How The Museum of Australian Democracy got its groove back

Museums in Australia are changing fast. Far from being elite or predictable, new content driven agendas are putting visitors back in the driver’s seat. From public talks, festivals and communal art workshops, to social media drives and projection mapping, museums and art galleries are ramping up for the brave new era.

Image by Andrew Merry

Nowhere is this clearer than in Canberra, where The Australia War Memorial, The National Portrait Gallery and The National Gallery are all competing for tourist dollars.

Adam Yazxhi, the CEO and Creative Director of design agency MAXCO, says branding the mission, not just the institution, is critical when it comes to design.

National Heritage building: Old Parliament House Canberra. Photograph by Andrew Merry

National Heritage building: Old Parliament House Canberra. Photograph by Andrew Merry

“For museums it’s no longer a “build it and they will come mentality. Institutions often develop ‘muscle memory’ evolved from bad practice. But audiences crave real experiences,” he says.

“For museums it’s about branding clever content. Just like with hotels where actions and participation are what fill up the memory banks and become what visitors want to share,” he says.

Photograph by Andrew Merry

Adam is not talking about ‘one single “Instagrammable” moment’ but rather a series of interactions and participatory events, that invite an unexpected experience.

“It’s more like a road map for how you share the space – for how a museum can be enjoyed and related to.” Adam says this goes beyond branding or design to answering the question: ‘What is the offer?’

Adam Yazxhi has worked with many cultural organisations over the years, including MTV, Tropfest, St. George Cinema and Bangarra Dance Theatre. His design agency MAXCO recently won an international award inQuébec City, for their rebranding of The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra.

Photograph by Andrew Merry

In this case MAXCO set a strategy for the rebrand, designed a new web UX and importantly introduced a visual element called The Conversation Line. This was a dynamic component symbolising the two-way dialogue that defines successful democracy.

Director of the Museum Daryl Karp says this was key to the success of the rebrand.

“The Conversation Line has been really significant in articulating in visual way, what we have been doing here,” says Karp.

“I think it came out quite early on, when I joined, that our purpose was to celebrate the spirit of Australian democracy and the power of your voice with in it. The first thing we wanted to do was to give people a voice in the museum and encourage people to think,” Daryl says.

Photograph by Andrew Merry

Karp says all democracy requires a highly engaged citizenship and most Australians don’t realise that we have one of the best working examples in the world.

“Now we reference the conversation line all the time. We reference it in the context of if we are doing an exhibition – we actually ask: ‘In this context; what does the conversation line look like? What is the end point of that call to action and what does it look like?’” Karp says.

Adam says the collaboration worked because the organisation knew it had to innovate at speed or suffer.

Photograph by Andrew Merry

“It’s a familiar battleground for cultural institutions to try and marry the old with the new. So many museums these days get caught up in the curatorial responsibilities of the building and of the collection, and forget that their job is civic engagement,” he says.

Adam is now working with The Museum in an ongoing way to push through new boundaries.

“We believe Museum of Australian Democracy can become a hub and a kind of town centre for the whole of the ACT.”