Exhibition of Soldier Diaries at State Library NSW

war diaries sitting amongst red poppies

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

We gasped as we entered the exhibition. The enormous room was dominated by a wall of hundreds of World War I diaries. Born at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, the Middle East or on an Australian naval boat, these diaries now sit in the calm and comfortable conditions of a new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

There are big diaries, little diaries, stout ones and thin ones. Some contain pragmatic accounts of the experiences of the diarists; others contain discussions of the literature they read and their thoughts as they battled internally about the horrors they were participating in.

The State Library of New South Wales has launched a major new exhibition that draws on the wealth of material in the diaries. Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is comprehensive. It includes the familiar aspects of Australian participation that you would expect – Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. But it also includes the often overlooked military action by the Australian Navy and World War I in New Guinea. The exhibition has a section on Australian prisoners of War and scattered throughout are the words of a World War I nurse and army chaplains. Continue reading

East of India: Forgotten Trade with Australia

East of India logoMany Australians would be unaware of how much Indians have contributed to this country.  Indians have traded with Australia since the first European settlement; they have lived and worked here for over two hundred years.  Yet we don’t often hear about this aspect of Australian history.  The exhibition, ‘East of India: Forgotten trade with Australia’ currently being held at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney is a welcome opportunity to learn more about this.

Understanding historical context is vital in good histories and this exhibition provides plenty of that.  The items shown in ‘East of India’ weave a story of power, wealth, violence, culture and everyday life.  The visitor is first immersed in the history of colonial India starting from the time when the Portuguese adventurer, Vasco da Gama, became the first European to find a sea route to India, to the Indian Rebellion in 1857.  During the age of empire it was the sea, not the land which provided the transportation through which European nations dominated the globe.

‘East of India’ has some stunning exhibits, among which is a map on a parchment from 1599 with a section of the northern coast of Australia labelled as ‘beach’. I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate that label is! I was also attracted to a tiny locket commemorating the wedding in 1662 between Charles II of England and Catherine of Braganza, Portugal.  What struck me as remarkable about the locket was not its form, but the enormity of what it represented.  Catherine’s dowry included the Portuguese territory of Bombay (now Mumbai).  I found it staggering that the wedding between two people could have such great repercussions for people who lived in a place that required months of arduous travel to reach. Continue reading

Design 29: Creating a Capital

View of Canberra from Mount Ainslie

Canberra viewed from Mount Ainslie with the War Memorial in the foreground (the green dome), the white buildings of the old parliament house on the avenue across the lake leading to the new parliament house on Capital Hill. Photo by Alan Perkins.

This is the year of Canberra.  The celebrations of the centenary of its founding mark a point where Canberra can reflect on its past.  The one hundredth anniversary which coincided with one of my daughters moving to Canberra has caused me to rethink my attitude to the city and recognise that as a place I should take it more seriously.

A couple of months ago I wrote a review of an exhibition about the designers of Canberra, Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin that was held at the National Library of Australia.  Recently I visited a related exhibition held at the National Archives of Australia about the competition for the design of Canberra and the early glimmerings of the emergence of the capital. Continue reading

Te Papa: the national museum of New Zealand

New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa.

The Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.

‘Overwhelming’, is the word that sums up my experience of New Zealand’s national museum, Te Papa.  It is all that it promises to be but I could not possibly comprehend everything that was exhibited in one visit.  This museum reminded me that New Zealand is quite a different country to Australia both culturally and physically.

The indigenous people make a significant contribution to the unique persona of any nation. The exhibitions about the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori, opened a new vista to me. I became absorbed, slowly moving through each exhibit learning new words, different ways of living, histories unfamiliar to me. Continue reading

The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s capital

colour map of the proposed city of Canberra.

Preliminary plan of Canberra by Walter Burley Griffin, 1914. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The capital city of Australia is a twentieth century creation.  It emerged from a paddock in rural New South Wales one hundred years ago.  On 12th March 1913 Lady Denman, the wife of Australia’s Governor-General, stood on the newly laid foundation stones and announced the name of the city to be – Canberra.

The city had already been born by the time the crowd gathered in the empty paddock to hear its chosen name.  The ideas for the built structures had flowed from the minds of American architect Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin in Chicago over fifteen thousand kilometres away.  In turn their design was indebted to the ancient landscape on which it was to be built and the indigenous people who nurtured that environment and from whose language the name of the city was derived.

This year is the centenary of the founding of Canberra.  It is also the year when one of our daughters moved to Canberra so we will be visiting it more often than we usually do.  Last month we fitted in a visit to the National Library where I saw their exhibition, ‘The Dream of a Century: The Griffins in Australia’s Capital’. Continue reading

Twenty Five: Stories from Australia’s First Parliament

Fountain at NSW Parliament House.

Fountain at NSW Parliament House created by Robert Woodward. The exhibition reviewed in this post surrounds this stunning feature.

Twenty five stories from Australia’s first parliament – intriguing!  During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries political debate in Australia was vigorous and at times innovative.  There are a wealth of great stories lurking in the pages of Hansard and the tightly packed columns of colonial newspapers.  From the vantage point of today these stories are fascinating but of course at the time these were serious matters.  With the added allure of seeing items never previously displayed in public I was eager to see the new exhibition at New South Wales Parliament House.

The exhibition is designed to appeal to many people.  It includes the story of a member of parliament who decided that it would be a good idea to settle a dispute with famed Surveyor-General, Thomas Mitchell, by shooting it out in a duel.  The stories of the royal visitations to New South Wales parliament receive attention as do European explorers such as La Perouse who helped to chart the Australian coast and William Wentworth, famed for being one of the first Europeans to cross the Blue Mountains.  The Reconciliation Wall, a permanent space dedicated to the permanent display of artwork of Aboriginal people in 1998, is one of the stories in the exhibition.  One of the icons of Sydney, the Harbour Bridge is also featured.

Each person who visits the exhibition will relate to it in a different way.  The following is a sample of items that caught my eye. Continue reading

GLAMming it Up – Two Days in Melbourne

Entrance to State Library of Victoria

State Library of Victoria

Galleries, libraries, archives and museums are known as the GLAM institutions. I spend a lot of time in these places doing research, but I also enjoy visiting exhibitions and taking behind the scenes tours.  When I travel I try to squeeze in an exhibition or two.  Unfortunately I find that I often don’t have much time to do this so I either miss out or I have to cram as much as I can into a short space of time.

I’ve written previously about my two-day GLAM tour of Canberra.  Last month I did a similar two-day intensive GLAM tour of Melbourne. So hold onto your hats and breathe deeply. My whirlwind tour is about to begin! Continue reading