Until September 30, UNESCO is accepting submissions from citizens to help shape Australian history.
Looking for something constructive to do? Something that challenges politicians who think that our history needs no further funding at universities, no people studying it, nobody disputing their untruths (‘there was no slavery in Australia’)? If you think the past is important and you’ve got something to add to the story of our nation, you can nominate it to be incorporated in the Australian Memory of the World. The deadline is 30 September, so you have to be quick, but everybody – individual, organisation, club – is welcome to suggest an item, a collection, or anything else you think needs preserving for eternity.
The Australian Memory of the World is part of UNESCO, the UN’s scientific, cultural and educational organisation. In 2000, it founded the Memory of the World Program, aimed at ‘honouring documentary heritage of significance’ and ‘advocating for its preservation’. Its slogan was ‘imagine a world without memories’, which, in this era of Trump, is, unfortunately, more reality than something in our mind’s eye.
Of course, that makes it even more important. Memory, especially national memory, is one of the only weapons we’ve got against the imposed amnesia of dictators. Without a working knowledge of who we were, we can’t understand who we are and are prey to manipulation by unsavoury powers-that-be.
There are the Archives of the Australian Agricultural Company, the 170,700 Dossiers of Displaced Persons who migrated to Australia between 1947 and 1953 and started our road to multiculturalism. You can find the Collection of Australian Children’s folklore, from slingshots to nursery rhymes.
Last year, eleven new ‘inscriptions’ were included in the memory bank, which now consists of 69 items. The last one is one of my favourites. It is the entire collection of botanic artists Harriet and Helena Scott, called the Lepidoptera Collection. The Scott sisters were pioneers in their field. They had been taught to draw by Conrad Martens, famous landscape painter and the resident ship’s artist on the Beagle, Darwin’s vessel. They lived in a family that valued science and art more than anything else and in the 1830s and 40s their house welcomed botanists John and Elizabeth Gould, explorer Ludwig Leichardt and Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay, who was also one of the world’s biggest collectors of butterflies and insects. Together with their father Walker, who thought the world of his daughters, Helena and Harriet published Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations in 1864.
It had been a decade or two in the making, but Sydney had never seen anything like it. With 52 plates, featuring hundreds of moths and butterflies, complete with descriptions of their life cycles and painted (an innovation) in their habitats, it was a lavish first. Especially for colonial women. Over the next few decades, the sisters became the most sought-after natural history illustrators in Sydney and beyond. They even exhibited, to great acclaim, at the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition. They were chosen to design presents for the young royal princes when they visited in 1881, even dinnerware for Wedgwood and the country’s first Christmas cards. In 1885, their entire collection was sold to the Australian Museum. A hundred life-size paintings, notebooks, manuscripts, sketches, drawings and correspondence; the only scientific archive of its kind in Australia. You can see it there, and I think it absolutely deserves its place in the Australian Memory of the World.
If you take the time to electronically leaf through the other items in the collection, you will be amazed at the breadth and interest of Australian history. It starts, of course, with the Endeavour Journal of James Cook. But number two are the manuscripts from the Mabo Case, which tells you something about the even-handed way this collection is being curated.
There are the Archives of the Australian Agricultural Company, the 170,700 Dossiers of Displaced Persons who migrated to Australia between 1947 and 1953 and started our road to multiculturalism. You can find the Collection of Australian Children’s folklore, from slingshots to nursery rhymes. The Papers of Lawrence Hargrave, our pioneer of flight, Convict Records, Drawings from Yirrkala, a 1915 documentary from Gallipoli, the only known moving image of the campaign. There are the Women’s Suffrage Petitions of 1891 and 1894, the Australian Indigenous Languages Collection, the Manifesto of the first Labour Party, Gould’s Sketchbook of Fish and the Playbill of the First Sydney Theatre in 1796, featuring ‘The wapping landlady’ and ‘The miraculous cure’. Next to Queensland South Sea Island Indentured Labourer Records (hello, Morrison!), there are also copious amounts of journals and diaries. Of the Darwin Air Raids of WWII, Interned Enemy Aliens in WWI and Australian soldiers on WWI’s front.
Another one of my favourites is number 63, the manuscript of Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians of 1894. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but if you haven’t, you should. Especially for the time, it was an extraordinary book, and still very readable. It tells the story of the seven Woolcot children, who are rebelling the regime of their military captain father and sweet, but ineffectual young stepmother. Seven little Australians was a first in many ways. The first book with a girl hero. The first work of fiction to portray real Australian life, which meant in the city, not the overly idealised and misunderstood bush. The first to be translated. It is also the only Australian book that has never been out of print.
Memory, especially national memory, is one of the only weapons we’ve got against the imposed amnesia of dictators. Without a working knowledge of who we were, we can’t understand who we are and are prey to manipulation by unsavoury powers-that-be.
So far, over 2 million copies have been sold and it was turned into a myriad of films, television-series and (radio)plays. Most interestingly, though, is the mystery of the missing chapter. In its original, Ethel Turner included a story by and about the Aboriginal stockman, Tettawonga. Unsurprisingly, it was critical of the behaviour of ‘the white man’ and after the first print run, it disappeared, only to be reinstated in 1994, the centennial of the book’s publication.
See how interesting, complicated and multi-faceted Australian history is? I’m sure you’ve got something equally fascinating to add. Do it! Here is your window!