Warning – Images that I have included in my photographs include images of Indigenous Australians now deceased
You may find a bit of a theme appearing in my posts about the Discovery Events I have attended as part of the Human Brochure. Me thinking that something I was about to attend might be a little ho-hum, naff or dry, and then being more than pleasantly surprised and quite blown away by how awesome it has been in reality. It does mean that I have been gushing a bit about my experiences to anyone who will listen. It also means that I probably need to raise my expectations a bit! The next event definitely falls into the category of me gushing about it afterwards.
The National Archives of Australia (NAA) occupies an old building in the Parliamentary Triangle (as the precinct is known), along with various concrete bunker type buildings in the various light industrial areas of town. My main experience with the National Archives has been applying the archiving rules to my work as an employee of the government, so that my files are saved, destroyed or a combination of both, in accordance with the rules set down for such things. In the back of my mind I guess that I had thought that the NAA was in charge of all those files and bits of paper, and that it involved lots of dry and dusty paper piles. Of course, as usual (it appears) I was wrong! (Seriously, how much humble pie can one blogger eat in a series of posts?!) What hadn’t occurred to me is that government records are more than just paper files produced by public servants. Government employees have taken photos and videos, items have been owned by the government that form part of the records, and our country’s history, from the very beginning, is held in government records.
Talk about a light bulb moment! This means that the exhibitions at the NAA are rich, diverse, and unique. To have a private tour of two of the three current exhibitions was a very special privilege for me. I think that all of us who attended were touched in different ways by the exhibits that we saw, but my reactions were definitely based on my own personal experiences.
We could choose two exhibitions to see during our visit. I decided that I didn’t need to see the exhibition on researching my family, given that I am the immigrant in my family (which I may have told people a few too many times on the night!). Instead the first exhibition I saw was the permanent exhibition, Memory of a Nation, with the extremely wonderful privilege of also being able to visit the Federation Gallery.
In the Memory of a Nation exhibition I saw video taken by ASIO of the Communist Party, a whale tooth, the briefcase carried by Harold Holt, (an Australian Prime Minister who disappeared while swimming in the ocean and was never found) and the contents of the briefcase. The original Larrakia treaty is on display, as are the travel documents required for non-white Australians to travel.
The good, the bad and the ugly of our past is on display. The application of the White Australia Policy, the way we as a nation treated the indigenous owners and inhabitants of this country, our involvement in war, the development of political parties, and government photos of people with no names, dates, or locations recorded. I need to go back and spend more time looking at the displays in more detail. Each new case I looked in had me shaking my head in wonder. I want to take my children there to show them the history of the country they live in, to see the full story.
One of the interesting aspects of this exhibition is that there is a wall full of black and white images, called ‘Faces of Australia’. These are all images taken by government photographers, mainly in the 1950’s and 1960’s to show Australia as a prospering nation. Members of the public are invited to examine the images and identify themselves, family members, locations etc. We heard a few stories of people who had done that and once again, the personal entering the story made it easy to connect with the items on display.
For me, with no real history in Australia other than my own, the section of the display that really captured my attention was the bit that I could relate to personally the most. There is a section devoted to the justice system. It includes photos of the members of the High Court, a wig worn by one of the judges, and various other documents and images. I was able to share with my group that wigs are still worn, and that when I first started out as a lawyer in the 1990’s there were Supreme Court and District Court judges in Sydney who would refuse to allow a female solicitor or barrister to appear before them while wearing trousers. A couple of women I was speaking to were quite shocked by this and it reminded me just how far we have come in some regards in a relatively short time.
The highlight of this exhibition, though, was being able to enter the Federation Gallery and examine the documents that are housed there. These are the documents that establish Australia as a colony, and as a nation. They have Queen Victoria’s signature on them, and bear her seal. I had never previously contemplated that bearing a seal might be more than a stamp on a piece of paper. These seals are large medallions made of silver, with the rope coloured and woven symbolically that attach the medallions to the paper. They really do ‘bear’ the seal – if it was all held up the weight of the seal would rip the paper I suspect! For the purposes of conservation photography of these documents is not allowed, but the NAA staff had very kindly arranged for a facsimile of the main document to be available for us to photograph. (just in case you thought I was being very disrespectful!)
After that wonderful experience we moved on to the second exhibition of the evening. I had chosen to visit the exhibition called “A Place to call Home”, and we were very fortunate to have the curator of the exhibition, Amy Lay, to talk to us about how the exhibition came to be. This collection tells the story, through photographs, of the migrant hostels in Australia from the 1940’s through to the 1980’s. The images were all taken by Immigration Department photographers during that time, and again, most did not have the details of the locations, people, or dates recorded. Given that this was the time that my father’s family migrated from Europe to New Zealand, the images certainly struck a cord with me. Amy explained that many had been taken as a form of propaganda, to show the Australian public that the migrants were ‘just like them’, and to encourage acceptance of them. Many of the migrants were displaced people following the wars in Europe. Many of us commented on the differences with how the current arrivals of displaced peoples are treated, and how the expectations of the Australian public are managed. (For the record, my personal opinion is that our government policies (from this and the previous government) that address the treatment of people claiming refugee status are inhumane kneejerk reactions to a problem that is nowhere near as dire as the media would have us believe. But that is just me.)
There is a larger exhibition planned for later in the year that will include items from the migrants and the hostels in addition to the photographs. I will be visiting that exhibition too. Migrants are an important part of this country’s history, and how we treated them in the past, and treat them now reflect on our society in important ways.
Do you get the feeling that this event roused all sorts of memories and emotions in me?! It really did. I can’t believe that prior to this the closest I had come to the building was to use the carpark if I had a meeting at the Attorney General’s Department or Prime Minister and Cabinet, and had forgotten to book a car-spot! So much richness sitting just metres away!
What I didn’t see, and what I want to go back to examine a bit more, are the collections of items that were previously banned in Australia under censorship etc. Now that should make for some interesting tales!