Chrissie Amphlett’s schoolgirl dress, Molly Meldrum’s hat, Nick Cave’s scribbled notebooks, Peter Allen’s maracas – Australia’s contemporary music history is rich with iconic imagery. Now, after a whirlwind twelve months of tireless work behind the scenes, these treasures and many more are on display at the newly-opened Australian Music Vault.
Growing out of the Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Performing Arts Collection, a sprawling archive of over 660,000 significant bits and pieces from the Australian circus, dance, opera, music and theatre scenes, the Australian Music Vault is full of fascinating stories and quirky surprises from Australia’s music industry.
Carolyn Laffan, senior curator, has worked with the Australian Performing Arts Collection on and off since she started as a curatorial assistant in 1990. But many of the objects on display come have come from outside the collection, as musicians and other industry members have heard about the Vault and brought things out of storage. For example: a copy of the Models EP Cut Lunch enclosed in a London Metropolitan Police evidence bag.
“Sean Kelly was double parked or something in London and police were asking for proof of his identity,” says Carolyn. “He didn’t have any, but he did have that album which had their photo on it. Who would have thought it would still be in existence?”
Launched in December as a major project of the Victorian Government’s $22 million Music Works program, the Australian Music Vault vision is one of a constantly evolving exhibition rather than one that is stripped back and reinstalled every few months. There are three permanent (but dynamic) themes, and three more that will change over time, including the ARIA Hall of Fame (currently focusing on 2017 inductee Daryl Braithwaite).
The Wild Ones looks at the innovators and trailblazers who helped shape the Australian music industry. Two-Way Traffic celebrates Australian artists who originally came from overseas (like ten-pound pom Olivia Newton-John) as well as those who have taken Australian music to a global stage. And The Real Thing ponders the question, is there an Australian sound?
“And if there is, what is it?” Carolyn adds. “It sounds different to different people, different generations. Every time you hear music, it’s associated with something in your life. It’s that idea of a soundtrack to your life.”
The inaugural temporary themes are Agents of Change – cataloguing music’s role in protest and social progress – and a section devoted to punk and new wave.
“When you look at the whole industry, all the way back to the ‘50s, there’s always been a really punk attitude in Australian music,” Carolyn says. “There have always been people making their own instruments, doing independent recording. Australians are very innovative and very inventive. They take on technology really quickly, and they make their own opportunities.”
Art Centre Melbourne is well known for its collection of costumes – including hundreds worn by Kylie Minogue alone – but there is so much more to the exhibition. Instruments, flyers, walls covered in posters, set lists, fanzines, badges, handwritten lyrics, even management contracts – artefacts from both on- and offstage are represented. A comprehensive digital experience accompanies the exhibits, featuring the stories behind the objects, interviews, albums and live recordings.
“Some of the stories are really fascinating,” says Carolyn. “We try to capture those stories digitally so that when you’re looking at the object you can read the story and listen to a song on the album, so they’re not just things in a case.”
Of course, no music museum would be complete without the songs. The Australian Music Vault has partnered with Spotify to create the AMV Mixtape. Visitors can purchase a Mixtape card at the entrance and tap the digital displays to collect their favourite songs. At the end of their visit, they will receive a Spotify playlist by email. And because the exhibition will be constantly changing, visitors can bring their Mixtape card back again and again to build their song collection.
Carolyn has her fingers crossed that as more people in the industry hear about and visit the Australian Music Vault, more amazing contributions will start coming out of the woodwork.
“It’s really the beginning of the conversation, and I really hope that people will provide us with feedback and say, ‘I can’t believe you didn’t include such-and-such’, or, ‘Have you thought about this story?’”, she says. “I think that’s what’s going to make it a really dynamic space, rather than a static one.”
She also has a few items on her wishlist, things that “one day I hope I'll get a phone call about”. Among them are an electric guitar handmade by ‘50s rocker Col Joye, the coat John Farnham wore in the clip for You’re the Voice, and the bodysuit decorated with breasts and faces cut from inflatable dolls that cabaret performer Jeff Duff was arrested in onstage in Ballarat in the ‘70s.
Really, though, it’s more about the stories than the physical objects. “That's the rewarding part of the work for me,” says Carolyn. “I love working with the artists and reflecting on their careers, and working out what are the key moments and what are the objects that help tell that story? It’s a dream really.”