Creating an underwater world of fact and fantasy

The other day, a friend said to me, ‘You have an awesome job’, and I guess I do. As a creative producer for the museum, I get to dream up new exhibitions and bring them to life. My friend’s comment was prompted by a photo I posted of the Nautilus, the steampunk submarine star of Voyage to the Deep, an interactive exhibition for families loosely based on Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. It’s about underwater adventure and discovery, and uses the book as a foundation, but then builds on it to contrast the fantasy of the novel with real submarines and modern deep-sea research – the facts behind the fiction. Kids will be able to climb aboard a fantastical deep-sea vessel and take it for a drive (or should that be a dive?), exploring various undersea worlds and discovering what it’s like to live and work under water.

Voyage to the Deep submarine

Construction of the submarine at the museum.

The project started about 18 months ago, when I was given the basic topic and started research. We used the 1998 Oxford World Classics translation by William Butcher for reference, as many of the earlier English editions contained translation errors (Butcher even got the title right: ‘seas’ not ‘sea’). We formed a team of people from different areas of the museum and started brainstorming ideas.

My role was to work out ways to turn these ideas, plus concepts from the book and factual information, into a cohesive interactive exhibition. So, as well as reading the novel, a lot, I had to research all sorts of topics, from the psychological testing of submariners to the size of squid eyeballs.

Installing the submarine, ghost net reef and giant kelp forest.

Installing the submarine, ghost net reef and giant kelp forest.

There was no shortage of inspiration or ideas to include. The tough part was passing these through the necessary practicality filters of what we could afford, what things we could build in such a way that they’d be safe, durable and able to travel (as the exhibition will tour to other venues), and what would appeal to our family audience. The latter was helped by holding focus groups with parents to seek their opinions and suggestions.

Once the content had been worked out, the next challenge was sourcing all the stuff we needed. Fortunately eBay proved excellent for finding weird props; who knew you could buy replica moray eel skulls and stingray spines? We engaged suppliers in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and had components built all around Australia. By the time it’s all in one place, I suspect the exhibition will have come close to travelling its 20,000 leagues.

We’re also building some key elements in house, including the fantastic entry portal and one of my favourite exhibits – a shark that you have to reach inside to find out what he had for dinner. We even managed to create a forest of giant kelp for children to explore.

Voyage to the Deep airlock

It’s been a challenging project, but a lot of fun too. I can’t wait to see it all assembled and in one place – a stunning steampunk submarine, a coral reef made from ghost nets and other marine debris, a giant kelp forest, a shipwreck and even the fabled lost city of Atlantis – yes, I definitely have an awesome job.

– Em Blamey, Creative Producer

Voyage to the Deep opens on 10 December. This exhibition was made possible by the support of Nine Network, Laissez Faire Catering, 2DayFM, and Douglas Fabian Productions.

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