Australians of the Year showcase significant objects

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2021 Australian of the Year showcase exhibition
ACT 2021 Australian of the Year, Professor Brendan Murphy said his well-read copy of the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 Pandemic Plan, represents the role he played in Australia’s COVID-19 response. Photos: Kerrie Brewer.

An annual celebration offering insight into the eight state and territory Australian of the Year recipients, the National Museum of Australia’s 2021 Australian of the Year showcase exhibition is now open.

Displaying an object of personal significance from each recipient in the Museum’s Gandel Atrium until 14 February 2021, the exhibition shines a light on their lives and achievements through their fascinating choices.

ACT 2021 Australian of the Year, Professor Brendan Murphy, told Canberra Weekly his chosen object, his well-read copy of the Commonwealth’s COVID-19 Pandemic Plan, represents the significant role he played in Australia’s COVID-19 response.

“This is my own personal copy that I took with me to all our National Cabinet meetings and all our planning meetings,” Dr Murphy said.

“This guided us through all of our early response, and since this was my own personal copy, it’s significant for me because I took it through all those incredibly tense early meetings.

“My nomination was really because I represent the coronavirus response I think, so this was very significant as part of that … I think it was important for me to choose something that represented that part of my life.”

Having lived in the ACT since taking up his role as Federal Chief Medical Officer in 2016, Dr Murphy now considers himself “a proud ACT resident” who loves Canberra’s cultural institutions, access to nature, and culinary landscape.

“There’s so much to see and do here and you can get around unlike places like Melbourne, everything’s in easy commuting distance,” he said.


A two-month turnaround with an install ‘like magic’

2021 Australian of the Year showcase exhibition
Museum curator, Dr Lily Withycombe’s role curating the exhibition saw her aiding the recipients in selecting their objects.

Museum curator, Dr Lily Withycombe, told Canberra Weekly her first time curating the exhibition has been an “honour and a privilege”.

“It’s been really inspiring and ultimately I think that’s what this exhibition is for everyone,” she said.

With her role involving aiding the recipients in selecting their objects, Dr Withycombe described that process as an “iterative” one of back-and-forth discussions.

“I got to interact directly and personally with them,” she said. “To be honest, I never thought I would be calling the commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and sending him texts.

“It’s really challenging … it’s sometimes really confronting for people to think about one object that represents their life.

“There’s some practical considerations, it could be a perfect object, but it might not fit within the showcase or it might be too fragile to travel, or also some of them might decide it’s too personal and they can’t part with it.”

Compared to her work on other exhibitions, Dr Withycombe described her experience with the 2021 Australian of the Year showcase as unique.

“The timeframe is really, really short; you have two months,” she said.

“You’ve got to make sure you have enough time for the recipients to choose the objects … but also you have to leave enough time for it to come to the Museum.

“That’s the big trick and that was the challenge this year because of COVID … one of the objects only arrived late last week.”

“Even though this is the first time I’ve worked on it, the whole project team is really experienced … it’s like a well-oiled machine.

“The install happens almost like magic.”


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