Revealing the magic of museums

David Waller: "Each object has its own story and it's discovering the connection between he story and the object that's quite interesting."
David Waller: "Each object has its own story and it's discovering the connection between he story and the object that's quite interesting."

Wellington Museums Trust exhibitions and collections manager David Waller talks about art, travelling and Winston Churchill.

You've just got back from Europe.

Yes, I was in Paris for a week and London for a week and visited 35 museums in that time. I had a great look around. They gave me feedback on our plans for the Wellington Museum of City & Sea.

What's happening to the museum?

We're redeveloping our top floor into a visitor experience. The museum was remodelled from a maritime museum into the Wellington Museum of City & Sea about 11 and a half years ago. It needs to be refreshed and updated. We'd like to tell more stories and get more collections on display. Our aim is to use the floor space to show more of the collection, so it's not hidden away from the public.

What else does your job involve?

I look at the Cable Car Museum displays and collection, the Carter Observatory collection and exhibitions and the Nairn St Colonial Cottage.

Any plans for those?

We don't have any plans for any of the other museums. In the past 12 months we've changed the experience at the Colonial Cottage Museum, so that's been refreshed. We've tried to put the story of the Wallace family first and foremost. Several generations lived there until the 1970s. People who have been there before would notice a big difference.

Have you always enjoyed history?

I was born in Sydney and my parents were employed at a historic village. It was a re-creation of Sydney in 1788. I used to go there on weekends and holidays. I guess that was where my interest in history came from.

Did you study history at university?

I originally studied visual arts and theatre design at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts and then moved into museums through the back door. I was a collection registrar at Powerhouse Museum in Sydney before I got the job here.

Do you miss the arts?

I used to be much more interested in theatre, film and visual arts, but it's all connected anyway. The arts are all interlaced with history. All art objects or pieces of film are as historically significant as a vase or a piece of family furniture.

What do you like most about history?

Each object has its own story and it's discovering the connection between the story and the object that's quite interesting.

Do all the museums you look after have interesting stories to tell?

All the buildings we look after are heritage buildings. It just so happens that these sites have been turned into museums and visitor attractions. The Carter Observatory used to be a working observatory for the Government and the Museum of City & Sea buildings used to be a storehouse for material coming off the ships on Queens Wharf. The buildings are as important as the things inside them. It's important to tell history as much as it is to tell the stories of Wellington.

What's the best thing about your job?

My role is quite varied. I'm the exhibitions and collection manager, so on a daily basis I'm able to work with designers and work with our collection as well.

Have you been involved in any particularly interesting projects?

I was involved in the renovation of the collections store, making our store temperature and humidity controlled. The objects in the store were at risk of being damaged, so I led that project.

Do you often travel for work?

This has been my biggest trip in a long time.

Where else have you travelled?

I've been to the United States and Hong Kong and I've travelled to Australia each year to visit my family. I've been to Spain and Italy and around Europe a bit.

Which overseas museum have you found particularly unusual?

The Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris was pretty amazing. The collection was incredible, quirky and interesting. There'd be a sculpture in the middle of the room, but around the room there might be full-size taxidermy stags standing there. There'd be weapons from the 1700s in cases. It was quite a bizarre way of twisting history, so it wasn't just presented in a display case. The collections in London and Paris were just amazing, given the history. Some of the rooms had amazing hand- painted wallpaper from Louis I.

Is it hard to present objects in an interesting way?

Plenty of museums present things in a very formulaic way. They have an object in a case with a label, whereas what we're trying to do is break that mould and make something different.

Do you have a favourite museum?

The Churchill War Rooms in London. I visited them this time around. They're a re-creation of Churchill's bunker in London and that's where he was stationed when they were under attack from the Germans. It's mostly told through Churchill's eyes. There's an exhibition there of Churchill's life. It's kept pretty much as it was. A lot of the material was locked up after the war. It's an incredible experience.

The Wellingtonian