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From the marches commemorating the historic Eight-Hour Day, to the Ban the Bomb protests of the 1950s, Australians have never been afraid to express their opinions. A unique archive at ANU holds precious records of the times ordinary Australians have come together to fight for a common cause.
Take one glimpse at the dusty papers from the desks of the great and the good that line the shelves of many an archive and you could be forgiven for thinking that history is something that happens to other people. That politicians and monarchs, generals and explorers make history and the rest of us are merely spectators.
Historians will tell you this is not the case; but the Noel Butlin Archives Centre will prove it.
When our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were outraged, when they stood up and fought for what they believed in; they left evidence as valuable as Governor Macquarie’s letters or Prime Minister Menzies’ diaries. They put up posters, handed out flyers and marched under banners — and these priceless artefacts have also been preserved at the archive.
Now these seemingly humble objects, which were present when history was being made and passed through the hands of the ordinary people making it, are available for all to see at a new exhibition.
Located in a tunnel under the ANU campus, the Centre is the sole source of The People’s Procession: Popular Australian Movements, 1880s-1950s, an exciting new exhibition at Old Parliament House, which shows Australian democracy in action.
One of the themes of the exhibition is the battle for the Eight-Hour Day, when the craft unions began to flex their muscles, and employers had no choice but to take notice.
“Skilled labour could bargain based on their skills,” says curator Peter Emmett.
“An employer couldn’t tell a stone mason, ‘I’ll get someone else’.”
Like the archives, the exhibition focuses more on every day people than political or corporate heavyweights and features materials that are powerful because of their authenticity and not necessarily because they are artistic treasures.
“Part of what Peter did, which we liked, was let the archives — these unglamorous pieces of paper — speak for themselves,” says University Archivist, Sigrid McCausland.
“He was happy about displaying things that were not in perfect condition — these were things that were printed on cheap paper and handed out at railway stations or stuck on walls.”
That is not to say that pieces on display are not beautiful. Visitors are greeted by a striking hand painted union banner as they enter the exhibition — a banner that would have been the standard under which scores of Australian workers marched when collective action was beginning to establish itself as a force to be reckoned with.
The exhibition shows the diversity of what the archives hold: everything from shearers’ tools to trade unionists’ photos, works of art to “unglamorous pieces of paper”.
“It’s an exhibition about ordinary people. A lot of people relate to it and have been able to make a personal connection,” Dr McCausland says.
Being very much an archive of the people and national resource, part of the Centre’s mission is to show the public what it has to offer. Its reading room, which is soon to be upgraded, is often a hive of scholarly activity, with local, architectural and family historians poring over its records and uncovering its secrets. This latest exhibition follows on from a number of outreach programs to mark the Centre’s 50th anniversary last year — these included an exhibition on cycling, a symposium on business archives and the creation of an online photo resource.
“While it is important that we get scholarly use out of our materials, we also want to get a broader use, which is where this exhibition has been so fantastic. We have these wonderful archives, but limited room to display them — Old Parliament House has the space, infrastructure and expertise in exhibitions, but doesn’t have collections of this kind to put on display.”
The Centre has contributed to past exhibitions at Old Parliament House and will be providing materials for a forthcoming exhibition on the Petrov Affair, but the People’s Procession is the first exhibition that has been from the Noel Butlin Archives Centre alone.