Long before Tutankhamun’s tomb was rediscovered by archaeologists digging in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, students young and old have been enthralled by ancient Egypt. Fascinated by the mummies, canopic jars and bejewelled scarab beetles, the mysteries have held our attention for centuries.
The University’s own Chau Chak Wing Museum is home to one of the largest collections of Egyptian artefacts in the southern hemisphere, drawing the focus of busloads of school students who make a beeline towards the exhibit. World-leading researchers at the museum are undertaking new research, in consultation with North African diasporic communities, to develop best practices in displaying centuries-old mummies with respect and dignity. Ancient Egyptian culture is being brought to life anew, providing thought-provoking displays exploring ritual, death, religion, and this ancient culture’s continued influence on modern society.
Venturing beyond the sands of Egypt, the museum is rare in its vast collections of contemporary art, natural history, antiquities and objects, where science and the humanities intertwine. As visitors weave past oil paintings of Australia’s iconic coastlines, marvel at items used upon the Silk Road, and gaze at Roman busts and mosaics, it’s inevitable that minds will traipse along a journey of beauty and discovery. Oftentimes, younger visitors can be found standing with mouths agape at the replica of Pompeii built entirely from Lego – with a tribute to Pink Floyd’s 1971 live documentary performance in the Roman Amphitheatre.
Michael Dagostino, the newly-appointed Director of Museums and Cultural Engagement at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, regards the museum in its entirety as a door to unmistakable opportunities and wonder. And for Michael, a beloved high school art teacher was the key to unlocking this world of possibilities, previously unknown.
“I don’t know if I would have gone down the path of the arts if it wasn’t for her,” Michael says.
In Years 11 and 12, this teacher went beyond the curriculum to help him discover which creative arts would unearth his interest. He embraced this newfound freedom to explore the art classroom at lunch and during free periods. Something clicked when his teacher introduced him to avant-garde art and a range of performance artists, “which I just found amazing. It showed me that art can be anything. It can shift how you think – this was a turning point for me,” says Michael.
Michael’s curiosity meant his journey to the University of Sydney wasn’t traditional; he likens it to an apprenticeship. Having started out as an installer at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, he worked his way around the sector, collecting lessons from mentors along the way.
One such mentor informed Michael’s ‘audience-first’ approach to exhibitions, which he’s been practicing for over 20 years. Rather than strictly following the way that galleries or museums traditionally work, he takes each exhibition as an opportunity to put himself in the shoes of visitors. Michael shares, “I encourage questions like, ‘Why are we curating this exhibition?’ and ‘How would your family feel if they came to see it... What would they take away from this?’”
“If you’re not trained within the arts, you have a very different experience. And so thinking, ‘How are they going to engage with exhibitions?’, and so forth,that’s a really interesting way of looking at it.”
As a leading figure in Australian art and culture, Michael Dagostino wants to ignite this enthusiasm for museums with others, like his mentors did for him. The museum offers a unique opportunity to work in a setting where university research and knowledge intersect with exhibitions and outreach programs, something he has always wanted to do.
“Art can change people’s lives. Museums have the power to talk about truth and change the way that people think about their everyday and it’s a really, really great opportunity, especially within the university context.”
As access is a pillar of his priorities for the next chapter of the Chau Chak Wing Museum, Michael is championing an enhanced school outreach program. Building upon the foundations already laid, the program will increase in scope, allowing primary and secondary students from across Sydney to connect with the museum.
While the program is also offered online, the on‑campus experience is particularly transformative for students. Michael highlights the importance of getting kids onto campus and imagining themselves coming to the University to study. “While they’re here, they’ll come to the museum, sit on the grass in front of the Quadrangle, and think – ‘I can see myself here.’ And that’s a really great opportunity to imagine yourself in this space. More things seem possible.”
Just recently, two students were invigorated by their visits with school, and were compelled to undertake work experience at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. “I really enjoyed the excursion and was immediately interested in everything and wanted to learn more,” one student explains. “I never knew there was such a cool museum in the middle of Sydney, so I wanted to come back to do work experience.”
This thirst for knowledge is precisely what Michael wants to share with even more students through equitable access. Particularly for those who travel more than an hour to get to the museum, chances are that regular museum and gallery visits aren’t necessarily part of their lives. “We want the museum to become a part of what they want to be. The students can see themselves and their interests reflected through our diverse collections.”
Now, the school outreach program is able to bloom beyond its current parameters thanks to a generous donation by arts benefactor Robyn Martin‑Weber. This area of support will have a tangible impact, focused specifically on subsidising program fees and transport costs for students from low socio‑economic communities.
This gift will allow a broader range of students to reap the benefits of this enriched educational experience. With this funding, the programming team can create ‘pre’ and ‘post’ learning kits for exhibitions, allowing the trip to echo outwards in both directions. A couple of weeks before they come to the museum, the students will do an activity to understand where they’re going and prepare for their comprehensive, guided tour of the exhibitions.
As one student visitor describes, “the sheer volume of diverse and fascinating artefacts and information stored within the museum’s inventory is remarkable and was a topic of conversation after having returned to school.” This is where the ‘post’ learning kit can be used to continue this discussion and deepen the experience. And perhaps, with the opportunity to see and explore this untapped world, more children can dream of attending the University themselves.
“Creativity is a powerful thing. If you understand the elements of the arts and creativity, fundamentally you have a more passionate and engaged way of living,” Michael affirms. “When I go to a gallery, I feel enlivened, even if I don’t know who the artist is. But it’s that kind of experience where you just, you feel it, you feel alive.”
Through the generosity of donors and the conviction of artists and gallery staff, all roads may not lead to Rome, but rather to the Chau Chak Wing Museum – where civilisations, new and ancient knowledge, and students from all walks of life, meet.