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The Pigott inquiry and country museums in Australia

Anne-Marie Condé, National Museum of Australia, 13 October 2010

SHARON CASEY: Anne-Marie Condé has been a curator at the National Museum of Australia since 2008 and previously was an historian at the Australian War Memorial. For the Museum’s gallery redevelopment, Anne-Marie is curating the gold module of the Landmarks: People and Places across Australia gallery development. Anne-Marie also has an interest in the history of museums themselves. She has been examining the records of the Pigott committee, which was appointed in 1974 to inquire into the state of museums in Australia, and discovered one of the most unexpected and vigorous cultural movements in Australia this century. Welcome Anne-Marie.

ANNE-MARIE CONDE: Thank you, Sharon, and thank you everyone for coming out on this wet day. We need to have a pause for a word from our sponsor, the Centre for Historical Research [CHR] at the National Museum of Australia, which is ably represented by Peter Stanley who is sitting right here. The talk I am about to give is based on a three-month curatorial fellowship which I was fortunate enough to be awarded here at the Museum. I got three months off my normal exhibition work to work on this project. So thank you to the CHR for that. It was much appreciated.

I spent three months working on the records of the Pigott inquiry and wrote a paper, hopefully for acceptance by reCollections, the Museum’s own journal, about small country museums in Australia. Having surveyed the territory of the work of the Pigott inquiry, which is represented here by one of its members, Professor John Mulvaney, I decided to focus the project, given the amount of time I had, on country museums - and I mean the small folk museums that are still dotted around the countryside in every part of regional Australia.

What I am talking about today is a leftover from that paper and is about open air living history museums. These are the much larger-scale places that many of you may remember with this kind of experience [image shown]. This is a picture from Old Sydney Town. It’s perhaps a little mischievous of me to put that picture up. But having talked to folk who remember going to these places on school trips or taking their kids, this is the sort of memory that many people gave me of that experience - showing kids waving around in the stocks.

I might launch straight into it. I am going back not to 1974 but to 1966, a bit of pre history, when a crowd gathered at the town of Swan Hill on the Murray River in north-west Victoria for the occasion of the opening of the Swan Hill Folk Museum. Centre of attention was the paddle steamer Gem, one of the biggest paddle steamers to sail the Murray, which had been purchased in 1962 by the Swan Hill Historical Society. It was towed to Swan Hill from Mildura in 1963.

According to the museum’s director, Ross Holloway, the origins of the museum were that in the early 1960s, a few people - ‘about four men and a girl,’ he said - decided to ‘start preserving some of the very interesting and very important pioneer material which was being lost’. From these tiny beginnings, it was somehow not long before the Swan Hill people were in discussion with the famous architectural firm of Roy Grounds & Co., who were the architects of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Victorian Arts Centre. By passing the hat around, the Swan Hill folk raised the nearly £2,000 necessary to purchase the Gem and they persuaded the Premier of Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte, to do the honours at the opening.

On the day of the opening, journalist Keith Dunstan reported that there was a downpour of rain, resulting in a thousand sodden sandwiches and a thousand sodden people, 500 of whom made for the shelter of the Gem. Fortunately the vessel did manage to stay afloat in its own land-locked little pool by the river, and the event was a success. By late 1967, a quarter of a million people were reported to have inspected the ship. This was clearly not a small operation.

Flushed with this success, in 1968 Ross Holloway published a cheerful and chatty piece in the Victorian Historical Magazine called ‘The growth of a folk Museum’. He is coy about how ‘a team of country boys and girls’, as he called his group, managed to enlist such high level support and funding for their venture. He says ‘we knew what we wanted, but we did not know how to go about it, so we sought the advice of experts,’ and he attributes their museum’s success to this. The idea for their folk museum, he says, was to preserve the way of life of people: the way they lived, worked, travelled, what they wore, the games they played, their superstitions, their tools and their vehicles. ‘To collect that sort of material,’ he says, ‘the possibilities became enormous.’ It’s that sense of excitement that caught my attention when I started to look into this area.

In addition to the Gem, there was a cluster of buildings, including a station homestead, a pioneer’s log cabin, and a village street featuring a wheelwright and a blacksmith. There was a post office, a school and a prefabricated house made from iron which had been moved from south Melbourne. This house had been brought to Australia from Britain during the gold rush the previous century. Each building carried an exhibition inside it suitable to that building. But the museum had not forgotten to include ‘the aboriginals,’ Holloway says. Trees had been moved on to the site which showed evidence of a canoe having been cut, and toe-holds cut by ‘their primitive stone axes’ for the gathering of possums and witchetty grubs. An Aboriginal man was employed to explain these things. Here are some pictures of the saddler and the boot maker.

Holloway does not mention historians or museum curators being among the experts his group consulted. It seems that his committee carried that role themselves, drawing on their living memory of the district. Holloway wrote ‘Dad’s a bit keen on looking around the old tractors.’ There were fifteen of them. ‘Dad can remember how he opened up the Mallee in some terrible old tractor that he had a lot of trouble with[,] but nevertheless kept going.’ Passing memories and knowledge on to children was an important aspect of the museum. During school visits, displays like the blacksmith’s and wheelwright’s were activated by volunteers, and Holloway said, ‘For the first time children could see sparks flying from an anvil and they are intrigued.’ He hoped that when they left the museum they felt a little bit more proud of Australia.

Well, that was 1968. I’m not sure if Swan Hill was the first open air museum in Australia - somebody could correct me if they have a different memory - but it may be. Its success inspired the Ballarat Historical Park Association to press ahead with its plans for a folk museum at Sovereign Hill, in Ballarat. The first structure to be raised in Sovereign Hill was a timber frame poppet head erected in 1969. One of Sovereign Hill’s later curators, Michael Evans, whom I studied public history with in the early 1990s, later wrote that the poppet head was a conscious gesture to symbolise to the people of Ballarat that the venture was progressing. The purchase of the paddle steamer Gem in Swan Hill had done similar work there. Sovereign Hill opened in November 1970, having followed a similar pattern of development as Swan Hill.

I want to talk for a minute about the origins of some of these places. By the mid-1970s other open air museums had appeared. For instance, in Victoria the Wimmera Mallee Pioneers Museum had opened at Jeparit. Thematically it covered some of the same historical content as Swan Hill. And also in Victoria, at Korumburra, there was this place which is the Coal Creek Historical Park. That is the only picture I could find for the purpose of today’s talk [image shown]. The Coal Creek Historical Park aimed to re-create a typical coalmining village in South Gippsland in the period 1890 to 1925, which is the latest of historical periods I found covered in these sorts of places. Close by, at Wonthaggi, the state coalmine was being opened up as a rival historical experience, although ultimately it was never as large and diverse as Coal Creek.

Meanwhile, in New South Wales, two extraordinary historical parks were coming together, one outside Forbes known as the Lachlan Vintage Village which covered history of that part of the state from 1860 until 1900, and the other was Old Sydney Town near Gosford. It depicted Sydney in 1810. Both of these were opened in 1975 by the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. A colleague of mine has also reminded me of the Australiana village in Wilberforce, but I haven’t found much about that and the Pigott inquiry didn’t seem to cover it particularly so it hasn’t come to my attention. If any of you remember it, perhaps we can talk about it later.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was the heyday of the establishment of folk museums, small and large, in Australia. Most folk museums were established by local historical societies or branches of the National Trust and they were often, as you probably remember, in old shops, courthouses, stores or dance halls sometimes, probably with a few sheds built out the back to display old machinery. Often too historical buildings such as halls, schools and churches were transported to the site of the museum from outlying districts and set up with period displays.

A pioneer in the development of small museums like this - we are talking small museums now - was Eric Dunlop who was the subject of a lovely article in reCollections a few years ago by Nicole McLennan, and I have taken the pictures from her article. Dunlop was a lecturer in history at the Armidale Teachers College and, partly drawing on visits he made in the 1950s to folk museums in Britain and Scandinavia, he became deeply interested in folk museums, especially as educational devices for historians and teachers.

He believed that museums could be more than just a collection of curious objects associated in some way with great men and events of the past. He thought they should incorporate re-creations of the everyday to allow the visitor ‘a picture of what life was really like in the past’. In 1956 Dunlop established the Museum of Education at Armidale in a relocated school. One room was set up as a period room that re-created a typical small school of the 1880s, apparently down to the correct type of clock ticking on the wall. Dunlop noted that this was not ‘a conventional glass case museum’. He hoped it would recapture something of the spirit of education in the 1880s. He wanted the visitor to step back through three-quarters of a century and hoped it would be in line with the open air museums in Europe whose buildings were relocated and restored to give a realistic impression of aspects of life in past times.

Giving a realistic impression of aspects of the life in the past was the aim of all folk museums. But what the large open air living history museums tried to do was not just re-create aspects of the past but the past in total in every day-to-day authentic detail. They give the impression of an entire and complete world of the past - at least that’s often their aim - but by the 1970s the guilt had worn off the gingerbread, somewhat, as far as living history museums were concerned.

In 1974 a committee was set up by the Whitlam government to inquire into the state of museums and national collections, for it was apparent by the 1970s, less than a decade after many of the new museums were established, that the growth in small and open air museums was getting out of control. The Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections was asked to investigate and make recommendations on the state of museums and national collections nationwide. It was directed primarily to inquire into the Commonwealth government’s national responsibilities and interests but its terms of reference allowed it the scope to inquire into museums right down to the local level.

A broadly experienced committee was appointed under the chairmanship of Sydney businessman Peter Pigott. Other members were Geoffrey Blainey, professor of economic history at the University of Melbourne; John Mulvaney, who is with us today, professor of prehistory at The Australian National University; and Frank Talbot, Director of the Australian Museum, among other members. The committee handed down its report in November 1975, and that document has been known ever since, particularly to students of museum studies and public history, as the Pigott report.

To talk about that committee’s work for a minute, the committee was puzzled at first, it seems, as to whether large open air museums were part of its scope. In an internal discussion paper, the committee’s executive member then, Peter Ryan, remarked rather haughtily perhaps that these museums were ‘multiplying at a rather disturbing rate’, which almost sounds as if they were breeding like rabbits and at the time perhaps that is what it felt like. He wasn’t sure whether they should be considered museums or tourist centres, and the great problem, he thought, was their claims towards authenticity. He wrote:

Amalgamation of buildings, vehicles and relics of the last hundred years, while superficially attractive[,] is misleading and damaging. To enable these collections to be put together, whole countrysides have been denuded of relics and buildings which have been moved to their present site without any archaeological or historical study.

But Ryan did acknowledge that living history museums fulfilled a need in many people to return to an earlier period and avoid the stress of modern society. They did display historic objects and they did undertake historical research, so ultimately the committee decided to inquire into them. For this purpose it picked out four for special attention: Old Sydney Town, Lachlan Vintage Village, both in New South Wales; and Swan Hill and Sovereign Hill in Victoria. It hired a number of experts to visit these places and report back.

So talking for a little while about Swan Hill and Sovereign Hill together, Bob Reece, an historian of Aboriginal Australia, and Jim Allen, an archaeologist, reported jointly on visits to Swan Hill and Sovereign Hill. It didn’t seem to me as if either of them had local museum experience but their participation was perhaps prompted by John Mulvaney, sitting here today, whose colleagues they were.

Reece and Allen found that the museums they were looking at were fundamentally different. Sovereign Hill was a total reconstruction; Swan Hill was developed around re-located buildings, supplemented by some reconstructions. The two men noticed what they called the ‘chocolate box’ atmosphere of Sovereign Hill where everything was new and where buildings and experiences were artificially juxtaposed. They approved of continuing efforts towards authenticity there. For instance, the director had recently removed decorative trees and lawns from the diggings area so as to make that landscape seem more historically accurate. They liked the displays in the individual buildings and thought that the underground museum and the machinery there was impressive. But they also noted that an elaborate brick joss house, which we see in that picture [image shown], had been built bearing little resemblance to Ballarat’s original simple timber joss house which at that point had only just been demolished. They agreed with an unnamed critic who labelled Swan Hill ‘an historical supermarket’ for, as with a supermarket, the emphasis was on packaging of the historical content. The declared historical period for Sovereign Hill was 1851 to 1860, and within this tight time frame anomalies were bound to arise. I have a few more pictures to show here. I suppose this is familiar to people who have been to Sovereign Hill. I certainly remember this sort of scene. That is the poppet head I talked about before.

On the other hand, Reece and Allen declared themselves more at home at Swan Hill where many of the buildings and features were genuinely old. But to them Swan Hill marked out for itself no particular historical period and the result was a feeling of ‘a hundred years of olden days’. Some of the displays in the buildings were jammed with items of all periods and some of the outdoor displays resembled junkyards. On site information was poor. Swan Hill had the more historically important artefacts but provenancing and cataloguing of them was ‘dismal’, they said, and the original whereabouts of many of the buildings was either only vaguely known or completely unknown.

The curator was untrained and had no working space. Collection storage and conservation were inadequate. Some items had been lent to the local community from Swan Hill. An expensively restored landau had been lent for a wedding and was damaged by a horse. Most damning was Reece and Allen’s assessment of the presentation of Aboriginal history, about which Ross Holloway had written so proudly back in 1968. There was apparently an ‘Aboriginal island’ so-called, which they said was a ‘tawdry and bogus representation of an Aboriginal camp’, complete with ‘totem poles’ and a rock shelter - ‘a total disaster’, they said.

Judged with hindsight, it seems clear that, even if a team of country boys and girls can establish a folk museum, it takes more than that to manage and maintain it into the future. As historians, Reece and Allen were uneasy about the pop history presented at Swan Hill and Sovereign Hill. ‘Amuseums’, they called them. They acknowledged that such places brought historical awareness to people who would otherwise not enter a museum. But if ‘living history’ is a picture of the past, they concluded, ‘is this an accurate one?’

I am going to move on to Lachlan Vintage Village and Old Sydney Town. In New South Wales, Anne Bickford was more than uneasy about what she saw on behalf of the Pigott committee in the two living history museums she visited. She was hopping mad, in fact. She was an archaeologist and a museum curator and had been hired to survey museums in central western New South Wales as well as a clutch of local museums. So she visited Old Sydney Town and Lachlan Vintage Village in mid-1975. As far as I have had time to find out, neither of these places arose out of Swan Hill’s ‘three men and a girl’ approach.

Lachlan Vintage Village was a local government initiative supported by local investors. Those are the only two pictures I could find in digital form to show you, and they are not terribly revealing. Lachlan Vintage Village was new when Bickford visited, still in stage one of a planned nine stages of a grand exposition of colonial history. Old Sydney Town was a purely commercial venture, apparently along the lines of Colonial Williamsburg, and was intended as ‘a re-creation of the birth of our nation’. Both Lachlan Vintage Village and Old Sydney Town had paid staff and both had assembled a team of architects and researchers. Both, Bickford found, claimed to be more than amusement parks - they claimed to present ‘authentic re-creations of our colonial past’. On this claim, she said they must be judged, and it is this where they fall down.She enjoyed her time in both places. She said:

One can watch the blacksmith methodically going about his work shaping red hot iron with his traditional tools, talk to the carpenter about sources for Australian cedar or to the bullocky about training his bullocks. But the presence of the present was inescapable. The workers were dressed in new clothes and were using new tools constructed to look like those of the past.

Walking around these museums was like walking through a movie set, she thought.

Lachlan Vintage Village, like Swan Hill, gave itself a broader time frame within which to work, 1860 to 1900, which was broader than Old Sydney Town so Lachlan Vintage Village could draw much more than on surviving buildings and artefacts. Old Sydney Town was locked into about 1810. Knowledge of construction methods and styles of that period, and access to original materials, was much harder to obtain, making Old Sydney Town’s claims for authenticity almost unsustainable, in Bickford’s view.

Old Sydney Town planned to include every building in Sydney in 1810, and Lachlan Vintage Village planned at least 100 buildings, a national transport museum, a hotel and an airstrip. As a museologist, Bickford found these plans bizarre. Already there had been cost overruns which had forced both museums to seek Commonwealth support. Lachlan Vintage Village was asking for $3 million. Bickford urged these plans not to be funded. She hoped that both facilities would surrender their spurious claims to authenticity and continue - but as entertainments based on parts of nineteenth-century history. If she returned to Lachlan Vintage Village, Bickford thought, it would not be to seek the truth, but because it was a fine way to spend a day.

In its report the Pigott committee devotes a large section of one chapter to living history museums. It noted that things like the joss house at Sovereign Hill and the Aboriginal camp at Swan Hill were ‘disasters in historical terms’, but the committee admired the courage of those early organising committees and noted that Swan Hill and Sovereign Hill were ‘cultural landmarks’ in Australia. ‘They faced research problems which are now more easily tackled by their imitators,’ the report says. And visitor numbers were very high: half a million people at Sovereign Hill and 200,000 at Swan Hill in the year ending 30 June 1975. It goes on:

If, only fifteen years ago, a commentator had predicted that such a huge number of people would gladly pay high admission fees to look at museums outside the capital cities, he would have been treated as insane.

However, the committee based its judgments around Anne Bickford’s report to it, and the committee believed that Old Sydney Town was probably the least successful in terms of historical authenticity. Bickford’s remarks had been so forthright that the committee quoted her at considerable length, and it further noted that Commonwealth support for Old Sydney Town in grants and loans would likely exceed $4 million. The committee recommended a review of funding like this. It thought that government support for living history museums be forthcoming only after careful consideration of their historical authenticity, and their prospects of becoming self-supporting. The historic collections already housed in traditional museums, the committee thought, had the first claim on government support and they probably always would. I think that’s the point that the nation’s collections were stored and displayed in sometimes dire conditions and government support for living history museums couldn’t be justified because of that.

The committee’s recommendations did carry weight, because in 1976 the Commonwealth Department of Industry and Commerce commissioned a report on 22 operating, and nine proposed, outdoor museums and historic sites in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. This report did indeed find that, judged as tourist attractions, many outdoor museums were overambitious, were too big, were located too far from the urban centres that supplied most of their visitors, and were poorly marketed and promoted. Curatorial control and historical authenticity needed to be improved because, the authors of this report believed, historical authenticity did influence visitor satisfaction.

Meanwhile, a stoush developed in the pages of the Museums Association of Australia’s quarterly publication Kalori - some people might remember Kalori. It published a lengthy article from JA Corner, who was the chairman of Old Sydney Town’s board of directors. He rebutted Bickford’s remarks in the Pigott report point for point - and she, in turn, was given a reply in the pages of Kalori. I don’t have time to rehearse their various arguments back and forth, but what emerged for me is this comment from Anne Bickford that living history museums, however well done physically, can:

… never adequately portray the beliefs and attitudes, thoughts and feelings, of the people who lived in the environment. It is very difficult to represent, let alone explain, the values and beliefs a society holds through [the presentation of] buildings and work.

What seems to have happened in the ten years between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s is this emerging realisation that collecting and displaying buildings and artefacts, and watching costumed volunteers interact with them, does not by itself give those of us in the present access to the past. Anne Bickford had no real answer to this problem - nor do I. She seems to have believed that much of the work is done inside our own heads by reading primary historical sources or reading a work of imagination created by an artist - and she mentions Patrick White’s novel Voss. She neglected the obvious point that, for every 100,000 visitors to a living historical museum, perhaps only one will ever have read Voss. She was at least honest enough, however, to admit that a day spent in a living history museum was intensely enjoyable.

To conclude, of the four major museums I have been discussing, Old Sydney Town and Lachlan Vintage Village have folded. Swan Hill continues, as does, even more successfully, Sovereign Hill. Living history museums do not rate highly in professional museum terms, at least at least if a flick through Museums Australia publications and conference papers is any guide. What remains relevant is Anne Bickford’s question: can museums of any type represent the values and beliefs of a society? Can that be done through objects, through the tangible evidence of the past, the stuff that we collect? Should we leave it to the novelists and the film makers and so on? I don’t think that question ever goes away. Thank you. [Applause]

Date published: 25 October 2010