Allison Russell manages the Community Engagement team at History SA, delivering the History Festival in May each year, on top of managing community engagement at the Migration Museum.
Becoming a Curator
Allison studied History at University, and when she’d finished Honours, wanted to continue her learning in the field. Allison didn’t think she wanted to be a teacher, so instead went in search of other organisations that might employ historians.
I started volunteering at my local museum, found out about a new Graduate Diploma in Museum Studies at Flinders Uni and was lucky enough to be accepted. I then discovered a deep and abiding passion for museology and I haven’t looked back.
Before graduating from Museum Studies Allison started working at Flinders University Art Museum, initially as a collections manager.
They have an amazing collection of old Master original printworks, a unique collection of Post Object and Documentary art and a sensational collection of contemporary Australian Indigenous art. I worked first as a collection manager and then shifted into programming, and stayed there for around 12 years. When an opportunity came up to join the curatorial team at the National Motor Museum, I couldn’t turn it down. I’ve since worked in a few different roles at History SA, including with online projects, community museums and the Migration Museum.
Working at History SA
Allison describes her current role as ‘fabulously varied’. Her main responsibilities are to deliver the History Festival in May each year, and to manage community engagement at the Migration Museum.
The History Festival is a fantastic event, involving community groups all around the state. It is a great chance to explore our history, but it is so much more than that, too – the History Festival is an opportunity for people to get together with friends, to do things they love, and to reward their curiosity.
At the Migration Museum Allison works with communities who have come from around the world to make South Australia their home. Whether they have come recently or generations back, the Museum’s goal is to share their stories and to create a series of programs that reflect our myriad cultures, traditions, history and experiences, and encourage visitors to reflect on their own identity. Allison’s work involves creating supportive spaces for people to come together and explore and share.
For the love of it
Allison greatly enjoys her role at History SA. She says she loves the team she works with.
It is great to be surrounded every day by passionate, clever, enthusiastic, committed and creative people. I’m also constantly inspired by the community groups I work with – they remind me of the resilience of the human spirit. (And often they feed us!). I value the fact that I am constantly learning, too. I also enjoy the challenges and rewards of working collaboratively with such a wide range of community groups and organisations.
Allison remembers one moment that made her feel like museums could really make a difference in the world.
It was a while ago, when I worked at the National Motor Museum. We did an exhibition tour funded by Visions of Australia, taking the first car that drove across the Australian continent back along its route, from Adelaide to Darwin, 100 years after it had made the original journey. What was so exciting about this tour was that we were able to visit so many of the tiny schools and communities along the way. My proudest moment on this tour was when we visited a tiny Aboriginal school in the Northern Territory. The kids were great, mostly pretty little, and really got into the activities. We all had a great fun day. But the moment of pride came as we were leaving, and the teacher told me that she could see that interacting with this amazing 100-year old object had made an enormous difference in how her students could understand the concept of the past. This was an experience that only a museum could deliver.
She describes as a close second another project at the National Motor Museum. With colleague Pauline Cockrill, Allison worked on a project with the Morris Register of South Australia and Resthaven Aged Care. They arranged to take historic Morris cars to a nursing home, and take people for rides around the district. One lady told the team that the day was the anniversary of her husband’s death. He had apparently been a motoring enthusiast, and going out in one of the cars had brought back many happy memories for her on a day which was normally sad. Again, a reminder of the power of the object, and also the unpredictable ways that audiences make connections.