Museum of Brisbane

In the spotlight: Phil Manning

In the lead up to Ask a Curator day on 17th September, we asked our Curator Phil why he got into this business.


Museum of Brisbane: What first inspired you to become a Curator?

Phil Manning: The spark for me came during a holiday in Tanzania at a time when I was working in retail with no imminent plans on finding a use for my arts degree. Unseasonal rain had forced us to change plans, so instead of seeing a group of Maasai people perform we had breakfast at the home of a family that lived around Lake Manyara. With less than a days notice they invited a group of strangers into their home, shared their food and we all found ways to communicate without a shared language. Having just been to Olduvai Gorge the day before, a place sometimes referred to as ‘the cradle of humankind’, I realised that what was more important to me than history is people, so I sought ways to turn this personal insight into a career.

MoB: Phil, you’ve worked in Museum’s across Australia and now find yourself in Brisbane, what do you find remarkable about the story of Brisbane?

PM: I see Brisbane as a stage. When we change the players and the period there are countless stories that make up the ever expanding story of Brisbane. They are always surprising, always new and they all highlight the forces that have shaped the city and those of us that live here. But what I find truly fascinating is that for each of us that story is different. No matter how well we know a part of the city, or the city’s history, our own experiences influence how we view them. Discovering more and more of these different perspectives is both a challenging and exciting journey, but one that makes a place that is special to me even more so.

MoB: You have worked on six Museum of Brisbane exhibitions to date, which one has been your favourite and why?

PM: My favourite exhibition I’ve been involved with is Captured, which was curated by Michael Aird earlier this year. For me it represents another step forward in Museum of Brisbane being a space for local Aboriginal people to have a voice in how we tell the stories of this place. My favourite element within an exhibition was a documentary produced for In Fashion, an exhibition from 2010. It was about a selection of young fashion designers working in Brisbane in the 80s and early 90s. It was so enjoyable watching hours upon hours of VHS footage of events in Brisbane, ones that I was totally unaware of at the time. It was a great reminder to me that I know so little of the city in which I live, let alone what was going on before my time.

Captured: Early Brisbane photographers and their Aboriginal subjects

Captured: Early Brisbane photographers and their Aboriginal subjects

MoB: You’ve previously said you’re interested in the interpretation of history through the context of historical objects. Can you give us an example of this?

PM: Hopefully this is what all people involved in social history museums and history in general are interested in, so I guess what I meant was that within museum exhibitions we can arrange objects, images and words (both spoken and written) in ways that challenge how we perceive the past. For instance: The account of a soldier’s experience at Fort Queenscliff and in Papua New Guinea during the Second World War. Records from an unsolved murder investigation at Fort Queenscliff, near Geelong. A pair of Japanese tabi boots. In isolation they each have an interesting story. By placing them together within an exhibition, recreating the oral history through a theatrical audio experience, and illustrating the story with archival images and the hoof print of a cow cast in plaster, they present a different story, one that strongly suggests the Japanese made a sortie on Australian soil during the war – providing an alternative to what we think we know about this time.

MoB: Lastly, for anyone interested in Museum studies or becoming a Curator, what advice would you give them?

PM: Broaden your world.
Put yourself in situations to have experiences that challenge your perceptions.
Listen to what people say and try to understand their point of view and motivations.
Create opportunities to practice your craft, so that you will be in the right place at the right time.
Keep a notebook on hand to record thoughts, ideas and inspiration before they disappear.