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Examples of material culture research in museums - showcases I

Chaired by Guy Hansen, National Museum of Australia, 30 May 2008

GUY HANSEN: Welcome back everybody. The next session is the first of our showcases sessions. These sessions are meant to be short, sharp examples of material culture research which is actually going on in museums today. So we’re going to find out what the practitioners are doing right now. Each of these papers will be 10 minutes and then we’ll have a short period of time for questions each.

‘Heirlooms speaking for themselves’ – Dr Susannah Helman, National Museum of Australia

GUY HANSEN: Our first speaker in this session is Susannah Helman. Dr Susannah Helman completed a PhD at the University of Queensland on collecting in early modern England. She has worked at the National Museum of Australia since 2004 and is presently part of the Australian Journeys curatorial team which is developing a new exhibition exploring the voyages which connect Australia to the world. Her paper today is called: ‘Heirlooms speaking for themselves’.

SUSANNAH HELMAN: On a cool May day in 1927 a South Australian woman in her late thirties called Mrs Dora Robinson was in Canberra to see the Duke and Duchess of York open Parliament House. Much later, she told her daughter that she wore this dress to a ball held in honour of the Duke of York. It was the only significant dress Mrs Robinson kept until she died.

Her daughter offered the dress to the National Museum of Australia in 2005. With the dress and family story in hand, figuratively speaking of course, I was sent headlong into researching 1920s fashions and the extensive archival records relating to the opening ceremony. Not everything fell into place. Why wear a thin sleeveless dress in May in Canberra? No ball occurred at the celebrations, so what event might she have attended? Isn’t it easy to confuse terms like ‘balls’ and ‘receptions’? There are reasonable answers to these questions, and it was the dress that led me to them.

By assessing the dress and the family story against the documentary sources, I was also reconsidering the opening through this dress. The opening of Parliament House in Canberra on 9-10 May 1927 was a major civic event, an organisational feat and a confirmation of Australia’s coming of age.

The Federal Capital Commission had the enormous task of turning Canberra into a capital, not the least onerous duty was planning an opening ceremony for John Smith Murdoch’s Parliament House. The opening celebrations lasted for two days and many people came to Canberra to witness the opening, or at least glimpse those who witnessed it.

Mrs Robinson came to Canberra that May with her husband, the Reverend William H Robinson. In 1927 he was in his late fifties, the president of the Methodist Conference for South Australia, and at the pinnacle of his professional career. The donor believed they were at the celebrations because of his position, that they had in some way been invited.

The donor remembered her mother as a red-headed, vivacious, vaudeville-loving cricket fan with a strong social conscience. She had varied interests but fashion was not among them. She was also a talented mimic and her only brother teased her when young, saying that ‘she was wicked to be such a good mimic and for her sins she’d marry a parson’. I’m quoting the donor here.

The dress she wore in May 1927 is an example of elegant but simple formal wear typical of the 1920s. Its fabric is georgette, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a thin semi-transparent plain woven crêpe made from fine hard-twisted silk or other yarns’. While its colour suggests it was intended for evening wear, around this time the leading Paris couturier, Coco Chanel, popularised black as a colour for day wear. 1920s dresses were often shimmering tubular silhouettes with extensive beading, sleeveless, drop waists, plunging necklines and rising hems. This dress’s dropped waist, scalloped hem and sleeveless bodice are typical of the twenties. Its gathered waist, however, gives the dress a flowing rather than a strictly tubular look.

Also characteristic of the decade is the dress’s decoration, both front and back, with sequins and glass beads. Yet it is hard to generalise about what Australian, particularly older, women were actually wearing in the twenties, as costume historian Margaret Maynard has emphasised. The absence of a label on this dress suggests it was made by a private dressmaker, most probably for this occasion.

What is intriguing is why she chose to wear such a thin dress. As Canberra’s average May temperature is around 15 degrees, she must have worn the dress with a coat and possibly with a fringe shawl, as was popular during this period. Photographs from the celebrations, one of which you will see later, show women wearing cloche hats, dress shoes, stockings and long warm coats. Canberra’s weather was on The Bulletin’s mind several days before the opening when it made humorous references to ‘guests camping in igloos’.

Limitations in space and facilities meant that only 500 people, mostly public figures, could receive official invitations and be comfortably housed. The Federal Capital Commission’s greatest problem was that it did not know how many people might come. Provision was made for those visiting for the day, for parking and for those who would be staying for several nights - camping grounds. Records show that the Reverend William Robinson and his wife Dora were not among the 500 guests officially invited by the Commonwealth. If they were invited it was by the South Australian government. Each state government received a letter from the then Acting Prime Minister in December 1926 reading:

With a view to making some provision, however, for a reasonable number of those who may wish to go to Canberra of their own accord, and are ready to suffer a measure of inconvenience, the Commonwealth has decided to erect in front of Parliament House temporary stands from which 5,000 people may view the outdoor portion of the Opening Ceremony in the morning. ...

A likely scenario is that the Robinsons were amongst those invited by the South Australian government to fill its quota in these stands. Of the 5000 places, 400 were allocated to South Australia. The Commonwealth did not glamorise the prospect awaiting these people. The letter continues:

I would ask you, however, to have it clearly made known to those to whom tickets are issued that they must not be regarded as invitations; that, on the contrary, the tickets entitle the holders only to the viewing facilities mentioned and do not include provision of transport to and from Canberra or of meals or accommodation.

The donor did not remember being told that they met the Duke and Duchess of York and thought they would have been one of the milling crowds. While there was a luncheon, a reception for overseas guests and a public reception, there was no ball attended by the Duke and Duchess of York. An accessible event, however, was the public reception which took place between 11.30am and 12.45pm on Tuesday, 10 May 1927.

The Duke and Duchess of York stood on the steps of Parliament House, and members of the public filed past them in groups of four. Efforts were made to keep this event as open as possible. I think it’s most likely that this was the event which brought the Robinsons closest to the Duke and Duchess of York.

The press was divided on the celebration’s success. Organisers notoriously over-catered and later had to bury hundreds of meat pies. The ‘Woman’s letter’ in The Bulletin was not impressed with the women’s fashions at one reception:

The general absence of bright plumage amongst the women was emphasised at Monday night’s reception to overseas representatives, though as far as the men were concerned, it scintillated slightly.

The monthly newspaper associated with the Federal Capital Commission published a page of satirical vignettes. One caption read: ‘Melba’ - that’s Dame Nelly Melba - ‘didn’t sing half as well as some of those on the stands. My invitation to the inside ceremonies was overlooked. But I enjoyed all the bands playing different tunes at once’.

On the other hand, the Federal Capital Pioneer Magazine saw the event as a great success, especially the new Duchess. Its report notes:

... the beautiful Duchess - attracted the gaze of the multitude. There was nothing elaborate in her stately, yet unassuming pose. She was clothed in a wrap coat of cloth of silver, lined with vellum coloured mirror velvet.

Even more approving was its overview of the perfections of the ceremony:

The splendid pageantry associated with the occasion lent a dignity and solemnity difficult to describe, but fully felt by all [those] who were present.

Unfortunately, we know nothing about the Robinsons’ view of the celebrations, although the donor told me, ‘I did get the impression that it was a bit of a highlight.’ At the same time, through the dress and the research encouraged by the wrinkles in its associated story, I argue that the dress gives us a unique personal perspective on the opening of Parliament House, Canberra in 1927.

So next time you’re about to go up the steps of Old Parliament House, think of Mrs Robinson filing past the Duke and Duchess of York wearing this fashionable dress, a cloche hat and a warm coat. Thank you.

GUY HANSEN: Thank you, Susannah. Questions or comments?

QUESTION: It must have been quite an investment for a Methodist minister’s wife to have had a dress like that. It seemed quite expensive and Methodist ministers notoriously having a low income; it shows how significant she thought the occasion was if she wore that dress or had it, possibly.

SUSANNAH HELMAN: Yes, indeed. I think it shows how she viewed the event and that it was a special occasion. She didn’t actually keep her wedding dress, the donor told me. So this was the only dress of great significance to her that she kept throughout her life.

‘Snowy Scheme objects’ – Matthew Higgins, National Museum of Australia

GUY HANSEN: Our next showcase paper is going to be presented by Matthew Higgins. Matthew is a senior curator at the National Museum where he’s worked since 2004. He’s presently attached to the Centre for Historical Research where he’s completing a book Mountain Days, Mountain Ways: A History of the Australian Capital Territory’s High Country. Matthew today is going to be talking to us about Snowy Scheme objects.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thanks very much, Guy, and good morning everyone. I hope you’re all enjoying the show, as I am. Thank you very much, Susannah, for setting a high standard for us curators.

The Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme, with its seven power stations, 16 dams and 225 kilometres of aqueducts and pipelines, is well recognised as an Australian and world heritage engineering feat. As well as creating hydro-electricity and irrigation water, it helped make Australia multicultural, developed Australia’s technological and manufacturing capacity, and brought in its wake a host of environmental problems. Many books have been written about it. For example, Siobhan McHugh’s award winning The Snowy: The People Behind the Power is one of my favourites I’ve read several times - I have a rather boring life, you see. It’s a beauty and really brings the Snowy alive. It’s based on an amazing 400 oral history interviews plus archival research. Most of the books about the Snowy Scheme have been based either on oral records, archival records or a mixture of the two.

But what can objects tell us - tell the historian, the curator or the journalist? How can objects add to the oral and written record of the Snowy, and how can they actually tell us things that aren’t found in those other sources of evidence? I believe that some of the objects that the National Museum of Australia has been collecting recently can assist our understanding of the scheme and the experience of the people who worked on it. We have been collecting these objects from a range of private donors and vendors, plus corporate sources like Snowy Hydro and the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation.

The first object that I’d like to show you is the Ben Chifley model of the scheme. This is one of a number of topographic trophies that were presented to the dignitaries that officiated at the October 1949 inauguration of the scheme when they fired the shot that started the lot - the beginning of the Adaminaby or later Eucumbene Dam.

This is the model which was presented to Prime Minister Ben Chifley. The National Library of Australia has the one given to [William] McKell - the Governor General – and I think the Powerhouse has one as well. We are very fortunate to have this. It is a topographic model of the scheme made in bronze with a timber frame with lights which show the location of power stations and dams - and they still work, which is appropriate, given that it is a hydro-electric scheme.

There are two things you can say about it. Firstly, it’s very interesting because it shows the scheme as originally conceived. The configuration of dams and power stations later changed, so it’s historically interesting because it shows the original plan. But secondly, and more importantly, it tells us a lot about the Snowy Mountains Authority [SMA] itself. It shows how on the ball that organisation was, considering that this event took place only two months after the SMA came into being. There are post-war materials and skills shortages, yet they were able to make this series of very fine models, which I’d be very happy to have on my mantelpiece, and I’m sure Ben Chifley was as well.

So I think the object in this case is showing us something which is quite significant to the story and something not necessarily picked up quite so poignantly in the records.

Another model is the rather different and much larger Guthega Power Station model. This is quite large, about four metres long by two metres by two metres. Here’s the model with Guthega Dam at this end and the power station at the other end. Again, it was built to show this project as originally conceived with three generating units, and that’s why there are three penstocks or pipes running down the hill, rather than the two as-built.

The interesting thing about this model is that, yes, it tells us about the original plan, but it also tells us a lot about the Snowy Mountains Authority’s public relations campaign. For the first few years the whole Snowy Scheme was under a huge legal cloud, because there was a fear that the states might take the Commonwealth to the High Court to stop the scheme. So the Snowy Authority was very conscious of getting the public on side through a massive PR campaign with tours of the scheme, films and models like this. And as-built this actually had a pump underneath it, and it used to pump water around the model. So if you went in and had a look at it in the early days of Guthega Power Station, that’s what you would have seen. To put that sort of effort into explaining its activities to the public again is an insight into this PR campaign, the way that the Snowy Mountains Authority was selling itself to the public.

Some tools of the scheme include one known as a ‘pelican’. They are quite rare. They were brought in to Australia by the Norwegians of Selma Engineering, who built Guthega. They are a combined pick, shovel and rake. They were used by the tunnel workers, particularly, to deal with fallen rock in the tunnel. As well as representing a combined form of hand tool, they were also a lot lighter than the traditional pick that we would wield, so they could be used for much longer periods of time without tiring the men. That’s another little insight into the multicultural nature of the scheme. Multiculturalism deriving from the Snowy was more than just different languages and different food; it was also different tools and different ways of doing work.

Another tool is the much more familiar jackhammer or jack pick. It is very heavy and for this reasons is an immediate reminder of the sheer physicality of the nature of work on the scheme, how cumbersome and difficult these things were to operate and how tired men were at the end of the day. So, again, understanding these objects, having access to these objects, being able to handle them - in cotton gloves of course, which is a bit ironic in connection with a jackhammer - helps us all to better understand what we’re talking about.

The rock bolt was a major technological breakthrough on the Snowy Scheme. It was a way of reinforcing rock by putting all these long bolts into rock faces, particularly inside tunnels and inside underground power stations. It was basically a way of compressing rock against itself so that you didn’t have to then concrete and invest a lot of time and expense. This is a form of technology which has since gone around the world. It’s been very significant and something that we exported. Having the object and being able to study it enables us to better understand this technology. It enables us to make more sense when we write our captions in a museum context, or write a paragraph in a book, or a paragraph in a newspaper, if you are a journalist or whatever.

Materials testing was a major element of the Snowy Mountains Authority’s work. All sorts of materials - be they concrete or steel or the aggregate for the concrete - were examined in the labs at Cooma so that major structures, like the generators, could be built. A piece of test steel, although not a very romantic sort of object, tells an important story and tells us something that is not as readily apparent from the written records. This is a piece of steel which has been subjected to testing for its tensile strength, so it has been stretched. It’s about a centimetre thick, so it’s not a piece of alfoil. It’s a pretty strong piece of steel. You can see around the centre of it how it has started to fail, it has started to become plastic and it has developed this waist. You start to think, ‘Gee, look at the forces that have been exerted on that in this testing process’, and I think that one object speaks a lot louder than many technical volumes or reports could convey to the average person.

One of the main things the Snowy Scheme had to do when it started was to come to terms with the water resource at its command. How much water was there? How big do we build our pipes? How big do we build our dams? They had to measure the amount of water that was out there. So they built stream-gauging stations with various sorts of equipment in them, including stream-height recorders. At a stream-gauging station you excavate a well next to the stream and, as the stream level goes up and down, naturally the height of the water in the well goes up and down. The stream-height recorder was perched over the well. This is a float which was down in the well. And there was a cable which ran over this wheel. As the height went up and down, the float went up and down. That wheel drove this little nib pen back and forth and started to make the marks on the graph paper. But what was driving the graph paper? How did that go around? Well, you have a clock here and weights descending from this wire. So it was a weight-driven clockwork system like in a lighthouse or a grandfather clock. So you have the two forms of power that you need to get your record. But, of course, because it is clock work it needed to be rewound. So every few weeks the hydrologist would have to go into these very remote stations to rewind them and to remove the graph paper. So again, in understanding the object we start to better understand the nature of work and the rhythm of work on the Snowy and how these people went about their work of gathering this data.

You’ll often find in books on the Snowy Scheme a briefly captioned image, a black-and-white photo of a guy on skis with a pair of tubes sticking out of a pack, but very little explanation of what it was.

There is an example of a snow survey tube from our collection. These are tubes which are calibrated in inches. The inches ran from one to the other so that you had to put them together in order, and you screwed them together with a wrench. You screwed it down into the snow and then took it out. Basically you got a core sample of snow. You then measured how much snow was in there. You had a calculation that you did to convert that snow into the amount of water that it would convert to, which is the whole point of the exercise, and then you have to get the snow out of it. How do you do that - because snow is pretty sticky? You will notice that there are little slits down the tubes and you will notice that little tool on the left is very narrow. Well, you put that tool into those slits and jigged it up and down - that’s a technical term - and the snow came out.

Again, by having the tubes plus the tools that went with it, you better understand the nature of work and the way that these people went about their jobs. So instead of just having a one-line brief caption to a photo you can actually explain to people what they were trying to do.

Just to get towards the end, blurring the line a bit, we do use documents and written works as objects. In the case of the Royal Tour of the Snowy Scheme in 1963, a Snowy engineer by the name of Keith Montague had the task of planning that whole tour. He went to it with gusto and created a wonderful two-volume manual. It goes down to the very last detail with the plan of Island Bend showing which roads were going to be open, at what time they’d open and what time they’d close. There’s another page of it showing which house the Queen and the Duke were staying in, and even which bedroom of that house they were going to stay in.

That shows us, again, how the SMA operated. They didn’t leave anything to chance. They planned everything right down to the last detail. I mean, they were engineers after all who were very much at home with detail.

And finally - this is my Andy Muirhead moment with the mystery object - if you can guess what it is then you’re just as much a reprobate as I am, because it’s actually a beer tray, a middy tray. This highlights how at the end of the day after people had been hefting jackhammers, etc, they did like a beer, especially at the Cabramurra wet canteen, which is where this comes from.

Just to conclude, we know very little about the past. We have very little of the past through which we can tell that story. Documentary evidence, oral evidence and material evidence like this, they all have their stories to tell us, and we just need to be open to all of them. In some cases most of the story might come from oral records or from written, but in some cases the objects themselves have a lot to tell us. Thank you.

QUESTION: By Paula Hamilton. Thanks very much for that, Matthew. I wanted to raise an issue in relation to another story you could tell about the Snowy Mountains Scheme, which is actually a story - I know I’m sounding like a 1970s historian - about Australian masculinity in the modern. In other words, the previous speaker personalised the object, but you used the word ‘people’ all the time. In fact, you were talking about men.


QUESTION: And often a very exclusive male community. Can you comment on that, because it raises the whole issue about what’s national significance and for whom?

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Yes, sure. Big construction jobs like this at that time were overwhelmingly male, certainly. The only women who were found around these sites were either nurses, some clerical staff or prostitutes. And that goes the same with big construction jobs of the dams in Canberra’s hinterland, just as much on the Snowy. So it is very much a male dominated workplace, and that’s the nature of the beast at that time.

One of the interesting stories that you could tell in this is how you do see women on construction jobs today. When I walk through Canberra and I see them in the fluoro vests, I think, ‘good on you’ and wonder ‘how do you get on in this previously male dominated society?’

QUESTION: I think you misunderstood me. I’m not actually making an argument for picking out the women -

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Well, you couldn’t do that because you would sway it the wrong way.

QUESTION: I’m making an argument that you could do a very interesting study - and indeed it is a way in which historians can feed back into the material - simply of men; simply of a male workplace and a male labour process. That’s all.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Yes, thank you. That’s great. The fact that it is beer, you know, the fact that beer was a drink of choice is all part of it.

QUESTION: Yes, exactly. It would be really interesting.

QUESTION: By Margaret Anderson. Matthew, thank you for that. Just a quick question and maybe it does pertain to what Paula was just saying. I remember hearing some wonderful songs from the Snowy which were recorded by what we would now call a multicultural group singing. I’m sure you’ve probably got them in the collection. I thought one of that group was a woman, but maybe I’m not remembering correctly. But the real question was: I remember those songs as being wonderfully poignant. They’re a really interesting reflection not only on multiculturalism, which they’re doing quite overtly, but also on some of the things that preoccupied those people. Do you want to comment on that?

MATTHEW HIGGINS: You may be referring to a group called The Settlers who were led by a chap called Ulick O’Boyle, an Irishman. He was a Snowy worker, as were several people in the group, and there was a woman singer in that group. I don’t think she worked on the scheme as such, but they have a famous song called Cooma Cavaliers, which is all about the different nationalities that were on the scheme. That’s a delightful insight into the scheme. As far as songs sung by migrant workers themselves, I’m less familiar with those as such, but thank you for bringing that to our attention too.

GUY HANSEN: I will have to stop it there so we can move on to our next showcase. Thank you very much, Matthew.

‘Two way flow: the Koperilya springs pipeline boomerang’ – Christine Hansen, National Museum of Australia and Centre for Indigenous History, Australian National University

GUY HANSEN: Our next speaker is Christine Hansen. Christine is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University where she’s researching Indigenous material culture in south-east New South Wales. She also works in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program at the National Museum of Australia. Christine is going to talk today about ‘Two way flow: the Koperilya Springs pipeline boomerang’.

CHRISTINE HANSEN: Thanks, Guy. I’m going to start by introducing something very familiar. I’m only going to be talking about one object, and it’s this: a boomerang. This modest artefact is one of 1617 boomerangs in the Museum’s collection, specifically from that part of the collection held in what we refer to as the ‘ethno store’, a location, indicating without much need for interpretation, the qualities of the objects held within it. So our non-discursive or direct response to this object engages with those qualities, triggering deeply ingrained cultural assumptions about its provenance and its associated and largely ahistorical meanings.

To be blunt, the boomerang is a cliché. Perhaps that’s why we have 1617 of them in the collection or perhaps the vast sea of boomerangs is the legacy of what historian Martin Thomas recently termed ‘ethnomania’, the peculiar collecting order that seemed to take hold at the turn of last century - a collecting and classificatory practice that, to a large extent, dehistoricised objects by siting them within the ‘emerging’ - at that time - ‘quasi-scientific discourse of ethnography’. Current engagement with these objects recasts them as resources for cultural renewal and celebratory narratives about reconnection and even repatriation, and they offer a counterpoint to this history. We have already heard from Fred [Myers] this morning one small example of that. That’s very much part of this Museum’s business, so that’s not news to anybody here today.

Yet, despite such alternative contemporary engagement, the collections consistently compel us back into historical narratives dominated by the biographies of early ethnographers, a sort of sideways manoeuvre that seeks to bridge the distance between the historic and the ethnographic.

To uncover more complex and entangled histories that work against those well-worn grooves and our own deep cultural assumptions, we need more than an unmediated experience of the object. And this particular boomerang affords us such an unusual opportunity because its provenance is not dominated by the fame of its collector, unusually, but the fame of its maker, who proudly inscribed his name on the surface ‘Albert’ - Albert Namatjira, that is, still arguably Australia’s most celebrated Aboriginal artist. Suddenly we’re in the biography of a famous Australian, and the object takes its place not so much within ethnography but within the history of Australian art.

This boomerang is one of his earliest works made in 1935, when he was producing tourist art along with the other residents of the Hermannsburg Mission. The production of tourist art began in the early 1930s when the mission manager at the time, the Lutheran pastor Reverend Albrecht, suggested souvenir production as a way of generating some funds for the drought-stricken settlement. The men began decorating objects with pokerwork, using heated fencing wire to inscribe designs, and selling the objects at the mission shop.

Albert immediately took to this technique, displaying a natural ability and an innate sense of design. And a lot of flare, which was, you know, immediately recognised by the people buying the objects. This early souvenir trade engaged deeply with emerging ideas about ethnography, and indeed the first pokerwork curios were decorated with ceremonial motifs that had previously been used on extremely secret/sacred objects, such as tjuringa, a reference echoed in the shape of the plaques as well.

Philip Jones in his recent book Ochre and Rust proposes that the Hermannsburg tourist art industry was not an entirely benign cultural undertaking. As well as developing economic opportunities, it also provided a conduit for the evangelical agenda of the mission managers. He contends that the de-sacralising of these designs was a conscious ploy in the dismantling of Arrente religion.

But while the shape of the boomerang might lead back into historical narratives that surround Aboriginal material culture more generally, the pokerwork design on the front of this one leads somewhere else altogether, all the way to Melbourne, in fact. Because this boomerang is a commemorative souvenir made in 1935 to celebrate the installation of an eight-kilometre water supply pipeline from Koperilya Springs to the Hermannsburg Mission, an immensely important, although not uncontested event that secured the survival of the drought-devastated mission. It leads back to Melbourne because the funds for the pipeline were raised as the result of a huge public campaign organised by two Melburnians, the internationally renowned portrait painter Violet Teague and her ethnomaniac sister, Una. In 1933 the Teague sisters undertook an eight-week camping trip from Frankston to Hermannsburg in a rented Studebaker, following the Shell supply route, the track which, as the name suggests, included sites at which petrol was available.

Arriving in Hermannsburg, the sisters took a camel trek out from the mission - Violet making watercolour sketches to record her impressions, while Una collected artefacts, no doubt including some boomerangs. Their volunteer guide was a young Albert, already the most successful of the pokerwork artists practising at the mission. While art historians have recognised the influence of Rex Batterbee on Albert Namatjira’s work, the contact he had with Violet is less well known. It was through her diaries that he was first exposed to watercolour, and she may well have constituted the primary influence which set Albert on his path as a painter. They evidently became firm friends during this time, demonstrated by Albert naming one of his daughters after her.

Throughout their eight-week sojourn, the sisters were exposed to the dreadful effects of drought. Malnutrition was biting into the Aboriginal population, and the lack of a fresh water supply threatened the future of the settlement. Albert’s own family were suffering the effects of the drought, with his children stricken by serious diseases. Violet and Una returned to Melbourne determined to raise the funds needed to build the water pipeline connecting the local springs, Koperilya, to the mission, and within a few weeks had begun their campaign.

The Argus newspaper quickly came on board, as did 50 of Violet’s artist friends, and an art exhibition in Melbourne’s Athenaeum was held in early 1934. Over 100 works by artists such as Hans Heysen, Arthur Boyd and Rex Batterbee made it a huge success and more than £1800 was raised. The pipeline was built.

The enthusiasm with which the artists assisted the cause hints at the political milieu in which the sisters were operating. Violet was well known in intellectual circles in Melbourne, and her influence extended into diverse sections of urban society. Even the famously conservative Arthur Streeton, who at that time was the art critic for the Argus, joined the campaign, articulating an astonishing understanding of the issues when he wrote in his column:

The success of the effort of Miss Violet Teague with the exhibition of art at the Athenaeum and all the friends assisting her in the endeavour to provide water for the Aborigines at the Hermannsburg Mission, Central Australia, has led others to follow her example. All honour to Miss Teague for her sympathetic determination! The Aborigines, hungry and thirsty, have no vote with which to press a claim to necessities.

And with that we perhaps come to the central narrative that this object holds: the story of civil rights. Streeton’s observation that ‘the Aborigines have no vote with which to press a claim’ suddenly resites the boomerang within the history of a disenfranchised and colonised people. It contextualises the acquisitive interest of the ethnographers, which reverberates still through our own ethno store. It frames the evangelical work of the missionaries and, most poignantly, it predicts the last phase of Namatjira’s life, who died broke and broken-hearted but, as a reward for his trail-blazing brilliance, a citizen who could vote.

Daniel Thomas, a former director of the South Australian Art Gallery, believes that this boomerang is Namatjira’s most important work. Executed prior to his training with Rex Batterbee, it clearly demonstrates his innate talent and supports Batterbee’s insistence that Namatjira was already a mature artist who needed only to develop skills demanded by a new medium to be fully realised. It also records the longstanding interest of urban intellectuals in conditions in remote Aboriginal communities and situates contemporary concerns within that history.

This simple boomerang then demonstrates the capacity of objects to hold disparate and often surprising histories in the one place, moving in multiple directions simultaneously while materially remaining itself. This clichéd ethno artefact, harbinger of a great talent, tribute to the efforts of a friend, quiet statement on civil rights, historic link between the desert and the city, and now a museum object, remains available for us to unravel as a source, serving as an endless starting point for producing complex, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural history.

QUESTION by Mike Smith. Christine, it’s an unusual shape for a central Australian boomerang; it’s not your sort of normal hunting boomerang shape. What was Albert making? What did he think he was making? What was inspiring this form?

CHRISTINE HANSEN: I don’t know. Nobody recorded Albert’s thoughts on his boomerangs, unfortunately, and his tourist art was ignored for a very long time. But, fortunately, we now have a really good collection of it here. I imagine that he was producing them for the tourist industry - he was selling these in the Hermannsburg Mission shop. Probably there was something about the ease of making that shape - I don’t know.

QUESTION: So it may have been coming out of mission workshops and may have even been inspired by a European model?

CHRISTINE HANSEN: Absolutely, it could well have been. Albrecht brought back some tourist art from Adelaide when he went on a holiday as an example of what men at the mission might be able to do. So perhaps they were copying that - I don’t know.

QUESTION: by Philip Jones. A possible answer to that is that he had by that time been down to Oodnadatta with an Afghan cameleer, and it’s very similar to Oodnadatta boomerangs. The interesting thing is that I think he would have seen this symmetry in this particular boomerang - it is very balanced - as being a perfect vehicle for the exploration of the symmetry which you can actually see there. There are factors combining which could be reinforced if you looked at his sketchbook of this period and also detected the same symmetry.

CHRISTINE HANSEN: Daniel Thomas talks about the men’s arms as echoing the ceremonial design on the plaque that you saw earlier, as signifying people.

GUY HANSEN: Thank you very much, Christine. I know we’re clipping along at a great rate here, but this is just to give a sense of the great array of research that is going on.

‘Digging up history using Hmong agricultural tools’ – Alison Mercieca, National Museum of Australia

GUY HANSEN: Our next speaker is Alison Mercieca. Alison studied archaeology and history at the Australian National University and she’s worked at the National Museum of Australia since 2005. Today she’s going to talk about digging up history using Hmong agricultural tools.

ALISON MERCIECA: Thank you, Guy. Just before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the work that my colleague Jennifer Wilson has done on this collection as well. Today I’ll be discussing the potential of Hmong agricultural tools to provide evidence of work practices as well as insights into the connections of Hmong people in Australia to their history, family and place.

These tools reveal cultural continuities and changes brought on by the migration experience. The Hmong are an internationally dispersed ethnic community without a common homeland or country of their own. Since 1975, hundreds of thousands of Hmong people have fled the political and economic fallouts of the Indo-Chinese and Laos civil wars. These people eventually re-settled elsewhere, predominantly in the United States but also in countries such as France and Australia.

Studies of Hmong diaspora have focused on issues such as constructions of Hmong identity or identities, the impact of the global migration on identity, and how Hmong people have adapted to the social and economic circumstances they’ve encountered. These studies have rarely used everyday items to explore these issues, such as the tools I will be talking about today.

Hmong identity is connected to their history as agriculturalists and this sense of being farmers is represented in the needlework created by the Hmong people. For example, a story cloth, held in the National Museum’s collection, depicts the flight of Hmong people from Laos into refugee camps in Thailand. In it the Hmong are depicted as peaceful agriculturalists whose way of life is disrupted by war. Their images of agricultural activities include images of the tools used. However, despite the importance of agriculture in Hmong society, their agricultural tools have barely been studied.

What can the tools tell us about daily work practices and what can they contribute to an understanding of the Hmong diaspora and cultural change? To answer this, I will be using the National Museum of Australia’s Chai Vang and Por Ye collection, which contains:

  • a dibble or digging stick made in Tasmania by Chai Vang and based on dibbles that he used in Asia
  • two knives, both made in Thailand by Chai’s father - one knife came to Australia with Chai and his family, and the other, a brush knife, was sent to Chai at a later date from his father
  • a small hoe head also made by Chai’s father and sent to Australia
  • a crossbow with arrows made by Chai in Tasmania.

An examination of the tools themselves tells a story of their manufacture. For instance, a study of the hoe reveals that it is handmade rather than machine manufactured, and was hammered into shape rather than cast. It is very hard to see, but if you get up nice and close you can see some of the faceting which has been recorded on the metal surface of this tool.

The Hmong do not smelt their own metals. Instead they recycle material, anything from railway tracks to bicycle frames. You can see that this tool is well used and not functional any more. I have no doubt that they would have recycled such tools as this as well, to make new ones. Perhaps metal samples could even help identify the source of the metal.

Technological studies on the objects themselves reveal new data. For example, the tools can illustrate cultural adjustments the Hmong had to make upon arrival in Australia. The knife shape is characteristic of Hmong knives. It was used in Tasmania for a variety of household and farming activities, including the manufacture of the dibble in the Museum’s collection.

You can see the damage to the blade on one slide. Just after arriving in Australia the Vang family tried to cut a frozen chicken - I suppose an unfamiliar resource - using this knife. Although this is a small illustration of the many economic and technological adjustments that they made, this kind of adjustment is not recorded in any other material. So we have the evidence of that particular story through this object.

Such tools also reflect the migration experience of Hmong in Australia, and to explain this further I need to introduce you to the donors of the collection: Chai Vang and Por Ye, husband and wife. Chai Vang and Por Ye are from Xieng Khouang province in Laos. They operated a moderately successful farm during the 1970s growing opium poppy. It was one of the most profitable cash crops at the time. They also grew bananas and rice.

In 1989 they fled Laos making their way to Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand before moving to Chang Kham refugee camp. They describe life in the refugee camps as hard. In 1991 the Vangs migrated to Hobart where Por Ye’s parents lived. This chain migration was common practice within Hobart’s Hmong community. Chai Vang initially worked as a welder in Hobart, employing his metalworking skills. Many Hmong men have metalworking skills. In 2000, he and Por Ye began market gardening, selling their produce at Salamanca Markets in Hobart alongside other members of the Hmong community.

The agricultural tools Chai Vang and Por Ye use in Hobart not only tell us about farm practices, but also provide insights into the cultural continuities and changes brought on by the migration experience. The tools represent part of a process by which people retained a notional linkage to places in their homeland and to the identities they held before migrating, specifically providing connections with family and history. For instance, they prefer Hmong tools over those commercially available in Australia. Chai brought the knife with him to Australia and has subsequently ordered other tools, such as the hoe and the brush knife, from his father who was still living in Asia.

When new Hmong tools cannot be obtained, Chai has modified tools purchased in Australia to more closely resemble the size and shape of Hmong tools. The tools, a familiar technology, have been deployed in the new agricultural setting. For example, the dibble was used to plant rice in Laos, but the Vangs now use it to plants leeks in Hobart. The diameter of the dibble at 30 millimetres is ideal for this purpose.

Furthermore, the Vangs have also shown a desire to pass on family traditions or practices, as demonstrated by the crossbow and arrows in the collection. These were made in Tasmania by Chai Vang as a way of teaching his children skills taught to him by his father. It was used to kill rodents in his market gardens and to show his children how to hunt, just as Chai’s father had done in Laos and in Thailand. In addition, all children living at home help out in the garden, as was practiced in Laos.

Each of the tools mentioned today provide links between Chai Vang and Por Ye’s work as agriculturalists in Laos, Thailand and Tasmania. They provide a constant in changing places and circumstances. Although the climate, crops, soil, topography and scale of production differ, the transferability of Chai Vang and Por Ye’s agricultural skills is apparent. In adapting to the new conditions in Hobart they have maintained, as well as adapted, old and familiar technologies and practices. These agricultural tools illustrate and give us new insights into the Hmong international diaspora. They are an under-used resource of information - well, I think so anyway. Thank you.

GUY HANSEN: We now have about 15 minutes for questions. I would like to invite Alison and the other speakers to come up here and we can open up for some more questions.

I have a question, Alison. Because you were taking objects which were in use, was there an agreement to subsidise the replacement of the tools?

ALISON MERCIECA: Most of these objects were no longer in use. The knife and the hoe were no longer in use. The hoe doesn’t look like it was very useful any more. When I first met them - I’ve only met them once - we did offer to assist in subsidising the replacement of the tools. The dibble was made by Chai from a hardwood sapling, Tasmanian wood, and I don’t think they took us up on that offer so - no.

QUESTION: Alison, thank you for that. That was terrific. I have a question which is not so much about those implements as about other things. It’s the cultural continuities that are really interesting there. I was fascinated by that range of photographs which showed the number of children growing with each one. Are there other things that change after people arrive in Australia? In particular, does she go on having children at that sort of rate?

ALISON MERCIECA: No, I don’t think they had any more children once they arrived. Other similar things are - in Laos, for example - the technique of farming used is slash and burn farming, so they’re moving every couple of years to new grounds. Whether or not it’s coincidence in Hobart they don’t actually own the land that they farm, they lease it, and every couple of years since 2000 they have moved on. That could just be coincidence, but this is a work in progress. I’ve only met them once and Jen met them once. I think they’ve got a really fascinating story which has difficult elements to it. We haven’t really got so much into their personal story because I think it could be quite difficult. In Laos, for example, Chai also was a soldier, which many Hmong people were - presumably fighting the resistance but, again, as I say, we haven’t quite got to that yet. Does that answer your question?

QUESTION: by Peter Stanley. It seems that one of the things that’s hovering over us here is a sort of a holy grail that we can find a collection or a group of objects that will tell us what we want to know and we won’t have to use other sources. But with all of the examples we’ve had [in this showcase session] and we have had four very interesting sets of objects, they’ve all brought in other sources - documentary, photographic, oral, and archival and all sorts of things.

Can I ask not just the panel but pose the question generally: Is it an unrealisable dream to find objects that will speak to us directly without the use of other sources? Are we being unrealistic or idealistic unduly in posing that aspiration? I think Margaret used the word ‘evangelical fervour’ at one point, are we being too evangelical and too pure or should we just accept, as our four panelists have, that we can learn an awful lot about people by looking at their objects in association with other sources?

ALISON MERCIECA: I think if we have other sources we should probably use them. But in prehistory, for example - I guess Mike Smith might agree with this - you have environmental histories and things like that but you don’t have the written history and you often don’t have the pictorial history if you go back far enough.

CHRISTINE HANSEN: Can I have a bit of a go at that one too. One of the points that I was trying to make with the boomerang is that there’s all sorts of ahistorical associations with that shape. So to have just an unmediated experience of the object doesn’t actually give its whole value.

QUESTION: by Mike Smith. All of the papers have been really nice examples of moving between those different levels of work - the histories around objects and the sort of objects that elicit or identify areas of history that perhaps have been under-developed and so forth. But I think we’d have a different view of how successfully we can or can’t work with objects as primary sources if we started with the questions and then looked for the sort of objects and samples of objects we needed to address those questions. I am not saying we can necessarily do this as museum curators, because by and large we respond to the objects that come into the museum, we research them and we document them. But if we started with the questions that might be about class or ethnicity and then try to test them using the material evidence, it might be quite a different sort of picture we get.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Just going back to Peter, I don’t know how you can understand an object unless you have that contextual understanding of the period and the process, etc, and that has to come from those other sources. Obviously some objects will speak more loudly than others, but I think you have to understand that context first.

QUESTION: Sam Small from the National Portrait Gallery, and I guess that puts me in the position of working around art objects. I’ve enjoyed this morning there not being a major distinction being made between art objects and everyday objects. I guess the art world has had centuries of wanting that object to try to speak for itself in that kind of grail that I think Peter Stanley was talking about. I think artists always like to believe their objects can stand alone. But, in referring back to that technology are we not in an environment or climate where we are being encouraged to look to as many sources as possible for those voices? It would seem a redundant idea to perhaps be searching for the single thing that could do that. I wonder whether the panel might like to address the question of art objects and that idea of originality in a single object and perhaps the everyday object that goes into the collections, perhaps museum collections which we’ve been more focused on. Thank you.

SUSANNAH HELMAN: I think there are very few objects, even art objects, that have no context. I love going to art galleries and looking at pieces of art without any sort of context or contextual information. I think there are very few objects, even things without documentary sources attached to them, which you could say have no context at all.

QUESTION: by Fred Myers. I’m just responding. There’s a kind of theme of either/or with context and not context and that may exist in certain extreme cases, but I think the materiality of objects with or without context has a degree - there is a degree of independence. Certainly it’s clear in artwork there are things that are explored that are discernible from comparison and from looking at them that suggest properties and significances that are not necessarily verbally or documentarily sustained. The value of objects doesn’t depend upon their utter freedom from context altogether, because I think in most cases those are relative dimensions.

CHRISTINE HANSEN: I was actually going to ask one of the ATSIP [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program] curators to speak to that point because the conversation about what is an art object and what’s historical text happens a lot in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program when we try to acquisition painted things, objects on canvas, which we don’t like to call ‘paintings’. It’s a conversation we have so often, so I just wondered if somebody might like to comment on that.

QUESTION: by Kirsten Wehner. This is a bit of a tangential point following on from you, Christine: I would like to reply to Peter’s question by saying that actually images, texts and other objects are all objects; they are just objects of different kinds. I actually think one of the things that historians have come more to think about is how written texts, for example, are not just simply words that exist as an abstract record of the past, they are, like tea cups, also physical things that, by their very qualities, can tell us not only about the information contained within the words but equally through their own qualities themselves constitute evidence of the past.

For me it is not necessarily a very productive thing to counterpoint texts and three-dimensional objects, or images and texts, or images and objects, but rather to understand that each of them carry different kinds of information and create contexts for each other. Just as all the papers drew on images, on writings and on memories to create context for the objects, similarly I would say looking at the objects themselves help us understand the material world in which people chose to write down certain things about their experience.

QUESTION: by Graeme Davison. I want to agree because I think that the distinction between texts and objects is in many ways an artificial one. It is true that a text from the vantage point of an historian for most purposes can be taken free of the object in which it originally resided. So I don’t actually have to see the manuscript of Rousseau to be able to read the social contract for most purposes. But that’s not the same for many museum objects, particularly those that are used, say, by archaeologists where the physical properties are absolutely critical to the evidence.

Now, because we are entering into a digital age, texts are now acquiring a quality and an aura as objects that they didn’t previously have - witness, for example, the numbers of people who went along to the Treasures exhibition at the National Library and who have just been going to the Medieval Imagination exhibition in Melbourne. That is because we now venerate those texts as objects perhaps in a way that we didn’t before. What I think is critical to this is not so much the qualities of texts or their contexts, or objects and their contexts; it’s the kind of narratives that we want to write around them. And in some cases the narrative begins with the object and moves out and comes back to the object. In the last resort it begins and ends with the object. In other instances the objects only enter as one component into a story that has a totally different context.

In the case of objects, one of the things that was a critical move in two of the stories I have heard this morning - one was about Captain Cook’s teacup and one was the lovely story about Albert Namatjira’s boomerang - and if we were to take those objects independently of provenance they wouldn’t mean much at all. The critical moment is when we learn that that particular tea cup was Captain Cook’s tea cup and when we learn that that particular boomerang was made by Albert Namatjira. So it’s the association, and out there in the larger world that’s absolutely critical. They absolutely want to know that this is not somebody else’s tea cup, even though it is indistinguishable from the tea cup that might have been used by other people; they absolutely want to know that that’s the one that Captain Cook put his hand on.

And that brings us back to the question that I think Fred was touching on, this very delicate issue of the relationship between history and memory, the fact that objects have a kind of invisible aura - or seem to have that aura - that was imparted by the people who made them or used them. If we lose that magic we’ve lost something absolutely central to the significance of objects, it seems to me.

QUESTION: by Peter Stanley. If I could respond very briefly to what Graeme has just said. I will probably get sacked for this, but the Captain Cook tea cup to me doesn’t have any magic at all. It’s a kind of voodoo we ascribe to these things. Whereas the Namatjira boomerang, to me the iconography on the boomerang, what he did, helps you to understand not just the historical setting but helps you to understand Namatjira’s gift, and that, to me, seems immensely more important than the ‘Captain Cook drank here’ of the tea cup. There is a kind of a voodoo about ascribing value to an object because of its association with a famous person. I think the two examples are really telling, but they tell you completely different things. I’d like to see a bit less voodoo and a bit more critical thought.

QUESTION: by Graeme Davison. Well I’m with you. Twenty years ago I was with you.

QUESTION: by Peter Stanley. Does that mean you have moved on or I haven’t? I don’t know.

QUESTION: I just have a question on a completely different track. While there has been a lot of discussion about narratives in museums, it seems increasingly museums are about creating experiences, particularly experiences that are based on sensory reactions more than passive learning, for example. If that’s the way museums are going where it’s more about experiences, surely that changes the way objects are going to be interpreted. Maybe someone on the panel can comment on this: is there the risk that, in that kind of experience, objects purely become props or is it a way that we have to start reinterpreting objects?

MATTHEW HIGGINS: I think the narrative is always going to be there. I mean, our role here is to tell the stories of Australia and ‘story’ implies I think narrative as well as experience. If you look at the new Circa presentation here, for example, I think that’s a combination of both in that it’s story and it’s experience. Even though there are only images of objects in there, it does use those objects to tell those narratives. We must always safeguard the object from becoming simply a prop, and I think that so long as we are mindful of the individual stories that those objects can tell that won’t happen. So long as we respect the object as a source of evidence along with the other sources we use, I hope that that wouldn’t happen.

GUY HANSEN: Coming back to Captain Cook’s tea cup momentarily I feel there is an issue of what might be called ‘reliquary’, which is association with famous historical personages can generate an interest of just a piece of the true cross, and I think that is perhaps not necessarily something that we want to do as curators. Although it’s undoubtedly powerful for our audience, whether we want to use that or, if we are using that as a technique in our histories, we need to be aware of what we are doing, how we are doing it and for what purposes.

QUESTION: by Paula Hamilton. I want to make a quick response to the person who asked a question about sensory experience. I will actually be talking about the senses this afternoon. But it seems to me that you’ve made a really important point about the shift from conceptual to perceptual interpretations of objects. To take the Snowy Mountains objects again, if we’d looked at that in terms of the notion of the senses and talked about how people experienced working with the jackhammers, the sound of them and the feeling of trying to work in this incredibly difficult environment, then you would have added another dimension to the notion of what these objects can tell you. That’s all. That’s the point I think that was being made.

ALISON MERCIECA: Also when I was talking about the tools, describing the surface of the metal and that sort of thing and then feeding that into something like manufacturing processes or systems, I think that avoids the concern of turning an object into a prop.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: And also just going back to the practicalities of that, we do use sound here quite a bit. One of the problems we’ve had is what we call ‘sound spill’, trying to contain the sound so that it doesn’t intrude into other areas. It’s really hard to do that in a museum. As you walk around you’ll see those clear plastic domes and they work to a certain degree, but I think we’re still trying to get on top of that very issue. Because if you can appeal to more than one sense it’s great to give people that experience that the objects extend from, but doing it successfully is still a challenge.

QUESTION: by Margaret Anderson. I just feel as if I should defend Captain Cook’s cup and saucer. Having dumped so comprehensively on ceramics this morning I’m feeling a little guilty. It occurred to me, and I was having a chat with Paula over tea, that the most interesting thing about that cup and saucer for me was the notion that if in fact they’re legitimate, which I’m assuming you’ve worked out in a connoisseurship context, it’s interesting that he took an item with him that we would almost consider, if we just looked at it, to be feminised. I don’t know whether the implication is that he took them on the journeys or not - nobody said that, so perhaps he did, perhaps he didn’t - but if he did, that he chose to take an item like that with him on those journeys I think is really interesting. But it does, it seems to me, devolve around the notion of whether it really is ceramic from the period. And when I looked at it, I had a question mark in my mind about that. I’m assuming that you have sorted out all of the connoisseurship out on the cup and saucer.

GUY HANSEN: In answer to your questions, we have no evidence at all to suggest that he took it with him on voyages. Of course, if he took it on voyages, it would be an incredibly fascinating object. But as far as we know he didn’t. There’s no evidence at all to suggest that he did. We think it was in the domestic setting, and it was actually most probably more used by his wife. That’s why in my paper I said that it’s evidence of conspicuous consumption, of the importance of tea, and of manufacturing of porcelain. But it’s sort of like, ‘Gosh, we’ve got something of Cook’s’ becomes extremely exciting, but we have to pull back for a moment and think about what story are we trying to tell. I think you can use it to humanise Cook. I think you can use it to talk about the emerging middle class in England and a whole range of interesting issues in terms of what an officer might aspire to and things like that. But I think you have to work out which story you are telling and what evidence you are using to tell that story.

QUESTION: by Laina Hall from the Museum. This sort of links back into Graeme’s point about telling a story: these objects go on display and when they’re on display they have relationship with objects around them and with objects in the Museum that might not necessarily be linked to that particular story. I was just wondering if you could comment on how the museum environment impacts on objects telling stories. Sorry, that’s a tricky one.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Just for me, one of the real emotional experiences that I’ve had since coming to the National Museum was going out to our repository at Mitchell and seeing all those objects in storage, and how sad that seemed. I know they have to be stored really well, and we do a fantastic job of doing that. Conserving those objects is a national responsibility for us. But to see them really divorced from any context on the one hand and then comparing that with seeing them here in the Museum where they are interpreted and placed with other objects, both of similar kind in a particular module or in contrast with others further along that gallery floor, it’s just so different seeing them where they are totally divorced on the one hand and then given some interpretation on the other. I guess in exhibition planning we’re mindful of the relationships between objects and how we make the importance of that object available to the public through text or through sound, as we mentioned earlier.

QUESTION: by Mat Trinca. Following on from a number of comments this morning but particularly from Graeme’s comments: I wonder if really the subject that we are trying to examine here is not so much what objects can do for history but whether history can do very much for objects in the sense that the objects are a way into the material world and the material conditions of human experience and that the Museum’s mission may use history in exploring object-hood and the material world rather than thinking instrumentally about it the other way. Comments from the panel, please.

GUY HANSEN: That might be a good question to think about over lunch. I have just noticed we have actually run slightly over time. We might go to lunch now which is over in The Hall.

Date published: 1 September 2008