Tansy Curtin’s favourite item in her gallery’s Marilyn Monroe exhibition is not a Hollywood costume or a designer gown.
Instead, the Bendigo curator is drawn to a small photo of nine-year-old Norma Jeane Mortensen, her hair arranged tightly in ringlets.
The star’s handwriting is visible on the photograph’s reverse.
“To actually be able to touch the old photographs, to hold those little things in your hands, for me that's a wonderful experience,” she said.
“To know that Marilyn owned it, that kind of connection to her is really nice.”
Ms Curtin said artifacts from the actress’ off-screen life helped the Bendigo Art Gallery exhibition achieve a holistic vision of who Marilyn – or Norma Jeane – really was, and challenged audiences preconceived notions of the star.
The show, curated in association with Twentieth Century Fox, will open with a black-tie gala tonight and will remain at the View Street gallery until mid-July.
Ms Curtin said the public’s fascination with objects Marilyn left behind was ironic because the screen siren was not a materialistic person.
But interest in the blonde bombshell extended beyond her belongings and her movies, she said, explaining audiences admired Monroe for surviving a difficult childhood before going on to conquer the movie business.
”People are also entranced by her fragility,” she said.
“We're interested in that idea of a Hollywood icon we worship being very human and very accessible.”
Hollywood might not be the traditional fare for art galleries, but Ms Curtin said institutions like hers needed to adapt as audiences became more saturated with imagery in their everyday lives.
“You need to carve out a niche, and work out what an audience is engaging with,” she said.
“You can have shows that are popular and engage a lot of people, and shows that have a niche market.”
Art galleries are not the only places to have changed over time either; Curtin thinks Marilyn would have some interesting reflections on modern Hollywood, too.
The curator said it was likely Monroe would bemoan the paparazzi culture in Tinseltown, but look more fondly upon the role of women in movies.
“It’s still really difficult for women and there's a way to go, but it's improved so dramatically since her time.”
Overseas guest give thumbs up
It doesn’t open until tonight , but the Marilyn Monroe exhibition has already welcomed its first international visitors.
Two of the world’s most prolific collectors of Monroe paraphernalia have loaned items to the regional show, and arrived Down Under this week to cast their expert gaze over the exhibition.
Greg Schreiner and Scott Fortner have both been fascinated with the Hollywood actress since they were young boys.
Mr Schreiner, who is president of the US Marilyn Monroe fan club, was first exposed to the blonde’s beauty when his parents took him to see Some Like It Hot at the cinema.
He began “collecting Marilyn” immediately, later moving to the City of Angels where finding old Hollywood treasures proved easier.
“My home is a bit like a shrine to Marilyn when you walk in,” he said on Friday.
Almost sixty items from Mr Fortner’s cache of collectables are on display in the exhibition, including cosmetics, jewellery and a camera, all owned by Monroe.
Both believe the screen icon remains popular today because people can relate to her struggles with men, body image and bosses.
Mr Schreiner also said the beseiged star possessed a vulnerability that compelled fans to protect her.
“Even though she was dazzlingly beautiful, there was a childlike quality that softened her,” he said.
“You would think that women would have be threatened by her appearance, but they never were.”
Both men own one half of an outfit in which Marilyn was photographed at a 1953 charity function, and the pair share a friendly rivalry over whose item is most precious.
“Mine is an incredible dress, and his is a small, little, insignificant muff,” Mr Schreiner joked, before the other collector interrupted.
“Which just so happened to be the very first fur she bought with her own money,” Mr Fortner said, defiantly.
The pair often collaborate for exhibitions like the one in Bendigo where the two garments are briefly reunited.
Mr Schreiner and Mr Fortner welcomed the gallery’s inclusion of personal curios belonging to Monroe, pieces they said proved Monroe was not a “dumb blonde”, but an intelligent, down-to-earth woman.
Asked what Monroe might think of the gallery’s collection, Mr Fortner said she would be honoured.
“I think she’d be thrilled that we still care enough to do this, and she’d be amazed – she never realised her impact on the world.”