GLAMming it up – Canberra in Two Days!

Old Parliament House, Canberra

The old Parliament House is now the Museum of Australian Democracy.

GLAM is an evocative acronym referring to Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums.  I had booked an extra couple of days in Canberra after attending a digital humanities ‘unconference’ (called THAT Camp Canberra), so I GLAMmed it up and visited some of our national cultural resources.  I had a ball, but there was a more serious motive behind it all.  Aside from generally opening my horizons, I wanted to become more familiar with the work of those cultural institutions of relevance or potential relevance to my work.

The digital humanities event finished at Sunday lunchtime.  As I didn’t have anything planned I decided to go with the flow and visit places that other THAT Camp attendees wanted to visit.  I said ‘yes’ to every suggestion and by the end of the afternoon I ended up at the Canberra Glassworks – a place that I had never heard of.  I had memories of seeing glass blowing in the University of Tasmania science faculty when I was a child.  They were blowing test tubes and other scientific instruments.  So when someone suggested we visit the Canberra Glassworks this is the image I had.  The glass work at the Canberra Glassworks is about as far as you could get from the industrial-type glass blowing I had seen many years ago.  The Canberra Glassworks is a place of artistic creativity, where works of stunning beauty and astonishing form are produced.  We were very fortunate to have the Glassworks’ artistic director, Clare Belfrage, show us some of her work and discuss the process used to create these sculptures.  As it was the end of the day we didn’t see any glass blowing but there is a fascinating video of Clare and her team at work.  It shows the hard physical work that goes into this art form and also how little room there is for indecision while creating a piece.  Next time I’m in Canberra I’ll try to view a glass blowing session.

To my surprise I came across artistic glass work the next day when I visited the Museum of Australian Democracy.  There in the Designing Democracy exhibition was a work by glass artist, Wendy Fairclough.  Sadly I couldn’t spend much time contemplating it, but hopefully it will be there next time I visit.

During my two-day GLAM tour of Canberra I knew that I had limited time so rather than trying to do it all and do it badly, I set myself a limited goal.  I wanted to increase my familiarity with those institutions that are of greatest relevance to the history I research.  I have a strong interest in the democratic process, particularly at the grass-roots level.  My aim in visiting the Museum of Australian Democracy was not to view and contemplate everything but to get an overview of the museum and think about how it related to the work I have done.  I took a free guided tour to help me orientate myself and then I quickly viewed some of the exhibitions looking at the methods used to convey the history of Australian democracy and the themes of the exhibits.  A wide variety of story telling techniques that were used. There were the traditional objects in glass cases with explanatory material, but these were well interspersed with touchscreens.  I loved the use of artwork here and there to make the visitor think about a story in a different way such as Wendy Fairclough’s work and Penny Byrne’s exhibit, ‘Political Porcelain’ using reclaimed porcelain figures.

ABC section of the press gallery at Old Parliament House

The small area allocated to the ABC at Old Parliament House

There were two exhibitions that stood out for me both of them exploring democracy as it has been practiced by those who were not members of parliaments.  The first was the old press gallery area attached to the House of Representatives.  In my notes written at the time on my phone I commented, “it conveys the messiness, the fast pace and the process of journalism”.  The tiny cubby holes for journalists had piles of paper, typewriters, things tacked on the wall to depict the working environment of the journalists who reported the day to day action of Federal Parliament.  The photo above is of the ABC section of the press gallery showing the seating allocation in the room.  At the back on the wall are drafts that journalists were working on.

House of Representatives, old Parliament House

House of Representatives, old Parliament House, showing the Press Gallery above the speaker's chair at the front of the chamber.

The place where the journalists sat to observe the proceedings in the House of Representatives is open to the public.  There are telephone handsets which play recordings of journalists Alan Reid, Peter Harvey, Gay Davidson and Alan Ramsey recalling the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Governor-General in 1975.  They are well worth listening to.  My big discovery from the Press Gallery area was learning about journalist and first president of the Press Gallery Association in Canberra, Gay Davidson.  She was such a trail blazer and a big personality.

The other exhibition which caught my eye was the ‘Living Democracy’ exhibition.  Aside from the focus on democratic action by ordinary people which interests me, I admired the wonderful variety of methods used to convey the theme.  I sat and watched some videos of people talking about the significant contributions they have made to our society by using the strategies made available in our democracy.  Then I listened to ‘songs of influence’ that have contributed to public discourse on issues such as Youthu Yindi’s ‘Treaty‘.  The ‘Living Democracy’ exhibition is divided into categories such as protest, represent, petition and vote, with a section on lobbying coming soon.

I had a quick look at the ‘Memory of a Nation‘ exhibition at the National Archives.  This was also a multi-media presentation – gone are the days of row upon row of glass cases of objects it seems.  This video shows people using the ‘touch and see’ screen at this exhibition to examine documents that interest them.  I found a document from an archivist in 1952 complaining about the dangerous manner in which stacks of newspapers were stored at the National Archives.  Apparently one of the unstable stacks fell and smashed onto a table at which archivists often worked.  There was a cabinet with roll-out drawers containing displays but I wonder how many people miss this, not knowing that the drawers are meant to be opened?  The highlight of my visit was finding some previously unseen files on one of the topics I am researching in the Archive’s catalogue – I’m looking forward to reviewing them on another trip to Canberra.

Front of the National Library of Australia

The National Library of Australia emblazoned with a banner showing the glasses of novelist, Patrick White - one of the objects displayed in the newly opened Treasures Gallery.

I’ll end where my GLAM tour of Canberra started – the Treasures Gallery at the National Library of Australia.  This gallery had only been opened a couple of days prior to our visit.  Inside the gallery the ‘Terra Australis to Australia’ exhibition included displays about ‘early exploration’, ‘Cook’s voyages’, ‘Blight’s mutinies’, ‘early settlement’, ‘colonial life’ and Australia in the twentieth century’.  Among the things that caught my eye were: Australia’s earliest surviving printed document – a playbill for a theatre performance held in 1796; a scene of islands in the Indian Ocean on scrimshaw; the earliest known board game depicting Australia – a race from Plymouth in England to the gold diggings of Australia made in 1855; and a photo of the aftermath of a battle at Passchendale in World War I which had been manipulated by photographer Frank Hurley to include the sun peaking through clouds from a photograph taken in Palestine during World War II.  An overview of this exhibition and the ‘NLA to Z’ exhibition in the same gallery can be found here.

Aside from getting a better general feel for the facilities of these galleries, libraries, archives and museums, I left with an observation voiced by some of the other people I was with when viewing the Treasures Gallery.  The Treasures Gallery shows items in the collections of the National Library of Australia yet many of the objects were documents which are types of material you would normally expect to be held in archives.  It also showed art and objects which are types of material that I would normally expect to be held by a gallery or museum.  The ‘Memory of a Nation’ exhibition held at the National Archives showed banned books – objects that would normally be expected to be held in libraries.  Clearly the boundaries between GLAM institutions are more nebulous than would appear at first glance.  Therein lies a lesson for historians, when looking for historical material a search needs to be conducted in all GLAM institutions of the relevant region, not just one type.

Overall I learned a lot about conveying history to the public from my two-day GLAM tour of Canberra.  Variety is the spice of life and a variety of means needs to be used to convey a theme.  There will always be a place for displaying objects in glass cases, but GLAM institutions need to cater for a wide variety of ages, interests, attention spans and personalities.  In a small space the curators of these exhibitions did a wonderful job because they used a wide variety of story-telling techniques to share history.  It makes me reflect on what methods I can employ to convey my work to the public.  This is where my GLAM tour connects with the digital humanities event I attended in the same trip.  The world of digital humanities, which explores how technology can be harnessed to assist those researching in the humanities, gives historians the freedom to share their work in a wide variety of creative ways that will appeal to the public.

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