Exhibition review: World of Wonder, Margot McKinney

An exhibition that gives permission for wonder in a world where there is so little space for unreserved joy.

Opening in the wake of Australian Made month, this exhibition is a story of an incredible maker using (largely) Australian materials, but also the story of an epic Australian family dynasty of luxury jewellers that speaks to an Australian spirit.

Presented by the Museum of Brisbane, the World of Wonder: Margot McKinney has been 18 months in the making. Obviously, this exhibition will appeal to a certain audience (and not all audiences), but for all, it has a genuineness often not found with big bling museum shows of great jewellery collections.

That tone is set from the start, as one walks through a kind of scrap-book alley celebration of a truly Queensland story with archival materials and memorabilia that chart the 138-year legacy of the McKinney family. It then funnels the visitor along a corridor gallery where diorama-style peep holes ‘unearth’ rare opal treasures.

The exhibition design is a bit hit and miss, such as these kitschy faux opal mine peepholes set against suffocating apricot-coloured walls, which doesn’t feel in sync with the quality of the objects themselves. Maybe its just a style of exhibition design aimed to make this collection more accessible.

Rachel Burke at Margot McKinney World of Wonder at Museum of Brisbane 2022. Photo: Claudia Baxter

However, there is a well-presented gallery that explains the mining of gems and making techniques, with an active wall of moving images that is excellent.  Likewise, an underwater-inspired room is a perfect setting to deep dive into McKinney’s pearl collection.

Completing the exhibition, the final gallery ratchets up the glamour stakes – feathered and bejewelled frocks on mannequins, and mirrored wall-based vitrines displaying technically exquisite – but decidedly eccentric – unique pieces of jewellery.

In some ways, you could be mistaken for thinking that you’d stepped backed into another time (and pay bracket) – back to a time of ‘big’ jewellery and opulence. But what this exhibition does is allow you to dream through its beauty; it gives permission for wonder in a world where there is so little space for that unreserved joy that’s not bogged down by social mores or headlines of our time (aka ethics of the gem trade).

While the labels locate the gems – and offer a level of storytelling – that narrative is in some ways slightly removed as a necessity for viewing or understanding this exhibition. We don’t need to know who wore them, who owns them, or how much they cost. Our viewing relationship is driven by a connection with the object instead.

I love the fact that every single pearl that comes out of an oyster has its own personality.

Margot McKinney, jeweller

Australian audiences have had the pleasure of a number of jewellery exhibitions in our galleries – most notably Cartier at the National Gallery of Australia in 2018, The Daalder Collection of Contemporary Jewellery at Art Gallery of SA (2019) and Beyond Bling! at Art Gallery of WA (2019).

The difference here is this exhibition celebrates a true Australian creative, and a playfulness in McKinney’s designs.

Read: Are jewellery exhibitions art, and why the recent rise in them?

For some pieces, McKinney is reputed to have waited up to 10 years to find that special element for a bespoke piece – whether sourced from a pearl fisher or opal miner in Australia, or a gem cutter elsewhere. Perhaps we should be thinking of it as ‘slow jewellery’?

Sustainability is a word embraced in may circles today, but looking at these unique intricate pieces by McKinney, it is not the word that would immediately come to mind, and yet, McKinny’s practice is rooted deeply in nurturing long-term relationships with ethical suppliers. Those relationships are part of the narrative of these worn artworks, as is her very deep connection with Brisbane.

She says that living in Brisbane, with an abundance of nature on her doorstep doesn’t necessarily ‘translate into the designs, but it just gets in through osmosis,’ McKinney explains.

My only criticism of this show is that the exhibition design could have been toned down a little, given these objects on display are so ‘over the top’ in themselves. The mirrored surfaces and quickly rotating photo galleries compete too much with the objects, making it hard work to view.

That said, this exhibition truly surprised me for its genuineness (to use that word again). It shows an incredible dedication and passion and a very individual aesthetic. It is an astonishing collection, and any lover of jewellery or classic fashion brands will love this exhibition.  

World of Wonder: Margot McKinney is showing at the Museum of Brisbane (MoB) 18 June until 6 November 2022. 
Ticketed: Adult $15 Concession/Student $12, Members free

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina