Dust to digital: The rebirth of the Stockman's Hall of Fame

The Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame.

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The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre recently reopened its doors after undergoing a two-year, $15 million redevelopment of its galleries. We led the bush icon’s creative and digital transformation, which was shortlisted for a 2021 MAGNA Award.

"And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him 
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended, 
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars."

– A.B. "Banjo" Paterson

This stanza from Banjo Paterson's famous poem 'Clancy of the Overflow' greets visitors to the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre as they embark on an experiential journey through a slice of Australian history. 

The poem is a landmark text of Australian culture. The bard of the bush evokes the romance of the outback, the drover's life and the 'pleasures that the townsfolk never know.' Writing from his 'dingy little office' in the city, Paterson speaks to many Australians' idyllic longing for the bush and a simpler life. 

This affinity to the bush brings thousands of travellers each year to the remote central-west Queensland town of Longreach, about 1200km northwest of Brisbane, to visit the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, Australia's leading outback heritage institution.

The museum has entertained and educated over a million visitors from across the country and worldwide since opening in 1988. It has also helped to keep alive the spirit of the country's bush heritage. 

Beginning of the journey

The outback is a dusty place. But Lloyd Mills doesn’t want a dusty museum.

"We've been in business for 33 years, and we were still telling our story the same way we were 33 years ago," says Mills, the CEO of the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre.

The audience and market changes he and the museum's board have seen over the past five years drove the desire to reimagine the revered bush institution. There was a strong sense the museum was in danger of becoming irrelevant, unable to deliver the kind of immersive experience modern audiences are craving. 

The museum's core visitor demographic — colloquially known as grey nomads — have become far more tech-savvy. Travelling in campervans fully kitted out with the latest technology and smartphones at the ready, the baby boomers visiting the museum are worldly travellers. They arrive with high expectations and are willing to share their experiences — good and bad — on social media and review sites like TripAdvisor. 

Mills and the board identified the need for the museum to move with the times. "We were still very much doing the 'object, signboard, move to the left please' exhibitions," he says. To rejuvenate the experience for its core audience and attract new visitors, Mills reached out to Melbourne-based experience design and creative technology company Art Processors. 

Impressed by Art Processors' work for other museums, including the Australian War Memorial, the museum engaged the company to undertake the major redevelopment to thoroughly modernise its digital and experiential offerings.

"We felt a product like ours steeped in tradition and stories needed to be more immersive," he says.

"The market had changed around us, and it was our opportunity to get in front of that as a museum. So rather than just upgrading one exhibit or one gallery, we pulled everything out, restarted, and did an end-to-end experience based around digital technology."

Mills and the Art Processors team recognised the potential to do something extraordinary. The iconic building — designed by Feiko Bouman and described as the 'Sydney Opera House of the Outback' — would remain, but everything else was up for discussion. 

The aim: to create an engaging and immersive experience for contemporary audiences by using digital technologies to help tell the diverse stories of outback Australia.

Hugh Sawrey's artist's studio at the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame.

A vision splendid

Over the past decade, Art Processors has created digital products and immersive experiences for contemporary galleries, museums and other institutions. 

The company's experience with heritage projects is extensive. It includes working on the audio tours and in-gallery interactive elements of a $32.5 million redevelopment of the Australian War Memorial's World War I gallery space

Mills was aware of the company's work at the War Memorial and its innovations in creating The O digital experience for the Museum of New and Old Art (Mona). He felt Art Processors could bring a cutting edge to the redevelopment but still be sensitive to the museum's core values. 

"Art Processors has a strong history of supporting landmark projects in regional and rural areas, which is important to us," he says. "They understood what we wanted from this redevelopment."

The co-founder and creative director of Art Processors, Tony Holzner, was excited from the outset about working with the museum. The large project would require the company to deliver an end-to-end revamp, including all-new audio tours, a digital operating platform, radical remodelling of the exhibition spaces, and immersive and interactive experiences throughout.

"There was great alignment on vision with Lloyd Mills and the Stockman's board," Holzner says.

"They wanted to rejuvenate it, certainly, but also go beyond to make it more contemporary and engage with new audiences. They wanted to appeal to the audiences that they had turning up day in, day out, but also encourage new audiences and give it long-term relevance from a legacy point of view."

After extensive consultation with Mills and the board, Holzner and the Art Processors team knew where they had to go for the conceptual rebirth of the museum: back to the beginning. 

Drover and famous bush painter Hugh Sawrey planted the initial seed for the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre in 1974. Sawrey campaigned hard for the next decade to make his dream a reality. He persuaded famous Australians such as R.M. Williams to back his cause. After a massive fundraising effort, the museum was built and opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on April 29, 1988. 

Sawrey's vision was to memorialise and give voice to the pioneers of the outback. Holzner and the Art Processors team could think of no more fitting way to honour this vision than have Sawrey guide visitors through the museum. In tribute to Sawrey, the location-aware immersive audio guide that takes visitors around the museum is called 'the Hugh'. 

"Hugh Sawrey's vision was about moving away from that dusty, stuffy museum idea,” says Holzner. 

“He wanted to make it about the unsung heroes of the bush. He wanted their stories told. His vision was spot on in terms of the very best practice for creating a more thoughtful and engaging audience experience. So it was perfectly aligned with our ideas and how we work."

The Hugh mobile experience at the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame

Heat and pandemic

The temperature regularly hits 40 degrees celsius during summer in Longreach. This year in February, at the height of summer, the mean daytime temperature was 38.2 degrees, hitting a high of 43.5 degrees on February 25.

"It's hot and dusty. It's not a great place to be installing sensitive AV equipment," says Art Processors project manager and producer Monica Zetlin. 

Aside from a couple of early visits to the site, Zetlin coordinated most of the logistics for this massive project from Melbourne, often working remotely from her home. Like everyone else, she spent much of 2020 in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Already a very long way from Brisbane, Longreach felt like an otherworldly destination at the height of the pandemic. COVID provided its own challenges for the Art Processors team with regulations governed by the different state governments and state border closures.

"Trying to figure out how to build an exhibition down here in Melbourne and install it in Longreach, particularly during a lockdown, was tricky," says Zetlin, who credits close communication between the team and its partners for the successful implementation of the project.

"We were very dedicated to not letting the COVID situation stop us from delivering this exhibition on time. We knew how important it was for the Hall of Fame to open in time for the school holidays. 

"Luckily, we managed to convince the Queensland government to permit us to get people up there, and they would have to isolate themselves on-site. So it was a lot of added pressure to an already complex project."

Classified as a specialist worker, Art Processors' exhibition designer on the project, Tara McDonough, spent three weeks in November on-site working at the museum. For the first two weeks, she was restricted to the museum and her hotel. 

"Because of its remoteness and just the scale of the actual physical building, we just worked around the clock. There was very little to distract you. It was six-day weeks and very long days," McDonough says.

McDonough was responsible for bringing to life the conceptual ideas of Holzner and Mona's senior exhibition designer, Adrian Spinks. Spinks collaborated with Holzner and the Art Processors team to create the thematic underpinnings of the project.

Partnering with Melbourne-based set design fabricators Show Works and local contractors, she wanted to work in unison with the building’s bold nature while creating a neutral space for the stories to take centre stage. 

"It's a powerful architectural expression. I was mindful of wanting to respect that. But the exhibit areas needed a refresh. It was a standard museum experience, with dim lighting, lots of objects and extensive interpretation panels. The challenge was to refresh that and design spaces for an immersive, digital storytelling experience."

The long, hot days involved plenty of problem-solving for McDonough and the Show Works team, as they crafted the physical infrastructure to fit with the redevelopment's themes and technical demands. She says the result was professionally satisfying but also emotionally cathartic.

"I remember walking through with The Hugh just before the launch in the final testing stages. It was the first time I'd heard the audio in the space with the soundscapes. It moved me to tears. The Songlines and Stock Routes tour, in particular, just the experience of Indigenous stock workers struck me. And the connection Indigenous and non-Indigenous stock workers had to the land and the brutal conditions they faced in navigating that landscape."

"That's the power of the audio Art Processors produced, and the whole experience feels like you're sitting next to these people listening to their stories, and it's just so enlightening. I felt even more strongly these stories needed to be told."

A young woman enjoys The Hugh mobile experience in one of the exhibits at the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame.

Diverse stories

Working closely with the museum's staff, the Art Processors content team began an archival dig to unearth the lost and forgotten stories that could sit alongside the museum's existing curatorial offerings. 

"We did most of that research at the curatorial layer ourselves. So that was all in-house for this project," says Holzner.

"We started from scratch, looking through the archives and collections database. Quite early on, we decided to focus on voices. The diversity part of the equation is helped significantly because of that desire to elevate the voices and bush characters. Immediately, it gives us room to explore a vast range of perspectives, in a very genuine and authentic way."

The museum has collected hundreds of oral histories since its inception in 1988, so Art Processors' head of content for the project, Renae Mason, had abundant raw material at hand. One of her main concerns was "not getting lost in the potential scope of the story."

"My first presentation was a very broad strokes picture of 'big history' to get a sense of the major events and topics that could be covered and to see what resonated with the client before going too far. I familiarised myself with the collection, getting a handle on the scope of items and the potential stories they could tell."

Her research led her to different themes and a list of characters that would form a brief for writing the colourful character monologues.

"That list became the starting point for a deeper dive into Australian archives and community forums. I searched for any material that would capture a person's voice and a sense of their attitude—newspaper articles, diaries, letters, photographs, sometimes songs and poems written in their honour, other times obscure interviews given that live on in other library and museum collections. Where possible, I interviewed those still with us who could share their memories."

The redeveloped galleries still feature the traditional pioneer stories, but now women and First Nations people also take pride of place. Both the museum and Art Processors believed it essential to reflect the diversity of experiences that have shaped Australia's outback story.

Mills says the museum had grappled with telling the diverse stories of pioneer women and First Nations people, perhaps missing the mark with past attempts. 

"We'd always recognised the Indigenous stockmen in some way in the galleries, but we wanted to elevate that and ensure people understand that without the Indigenous stock workers, there would be no pastoral industry in Australia."

Mason says the new content celebrates the pioneers' achievements alongside truth-telling about frontier violence and the experiences of Indigenous peoples. 

"It was through collaboration with Dr Tauri Simone, a proud Koa woman, academic and stockworker, that themes of the connection to country that existed before colonisation could be told. Her research into the histories of Aboriginal women who became head stockwomen and wrestled with bulls better than most men is a key highlight in the exhibition. Local Iningai custodian Suzanne Thompson consulted on our design work and proposed narratives. She can be heard delivering a powerful Welcome To Country, underscored by an incredibly moving soundscape by composer William Barton."

Aided by collaborators including Tony Barry as the voice of Hugh Sawrey, ARIA-award winning musicians William Barton and Fanny Lumsden, author Michael Veitch and actor William McInnes, the newly curated content shines throughout the museum's galleries. Hugh Sawrey's son, Anthony, was also consulted about his father's original vision.

Mason says the curatorial content seamlessly ties together the exhibition design layer with the digital components to form a unified experience.

"Digital used to be somewhat of an 'add on' to the exhibition design, but here the exhibition is born-digital with the digital audio storytelling carrying the bulk of the exhibition narrative instead of printed labels—although they are there too, as reinforcement."

Holzner points out the digital content platform created for the museum enabled the vivid presentation of diverse voices and previously forgottren stories. The Art Processors Museum Operating System establishes a platform for digital storytelling that can utilise audio, video, text and other elements such as augmented or virtual reality. 

"We put a lot of effort into what I call harmonising; the technology, the forms it takes, the content, the storytelling, how humans interact end to end in terms of the built space and environment, carefully layering and orchestrating these elements to work seamlessly together."

"What I think is potentially more important for the longer-term rejuvenation of an institution, and making it able to sustain ongoing change in a positive sense, is that those systems are not static. We design them to be dynamic so that they can update and grow. And from that storytelling sense, the new Hall of Fame is designed to allow the material to stay fresh and evolve. That's the power of technology if done well."

A man interacts with a digital kelpie dog that's part of the Welcome Station at the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame.

Roaring trade

The Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre reopened on April 1, 2021, unveiling its remarkable transformation. 

An interactive, motion-controlled 'welcome station' greets visitors to the museum and allows them to play with virtual kelpies. Venture beyond, and the spirit of Hugh Sawrey leads visitors on a journey of discovery, deep into the heart of the Australian outback. The words of Banjo Paterson rhyming in their ears.

Interactive elements throughout the museum include: a motion-controlled welcome station activation that uses the latest computer vision technology; a guided mobile audio experience featuring cinematic storytelling; a  multi-screening ‘outback cinema’ that lets the audience pick the films they want to watch with real-time audio synced to their headphones; and interactive displays elegantly sharing the stories of the everyday people of the outback.

Mills is positive about the upturn in domestic tourism and says the museum has been doing a roaring trade since reopening. 

"It's been busy, busy, busy. The destination is doing very well. I guess we put our feet to the fire in many ways with the new technology and everything else. We have 300 people coming through in the mornings, and everything has been going extremely well."

Acknowledgement of Country

In the spirit of reconciliation, we acknowledge the many Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and honour Elders past, present and emerging. We respect their deep, enduring connection to their lands, waterways and surrounding clan groups since time immemorial. We cherish the richness of First Nations Peoples’ artistic and cultural expressions.