarkable things!' Virgo enthuses.

'We went to the founder's library at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where we saw the Cook's Voyage books – first editions purchased in the years they were published, that I don't think had ever been opened – they were in such remarkable condition, it was like opening a brand new book.'

People researching

Caroline Rothwell and Brook Andrew researching in the Museum

Bringing new meaning to old matter

'The core of the project was to look at objects and cultural material relating to Australia and the Pacific. Each of the artists has extensive experience in working with archives and museum collections.  Brook is renowned for his work with archival material that exposes and re-examines ways in which Indigenous peoples have been represented. Tom has a particular focus on the re-interpretation of colonial history and Carolyn is interested in the history of science and botany,' Virgo says. 'These weren't artists with whom the APW had existing relationships, but their current fields of enquiry related directly to the project and I could see how their work could translate beautifully to the art of print.'

Beyond the delights of encountering such rare and significant objects, there was a deep mine of meaning to explore with Antipodes. At the core of the project is a tension between the history, meaning and ownership of these objects and the ways that our region has been studied, collected and known through the lens of colonialism – a tension that was not lost on Virgo or the artists.

'All of these objects raise all sorts of questions. The experience was very dense, so it has been really interesting to see how the artists filter that information and respond, and how it manifests as a body of artwork,' Virgo says. 'But the artists are so charged up by what they saw, it was very exhilarating. I feel confident that the end results will be a highly significant body of work.'

Australian Print Workshop is supported by Creative Victoria.

Antipodes was made possible through the generous support of APW's long-standing philanthropic partner The Collie Print Trust. 

Follow the story on the Australian Print Workshop website