The importance attached to keeping our heritage differs greatly between individuals, organisations and governments. Fortunately there are many who devote their time and energy to collecting artefacts which may otherwise be lost.
The ABC Collectors program does a wonderful job of maintaining the profile of people engaged in keeping memorabilia, by doing so in a most entertaining and informing manner. Screening on ABC TV, The Collectors explores the many aspects of collecting; from how to get started, tracking down a bargain, spotting a fake, to what’s hot and what’s not. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/collectors/
The show deals with a vast range of interests from household objects of old, vintage toys, cars, paddle steamers, jewellery, books, early computers, Titanic artefacts, radios, television sets, gramophones and making us aware of the increasing range of small private museums.
Sadly, many of the large established museums are tight for funds. The Australian War Memorial, like other national institutions, faces pressure through the public service efficiency drive launched by the former Coalition government in Canberra.
In letters to the federal government last year, Council War Memorial chairman Peter Cosgrove repeatedly sought more funds, warning of inexorable decline which would leave it unable to commemorate the centenary of Anzac as the nation would expect.
Now the memorial is tipped to receive a big funding boost at the budget on 10 May, 2011.
Meanwhile in WA, Historian Geoffrey Bolton and former Australia Council chairwoman Margaret Seares have accused the state government of failing to invest its resource wealth in more funding for the state museum, art gallery and library network, and other cultural organisations. Budget cutbacks have forced the museum and art gallery to restrict hours, whilst The Western Australian Museum, West Australian Ballet and West Australian Symphony Orchestra have been seeking financial support to relocate to more suitable premises after waiting up to 10 years.
The WA Museum’s 1970’s asbestos-riddled Francis Street building was closed for safety reasons in 2003 and about three million objects in the museum’s collection moved to a warehouse in Welshpool.
Culture and the Arts Minister John Day now reports that the five-floor building will be demolished and the site landscaped in time for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October, 2011, so that the Queen is not inconvenienced by an eyesore should she visit Perth and venture north of the railway tracks. This will be an interim measure before the development of a new museum facility.
Until now, the Northbridge museum has been in a slow decline during more than a decade of uncertainty over when and where a new complex would be built.
Sadly vast public funds are often expended on activities which deliver little or no tangible heritage results for the public benefit, such as the huge legal costs associated with a protest against the State Labor Government’s deal with Multiplex to redevelop The Old Swan Brewery site on Mounts Bay Road, which our indigenous brethren, the Nyungar and their supporters, consider a sacred site. Deemed to be one of the many locations the mythical Rainbow Serpent frequents whilst meandering through water across our landscape, a mythical creature the local tribes refer to as the Waugal. In the process the government faced major cost overruns and delays at every turn. Around the time the brewery case entered the courts in 1992, a number of lengthy debates against wholesale urban demolition were mounted in the Western Australian Parliament. The former Minister for Heritage saw the brewery as “an opportunity to protect something of our past, and we have little of it left… we have been very careless with our past and have let beautiful buildings be demolished.”
Today the Swan Brewery site has been expanded, whilst trying to maintain some semblance of its previous architectural style, to now contain luxury apartments, offices and a restaurant and bar complex with plenty of on-site parking. The public can access the bar and restaurant, while recreational users have a public walk and cycle track along the river’s edge. An Aboriginal cultural centre, art gallery and theatre did not eventuate.
In 2009, the Fremantle Arts Centre and History Museum was stripped of it’s museum component following the WA Government Budget reductions. The closure then allowed the Arts Centre to expand. Sadly, Richard Rennie’s Fremantle Light and Sound Discovery Centre was also a casualty of this decision. This centre provided a wonderful glimpse of early technology with rotating displays depicting the evolution of photography, motion pictures, sound recording and television whilst conducting many educational programs aimed largely at school children. http://lightandsound.net.au/
This was housed in a heritage listed building that was built by convicts between 1861 and 1868. It was used as a psychiatric hospital, initially called the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, and later known as the Asylum for the Criminally Insane. A number of urban myths relate to ghost sighting in the old building.
Richard Rennie’s collection is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to such memorabilia, as private collectors in WA alone have kept a full range of gramophone players, radios and TV sets from the dawn of time… much stored at the Wireless Hill Telecommunications Museum in Ardross WA. Other local collectors have kept everything from hand crank movie cameras and projectors of the silent era to 35mm movie studio cameras. There’s even an authentic working recreation of the original Logie Baird TV set, plus a range of hand crank amusement park movie viewers. Richard Rennie has done some remarkable work in this area. The Australian Museum of Motion Picture and Television (AMMPT) has in storage at least 200 cinema projectors alone, not to mention items held by individual members such as electronic TV cameras, telecine chains and videotape machines. http://www.ammpt.asn.au/
Meanwhile television veteran Richard Ashton has done some incredible work researching the origins of Australian cinema equipment and takes a delight restoring it. Richard is also a valuable member of the WA TV History research team.
At an AMMPT event, veteran collector Ian Stimson gave a talk on the issue of what happens to private collections once the owner dies, which raised awareness of the plight of such artefacts should they be dispersed widely through sales and auctions. Many of the collectors are in their twilight years, so much may be lost to future generations?
This is probably a good opportunity to mention that Channel 7 in Perth has some wonderful archives. Thousands of negatives which date back to the origins of TV in WA, not to mention film and videotape archives too. Much of this material needs to be digitalised, particularly the video and film before deterioration sets in.
Seven in Perth is fortunate as the early family spirit still survives with the veterans, as demonstrated during their most successful 50th anniversary reunion week in 2009. The other stations are not as lucky as much seems to have gone missing. Seven did a remarkable effort of keeping its heritage. In contrast, key Nine Perth veterans lament the lack of depth to their retained archives. ABC in Perth also seems to have gaps in the record too, though they do have vast centralised archives, which in themselves provide a wonderful time capsule of Australian life.
Its fortunate that many veterans have recorded oral histories, and Dr Peter Harries researched the first 30 years of commercial TV in this state. Though its sad to report that many veterans are now fading away, meaning that the job of recording and documenting the stories is becoming increasingly hard as we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface.
Media Archives Project
One important initiative is the Media Archives Project (MAP), which is based at the Centre for Media History at the Faculty of Arts of Macquarie University in NSW. This is an attempt to collate all the known resources into a database to assist media researchers locate information and collections of heritage importance.
The project is seeking to locate media archives across Australia, and they are looking for help to achieve this. Not only are they seeking information on archives for all formats of media in corporate and institutional hands, but also those held by private individuals.
All major commercial television networks, as well as Foxtel, have been contacted and some visited. Many of the 270 commercial radio stations across the country have been contacted and sent questionnaires on their archives. Approaches have been made to regional newspaper groups, representative associations and community newspapers. A number of private archival collections have been located. Archival collections at risk of disposal have been identified and liaison with collecting institutions initiated by the project to secure their retention.
Meetings and discussions have occurred with the National Library of Australia and the Macquarie University Library on the best way to set up the MAP database. Recommendations that the database be compliant with the Open Archives Initiative protocol have been accepted.
All types of material are of interest – not just the broadcasts, ads and articles produced, but also everything behind them: correspondence, photographs, scripts, contracts, publicity and so on. The database they are compiling is listing these collections, where they are held and what possibilities there are for researchers to access them. They believe this will be an important resource to promote media history work. The database will go online in the coming months. There is more about the project on: http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/cmh/map.php
The Media Archives Project is appealing to anyone who holds an archive, or knows of other media archives in private hands, or in lesser-known collections, to please get in touch. If you can help, please contact Dr Nathalie Apouchtine on 0422 553 813 or by email on firstname.lastname@example.org