Evocative new design-inspired exhibition opens at Museum

Material World explores the history and complexity of human design

A biodegradable surfboard, an ornate side-saddle, a regenerative bone substitute and an adaptive First Nations spearhead are all part of Material World, a new exhibition now open at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Developed in collaboration with the Swayn Gallery of Australian Design, the exhibition explores the history and complexity of human design by showcasing both traditional materials and new technologies with objects from research centres, designers and the National Museum’s collection.

Chair of the Swayn Gallery of Australian Design, Annabelle Pegrum AM expressed the foundation’s support for the exhibition, which she said is a testament to the importance of design and good design principles.

‘Increasing public awareness and appreciation of every aspect of design is one of the core objectives of the foundation. The objects explored in this exhibition and the approaches to their design allow us to reflect upon and explore ourselves,’ Ms Pegrum said.

The exhibition highlights how necessity, creativity, commerce and research have all influenced design by shaping the form and function of objects.

The objects are made from glass, leather, ceramics, metal and wood. They are evidence of the creativity and innovation of First Nations peoples, early settlers, scientists, engineers, designers, artists, and architects.

National Museum of Australia Director, Dr Mathew Trinca, acknowledged the vital role design plays in engaging people and sparking crucial conversations.

‘This exhibition will challenge you to reconsider the meaning of good design. It grapples with social, cultural and environmental perspectives – themes that are also explored in the Museum’s permanent galleries. It presents a unique opportunity for visitors to see the critical function design has played in shaping our society,’ Dr Trinca said.

Adjunct Professor Lyndon Anderson, Swayn Senior Fellow in Australian Design at the National Museum, curated the exhibition and said it has significance because of its ability to chart the inescapable links between culture, design, technology and materials.

‘The exhibition can be viewed as a whole or as five smaller exhibitions, each focusing on a different material and how its use has evolved from First Nations applications to outer space exploration,’ Adj Prof Anderson said.

‘In the past, the natural properties of a material determined how people would use it. With the advent of new technologies, the properties of materials can be altered to suit our needs. We can now design the object, technology and the material!’

The exhibition will be on display in the Gandel Atrium at the National Museum of Australia from 27 April 2023.

Material World – featured objects

  • Kimberley point (glass):

‘Points’ or spearheads are traditionally made from stone and used for the tips of spears and as exchange items. After European colonisation, Indigenous people were quick to make use of new materials such as glass and ceramics. Easy to work with, they gave a very sharp edge and were readily available. The one featured was made from an old glass bottle. The consistent flaking properties of glass meant points could be longer and more finely shaped than those made from stone.

  • Side-saddle, 1877 (leather):

Made in 1877 by George Stree, a Sydney-based saddler and harness-maker. It belonged to Constance Faithfull who would have used it at the family property, Springfield. Side-saddles were designed for women, enabling them to ride horses while wearing bulky skirts and petticoats, and maintain a level of decency. The side-saddle featured has an additional pommel, providing the rider with greater stability. The seat is decorated with ornate stitching and includes an integral pocket.

  • Sr-HT-Gahnite bone replacement, 2022 (ceramics):

A ceramic bone substitute developed by Professor Hala Zreiqat and her team at the School of Biomedical Engineering, University of Sydney. Most synthetic bone substitutes are designed to either regenerate bone or bear weight. Sr-HT-Gahnite does both. It is strong enough to provide support, acting as a scaffold on which new bone is regenerated, before gradually degrading as it is replaced by natural bone.

  • Coronary stent (metal):

Made from a lightweight metal alloy called nitinol. It has been shape-set, which means the metal ‘remembers’ its shape when expanded. The compressed stent is small enough to be inserted in the artery via a tube. When in position, it expands to the set shape, holding the artery open.

  • Surfboard, 2022 (wood):

Emile Theau and Alastair Pilley, designers and co-founders of Sine Surf, wanted to eliminate polluting and harmful materials such as plastic-based foams and fibreglass from surfboards. Their boards are made of Paulownia, a light, fine-grained and warp-resistant hardwood that is fast-growing and can be sustainably harvested. The manufacturing process produces less than 500 grams of waste and the finished board is 95 per cent biodegradable.

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