Mine Rescue

Review

of an Exhibition

by Regan Forrest

Published on November 25, 2010, Modified on November 26, 2010

  • Description:

    Like many people, I doubt I would ever have heard of Beaconsfield had it not been for the mine collapse of Anzac Day 2006, which claimed the life of one miner and trapped another two underground. It took 14 days for rescuers to free the miners from nearly one kilometre below ground, while their families and the world’s media watched.

    Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre is distinctive in that there is both a historic and an operational gold mine right next to each other, separated only by high wire fences. While the Heritage Centre was operational before the infamous incident (as the Grubb Shaft Gold & Heritage Museum), in the wake of the tragedy a Federal grant was allocated to expand upon the site and rebrand the museum. Not surprisingly, visitor numbers have increased dramatically since the collapse due to the site’s notoriety.

    The Mine Rescue exhibition is the drawcard of the site and the most powerful part of the visitor experience. There is a rich seam of content (pardon the pun): a dramatic storyline, emotionally compelling anecdotes and a narrative thread of human resilience and comraderie in the face of huge adversity.

    The space is fairly dark and minimalist in design; greys punctuated by accents of yellow reminiscent of the colours of an industrial site. This bare-bones functional design works well with the content, letting the relatively few objects and sparse text come to the fore.

    For me the most memorable exhibit was the Interactive Tunnel. This is a crawlthrough which, part-way along, includes a section where you can stand up into a space reminiscent of the claustrophobic environment where the miners were trapped (the actual space they were trapped in was only about 1.5-2 cubic metres and too small to stand up in). The area is in semidarkness, surrounded by a cage holding back a mass of rocks. There is a soundscape of the creaking of rocks as the underground realm ‘breathes’. The thing that really completes it in my opinion is the fact that the hole you stand up through is just a little bit too small – feeling the sides of the hole pushing against your shoulders really enhances the sense of claustrophobia.

    Interpretive text and images present the circumstances of the incident and a day-by-day account of the dramatic rescue, explaining the difficult circumstances of the rescue and how the men were finally reached. These people’s stories are presented minimally but powerfully.

    The other star objects are the overalls of the miners which show the tears from when they had to cut themselves free from rubble using stanley knives. (I hope those were the real overalls because I’d feel so cheated if they were mocked up!)

    The thing that lets the exhibition down is that it seems a bit muddled in the way that it’s organised – several of us found ourselves reading panels titled “Day 6″ without having seen anything about Days 1-5. Looking around the space again, I suspect that nearly all of us entered the exhibition backwards compared to what the designers presumably intended.

    When you approach the exhibition entry, there are two possible points of entry to the space beyond. The one that looks the most direct and is the most visually attractive (it displays a colourful scarf over 2km long which was made by members of the public during the rescue vigil) is the one we went through, but looking back I think this was meant to be the conclusion to the experience. I’d contend that this is an example of a visitor flow which had a logic ‘in plan’ which didn’t quite translate to the physical reality and the other visual and spatial cues that visitors follow.

    I think the interpretive challenge with this exhibition is that it is actually telling two stories: that of the collapse and the subsequent ordeal of the trapped miners; and that of the rescue attempts and associated media frenzy above ground. I wonder if this exhibition might have worked better if these two stories were made more clearly separate, with visitors being told which ‘side’ of the story they were experiencing, perhaps with the two ‘meeting’ in the middle for the climactic story of the miners reaching the surface.

    Another minor gripe – there was a wall of newspaper headlines showing press coverage of the rescue events. But I was disappointed that this seemed to include only Tasmanian papers, which to me felt a bit parochial. I would have liked to seen more about media coverage from further afield, given it was an event that attracted national and even international attention. However I appreciate that copyright constraints, project timescales, etc. might have made this a non-starter.

    The rest of the site is dedicated to interpreting the ruins surrounding the old Grubb Shaft, and an area which is effectively a local history museum which doesn’t have a lot to do with the mine itself.

    Ideally, I think the non-mining content would be better presented at another site, to allow a more coherent storyline to come through and to preserve the sense of place of the actual mine. But I can see on a practical level why the situation has arisen as it has (and there were some classics on display – such as a table of women’s magazines from the 1950s and 60s, as well as a typically 1960s documentary on the construction of the nearby Batman Bridge). I don’t think it helped that the first area you encounter after crossing the ‘paywall’ includes a lot of industrial equipment and collections which are not connected to mining (which confused a few of us at first).

    The site is currently undergoing some further redevelopments, including a 3D immersive experience to interpret the gold mining process itself, which will fill an important gap in the current storyline of the site. I hope there is also the opportunity to address some of the ‘disconnects’ in the way the non-mining related spaces are presented as part of this process.

    (This review is adapted from a blog post: http://reganforrest.com/2010/11/review-beaconsfield-mine-and-heritage-centre/)

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