I’ve been working again on the education program about Victorian children in WWII. It’s almost done, and putting it together has been the most pleasurable project I’ve undertaken for a long time. I can sort of see I’ve made that novice error of cramming in all of the cool ideas as if there will never be another opportunity to use them, but it’s OK, because what I’m making is more like a script for performance than a finished text, and it’s a perfectly legit strategy to script in more material than can be used in any one iteration. All the verbal doubleness in Elizabethan drama does that – it’s there for readers, for actors, to fill out their sense of what’s envisaged, and then it’s up to the performers to shave away the superfluous language and gestures and embed that richness in what remains. (Not that I’m, like, seriously comparing my program design to The Merchant of Venice or anything - it’s more along the lines of The Alchemist.)
Part of what’s been good about this project has been the opportunity afforded, by the resource gathering and the blocking out, to understand a little bit more about what this place is where I work. I’ve thought about this a lot. The place is genuinely special. While it houses a great collection of very telling objects, it’s not simply a museum – or any other kind of enclosure for representations of the past – it’s also an artefact of and in itself, soaked in memory and emotion, and layer upon layer of it, often passionately contested - and something in the combination draws very unusual responses out of people who are affected by the place. (Not everyone is, that must be said.) I think the unusualness of the response has to do with the way the building presents visitors with the evidence of many others before them having been here and expressed their own feelings through ritual and reflection. The visitor who sees this can add to this accretion or not, it doesn’t seem to matter. Other people’s emotions are cathartic too. I’ve been to many challenging and confronting places but not many that challenge you while also showing you a way that you can use your emotions. In psychoanalytic terms it’s a holding space, it contains. The architects chose well when they named the main chamber the Sanctuary.
I haven’t worked in a museum before, of course, so I don’t really know anything about curatorial or collection management practices, but I think the way some of the physical objects are managed does reflect this productive slippage. Here’s a detail of a regimental colour which is displayed in an airtight museum case, with evidence of conservation work having been carried out on its beautifully worn and impossibly fragile fabric:
(Sorry it's upside down)
But the great majority of the colours kept here are not treated in this way. They’re hung from bronze rods in an underground stone chamber, and their fragility, their existence in gravity and time, is acknowledged in the way they are being allowed to decay and disintegrate. In this picture you can see how air and light is deteriorating and discolouring the cloth and braid, and how one of those banners has come apart at the seams. What matters here is the way the colour embodies whatever is left of the memory of the unimaginable collective trauma and catastrophe experienced by the Coburg and Brunswick volunteers who belonged to this battalion.
(Sorry it's sideways. Not my day with cameras)
Today I spent some time reading these two tiny diaries, the first two in a series of sixty, lent to me by a volunteer who is the son of the woman who wrote them, and who features in the narrative as a teething infant. (I accepted the loan with deep misgivings, but they’ve gone into a locked drawer til next week.)
I can’t tell you very much about the detail of the narrative without perhaps being careless with this family’s privacy, but the fact of the diaries themselves reveals quite a lot about how people come to attach themselves to this place and what deep, deep associations they bring with them. For my purposes these diaries, with their notes about visitors, recipes, trips to the shops, the growth of the baby, alongside notes about the death of Mr Curtin and the surrender of Japan, reminded me that the home front experience of wartime in Australia has been an everyday kind of experience – riven with anxiety and strain, but normal. I tried to get that into my program design. An interesting challenge.
That last line.