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The Grainger Trap

At the altar of the curator’s moral superiority
ABR Arts 24 February 2022

The Grainger Trap

At the altar of the curator’s moral superiority
ABR Arts 24 February 2022
Percy Grainger and his mother, Rose (between ca. 1910 and ca. 1920) (photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Percy Grainger and his mother, Rose (between ca. 1910 and ca. 1920) (photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Australians might be forgiven for thinking that the history of classical music – as an art form with origins in Europe – is something that happens elsewhere, that we are little more than observers (and listeners) of a tradition that is essentially the property of others. Melbourne-born Percy Grainger (1882–1961), however, presents us with an unambiguous claim to being a classical composer of lasting historical significance. And yet his music is also not performed, or celebrated, here with anything like the frequency and enthusiasm that it is overseas.

Grainger was acutely aware of this lack of recognition.  But it was not for this reason alone that he decided to build an autobiographical museum in the city of his birth. Completed in 1938, its form and contents were shaped and limited, as he acknowledged, by ‘one man’s taste and criticism’ – ‘my own’. Ultimately, however, he sought to do much more than merely memorialise and aggrandise himself. In a 1955 essay on the Museum, he concluded that he wanted to ‘help Australia live to the axiom: “Music is a universal language”.’

Comments (5)

  • The Grainger museum WAS closed last time I checked.
    This is a disgrace.
    His museum is a national treasure.
    Please keep on championing him.
    Posted by Jenny
    15 December 2022
  • Insightful commentary by Dr Tregear. I've seen the latest installation at the Grainger Museum. Fresh responses to museums and collections should always be welcome, particularly from groups and individuals traditionally excluded. At a university museum, however, surely such efforts should also be informed by awareness of the history of the collection, the institution, the founder(s) and their historical context. These factors can (and probably should) be challenged and critiqued. But to challenge and critique you must first understand: read the existing literature, do your research. Fred Wilson's brilliantly subversive interventions (including one at the University of Melbourne's own Ian Potter Museum of Art in1998) revealed a solid understanding of the collections and institutions that he was critiquing, gained presumably through reading, research and discussion, and complementing his own lived experience and sharp insights. The Grainger Museum's latest project is the work of its first 'Creative Researcher in Residence'. In other typical university/academic forums, such as seminars, conferences and peer-reviewed journals, research and a knowledge of prior scholarship are essential. They should also be essential in university museums.
    Posted by Belinda Nemec
    02 March 2022
  • I am reluctant to overreact without seeing what has actually happened to the museum, especially given Peter Traeger’s very balanced review of the #brownmaninawhitemuseum exhibition. However. if the exhibition as described is the first example of the Melbourne University bean-counters' "radical re-thinking of the Grainger Museum and its collection", I wonder whether we in Adelaide should be taking steps to prevent the toppling of the memorial over Percy Grainger's grave in our West Terrace cemetery.
    The plaque next to the grave explaining Grainger's international reputation as a musical genius is fading from the weather, but, possibly because he was "committed to promoting his own genius", Grainger's own inscription is written in stone and, like the museum he built in Melbourne and the music he wrote and unearthed, it will remain once the cultural vandals have done their worst and moved on.
    Posted by Ray Dennis
    02 March 2022
  • Peter Tregear's observations about the lack of a collection in the Grainger Museum is a wonderful piece of writing and a timely reminder that we need the Grainger collection back for multiple reasons.
    Posted by Jaynie Anderson AM OSI FAHA
    28 February 2022
  • A very useful and thought-provoking argument, Peter.
    Posted by Jody Heald
    26 February 2022

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