20 Mar 2010

Obscura Day, Dunedin

In response to its international call-out for guided tours around unique and fascinating collections, I volunteered to organise a New Zealand chapter of Obscura Day, a global event hosted by the online 'cabinet of curiosities' Atlas Obscura.

The event took the form of a tour around the back rooms, obscure cupboards, and dusty hallways of the Physics department of Otago University, Dunedin, and was co-hosted by teaching fellow Paul Yates. Not a public or official collection, the many fascinating antique teaching aids and unique machines in the Physics department's current possession were pulled out for the perusal of a select group.

These included the Beverley Clock, which runs on its own atmospheric pressure, and the Transmitter used by Professor Robert Jack in the first radio broadcast of a music programme in New Zealand, transmitted from the very same department in 1921.

These items would indeed make a incredible private museum, although sadly soon after the tour the collection was broken up and auctioned off, with the Robert Jack transmitter saved only at the eleventh hour from sale. This priceless piece of New Zealand radio history now resides in Dunedin in the collections of the Otago Settlers Museum.

thanks to adroit shutterbug Markus Gradwohl for many of these images. more photos of the tour can be found on Flickr, here

& here is an interview Zach Pontz (from CNN online) conducted with me via email about the event :

1) Are you from New Zealand? What do you do for a living? What's your age?

My name is Sally Ann McIntyre, and I am a 35 year old, Australian born independent curator, writer and broadcaster who has based herself in New Zealand since 1991. I have a family background in New Zealand, with both my parents growing up here. My current day job is teaching in the English and Media Studies department at Massey University in Wellington, and currently I am involved in a variety of projects and networks relating to radio, sound and media art. These often tie New Zealand networks with those based elsewhere. For example, with co-producer Gilbert May, a broadcaster with Radio One, in Dunedin, I commission NZ programmes for the Radia global radio network, which is a peer-to-peer community of radio stations (including Resonance FM in London, and Radio Zero in Lisbon) that facilitates artists and broadcasters making independent, experimental and exploratory radio, with a focus on radio as an art medium. These stations are based in local broadcast communities, and use internet file sharing to pass their radio programmes around the world, taking turns broadcasting each other's shows.

> 2) how'd you come across Atlas Obscura and become involved in Obscura Day?

I became aware of the Atlas Obscura initially via my fondness for its precursor website, the Athanaeus Kircher Society, and through keeping in touch with what was happening when the Kircher site went offline. I've been studying Museum Studies lately and both of these sites seem to me to be a really interesting reinvention of the Renaissance idea of the Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, which is a precursor to the modern idea of the Museum that attempted to be a total collection of the world's wonders, from one collector's perspective. This idea seemed obsolete for centuries afterwards - the hubris of attempting to collect the world, and the eclecticism and personalisation of this model being two things that didn't appeal to the increasingly specialised and discipline-oriented Museum theories and practices that sprang up after. But I'm deeply interested in how globalisation and the internet seem to be leading us toward a return of the Wunderkammer - this idea of Museum practice becoming virtual, that the objects are gone, but you can still log your collection as a series of virtual sites or items - and I love Atlas Obscura's take on the tourist trail as a series of wonders, with an eccentric, curiosity-driven and personal bent.

> 3) What are the personal benefits you gain from the website and how do you think you benefit from it as opposed to a regular book guide?

I think that the Atlas Obscura couldn't really exist in the way it does without the internet. It is a globalised way of looking at the local that really respects locality, but respects its distribution via the internet as a form of peer-to-peer communication device, which is really the way it should be used, ideally, and this is of course something which other forms of media - the one-to-many models – cannot do. This seems to me to be one thing that artist's projects lik Atlas Obscura can offer the world and its forms of communication right now - the sense of possibility of framing things differently, to expose forms of knowledge and ways of thinking that aren't part of the dominant way of looking and talking about the world.

> 4) How has the web and social media helped you communicate as pertains to the site?

I'm highly suspicious to some degree of social media, although i do use it. The accessibility of Obscura Day's call for organisers was brilliant, though, and seemed a very good match with the Physics Dept tour, which is why it was so great when Dylan seemed enthusiastic about my suggestion. I feel very privileged to be working with Atlas Obscura, but at the same time, am enjoying the peer-to-peer, user-driven feel of the site, and its inclusiveness in terms of being involved, with people who i have never physically talked to but sharemany ideas with, on this side of the world. A lot of my work is involved with various types of distance-collaborations with networks of radio makers around the world, and this seemed a natural extension of that process. It was also great to consider the physical manifestation of the Atlas Obscura's virtual space, and I was happy to be able to tick a box for that in NZ, as the Beverly Clock was alreadylisted on the site, and to integrate Atlas Obscura into my own local community, as well as exposing the wonders of this intriguing place to the rest of the world. This to me seems to be the big triumph of this way of working, and of the internet as a facilitatory for collaborative work.

> 5) Can you tell me a bit about your Obscura Day trip?

The Obscura Day trip I have organised is in Dunedin, which is a University town in the South Island of NZ, with a very interesting history of intellectual endeavour, and subcultural (musical, artistic, and DIY inventor) vitality. Paul Yates and I will be leading a select group around the hidden wonders of the Otago University Physics Department, where Paul teaches, and poking around in the history of the field as it has occurred in Dunedin. There are some incredible things there, the Beverly Clock, for example, which runs on atmospheric pressure, and is in many ways a precursory foray into contemporary ideas around environmentally sustainable mechanisms, and the transmitter built and used by Professor Robert Jack, who was an early radio pioneer in New Zealand. He used the transmitter in 1921 to stage the very first broadcast music programme in NZ history. Paul will also conduct a few science experiments and demonstrate other machines for the audience - so i'll be a real science-nerd affair!

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