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Glorious Days: Australia 1913 - exhibition opening

Her Excellency Quentin Bryce, Agnes Shea and Andrew Sayers, 6 March 2013

ANDREW SAYERS: Your Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia; Auntie Agnes Shea, Ngunnawal elder; council members of the National Museum of Australia, deputy chair Emeritus Professor Andrea Hull, and here I bring the apologies of the chair of the National Museum of Australia council, Danny Gilbert, who is currently overseas; members of the diplomatic corps, and I can see many of you here this evening; members of the Legislative Assembly of the ACT - Joy Burch, Minister for the Arts, and Brendan Smyth, Deputy Leader of the Opposition; Robyn Archer, the creative director of the centenary of Canberra, the hardest working woman in Canberra just at the moment; heads and representatives of our sister cultural institutions; and friends - welcome.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Ngunnawal. My name is Andrew Sayers, and I am the director of the National Museum of Australia. It was great to walk in here this evening and see the tango in full swing. Thank you to the Tango Social Club of Canberra for setting the scene. A fact you probably didn’t know is that the tango arrived in Australia in December 1913. No-one quite knew what to make of it then. It looked rather racy by the standards of the day. Thank you to the Tango Social Club of Canberra.

Three years ago we began seriously to look at what we could do at the National Museum to mark the centenary of Canberra. Knowing that there would be a great deal of interest in the design of Canberra and its inception as a city, we decided to try and set the moment in a wider context. We thought first of looking at the whole international picture of 1913, the year that has a place in our cultural imagination as the end of a world order and as the beginning of something, represented by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring of that year or Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture consisting of a bicycle wheel mounted on a stool - amazing to think that is 100 years old this year.

But we concluded that the story of Australia in that year was no less deserving of our close attention – indeed, probably deserves to be much better known. We got together a group of historians and subject area specialists and knocked the idea around and realised that we had a great story to tell - not one story. Glorious days: Australia 1913 tells a score of stories that you won’t probably have heard before, stories that set the foundation of Canberra in a context of national idealism and optimism. 1913 was, for Australians, a year of dreams and of hope, and that’s what this exhibition is about.

I want to pay tribute to the team that I have led in bringing this exhibition to you: the curators led by Michelle Hetherington, who also edited the final publication that our publications team has produced to accompany the exhibition, Anthea Gunn, Guy Hansen and Peter Stanley; the Museum’s conservation team who not only worked on the objects included but did so in the full glare of public scrutiny as a part of our recent Museum Workshop project; the exhibition and multimedia teams; the team from Thylacine who worked on the design of the exhibition; the registration team; the design and marketing teams; and the public programs team who have orchestrated tonight’s event and who will be responsible for a great program during the exhibition season. In fact, there is not a part of the Museum that has not had a hand in bringing this exhibition to you.

There are many features of this exhibition about which I am particularly proud, but I will point to just two of them this evening. Firstly, the exhibition includes great things from the National Museum’s own collection, and the exhibition includes material that has been lent by our sister cultural institutions - national, state and local. You will see, for example, that the Art Gallery of South Australia has lent [Hans] Heysen’s masterpiece of 1913, Red gold. The Museum of Victoria has lent nine truly wonderful bark paintings collected in 1912 in Arnhem Land. The Australian War Memorial has lent the extraordinary model of HMAS Australia; and the Manly Art Gallery has lent the best picture in its collection - Ethel Carrick Fox’s Manly Beach - Summer is Here, 1913. And there have been many private lenders to the collection such as Antony Davies whose Model T Ford makes a spectacular entrance in the exhibition.

Of all the partners with whom we have worked, I want to single out the National Film and Sound Archive in particular. The archival film footage in the Archive’s collection creates a real-time connection with the people of 1913. Creating a real-time connection with the people of 1913 is something we really wanted to do in this exhibition. We wanted to take off the sepia-coloured glasses of nostalgia and try to see clearly the sense of modernity and forward thinking that was part of the early optimistic years of the Commonwealth.

As you enter the exhibition, take a moment to read Henry Lawson’s poem published in his 1913 collection For Australia - glorious days certainly, yet tempered in retrospect by bitter truths.

I should now like to invite Auntie Agnes Shea to welcome us to Ngunnawal country.

AGNES SHEA: Hello everyone and good evening to you all. What a lovely event it is this afternoon and we have been blessed with a lovely day today in Canberra. I am Auntie Agnes Shea and I am one of the Ngunnawal elders. On behalf of my daughter and myself thank you all for inviting me here this evening to welcome to Ngunnawal country to the Museum opening of the exhibition Glorious Days Australia 1913. This is the Museum’s major exhibition of Canberra’s 100th birthday year.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge other Ngunnawal elders and families who may have joined us here tonight, and all of our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I would also like to acknowledge our distinguished guests: Your Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce; Robyn Archer; other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; also members of the Museum’s council who are here tonight; the director and all Indigenous people who work at the Museum, including Margo Neale, a highly respected member of our community and a long-term senior Indigenous person who has done so much good things for Indigenous people here. She always includes local community events even when it gets difficult and others stop.

A few nights ago we had a special Indigenous ceremony of the amazing Seven Sisters Songline outside near the lake. Those stories have ancient roots that go back hundreds of thousands of years, and tonight’s stories go back 100 years. This is a short time compared to Aboriginal history of this continent, but it is a long time ago in the white man’s history on this country.

The stories that are told in this exhibition are part of Australia’s recent history which we can all share now, but not in 1913. This exhibition has an interesting title Glorious Days. Before 1913 was not a glorious time for Indigenous Australians. We did not get counted in the census or have the right to vote. By 1913 we were put on government reserves and religious missions and our lives were completely controlled. We were not allowed to marry without permission, or intermarry, or practice our traditional ways of life. We were supposed to be a dying-out race; we were the disappearing race. So non-Indigenous peoples started to collect our cultural material quickly and put them in museums like this one for later when we all go. How wrong they were. Now we are many and we are strong.

Tonight I stand before you, a proud Ngunnawal elder, mother and great-grandmother and also 31 year young. Through my veins blows the blood that connects me to my parents and our Ngunnawal people and all of our ancestors, a connection going back in this area almost 30,000 years.

In welcoming you to our country, I continue this ancient cultural practice I inherited and that I, and many other Ngunnawal elders, keep alive by passing knowledge, practice and responsibilities onto our families and all of our Ngunnawal people.

Welcome to Canberra, welcome to this show tonight, and I hope you all have a wonderful time on the Ngunnawal land.

Now I will finish in the words of the Ngunnawal people: Ngunna yerrabi yanggu, which means ‘You are welcome to leave your footprints on our land now,’ or in other words ‘Welcome to Ngunnawal country’. Again, thank you on behalf of my daughter and myself, and please enjoy the rest of the evening. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Auntie Agnes. Would you please now make welcome Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce, Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, who will open the exhibition.

QUENTIN BRYCE: Good afternoon my friends. What a perfect Canberra Day! The Hon. Chief Justice of our High Court, Robert French; Professor Hull, deputy chair of the National Museum of Australia council; Director of our National Museum, Mr Andrew Sayers; your excellencies, my friends - good evening. I can’t tell you what a treat you are in for, having had a look through this fantastic exhibition, so much to learn to enrich our knowledge and understandings, so elegant and thought provoking - I am entranced by it and inspired.

Thank you for your warm welcome, and I want to say how delighted I am to join you for this special occasion in our year of Canberra’s centenary celebrations at our much-loved National Museum to launch this exhibition Glorious Days: Australia 1913. What a perfect opening are the words of Henry Lawson about glorious days and grand days.

Auntie Agnes, thank you for your thoughtful words. I so admire your contribution to our community in Canberra, your generous spirit always shining through your elders’ wisdom.

Ladies and gentlemen, this Museum excites my imagination again and again with its marvellous collection of treasures. Australia has a unique geography and fascinating social history, and this place really makes sense of these for us. Whether it’s the permanent collection or a special exhibition, I am always rewarded by time here with the ideas, knowledge, experiences, the beauty gathered and curated with the finest expertise. It is always at the top of our list of things to do when my grandchildren visit. They come here with great anticipation, racing in to the creative programs made especially for kids that challenge and stretch their minds.

I have vivid memories of the Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route exhibition in 2010 retelling the history of that track afresh through Indigenous eyes, and last year the magnificent Travelling the Silk Road exhibition transporting us to Asia and the Middle East, a fascinating journey with riches galore that tickled our senses.

My friends, Glorious Days makes an important contribution to our national capital’s centenary celebrations in the hands of the hardest-working woman in Australia, Ms Archer. We Australians love anything to do with a centenary from Don Bradman scoring a double right through to a loved one having a 100th birthday. Recently 28 centenarians from Canberra gathered at Regatta Point when Chief Minister Katie Gallagher presented their centenary medallions. Imagine that get together with over 2,800 years of memories. And Canberra’s next generation isn’t forgotten: All babies born on Canberra’s birthday, 12 March, will also be eligible for the medallion.

The centenary of Canberra has the capacity, the potential, to unite our nation as we recall events surrounding the laying of the foundationstone when Lady Denman announced the name ‘Canberra’ with a firm accent on the ‘Can’. Many of you will have seen the remarkable silent film footage of that moment on display here - cheers of the crowds raised loud and hats high in acclamation.

For 100 years, the eyes and ears of our country have turned to this city at some of the most critical times of our history: in times of joyousness, in times of censure, in times of hostilities and in times of hope. For words of gladness and expressions of grief, Canberra has drawn Australians together.

I congratulate Andrew Sayers, Director of our National Museum of Australia, for a most thought-provoking and richly rewarding exhibition. Andrew, your ability to bring history to life for us is inspiring. Thank you for what you do. You and your team present us with a vision of Canberra in 1913 that allows us to reflect on changes across the century in our country and to consider where we are going as a nation.

There is so much here that will cause all of us to stop and think deeply. Certainly many things here in this exhibition do that for me. First, the role of women in Australia: on display is the magnificent Australian women’s suffrage banner painted by Dora Meeson, an active member of the suffrage movement in London. It was carried in a rally there in 1911, and in 1988 it was given to the women of Australia as a bicentennial gift and is now held in the Parliament House Art Collection. Blazoned across it are the encouraging words ‘Trust the women mother as I have done’. These are not the words of timid people; they are the words of a proud nation at the forefront of women’s suffrage, urging others to take action.

In the century which followed, the country saw Edith Cowan become the first woman member of an Australian parliament in 1921 when she was elected to Western Australian Legislative Assembly. As the wife of a police magistrate in Perth, she saw at close hand the serious issues affecting society and was energetic in finding solutions. Mrs Cowan served on the North Fremantle Board of Education, one of the few public offices open to females at the time, and was a first in many societies, courts and as a justice of the peace. Her remarkable journey took her to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly just a year after legislation there made that possible. Today 28.5 [per cent] of members of our Federal Parliament are women.

Secondly, this exhibition reminds us of the importance of Indigenous culture and the significance of first Australians in our nation. How fortunate we are to see nine of the 38 beautiful bark paintings from Western Arnhem Land collected by Baldwin Spencer in 1912 when he was Director of the National Museum of Victoria. They had been on the roofs of living shelters built for the wet season showing animals and mythological spirits. As this exhibition tells us, the curator of the exhibition when they were first shown grasped the modernist appeal of Aboriginal art and gave it an unprecedented place in the exhibition. Today, they remind us of the long and honourable culture of our first Australians. They speak to us of the way their rightful place in a modern Australia has been, and continues to be, a long and difficult process.

In the 100 years following, our nation has seen the right in 1962 of all Indigenous Australians to enrol and vote in federal elections, but it took another five years before the 1967 Referendum to give the Commonwealth parliament power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people wherever they lived in Australia and for them to be included in our censuses.

Across the last century, Australia has become a major player on the international stage, from the signing of our first international treaty at Versailles in 1919 through to our work in Antarctica today. Last month I was privileged to visit Antarctica to mark another centenary - Sir Douglas Mawson’s Australasian Antarctic expedition. The inclusion of the expedition here resonates strongly with me with that magnificent photo of Frank Hurley’s of the iceberg. Mawson tried so hard to get Hurley against his mother’s best wishes. Mrs Hurley said her son wasn’t well enough. Mawson sent him off for a medical - he was only 24 years old – that said he’s fine, and off he went. Imagine if he hadn’t gone. I see the early role Australia had in the Antarctic and the incredible work for science and peace that continues there today.

My friends, this exhibition will excite and inspire all Australians with its representation of our nation’s last century. In turn, let us hope that those who, in 100 years time, look back at our contributions will speak with appreciation, admiration and gratitude for the decisions we make and the actions we take.

I am delighted to declare the exhibition Glorious Days: Australia 1913 open. I want to thank and congratulate everybody in the development of this marvellous exhibition to mark the centenary of Canberra. Thank you. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Your Excellency, thank you. I couldn’t think of a better way to launch this exhibition than with a retrospective look of where we have come from in 100 years and hopes for where we may go in the next 100 years.

As well as the exhibition curators, the Museum teams, the collaborators in other cultural institutions and the lenders to this exhibition, I did want to acknowledge Bearcage Productions, the Palace Electric Cinema New Acton and the Foxtel History Channel who have sponsored the promotion of this exhibition. I would also like to commend to you the exhibition publication, which is available in the marvellous and exciting Edwardian-themed shop that is a part of the exhibition.

I mentioned earlier that we have a big program of wonderful 1913-inspired public programs associated with the exhibition. They begin on Monday [11 March] when we are hosting a national vintage car rally of early petrol, steam and electric cars of the era, and look out for the 1913 Country Fair in April. Thank you very much. [applause]

Date published: 15 March 2013