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Midnight Oil Exhibition

Midnight Oil Exhibition

Midnight Oil went on the road in 2015 in the form of a travelling exhibition visiting Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Canberra, Riverina, Southern Queensland, and Wollongong. Ross Heathcote, Curator & Public Programs Coordinator, Manly Art Gallery and Museum, spoke to AMMP about one of the most successful mobile museums Australia has ever seen. The Midnight Oil exhibition showed everything from the famous Sydney 2000 Olympics ‘Sorry’ suits – to long-forgotten posters.

Courtesy: Newcastle Museum - Midnight Oil exhibition
Courtesy: Newcastle Museum – Midnight Oil exhibition. The Making of Midnight Oil!

The exhibition of Midnight Oil’s was a huge success at the Sydney exhibition hosted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum – what were the final numbers?

Yes, a huge success in many ways, not only big numbers (18,000 in Manly over a short few weeks, and even more at Newcastle), but really rich visitation with great experiences and some genuine interactivity.

There were thousands of Oils fans visiting of course, but also visitors who had never heard of the Oils. At Manly there was much interstate and overseas visitation. We were thrilled. We hosted several special events include a world premiere screening of the full ‘The Making of 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1’ documentary by Robert Hambling, and some great Q&A evenings which featured Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie from the Oils.

Making of Midnight Oil - Touring in 2015

How was your Newcastle season?

We have just pulled down the The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition in Newcastle. It looked great in the old train sheds (now Newcastle Museum). Our exhibition is based around stages and risers…real ones, with the real Midnight Oil roadcases converted into showcases. Along with the graphics, a hundred or so gig posters, original lyric scrawls and many brilliant audio-visuals, the band’s instruments and other artefacts, the exhibition had a truly authentic and unique rock’n’roll look.

Newcastle was a perfect host venue for the show. The town has a fine pub rock tradition that is maintained there. One of the highlights at Newcastle was an evening event focussing on songwriting: the panel consisted of Rob Hirst, Dave Faulkner (Hoodoo Gurus) and Dave Mason (The Reels). Apart from the fascinating, revealing and iconoclastic discussion, each of them also played or sang. I’ve never seen a happier museum audience.

Did you and the other exhibition organisers Rob Hirst, Virigina Buckingham and Wendy Osmond make any major changes to the Newcastle exhibition?

We worked closely with Newcastle museum staff to adapt the show to their space and add some local content. How could we go to Newcastle and not refer to the earthquake gig and the legendary Redhead Beach gig?

 Each venue on the tour is different, so Wendy and I will assess each space. Rob will inevitably tell us a ‘war story’ about the Oils and every town that the show will travel to, so we will try to include local references and stories.

In talking to host museums and galleries, I have encountered people who have their own Midnight Oil story to tell, as well. In the exhibition there is a facility to leave your Oils story on a fan wall.

Making of Midnight Oil - Touring in 2015

What’s your favourite part of the exhibition after all this time?

That’s really hard to answer. The icons in the show include the Sorry Suits worn at the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony gig, and the giant Exxon Oil spill protest banner that the band played in front of, at their guerrilla protest gig in new York City. These are great things but I also love Ray Argall’s beautiful film piece which has wonderful concert and crowd footage from the mid 1980’s. The the ’10-1’ doco is brilliant. I love the band’s gear as well – Jim’s Gretsch, Martin’s Strat, Giffo’s Bass and Peter’s skyscaper one-piece mic stand. The gig posters are also great: they are a magnificent collection that tell us about a rich  social history of accessible world class live music, lost venues, lost bands, and of course the amazing career of the Oils.

There are a couple of soundbites including an unreleased Midnight Oil track, and a recording of Jim, Rob and Bear as teenagers in their trio Schwampy Moose. Jim offered that piece saying that ‘people need to know what we sounded like when we were shit’. I’m proud of the text in the exhibition where I had the pleasure of collaborating with the band’s biographer Mark Dodshon. The hand-scrawled lyric sheets are revealing and compelling; a rare insight into the process of the band’s three main songwriters. The hitherto unseen footage of the band playing at Tanelorn in 1981 is awesome….I could go on!

What about the piece which Rob Hirst described as follows:
“The piece de resistance is a replication in a box which has sticky carpet, three screens when you walk in and a curtain you pull behind you. It has footage of the band playing at the Tanelorn Festival in 1981 and there’s two sets of headphones you can choose from – one is loud, the other is really loud – and you can stick to the carpet. There’s elbows that come out from the side of the box so that you can be elbowed in the ribs. What I was trying to do was replicate what it was like coming to see Midnight Oil back then at the Mawson Hotel, the 16 Footers or the Ambassador or whatever.”

This was Rob’s pet project! He wanted a space in the exhibition where visitors could get the feel of an early Oils gig. He suggested a bizarre kind-of ‘bush shower’ to begin- steamy, smelly, loud…as if you were at the Royal Antler Hotel in 1978. I talked him out of that, and we compromised on a portaloo. That wasn’t going to work either. Wendy Osmond (3D designer) suggested we make a big roadcase that you can walk into. It was put together by some helpers including Grant Pudig (a former tour manager for the Oils). Rob had some old pub carpet, but it just wasn’t nasty enough, so we regularly spill a middy of Toohey’s Old and some cigarette butts into the floor to give that special Sydney pub smell.

It’s cramped and heated, and you’re surrounded by three screens featuring crowd scenes from the Hordern and the Oils at Tanelorn playing Cold Cold Change. Rob’s dogged persistence made this ‘Antler Room’  happen, but we have reserved the right to tease him about and it, so it is known as Rob’s Folly. I need to add that without Rob Hirst and his remarkable energy and penchant for collecting, MoMO would never have been born.

Other efforts toward making exhibitions about rock bands have not had the privileged position of having band members at hand, supportive and involved, and yet hands-off when it comes to telling the true stories and avoiding ‘vanity pieces’. Rob, Jim, Peter, Martin, Giffo, Bear and Bones have all been really helpful and generous along with the Oils’ management. The fact that they are as fearless in telling their story as they were as a musical force has given the exhibition project particular grunt.

Making of Midnight Oil - Touring in 2015

I once would have thought of Midnight Oil as a very serious band, with their songs and stance on indigenous issues, homeless youth and the environment (many of us might have been introduced to some of these issues through their songs). These chaps turn out to be relaxed, funny, creative, witty, self-deprecating, super-literate (Rob corrected some of my text panel grammar and he’s meant to be a rock drummer!) and very easy to work with.

Given your hands-on experience with the Oils’ exhibition lately, your ideas about an Australian Music Museum – particularly the venue, format, funding, space and viability would be very interesting to a lot of people.

The interest has been enormous. It’s not just about the Oils, there is broader interest in some recent times when Australian music (rock in particular) was a massive part of our identity. The Midnight Oil story included the politics and issues that band traversed, which gave the show an added dimension. However, the great thing about exhibiting the stories of popular music is how that resonates within our memories, generates intergenerational conversations and cross-cultural conversations (and this is all beautifully documented in our visitors’ writings in MoMO).

I imagine an Australian Music museum having some of the authenticity of MoMO; a place that can feel like a pub in Adelaide, or the Sydney Stadium or Cloudlands or the Countdown set or The Palais at any given opportunity. To do this you need great designers like Wendy Osmond and Virginia Buckingham, the involvement of audience,  and willing and brave contributors like Rob.

I’d like to see the music museum go beyond one space. Perhaps a ‘mothership venue’ with pop-ups around the country. There must be capacity for performance and recording in this space and it must be alive (therefore acoustics and accessibility are important). The key space needs much flexibility. It should be built by roadies as much as by museum makers. A smart government would take on the support of such a venue. We had some good corporate support from Sony Music, perhaps it’s time the music industry to get behind the physical museum project.The benefits are great.