Tag Archives: history

Covid-19 – what have you done to us? Defederating Australia

I used to be an Australian, but now I’m not so sure. Who knew that a virus called Covid-19 would be enough to tip state and territory leaders over the edge, taking Australia back 120 years to a colonial mindset? I’m thinking back to a time when I did some work in Canberra before our lives were changed so dramatically by a pandemic.

In early 2019, The National Archives of Australia (NAA) had an exhibition about the Australian Constitution and the Federation of Australia at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra while renovations were being carried out on their own building located nearby.

Museum of Australian Democracy, Canberra ACT

It was interesting to survey visitors to the exhibition and ask them some questions about our Constitution. (Anecdotally I’d say that other than law students or political scientists that most people passing through the exhibition had not spent time dissecting the document in question.) The NAA wanted to understand – whether visitors to the exhibition had actually read the Australian Constitution; what they knew about the creation of the Constitution; what they knew about the Federation of the colonies/territories and whether or not they thought that the Constitution needed to be changed in some way. If they did think that the Australian Constitution should be changed moving forward – they were asked how it should be changed and why? Imagine carrying out this survey in the different states (particularly WA and QLD) and territories right now in 2021 to see how people’s views have changed over the past 18 months. 

Surprisingly, it took 10 long years to draft the Constitution before it was given Royal assent by Queen Victoria (Queen of the United Kingdom) in 1900. The passing of the Constitution enabled Australia’s 6 British colonies to become one nation – the Commonwealth of Australia, on 1st January, 1901 – twenty one days before the death of the Queen.

Western Australia was the last colony to decide whether or not it would accept Federation. Strangely, in the early 1890s, New Zealand had considered becoming part of Federated Australia ahead of Western Australia’s decision but the fact that the Maori had the Treaty of Waitangi in place (and our Indigenous Australians were not similarly recognised) and the difficulty of protecting two island nations from a military perspective proved to be too much of an issue in the end.

Royal Assent

The other colonies had each held special votes or referendums in 1898 and 1899 – and in all of them the majority of voters said ‘yes’ to the Constitution Bill, accepting the new Australian Constitution. Western Australia had only just become a self-governing colony in 1890 and did not have its referendum until the end of July 1900. By then, Australia’s Constitution had Britain’s parliamentary and royal approval and arrangements for the new federal system were already in place.

Under the new Constitution, the former colonies (now called states) would retain their own systems of government, but a separate, federal government would be responsible for matters concerning the nation as a whole. For the most part, this system works, but also there could be benefits to having a consistent national approach to areas such as health and education and the management of utilities such as gas and electricity.

Historically, secession has been discussed in Western Australia on more than one occasion. It has been a serious political issue for the State, including a successful but unimplemented 1933 State referendum. The Constitution of Australia Act, however, describes the union as “one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth” and makes no provision for states to secede from the union.

Federation in 1901 was no cause for celebration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who after 60,000 years were dispossessed of their land and forcibly removed from country onto missions and reserves. The only recognition of First Australians in the new Constitution was discriminatory. Federal laws could not be made for them, they were not counted in the census and most could not vote (although Indigenous Australians in South Australia had the vote pre-Federation in the 1890s). Sadly, the authors of the Constitution believed that Indigenous Australians would die out and so didn’t require recognition or special laws.

The process to change the Constitution is very different from the way other laws are changed. The Federal Parliament may pass a law proposing changes to the Constitution, but a change will only be made if it is approved by the people through a referendum. From the National Australian Archives resources:

The power of the Australian people to make change to the constitution is given to them by Section 128, ‘Mode of altering the Constitution’: ‘… a proposed law is submitted to the electors [and] the vote shall be taken in such a manner as the Parliament prescribes’.

For a referendum to be successful and the alteration to the constitution to be passed, a double majority vote must be achieved, which is:

  • a majority of voters in a majority of states (at least four of the six states)
  • a national majority of voters (an overall YES vote of more than 50 percent).

If the double majority is achieved and the proposed alteration to the constitution is approved, ‘it shall be presented to the Governor-General for the Queen’s assent’ (Section 128).

The 1967 referendum – in which over 90% of voters agreed that First Australians deserved equal constitutional rights – remains the most successful referendum in Australian history. But this achievement, framed by campaigners at the time as ‘equal rights for Aborigines’, did not occur in isolation or without a long history of agitation, action and appeal.

The decades following 1949 brought about several changes to the Constitution Act. According to Helen Irving, (Department of the Senate Occasional Lecture Series. 2001) “In 1967, changes gave the Commonwealth the power to make special laws for the Aboriginal people. Australia’s formal constitutional and legal ties with Britain were severed. The White Australia policy was ended, and multiculturalism was introduced. Australia increasingly looked to, and invoked, its international obligations in passing and upholding Commonwealth laws. The notion of citizenship began to stretch beyond Australia’s nationalist concerns, to a wider, international set of values.”

The Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1948

I’ve often wondered if some of the attitudes that Australians held arose because before 1949 Australians held the status of being British subjects. This remained true until the enactment of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 which came into effect on the 26th January, 1949. Did this sway people to think as if they were British first rather than Australian? I know that many older Australians referred to England as “home” even when they were born in Australia. The legacy of British Imperialism had seeped into the minds of many Australians and “white-washed” their views on historical events and attitudes to Indigenous Australians and newly arrived migrants from non-British counties. It is not surprising that non-English speaking European migrants new to Australia also kept their country of origin allegiances for the first and second generations before they became “Australian”. Migrant families like my own suffered Australia Wartime internment during WWI and WWII based on family name and occupation even though they had arrived as indentured migrants from Germany in the 1850s. These people were not always overseas residents but were naturalised citizens and even born in Australia.

Realistically, most of us are migrants to this country. We have all brought with us bits of the cultural heritage that we came from to add to a growing population – making rich and diverse communities Australia wide. I hope that moving forward we are strengthened by the community values which can’t be broken by a pandemic. Australia made it through the Spanish Flu and can do the same now, remembering how we have joined together to form a single nation – Australia.

Strangely enough there are quite a few parallels with the pandemic today and the Spanish Flu more than 100 years ago. You get a sense of déjà vu reading about the border closures, quarantining, development of a flu vaccine by CSL,  blame gaming between the states and last but not least that the Spanish Flu reached WA much later than the other states. 

“In Australia, while the estimated death toll of 15,000 people from Spanish Flu was still high, it was less than a quarter of the country’s 62,000 death toll from the First World War. Australia’s death rate of 2.7 per 1000 of population was one of the lowest recorded of any country during the pandemic. Nevertheless, up to 40 per cent of the population were infected, and some Aboriginal communities recorded a mortality rate of 50 per cent.”

I hope that at the end of this Covid -19 pandemic I will still be an Australian and not a person defined by my State, Local Government Area or my vaccination status. I will look forward to seeing what the National Museum of Australia records on its online Bridging the Distance Facebook page after the success of Momentous – an audience driven participatory evolving record of recent events in Australian history compiled after the devastating 2019/2020 bushfire season.

Extra reading

https://theconversation.com/changing-the-australian-constitution-was-always-meant-to-be-difficult-heres-why-119162

https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/rp/rp0203/03rp11

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives/Powers_practice_and_procedure/Practice7/HTML/Chapter1/Constitution_alteration

https://www.naa.gov.au/learn/learning-resources/learning-resource-themes/government-and-democracy/constitution-and-referendums/referendums-and-changing-australias-constitution

https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/influenza-pandemic

https://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/senate/pubs/pops/pop37/irving.pdf

https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives/Powers_practice_and_procedure/00_-Infosheets/Infosheet_13-_The_Constitution

https://www.moadoph.gov.au/democracy/australian-democracy/#

Parramatta – The museum that never was ……. we are still talking about it 120 years later.

It’s often said that history repeats itself. The case for a museum in Parramatta is no exception, the conversation has been happening for more than 120 years and I’m sure that there is sufficient primary source material available to produce a PhD thesis on the subject.

Old Government House, Parramatta

Digitised newspaper articles from the past (via TROVE) reveal that as early as 1899, James Burns had suggested that Old Government House at Parramatta be made into a museum of Australian curiosities. He was willing to have his ships collect curiosities and rare items from the Pacific region, which his company traded with for business purposes.

Daily Telegraph  Saturday 1 July 1899

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/239530843

A ground swell movement for a museum rose in response to Parramatta Council’s invitation for residents to come forward with ideas for commemorating the foundation of the city. People thought it appropriate to have a permanent structure to celebrate the city and to be passed on for the enjoyment of future generations.

An awareness for the need to preserve monuments and collect historical items relating to Parramatta in around 1888, the centenary of Parramatta’s foundation. Towards the end of the 19th century citizens of Parramatta began expressing a need for a museum to be built to commemorate the achievements of Parramatta and to provide an attraction for visitors to the area. In a letter to the editor of the Cumberland Argus, James Purser felt the “town would be deserving of such an institution being the oldest in Australia.”

http://ref.arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2013/12/03/the-parramatta-and-district-historical-society-100-years-old-looking-back-to-its-beginnings/

A section of an article from 8 April 1905 rings true to the discussions we are having about a museum in Parramatta in 2020. There has been ongoing community debate for several years about whether or not the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (Powerhouse Museum) should be moved holus bolus to Parramatta. The conclusion is still the same – that Parramatta deserves to have a world class museum to reflect on the past and celebrate the present. It is a city of great cultural diversity with significant cultural heritage which needs to be preserved or repurposed rather than knocked down and redeveloped without much thought.

Questions about the Powerhouse move included the loss of heritage buildings to make way for the museum and whether the whole project has been sufficiently well thought out and will meet the needs of people living in Parramatta and Western Sydney. After all the years of talking, it would seem that Parramatta needs both a Powerhouse Museum satellite and its own Museum of Parramatta.

Saturday 8 April 1905

In 1905 there was opposition from Alderman Bartlett (Parramatta City Council) to the museum being built on the southern side of the Town Hall and whether the money could be better spent on subsidising a hospital ward. 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/85994942

At a meeting of Parramatta Council on Saturday 1 July 1911 to discuss the 50 year Jubilee celebrations, it was suggested that the foundation stone be laid for a Historical Museum the building of which should cost no more than £400 spread over a term of years. If only it had gone ahead at that time we may have an institution like the Australian Museum or the Art Gallery of NSW in Parramatta, but alas …… the talking continued.

On 3 July 1912,  Mr. J. H. Murray, one of the brothers of the Murray Brothers shopping emporium, raised the proposal to establish a local history association. Murray pointed out that “there were a number of ancient landmarks – Old Government House, the Observatory and others – which should be preserved in the interests of future generations.”

William Freame, a long term Parramatta Historian, wrote a letter to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913, noting that he was surprised that so little had been done to preserve Parramatta’s memorials and perpetuate its history.

From the City of Parramatta Research Services Blog 2013 quotes a letter by Freame to the Cumberland Argus in September 1913: 

“Look where I may, I see signs of vandalism, and the hand of the spoiler at work. And there were those, who would have turned its beautiful oak avenues into a highway for wood and brick carts, because of the stray coin or two they might have brought with them; And yet there has been so much that might have been done to preserve ‘Old Parramatta,’ and it has not been done. I remember the scores of old photographs and the several valuable engravings the late Mr. John Taylor possessed; where are they now?”

3 January 1925

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/16202968

By 1925, there were so many newspaper articles being written about The Australian Museum and the War Museum (The Australian War Memorial Museum) in Sydney. It isn’t surprising that there remained a push for a museum at Parramatta as the city continued to grow in size. I have not been able to determine who wrote the anonymous letter to the Editor of the Cumberland Argus shown below. Perhaps some research into primary source material or the handwritten Council Minutes of the time could pinpoint the author.

23 January 1925

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/103763750

The handwritten minutes of the City of Parramatta Council meetings from the 1930s mentions that one of the Misses Swann (from Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta) was involved in both the Parramatta Historical Society as well as  Parramatta Historical Museum Committee. The article below from the Cumberland Argus confirms that Miss Swann and both organisations came together in favour of building a museum in Parramatta. They also called for donations to the collection.

Thursday 14 November 1935

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald the following year again mentions that the committee is looking for material from the district and from several well known, old Parramattan families in particular.

Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday 31 March 1936

On Thursday 28 May 1936, The Cumberland Argus refers to the new Museum playing an important part in connecting people to the Sesquicentenary celebrations of Parramatta in 1938. “No doubt many overseas visitors will come to Parramatta during that year and that  material of historic value will be of appeal to these people”. It also mentions that in the United States of America, “there is not a state in the union without a historical museum and the oldest states have several museums” and that they are recognised as “an important element of cultural character”.

“Parramatta, the oldest town in the State Outside Sydney should be the first to set up a Historical Museum”. Daily Telegraph 29 June 1936

Then in August 1936, The Cumberland Argus reported on a dispute over the new museum and the “acrimonious exchanges” between  the Historical Museum Committee, Parramatta Council and The Parramatta Historical Society (PHS) which led to the PHS disassociating itself from the Parramatta Historical Museum Committee and developing a museum of its own.

Wed 2 November 1938

World War II intervened and there appears to be very little in the paper about a museum for Parramatta until 1948 when the subject was again discussed in the local newspaper. The following year Parramatta City Council accepted an offer from the estate of Sir Joseph Cook accepting his Windsor Court Dress and insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George. Many years later after the uniform went missing and was found in a council storeroom, Philip Ruddock called for a museum to be built in Parramatta. In 1949 Parramatta City Council tried to secure Old Government House as a permanent site for a museum but it was during the sixties that Old Government House was acquired and dedicated as a house museum after it was vacated by The King’s School. During the sixties there was a movement to protect some of Parramatta’s heritage buildings from developers. Too late for the buildings from The Vineyard and Subiaco Estate which were demolished to make way for a car park for Rheem Australia Pty Ltd.

Privy Council uniform made for Joseph Cook (Prime Minister 1913-1914) in 1914. The uniform consists of a jacket with tails, pair of trousers, cloak (now missing), ceremonial sash, ceremonial half sash (possibly for wearing with the cloak), sword and sword holster. The Privy Council uniform and ceremonial sword were worn on special occasions, such as the opening of Parliament. In 1918 Cook was presented with the insignia of the Order of St Michael and St George. The set consists of a collar and star, worn with the Privy Council uniform. Parramatta Heritage Centre. City of Parramatta Council collection.

Looking back, we can see how much the city of Parramatta has changed from a colonial settlement on Aboriginal land to a diverse and vibrant city in 2020. Our cultural heritage is constantly changing but it is important to reflect all the layers of history in a world class facility which brings people together and is a safe place to discuss all aspects of Australia’s past and to reflect how this has affected us and how we can move forward into the future. We have spoken about needing a museum and protecting our cultural heritage for too long. 120 years later – let’s act.

Extra reading

The articles below are the tip of the iceberg as far as truth and fiction about the Powerhouse move and the need for a significant museum in Parramatta. I think that the fact that the building of a museum has been argued about for more than 120 years shows that now is the time to get our act together to create a museum which showcases the history and cultural heritage of Parramatta, Western Sydney and NSW in all its glorious layers Indigenous, Colonial and Multicultural Australian.

The Parramatta and District Historical Society, 100 Years Old. Looking back to its beginnings.

The other side – why the Powerhouse should move west. https://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/features/museums/gina-fairley/the-other-side-why-the-powerhouse-should-move-west-253455

Opinion: Parramatta Powerhouse Move better for Sydney  https://thechamber.com.au/Media/Opinion-Parramatta-Powerhouse-Move-Better-for-Syd

Trashing the Powerhouse Museum https://cityhubsydney.com.au/2020/01/trashing-the-powerhouse-museum/

How the Powerhouse was saved https://www.cultureheist.com.au/2020/07/08/how-the-powerhouse-was-saved/

Five Museum Ideas for Parramatta. Kylie Winkworth. https://powerhousemuseumalliance.com/museum-opportunities/five-museum-ideas-for-parramatta/

Concept – Museum of Parramatta https://museumwhisperings.blog/2019/10/19/concept-museum-of-parramatta/

Plea for History Museum at Parramatta https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/105736073

 

Concept – Museum of Parramatta

I like to visit museums when I travel. Some of my favourites have been specific museums unique to the place that I’m visiting like The Little Museum of Dublin , The Museum of Liverpool and the New York Historical Society Museum.

The Little Museum of Dublin. Picture by Lonely Planet

What I know about Parramatta is that it’s not just about stadiums, new high rise development, Parramatta Eels and Western Sydney Wanderers. In my opinion, the City of Parramatta has a rich cultural heritage which could be a more significant tourist attraction and contribute greatly to building the community and economy of Western Sydney.

The City of Parramatta Council has a culturally significant collection of objects and archives dating back to the earliest days of council (1861), and archaeological evidence dating back to much earlier times. Parramatta’s historical layers provide the perfect inspiration for its own unique museum which I’m calling “The Museum of Parramatta”, not to be confused with the new MAAS Museum (which is a completely different concept) coming to Western Sydney in the future. 

Kaolin Pipe stems and bowls from the collection of the City of Parramatta

In my mind, Australia has three distinct layers of history which make it what it is today. It is too late to undo the colonisation of Australia by the British, but we can look harder at our history, dissect it and present it in new and better informed ways. History is not fixed – it is open to further research and interpretation from primary sources and definitely open to further discussion. I would say that the City of Parramatta is the perfect place to examine and discuss Australian history by exploring further its Indigenous layer, Colonial layer and its waves of migration or the Multicultural layer.

I envisage that The Museum of Parramatta would use 4 spaces to present the Parramatta story – past and present – a story of its First Nations people dating back 40,000+ years, to the arrival of Europeans and the successive waves of migration from 1788 until the present. The museum will also need a functional space for permanent exhibitions, travelling or changing temporary exhibitions and for the public to access Parramatta’s history using onsite digital resources similar to and building upon those available in the existing Parramatta Local Studies Library.

Aboriginal Warriors by Joseph Lycett (1815-1822). National Library of Australia Collection

Space 1. Our First Australians

Starting at the beginning, I have imagined that Space 1 would need to be created in consultation with local Indigenous groups. We need to know Australian history from an indigenous perspective – we are all still learning the facts about our past. How did Aboriginal people live in Parramatta? What were their totems? What animals and foods were special to them? What was the impact that Colonial settlement had on the cultural practices on Indigenous groups already living in Parramatta and surrounding areas. The story goes back much further than Colonial settlement in Australia to more than 40,000 years ago. Who were the standout Aboriginal characters – individuals who were important local leaders and who managed to straddle both worlds at that time of first contact? Some of the stories will be hard to hear but they need to be told. Australians must think more critically about the past rather than continuing to look at history from a Eurocentric perspective.

Two Aborigines spearing eels by Joseph Lycett (c1817). National Library of Australia collection.

What about Indigenous Parramattan communities today? Where are the communities? What are the local languages spoken? Which part of local cultural heritage are the communities willing to share with us today? Are there objects in the City of Parramatta collection or in other cultural institutions that may be appropriate to use to tell their stories? Several Indigenous cultural experiences are already available through Discover Parramatta and perhaps these could enhance the museum experience in Space 1.

I recently participated in an online FutureLearn Course called Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Spaces which examines both sides of Captain Cook’s encounters with First Nations People in the Pacific and and how various societies related differently to his legacy. This reinforced my ideas about a need for Space 1 in the Museum of Parramatta.

The English Channel (2015) by Michael Parekowhai. Captain Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world. How do Pacific nations view him now , 250 years after their first encounter?

Space 2. The Colonial Years and birth of Parramatta Council

This area would be used to unpack Parramatta’s Colonial layer. There is plenty of archaeological and archival evidence to support learning about the built environment, but sadly there has been a significant loss of the “intact’ heritage buildings from Colonial times as a result of neglect, “progress” and development. Much of this destruction occurred before the Heritage Act was introduced in 1977. There are a number of significant sites in Parramatta which could be cross promoted through The Museum of Parramatta such as Old Government House and Experiment Farm Cottage (National Trust of Australia), Elizabeth Farm (Sydney Living Museums), Hambledon Cottage, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, Lancer Barracks ………and the list goes on (see more detail at the end of this post).

Space 2 could utilise the objects from the City of Parramatta’s collection of archaeological and culturally significant material as well as its Archives. It will be a great space to tell the stories of Parramatta’s early history using the collection as tangible evidence of the past. 

One of the many Expeditions for the City of Parramatta DigiVol project

The current City of Parramatta DigiVol project has a team of 120 volunteers transcribing the Parramatta Council Minutes from 1862-1945. The minutes tell of the everyday issues facing a new rapidly growing town. When the minutes become searchable primary source, it will bring the Councillors and the people of Parramatta’s past to life. TROVE is also a wonderful resource for reading news from the early days of Parramatta via the old newspapers in digitised form.

The team at Parramatta Heritage and Visitor Information Centre has researched so much about the city’s past which is available via their blog posts. Another significant body of work was researching all the Parramattans involved in the Great War . The team has produced a range of publications on the subject and also a travelling touchtable resource for the public to access.

Space 3. Waves of Migration

Successive waves of migration have shaped the culture and identity of Parramatta. It is home to many people with different pasts, and it is important to recognise that there are connections between the city of Parramatta and the new migrant communities that now call Parramatta home. We know that Chinese people migrated to NSW in the earliest days of the colony. Indian and Lebanese people also came very early on when the colony formed and have participated in the growth and cultural heritage of Parramatta and NSW.

Australia Day at Parramatta

The ‘Waves of People’ report was produced by Western Sydney University for the City of Parramatta. The research recounts the history of Parramatta’s inhabitants – from the generations of Darug families living along the Parramatta River and Australia’s first inland European settlement, to the waves of migrants and refugees from all over the world who made a home here.

“It is the accumulation of stories and experiences inscribed in built form that gives a place its distinct identity. Such stories are not only for the culturally sensitive: they drive real-estate investment too. When a city is rebuilt from scratch, we risk losing these stories and connections.” (The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta)

As well as connecting to the past, Parramatta’s calendar is filled with festivals such as – Parramasala, Diwali, Lunar New Year, ParraLanes and Winterfest to name just a few. These festivals build on Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and help to bring the community together in the present.

Celebrating Holi at Parramatta

Space 4. Changing exhibitions

This space is essential for presenting temporary exhibitions or travelling exhibitions from other cultural institutions to engage with local and wider audiences of The Museum of Parramatta. The area would provide a safe meeting place for discussion on contentious issues, talks and events. It needs to have banks of computers to be available for research and discovery. The area would be well supported by the existing Local Studies Library, allowing visitors to research in depth information about Parramatta and their connections to the area. It should also host a searchable map of Parramatta to showcase all the amazing historic buildings, house museums and small volunteer run museums in the local area (some mentioned previously and also see the links below).

Final Words

Maybe I’m dreaming, but I believe that Parramatta is worthy of its own purpose built museum (or a museum reimagined in an existing heritage space e.g. Fleet Street Precinct, Old Kings School, Willow Grove) to showcase the history of this city. Parramatta deserves The Museum of Parramatta as well as a satellite of the Museum of Applied Arts and Science (Powerhouse Museum – an existing cultural institution being transplanted in Parramatta). It deserves a well thought out museum of its own to take a more critical look at Australian History from a Parramatta perspective.

Want to think  more critically about Parramatta’ history and cultural heritage? Explore the links below.

City of Parramatta Archive Council Collection

City of Parramatta Heritage Centre

City of Parramatta Collections

Parramatta Stories

Old Government House, Parramatta

Elizabeth Farm

Hambledon Cottage

Experiment Farm

Fleet Street Heritage Precinct

Parramatta Park

The Dairy Precinct

Lancer Barracks, Parramatta

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum

Female Factory, Parramatta

Female Orphan School, Parramatta

The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta https://theconversation.com/reimagining-parramatta-a-place-to-discover-australias-many-stories-100652

Maps versus Staff on the Museum Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

img_6957

New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.

A Tale of Two Dairies

One weekend, two heritage sites. Both The Dairy Precinct and the Yaralla Estate lie along the Parramatta River in Sydney, and I knew nothing about the history of either property before my weekend visit. Strangely there are some similarities in the way that both sites came into existence, but in 2016 there is little connection in the funding, management or the way each site is interpreted for the visitor, apart from the fact that both offer occasional guided tours.

The Dairy Precinct is an area north of  Old Government House in the centre of Parramatta Park containing both the Rangers and Dairy Cottages and overlooking the Parramatta River. It is managed in accordance with the Parramatta Park Trust Act 2001 and Parramatta Park Regulation 2012.

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The Dairy Precinct, Parramatta Park

The Dairy Cottage was home to George Salter, an ex-convict turned cattleman who constructed the cottage in 1796, on his 30 acre grant. It was converted to a dairy after its purchase by Governor Macquarie c1813 to provide milk for Old Government House and the Female Factory. Macquarie added a sunken dairy processing room in an extension beside the cottage. A cow house and barn were also added to the original building.

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The Dairy Cottage

The $1.7 million upgrade to the site has stabilised, conserved and enhanced the Dairy Precinct to improve the interpretation and understanding of the area as part of the greater Parramatta Park cultural landscape.

The new interpretation works really well for this small site and pays tribute to the Indigenous and Colonial Australian history of the site as well as orienting the visitor to the role that this site played in the early days of the colony in NSW.

During the recent “Day at the Dairy”,  Parramatta Park Trust ran short half hour tours of the cottages. A longer tour option would be even more worthwhile because there is plenty to learn about the site. On the open day, the tour and the new interpretation were a perfect introduction to the site.

 

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The second open day that I attended was at the Yaralla Estate, further down Parramatta River at Concord. Yaralla is of course much more than a dairy, but like the The Dairy Precinct at Parramatta, Yaralla began as a small land grant to a freed convict in 1797. Isaac Nichols not only grew food for the colony, but became Australia’s first postmaster.

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The Walker family home at Yaralla

Eventually, debt ridden, Yaralla became part of the Walker family story until the death of Dame Eadith Walker in 1937. The property then became vested in the Crown under the Walker Trusts Act in 1938 and remains the largest community bequest of its kind to survive intact in NSW. The City of Canada Bay Heritage Society holds two major fundraising events at Yaralla each year and one at Rivendell, another property which is  part of the estate, to raise funds for the continued restoration and to research the history of several outer buildings and gardens on the property.

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Our guide Karina walked us through the estate armed with lots of narrative. We covered the original Nicholl’s cottage, the Dairy, the Coach house and Stables, the rose garden, the sunken garden, and then moved down to the river where the boathouse and wharf, swimming pool and grotto and the Powerhouse once stood. We then viewed the exterior of the Yaralla homestead (designed by Edmund Blackett and modified by John Sulman) rising above its Italianate terrace where there were originally croquet lawns and a tennis court. Our last stop was the Squash Court built for Prince Edward’s unofficial visit with Louis Mountbatten in 1920. The story goes that the court was never used because the floor was made of concrete rather than the timber flooring necessary in these types of courts. It is great that the volunteer guides know their history and are good storytellers since so much of the estate has already been destroyed in the name of progress or through vandalism and there is currently very little interpretation apart from some historic photographs and memorabilia on display  in the Coach house and Squash court.

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The Yaralla story is fascinating and the life of Dame Eadith would be a perfect plot for a movie. Born in 1861, Eadith  lost her mother in 1870 and was raised by her aunt, Joanna, in a shared childhood with Annie Masefield (her companion and friend for life). She inherited Yaralla from her father, Thomas Walker, and made significant alterations to the estate. She was active in Sydney Rowing Club and the Animal Protection Society of NSW and was patron of the Yaralla Cricket Club and leased land to Royal Sydney and Concord Golf Clubs. She made a considerable contribution to several charities and to the Great War effort in both a physical and monetary sense. She was also very involved in supporting her own staff at Yaralla even after their retirement from the Estate. A woman well ahead of her time. The heritage society has produced a lot of information about the Walker family,  and the history of the site itself. There are books and guides available through the Canada Bay Heritage Society website.

I guess my purpose for writing today’s blog was that I was struck by the similarities and contrasts between the two sites. The Dairy Precinct seems well managed and well funded by The Parramatta Park Trust while Yaralla needs more funding and support in the future. Yaralla does not enjoy the same profile in the community nor the funding that Parramatta Park receives.

Today, we are more connected than ever to our Australian Indigenous and Colonial heritage and Yaralla has suffered some significant losses through not having its significance acknowledged. NSW Health has done a great job restoring the old house (which is currently in use as a Dementia hospital) and the grounds are neat but there needs to be greater support to bring the Yaralla estate to the standard of Parramatta Park with its public recreation areas and heritage buildings. I couldn’t help thinking how great Yaralla estate would be as a public park in the ever increasing concrete jungle springing up around Parramatta and along the river bank.

Archaeology – subdivision and the loss of historical context

Over time, Australia’s amazing indigenous, maritime and cultural heritage is being uncovered via numerous archaeological investigations, many of which pre-date The Heritage Act 1977. I was amazed when I visited an Open Day in Parramatta for the Centenary Square development to see the incredible history which lay under the Post Office and surrounds in Macquarie Street. Strangely, although this site had been built on in the interim, there was a large amount of archaeological evidence still visible from the earliest times such as the footings of pre-existing colonial buildings and a variety of everyday objects uncovered by  Casey and Lowe’s meticulous dig. I wondered whether we had lost the context for the earliest land use of the site because it had already been disturbed? I guess that the most recent dig will be the last opportunity to research Parramatta’s past from the Centenary Square site because once the underground car park has been excavated – the existing layers of history in the substrate will be lost.

 

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That isn’t really why I was writing the blog post. The point I was actually thinking about after my Centenary Square visit was that if we continue to subdivide Parramatta and other parts of urban Australia into tiny blocks (which seems inevitable), then what happens to the layers underneath? If the colonial subdivisions are double, triple or quadruple the size of the modern land holdings, what will happen to the archaeological material and the context of where that material is located below the surface? The size of indigenous Australian history layer will be even greater. If an archaeological survey is required by  a developer before an underground car park is excavated, are we only getting part of the story from the archaeological report? Are we looking at half a house, quarter of a hotel or a miniscule portion of a larger landholding such as market gardens, farm, factory or place of indigenous significance? Considering that the layers of earth below the surface can reveal so much about our past  and that suburbs like Parramatta are a significant part of the history of Australia, I really hope that some very important person with vision or the Office of Heritage and Environment or local council responsible has all this in hand before the evidence and context is destroyed for all time.

P.S. After I posted this I noticed some posts by @gmlheritage on Instagram showing items from the archaeological dig of 200 George Street, Sydney, reinterpreted for use in the foyer of Mirvac’s new headquarters. Great to see the objects used along with some explanatory text about the site’s history supported by a wonderful artwork by Judy Watson on display in the public foyer instead of being archived in boxes and stored out of sight.

Museums in the 21st Century

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Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Architecture
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity

 

To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.

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Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.

Musing on Text and Labels

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Persuasion – an exhibition of wartime propaganda art at the Australian National Maritime Museum

Many museums and authoritative museologists  have written guides or chapters in their books on producing text and labels (see VandA guidelines for example). As a Masters student visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I was given some good advice by art educator about looking at and learning from objects in a more creative way than just using text and labels. Now I have changed my approach to my own museum and gallery visits. I always focus on the objects first, and if they interest me, I read the text and labels. It’s like reading the book rather than seeing the movie. When you actually look at an object, you can use your own imagination to make a  decision on how connected you feel (if at all) to that object and what you see is not a predetermined response to the information given in the text panel or label (or audio tour for that matter).

I like to find out information about the objects that I connect with – their age, construction method, maker, provenance and the story behind their creation so I use the text panels or the internet for extra information about various artists or particular objects. For example, after seeing prints by Koizumi Kishio and Onchi Koshiro, I found that I had strong connection to the type of Japanese woodblock prints created by these Sosaku Hanga  artists who are not as well regarded as Ukiyo-e printmakers like Utamaro and Hiroshige. I love the fact that these “creatives” were involved in the process from start to finish and that they don’t use other artisans to design, carve and print their wood blocks. Their works on the surface don’t appear as complex and yet these artisans were highly skilled individuals. In another exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, I learned about the animated installations by contemporary Japanese artist Tabaimo who creates thousands of detailed drawings which are laboriously scanned into her computer to create her wonderful works. These facts gleaned from text panels and further investigated on the internet added value to what I saw on display and my appreciation of the works that I initially connected to.

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Text panels of different heights at Old Government House, Parramatta for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Costume Exhibition in 2014.

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One instance of the text being too low for visitors to access easily. This problem has been corrected in the new 2016 exhibition.

Although officially the importance of text and labels has been recognised, theorised and documented, I still notice that many art galleries and museums are not getting it right.

When you track visitors in any gallery space, it is surprising how their behaviours can vary. Very few will stop and read all the labels and even fewer will read the labels in any kind of order and so it is important to grab their attention when you have a chance. Yes, labels must be accessible for wheelchairs and children but what about those with poor sight or the elderly who can’t bend down too far. Labels need to be in bold print and text must stand out from the background even if the lighting in the room needs to be dimmed for conservation reasons. I have seen elderly people nearly fall over while bending to see a poorly placed label. I have seen others struggle with text on an inappropriate background colour which makes it difficult to make out the words. I have seen visitors wasting time trying to find out information about an object when a label is missing or incorrect. Labels need to be visible to several viewers at the same time and able to be viewed from a distance. They should not be too detailed because their role is to enhance the experience of seeing the object rather than take over from the object.

The British Museum speaks about the use of “Gateway Objects” to catch the eye of the viewer with accompanying text to allow the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without having to read every single label in the exhibition. These objects aim to engage the audience quickly with enough information on the label to draw them into the exhibition or gallery. I guess that  my newly adopted technique is similar, but without well written labels may not always be as good as the constructed British Museum experience. Thinking about the short window of time to grab the audience’s attention – 30 seconds or so – and realising that the average visitor may spend less than 10 minutes in an exhibition……. museums really need to think about the importance of well designed and well written text and labels to accompany the objects on display.

See also:

Australian Museum – Writing Text and Labels which also discusses the audience response to text and labels.