Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

History Revisited - local activism and the spread of the museum movement

My last few columns traced the story of Armidale’s first museum, indeed the first municipally operated museum in NSW and one of the first if not the first in Australia.

At a local level, the story is one of a struggle to establish cultural, technical and educational infrastructure in what was, in population terms if not influence, still a very small city.

It pays us now to remember that the things we take for granted in Armidale, the things that contribute to the city’s special ambience, to its life style and reach, did not just happen. They exist because of the work, the hard graft, of people who often failed and, in many cases, did not live to see the results of their work.

Take those who in 1890 began the push to establish an Armidale museum. In the end, it was just too hard.

I wonder how they would feel if brought back to be shown what we have now, if told that they were the stuttering start of a movement that would, finally, add substantially to the city’s architecture, infrastructure and culture? I think that they might be rather proud.

The Armidale museum was not just a local initiative, it was part of regional, national and indeed international processes.

The initial push for the museum came at a time of growing interest in their own still short histories in the various Australian colonies. The form the proposals took reflected local interests, but were strongly influenced by the growing interest in technical education in Australia and elsewhere.

The opening of the museum by David Drummond in 1933 followed a period of sustained agitation seeking self government for the North that had fuelled interest in local and regional identity.

Down in the Clarence, Sir Earle Page had proposed in 1931 that a historical records museum should be established. The result was the Clarence River Historical Society. In 1935 the society affiliated with the Royal Australian Historical Society, the first country historical society to do so.

Further north, the Richmond River Historical Society was founded in 1936. By 1938, it was publishing its own journal.

The form the museum discussions took in the 1950s reflected the folk movement. In the late nineteenth century folk museums had arisen in a number of European countries. They were part romantic, the arts and craft movement was another manifestation, but were also political and nationalistic. They sought to present and preserve the traditions of the people in museum recreations.

By the 1950s, an almost nostalgic desire to preserve the life and history of ordinary folk predominated. This made the idea of folk museums especially attractive at local level. One result was the spread of local museums across Northern NSW.

In my next column, I will tell you a little of the story of Eric Dunlop, a man who would have considerable influence on the museum movement in the North.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 March 2016. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016.

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