Robyn Stacey: Bringing the Museum to Life

© Robyn Stacey ‘The Brendels’ from the series ‘Supermodels’ 2005

I have always been interested in the layering of images either physically or implied through layers of meaning.


Robyn Stacey has earned a considerable reputation for her work with the artefacts and archives of historical and natural-history museums in Australia and further afield. Her tableaux do more than document these objects, they bring them to life. She engenders a sense of the living amidst the trappings and treasures of the past. It is a rare gift. Her success is founded on the considered and subtle way in which she orders her arrangements, balancing formality with humanity.

When she began back in the 1980s, Robyn Stacey’s photographs focused on the visual language of more recent popular culture, drawing inspiration from the cover artwork of racy mass-produced novels from the 1940s and 1950s, and the cinematic tropes of Hollywood melodrama and gangster movies. As her work progressed, she began to explore the forms of fruit and flora in powerfully graphic ways that emphasised colour saturation and dynamic lines. Her interest in depicting the plant life of Australia drew her to the archives that hold botanical specimens originally collected by the first British explorers to the southern continent. For the Europeans of the time, these discoveries were considered miraculous, suggesting a vast paradoxical land in which everything was strange and topsy-turvy. When the colonists began to settle in Australia, they sought the comforts and security of what was familiar to them. Exciting as this strange new world might be, their homes endeavoured to emulate the European style, with furniture, books, art and accessories purchased by catalogue from the Old World. Just as the colonists aimed to tame the land so they set about civilizing their newly established communities, whose roots had been in the harsh regimes of the convict camp and the military garrison. The artist traces these stories through the things those early immigrants left behind; artefacts and specimens now carefully preserved in a range of small and large museum collections.

Robyn Stacey has worked with a number or important institutions including the Macleay Museum at Sydney University, the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. So well-established and respected is the work of Robyn Stacey that it is now studied as part of the official High School curriculum in Australia’s two most populous states: New South Wales and Victoria.

Alasdair Foster

© Robyn Stacey ‘Ice’ from the series ‘Redline 7000’ 1989


Alasdair: How did you begin in photography?

Robyn: I came to photography via a degree in Fine Arts. After studying history and theory for three years I was very keen to be involved practically and make something. I had a lot of friends who were in bands and I started taking photographs at concerts. Another friend showed me how to develop film and make prints.

What was Sydney like in those early years of your career as an artist?

In retrospect the early 80s seem almost hedonistic, in the sense of no responsibility, with everything possible in front of you. It was a very exciting environment. Punk was pervasive. No one had any money, but your name was always on the door, so you were having a good time.

Your works span a wide range, but in all cases there seems to be a strong interest in design as a language for articulating meaning.

I think of photography as a language and the same applies to design. You can use the language in many ways, it can be seamless and perfect, or discordant and jarring and everything in between. Similarly the lighting within an image can be high key and dramatic or soft and all-embracing and again everything in between. There are so many possibilities, but they all must follow an idea. Once you know what you want to express, the language that you want to say it in seems to follow naturally.

© Robyn Stacey ‘Beau Monde (green)’ from the series ‘Beau Monde’ 2006

What special considerations are required working in a museum?

… being able to work in a really small and awkward space!

It requires patience, enthusiasm and lots of time. And you need some training in handling fragile museum objects and an ability to get along with the diverse personalities that work in such institutions.

What photo equipment do you use and why do you like this set-up?

The still-life qualities of rendering detail lovingly and creating a powerful mise-en-scene through lighting lend themselves brilliantly to photographic interpretation. The sharpness of the lens and the control over lighting allows you to reveal detail and invest both simple and intricate compositions with a heightened reality. Since 2007, the still-life images were shot on a digital Hasselblad camera, mounted on a tripod. Before that they were shot on film.

Your earlier works explored the design and imaginative possibilities of layering. Your more recent work looks to be much more ‘straight’ in construction. What prompted that shift?

I have always been interested in the layering of images either physically or implied through layers of meaning. In the early work, the influences came from pulp paperbacks and film posters. I was working at the time in a poster-making business, so for me there was a natural cross-over between the photographic and the graphic. The works made with historical collections seemed to better reflect the sensibility of the period through the building up of still-life arrangements.

I don’t think one approach is better or easier than another. It’s more about which process best suits the subject matter.

© Robyn Stacey ‘Gorilla skull’ from the series ‘Beau Monde’ 2005

Having worked with a number of Australian historical museums, what have you learned about the early years of colonial settlement?

It made me realise the significance of archives, particularly public repositories, because they not only embody official history, but also show us how the present is shaped by the past, by revealing what we as a society valued at a particular point of time in history.

At one level these Australian archives fit very well into world history because in the eighteenth century anyone who was anyone had a collection of Australian plants and animals; from the King of Bavaria to Napoleon. And anyone who had the time and money travelled here. The domestic environments of colonial New South Wales were largely constructed through mail-order purchase, and the catalogues of the time reveal what was important in the colony. They demonstrate the Australian desire for betterment and the immigrant’s need to re-create what had been left behind.

[Left] © Robyn Stacey ‘Herald 1835’ 2010
[Upper Right] © Robyn Stacey ‘Table of Industry’ from the series ‘Empire Line’ 2009
[Lower Right] © Robyn Stacey ‘Saison 93–94’ from the series ‘Empire Line’ 2009

What impresses you most about working with the natural-history collections?

One of the most striking dichotomies is how many species are unique to Australia and at the same time how much has disappeared in the country’s brief history since Phillip’s arrival in 1788. Several hundred species disappear from the Australian landscape every year. I hope that my exhibitions and the books reignite people’s interest in preserving and protecting species and habitat.

© Robyn Stacey ‘Sixteenth Century Horizontal’ from ‘The Collector’s Nature’ 2003

Tell me about the photo called ‘Rouse and the Cumberland Plain’.

The still life refers to the clearing of the Cumberland Plain [a rural area to the south-west of Sydney] by convict labourers: the plants on the right-hand side of the composition are eucalyptus and grasses that were native to the region. As you move across the composition the native plants are replaced by those introduced by the Rouse family, some for commercial purposes (such as oranges and grapes) and others (such as ferns) for decoration around the home.

Because the European settlement of Australia coincided with the Industrial Revolution, an industrial approach was taken to farming from the outset. Consequently, I included some of the early sprays, pumps and equipment from the property that were used to control the vegetation and insect life.

© Robyn Stacey ‘Rouse and the Cumberland Plain’ from the series ‘Tall Tales and True’ 2010

It is a huge print!

The scale is evocative of nineteenth-century French wallpaper, which was designed with exotic and historical scenes (such as African landscapes or life in Ancient Greece), the aim being to bring the far-away and the long-ago into your lounge room. The idea of bringing the past into the present appealed to me.

How were they made so big?

Each picture is constructed in three panels that fit together seamlessly, held in place by magnets, to create one large scale work. I have made three very large scale prints like this, each approximately 3.5 metres wide and 1.8 metres high. The scale allows the viewer to visually ‘enter’ into the image, with all the objects in the composition life-size or larger.

The journey from ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ to ‘Chatelaine’ seems, on first consideration, to be quite a long one. Do you see it as such or do you sense underlying interests and ideas in those works?

Like anyone who makes art, the work you produce is a reflection of your life and your interests. When I was making ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’ and the ‘Redline 7000’ series Sydney thought and sensibility were in thrall to postmodernism and appropriation was the strategy of the day. This theoretical impetus, combined with my fascination with pulp literature and B-grade Hollywood film, all coalesced in the work.

Later, I became increasingly interested in the colonial history of Australia and how that history shaped our contemporary culture. In part, it was a reaction against the dominance of American culture in the Australian media, and my sense that there were uniquely Australian narratives worth attention. Once I discovered the institutions and archives here in Sydney, they occupied the next eleven years of my life. Each collection naturally unfolded into the next, starting with Cook’s voyage in 1770, the collections took me to the end of the nineteenth century and the Federation of Australia.

What has been the greatest surprise you had while working with these museum collections?

Working on the ‘Herbarium’ project, I photographed a small specimen that we subsequently discovered was a totally new plant species, viola banksia. It was named just a few months before the book was launched.

What’s on the horizon?

I am currently working with the camera obscura and hotel rooms and the idea of transience. It is a completely different experience to making the still-life images and working with collections. Instead of spending many hours perfecting a composition of objects, I’m now working with people – often people I’ve never meet before – and whatever is going to happen in the image has to happen in a short time, in the dark. In a way it’s a return to the concerns of the 1980s work, in that it has a cinematic feel and the people are actors in their own drama.

What lessons have you learned while developing your work?

You have to be passionate about your work, be patient, and stick to your beliefs. It is difficult, but you have to follow your convictions and not worry about fashions or trends as they are, by their very nature, transient. The work will lead you, if you let it.

© Robyn Stacey ‘Early Morning Rouse’ [detail] from the series ‘Tall Tales and True’ 2010

Biographical Notes

Robyn Stacey was born in Brisbane in 1952. She has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland, and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of New South Wales. She has received a number of Australia Council for the Arts awards and academic research grants. In 1994 she was awarded a Samstag Scholarship to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She has undertaken artist residencies at important institutions including the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois (1993), the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney (2001–03), the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales (2002–ongoing), the University of Leiden, Netherlands (2003–06), and the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney (2004–06).

Her work is represented in major public and private collections including the National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery of Australia, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of Western Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia, and Queensland Art Gallery. Three substantial books of her images have been published: ‘Herbarium’ (2004) and ‘Museum’ (2007), both published by Cambridge University Press with text by Ashley Hay; and ‘House’ (2011), published by Historic Houses Trust with text by Peter Timms. Robyn Stacey’s work is studied as part of the New South Wales and Victorian high school curriculum in visual design, visual art, digital media, and photography. She lives and works in Sydney.

Photo: © John Hoey

This article was first published in Chinese, in the June 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.