The posts and handle of Craig Middleton’s Instagram ‘Museum Guy’ reveal his life’s passion – history.
Middleton honed this passion into a career as a curator. He works at the Centre of Democracy located in the Institute Building, on the corner of North Terrace and Kintore Avenue. At the Centre, Middleton and his colleagues work to develop exhibitions and programs that pose questions and create displays that illustrate contemporary politics with historical examples. “It is not the past we are foregrounding,” Middleton says, “but the contemporary”. The Centre is part of the History Trust of South Australia and follows a mandate to engage people with the history, heritage and identity of our state.
The Centre, which opened in May 2017, is dedicated to showcasing the development of democracy in South Australia via very human stories, focusing on ideas of identity, citizenship and political participation. Middleton began working for the Museum in the early stages of the Centre’s development in 2016 alongside Allison Russell and Mandy Paul.
“On paper I am a curator,” Middleton says, “but that is a term that has been thrown around a lot, and I don’t think it is quite descriptive enough anymore.” Middleton is keen to question and reframe his role, and, in doing so, is re-thinking what museums are and how the community can engage with them.
“Museums are producers of knowledge, they have a role in the production of this knowledge and the production of memory. It is my role to find the space, where people can grapple with this information on their own terms.”
The space Middleton speaks of is not just the museum’s physical space, he is keen for the museum’s programs to reach community groups outside the building’s four walls and to stretch out to the streets and online via technology and social media. “We place just as much importance on social and online activations and projects, seeing these as having equal value to the gallery,” he says.
In breaking down the traditional norms of the museum space, Middleton considers national memory and how that affects the production of knowledge via institutions. “I am critical of truth telling, [with] history there are always multiple perspectives on memory and collective memory. It is important to consider how particular perspectives can be privileged over others. As an approach to collective memory, I look to be critical, so to make sure multiple viewpoints are represented.”
In 2010, the Bachelor of International Studies graduate travelled to Rome as part of an exchange program, which cemented his passion for history. “In Rome, there is such a strong sense of people’s passion for their history and heritage. I wanted to participate in building that in my home state and country.”
Middleton then went on to complete a Masters in Museum Studies at Macquarie University and a Postgraduate in Art History at the University of Adelaide. Volunteering and internships were crucial to his career development, including programs at the Art Gallery of South Australia, before he was awarded a curatorial residency with Carclew.
Overlapping the residency, Middleton worked front-of-house at the National Motor Museum at Birdwood. “This role was very important to me,” he says. “I believe if you want to work in a job with a public output, you should work front-of-house. At the Motor Museum, I was able to share my passion for history and heritage with other people. But I was also able to find out where people came from, who they were and why they were visiting the museum.”
This was followed by a community engagement role at the Migration Museum. “I felt very lucky to be at this museum and looking closely at diversity, my time there expanded my mind to the possibilities of museum work.” At the Migration Museum, Middleton saw the importance of a museum as a social space: “museums are about people, by people, for people.”
In December, the state will celebrate the 125th anniversary of the historical legislation that enabled women in SA to vote in elections, and to stand for parliament. The Centre For Democracy will be involved in highlighting this milestone of female suffrage with events such as A Suffrage Soapbox shown in collaboration with the Adelaide Fringe at the Centre’s Speakers’ Corner from Friday, February 15 to Sunday, March 17. These events will run parallel with programs organised by the Office for Women.
Middleton believes the mandate “nothing about us, without us” applies widely when representing and including community diversity. Democracy is about voice, it is a conversation that needs collaboration and inclusion. “It is not about the communities working on the museum’s terms but rather the community bringing their approach and knowledge to the museum.”
Leo Greenfield is a freelance illustrator