Vale Alan Seymour

What incredible timing. Just a month short of the centenary of the Anzac landing, playwright Alan Seymour, who gave us ‘The One Day of the Year’, has died.

Of all the plays I studied in high school, that one, which I read aged 14, was the most memorable. My grandfather, a World War II naval serviceman, never missed an Anzac Day service, but I remember having to attend them, as a Girl Guide, and wondering what they were all about. When I was 14, Anzac Day services were venues for protests, attended by peace activists, Women Against Rape in War and the tragic figures of Vietnam vets, excluded from marching by the RSL on the basis they had been conscripts, not volunteers. I could understand the anger and bitterness in Seymour’s play, but I knew how much it all meant to my grandfather, so felt the pain such protests caused, even as I sympathised with the protestors. It was a confusing time, of wondering what on earth we were commemorating on that particular day.

These days, Anzac Day is, as it has always been, a time of sombre reflection. The protests seem to have fallen away, as new generations rise to march alongside, or in place of, increasingly ageing relatives. Anzac Day marches are multicultural too, and include all forms of service. They really have changed from the all-white, all-male, Australian and British services of Seymour’s time, and things are tipping a little too close to celebration for me. Seymour’s play, which I believe is touring again this year, is a good reminder of how much Anzac Days have changed, and that we still need to question the story of Anzac, and the meaning and cost of military service.

The meaning of an apology

On Saturday I am going to be part of a panel discussion at the National Archives of Australia, in Canberra, about the meaning of an apology.

The forum will be chaired by Professor Nahum Mushin, who will lead former Senator Sue Boyce, Professor Mick Dodson, my Find & Connect colleague Dr Cate O’Neill, Dr Trevor Jordon and myself in a discussion about the notion of an apology, and how and why people respond in different ways. I’ll be talking about the Find & Connect web resource, about my PhD studies, which were conducted before the 2008 apology to the stolen generations or the 2009 apology to Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants. I wrote about the 2009 apology, for New Matilda, long before I knew I would end up working as a state-based historian on the Find & Connect web resource, and long before the final part of the trilogy, Julia Gillard’s apology to those affected by Forced Adoptions. I’ll also have something to say about the responses of people, and those directly affected.

The event is associated with a new exhibition, Without Consent: Australia’s past adoption practices, which opens on Friday 20 March at the Archives. The event is at 2pm, but seems to be booked out. Apparently there’ll be podcasts of it on the website, which is somehow even more nerve-wracking. Still, I’m looking forward to it, and especially to catching up with my mate Cate. It’s like getting the band back together! Except we are digital history and data nerds, not musos …

Barack Obama and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma

Nick O’Malley reports in The Sydney Morning Herald today that Barack Obama has visited Selma. I recommend the article, which neatly outlines the contemporary context of racial oppression and violence in America, and points to the power of the symbolism of a presidential cavalcade crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

I’m extremely keen to see the movie Selma, because the stories of the horrors that were perpetrated there have been stuck in my mind, for a long time. It’s a place of incredible stories of suffering and courage – fire bombs and lynchings, preaching and marches, Klansmen and civil rights activists. In 1999, on a road trip through the Deep South, my then boyfriend and I went to Selma. He’d picked the route – I knew almost nothing of this story – but I learned a lot on that particular leg of the journey.

Selma was a pretty, low-rise river town, in that empty way of so many southern towns. My clearest memory, aside from memorials to the violence of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights struggles, was of signs for bail bondsmen/bounty hunters. We crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, thinking of the murders and beatings, and entered the Freedom Trail, heading to Montgomery. The road is lined with signs of bravery and protest but it’s edged with fear. At a service station on the Trail an old African-American woman on a walking frame left her place at the counter as I walked in, and refused to be served before me. I was upset, but could see from the faces of everyone in the shop (all black) that this was what was expected in this part of Alabama – whites were served first, no matter what, even on the Freedom Trail. I apologised, sounding as broadly Australian as I could, and fled.

When we arrived in Montgomery, the sterile state seat, with its Confederate White House standing proud next to the official government house, we looked in vain for the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s Martin Luther King Memorial. Caught cooling our feet in a hotel fountain, we asked the white security guard who came to move us on where the memorial was. He said “I haven’t seen it, but if you go down that aways, there’s the Hank Williams memorial and that’s real purty.” Later that night, getting fuel and beer, the African-American service station attendant told us, from behind his shot up security screen, that we had better not hang around there. We believed him.

The next day, after my first ever bowl of grits, we went to the tourist centre and found out the Martin Luther King Memorial had been 20 metres from the hotel fountain. When we got there we ran our hands through the cool water that flows over the black marble tablet of the memorial, and thought about how brave the people of Selma and Montgomery were, and how audacious Martin Luther King was. I could not have imagined then that we might see a black president’s cavalcade on that road, but I know he must drive gently, though with determination, in a part of the country that still smells of strange fruit.

Viewing the Powerhouse from the suburbs

Screen shot 2015-03-01 at 6.23.32 PM I must admit to a sense of dismay when I read this week that the NSW Government, having announced its intention to take the Powerhouse Museum to Parramatta, is going to sell the building to developers. As well as seeming hasty – the new site at Parramatta hasn’t been picked yet – turning it into apartments strikes me as a terrible waste of an iconic site, and represents the loss of an important piece of the city’s cultural and built heritage.

I love the Powerhouse. When I was working at Eskbank House in Lithgow the Powerhouse’s Regional Services team supported me while I learned how to manage a museum, guided me through conservation issues and (literal) disaster, and took me in for two weeks as an intern to show me the ropes. I’ve since produced work for the Migration Heritage Centre, which is based there. It’s been really terrible to hear how many staff have been made redundant while this government has waged war on the public service and the state’s cultural institutions. It seems the Powerhouse has lost a disproportionate number of people (including the Regional Services team) and I know they took a huge amount of knowledge capital with them when they left.

Still, while I think it is hasty to announce a site is for sale before the occupants have a new home to go to, and I can’t help but be fearful about losing even more of the Powerhouse’s amazing knowledge bank, I’m no longer sure that it’s a bad thing for the institution to leave the CBD. The building is bursting at the seams, as is its annexe and repository at Castle Hill. The displays look outdated and it would be very hard to reconfigure them, given the limitations of the building. The process of moving and making modern and innovative displays in a new building is a huge opportunity – it will generate a rush of energy that will create work and provide new skills and jobs for all sorts of people (and maybe even myself).

Also, it would be in Western Sydney. I know it’s probably no coincidence that a Deloitte report for the Sydney Business Chamber and Liverpool, Parramatta and Penrith Councils was released this week, as debate over the Parramatta site and the Powerhouse relocation swirls – governments and their lobbyists are so often lock-step when they are softening us up for unpalatable truths – but read this:

[The report found] taxpayers spend more than four times more money on subsidising each visitor to venues in Sydney’s CBD compared with western Sydney.
Taxpayers spent an estimated $112.50 on each visitor to the Australian Museum and $74.93 for the Sydney Opera House. The subsidy for each visitor to the Riverside Theatres was $14.15 and Joan Sutherland Performance Arts Centre a mere $6.20.
The report recommends spending $300 million on cultural infrastructure in western Sydney over the next five years and a doubling of the state government arts funding in the region.
It recommends major upgrades to existing venues such as Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, establishing a new cultural facility in Liverpool and a permanent external performing arts venue.
More provocatively, the report suggests two major tertiary institutions – the Australian Film, Television & Radio School and National Arts School – should relocate to western Sydney. It also backs the already-mooted move of Powerhouse Museum from its present site in inner-city Ultimo.
Apart from two historic homes situated in western Sydney, no major state cultural institution is based in the region.

I live even further west than the western suburbs, so feel this cultural divide quite keenly. As I’ve become involved with the Parramatta Female Factory Project I’ve also been getting to know Parramatta better. It’s a great place, with a lovely CBD, just 30 minutes by train from the city centre. It is enormously rich in heritage, and deserves better than it gets in terms of arts funding. It will mean a lot, to a lot of people, to have a big institution in the geographical centre of this great city – the last I heard, that geographical centre was some ways to the west of even Parramatta, but I am sure we westies would all much rather head to Parramatta than fight our way into the CBD. While it’s upsetting that an institution with a history that stretches back to 1879 will be forced to relocate, the Powerhouse only moved to its current site in 1988 (in ‘Stage One’ of a big redevelopment). Back then the Powerhouse had a name for innovation and excitement. I think the western suburbs deserve to have a bit of that. Stage Two, head west?

This weekend some of my twitter mates have asked whether the government would consider taking an eastern suburbs hospital and relocating it west. My first response to that was to nod my head and tut … and then I remembered. In the 1980s and 1990s, Neville Wran, the same premier who opened the Powerhouse on its new site, began moving hospital services into the western suburbs. This work was continued by the Greiner Government, well into the 1990s. As a result, the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children moved from Camperdown and became Westmead Children’s Hospital, where it serves western Sydney and beyond, with distinction. We really couldn’t do without it. Hospitals like South Sydney Women’s Hospital, Crown Street Hospital and St Margaret’s Public were all rolled into other services, providing funding that was released to support hospitals and birthing units in the west. In the 1980s, if you lived in the Blue Mountains or Penrith and got cancer or suffered kidney failure you had to go to Royal North Shore, but our dogged local pollies convinced their cabinet colleagues to fund renal, cardiac and oncology units in Nepean and Liverpool. I know there is still a disparity in hospital funding but Nepean and Liverpool hospitals are no longer regional outposts. They are fully-functioning tertiary institutions that conduct research, attract talented staff, support smaller local hospitals and community health measures, and provide care that is close to home.

So, in truth, eastern suburbs hospitals were taken west, and the west, and its people, is better for it in innumerable ways. I am quite sure that moving the Powerhouse would have the same effect. Of course it would be terrible if there was no extra funding allocated for this move. We need more money overall for the arts, not a simple shift of dollars from east to west. I also hope the Ultimo site is retained – it’s a special building and would work well as a ‘Powerhouse lite’ to serve time-poor tourists and tempt the inquisitive further westward. However, I’m looking forward to being able to cut 45 minutes off every trip I take to catch some culture, by getting off the train at Parramatta.

The future of the site was discussed by Philip Thalis, a wise architect, in The Conversation on Monday 2 March. He’d like to keep a city Powerhouse too.