Step back in time and experience the energy, ambition and creativity of 1913 Australia in this fascinating exhibition.
by Michelle Hetherington, Senior Curator, Australian Society and History Program
Glorious Days: Australia 1913 is a major temporary exhibition that contributes to the Centenary of Canberra celebrations and explores what life was like in 1913. The exhibition draws upon the Museum’s own extensive collections as well as loans from Australia’s leading cultural organisations, heritage bodies and generous private lenders. Glorious Days uses objects to re-create what it was like to live in this time, and captures the colour and movement that is usually lost in the mostly black and white photographs and films that we see. The result is an exciting mix of the strangely familiar with the quaint, odd or disturbingly different. Tantalising glimpses of the future we now live in can be found, together with distant echoes of attitudes and beliefs long left behind.
The year 1913 has been described as ‘hinge-year’, a year in which people embraced the modern world of automobiles, airplanes, gramophones, car assembly lines, pocket cameras and cinema, even as attitudes and prejudices from the past persisted. It was a year in which American audiences were exposed to cubism and fauvism at The Armory show in New York for the first time, and Parisian audiences were initially outraged and then won over by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.
On the verge of cataclysmic descent into total war, a disaster so unimaginably extreme that even those who had yearned for the ‘cleansing test’ of battle would sicken at the result, the Western world experienced a huge outpouring of energy, hopefulness and creativity. And Australia, a white outpost on the edge of Asia linked by blood and loyalty to the British Empire, experienced it too. The cheers that rang out as Lady Denman announced that the name of the new Federal Capital City would be ‘Canberra’ sounded throughout 1913, as major milestones in Australia’s confident expectation of a glorious future were realised one after the other. realised one after the other.
Rather than view the year with the hindsight of subsequent historical narratives and miss the wonderful and poignant sense the nation had of apparently limitless opportunity, the exhibition keeps its gaze firmly on 1913 and the words of its journalists, major players and public figures. In keeping with the theme of modernity, the exhibition is structured around a busy roadway on which a prestigious Delaunay-Belleville tourer, a more widely affordable 1913 Model T Ford and the dependable and still popular Abbott Double Buggy take pride of place. Other favoured methods of transport vie for space with figures dressed in the fashions of the period, and visitors join the promenade around the central roadway as they move between modules in the exhibition.
Mingling with the crowds filmed at public functions in 1913, visitors enter the exhibition through a grand archway into a space festooned with bunting and flags, a ubiquitous feature of the year’s many celebratory and sporting events, to be greeted by Ethel Carrick Fox’s vibrant painting Manly – Summer Is Here. Australia gloried in a marvellous climate and the opportunities it provided for outdoor leisure activities and sport. Despite a relatively small population, Australia enjoyed great success in the international sporting arena, and our sporting prowess enhanced our national prestige. The achievements of well-known sportswomen and men such as Annette Kellerman, Fanny Durack, Mina Wiley, Victor Trumper, Dally Messenger and Snowy Baker are featured, but visitors can also marvel at the familiarity and yet utter strangeness of wooden-wheeled roller-skates, a heavy, full-skirted tennis dress, and neck-to-knee bathing costumes for both men and women.
Visitors next come to an exploration of the nation-building achievements of 1913 that, in addition to the inauguration of Canberra, include the commencement of the final section of the Trans-Australian Railway, early plans to harness and yet protect the water resources of the Murray River Basin and the Great Artesian Basin, and the printing of the Commonwealth of Australia’s first stamps and bank notes. This section reveals the ongoing tensions between Australia’s six former colonies – only recently transformed into states – and the Federal government that underlaid and sometimes delayed attempts to create the modern, cohesive nation Australia wished to be.
Nation building is followed by a section of the exhibition dedicated to Australia’s many revolutionary innovations in the areas of human rights, health and social responsibility that made it a leader of the Western world. Educational standards were improving with the creation of new co-education high schools in many states, the provision of the first Montessori classes for younger children in Sydney, and the establishment of the country’s first free university in Western Australia. But for all its revolutionary advances, Australia in 1913 enthusiastically embraced the White Australia policy and many people had negative attitudes to the rights and values of Indigenous Australians and anyone who was not of British – or, at a stretch, European – extraction.
Next the exhibition looks at the lives and cultures of Aboriginal Australians in 1913 as paternalistic policies were developed and greater information on traditional ways of life were sought. A highlight of this section is the powerful bark paintings from Arnhem Land that were commissioned by Baldwin Spencer and are held by the Museum of Victoria. These paintings prefigure the Indigenous art practices which, a century later, are celebrated with such heartfelt enthusiasm. The barks and a number of works by Jim Kite are followed by an exploration of the young nation’s contemporary art scene. The prominence and vitality of women artists so early in Australia’s national history may strike visitors as something of a revelation, given their subsequent marginalisation for so many decades afterwards, but this was a period before the artificial divide between decorative and fine arts became accepted dogma.
The section also celebrates the growing maturity of art photography in 1913. The celebrity subjects of sisters May and Mina Moore – who ran successful portraiture studios in Melbourne and Sydney – provide a who’s who of the local and visiting performers who enlivened the nation’s music, dance and theatre scenes in 1913. The songs of many of these performers can be enjoyed in this section, and recall the early years of sound-recording technologies.
Glorious Days also explores the ambitions Australia held towards both Papua New Guinea and Antarctica. Sculptures, masks, paddles and a rare drum from the Museum’s Official Papuan collection document the collections made by Hubert Murray – administrator of Australia’s Papuan territory from 1907 until 1940 – and his patrol officers, to preserve a record of pre-contact native cultures.
If taking over administration of Papua New Guinea from the British was justified at the time as Australia shouldering its national responsibilities to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives, the exploration of Antarctica offered an opportunity to extend the limits of scientific knowledge. Items from the Australasian Antarctic Expedition, which set out from Hobart in 1911 under Douglas Mawson, are on display and reveal something of the terrible conditions endured by Mawson and six of his men in 1913. After the deaths of his sledging companions Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, Mawson struggled back to Camp Denison on 8 February in time to see the Aurora steaming out of Commonwealth Bay. Mawson, and the men who volunteered to wait for him, survived another grueling Antarctic winter tenuously connected to the world by intermittent radio contact.
Towards the end of 1913, ships as eagerly awaited as the Aurora arrived to huge rejoicing. The passage of Australia’s naval fleet through Sydney Heads on 4 October was greeted as the highlight of the year: a sign not only of national maturity, but also of the capacity to fight a feared invasion from the north. Australia’s defence preparations are the subject of this section of the exhibition, and visitors will discover how the arms race in Europe and fears that Britain would not be able to defend Australia, should war come to our region, were major concerns.
The final section of the exhibition gives visitors a chance to visit the cinema. Film, as Jill Matthews writes in her essay for the Glorious Days: Australia 1913 book, was born modern, and crowds eagerly embraced the opportunity cinema provided to view distant places and international events, and engage emotionally in comedies, dramas and morally uplifting entertainments. As with film screenings in 1913, visitors will see newsreel footage followed by longer selections from popular films. These include The Sick Stockrider, based on Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem of the same name, and Quo Vardis?, an Italian film whose epic historical narrative and, for the time, spectacular special effects prefigure an approach that continues to appeal to audiences today.
Also sure to capture the modern imagination are the toys on display. Training for their future roles began early for young Australians a century ago, and toys and costume played an important part. The lead soldiers and tin toys, the board games and a 1913 doll are of the kind that our grandparents and great grandparents played with. The emphasis on having fun that was such a feature of 1913 is recaptured in the exhibition with a funfair photography booth and other activities for children to enjoy.
Achievements and ambitions that have been overshadowed for nearly a century by the outbreak of the Great War can be rediscovered in Glorious Days: Australia 1913.
Glorious Days: Australia 1913 will be on display at the Museum until 13 October.