We need history because personal memory – left to its own devices – is notoriously unreliable. To write an informed history we need to preserve the records of the past – written, visual, material and oral – so that vital historical evidence is not lost or depleted. We need institutional support in the form of archives and libraries and the dedicated professional staff who work in them to maintain these records and make them accessible to the public. In this way our documentary heritage becomes the basis of our collective historic memory.
The UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register lists and celebrates our rich documentary heritage, but it remains a work in progress. All who have an interest in the past and its representation – in books, film, radio documentaries, museums and monuments – are invited to recommend additions to this list. Individuals as well as institutions may nominate collections for inclusion on the basis of their national, regional or international significance. The distinction drawn between these levels of significance may stimulate further reflection on the ways in which we conceptualise the past and Australia’s place in the world.
National and state repositories – archives, libraries and museums – are the storehouses of the material remains of the past and we go to them to find out who we are and where we’ve come from, to rediscover our dreams and aspirations, to revisit our tragedies and heartbreak. I am struck by the wonderful diversity of the records listed here, documenting aspects of our history across the continent, from the southern island colony of Tasmania to the northern islands of the Torres Strait, a list of fifty items that includes iconic documents such as James Cook’s Endeavour Journal as well as surprising and relatively unknown collections, such as those relating to the establishment of the University of Adelaide from the late nineteenth century.
The Australian Register includes some of our most significant, confronting and fascinating archival collections. To read the inscriptions is to be reminded of the diverse and complex experience of the peoples of this land, including the Indigenous and colonised, explorers and settlers, convicts transported across vast oceans and Pacific Islanders trafficked across the seas to labour in Queensland. We also learn about different groups of workers, who mobilised to win recognition of their rights to better wages and working conditions and of women of different backgrounds, who campaigned to win basic political rights, to vote and stand for election to the national parliament. Arguably the 1891 and 1894 petitions for women’s suffrage, listed here, should be on the international as well as
national Register, in recognition of the world-historic victory achieved by Australian women when they won the right to stand for the national parliament in 1902.
A number of the collections listed in the Register document what was lost in the process of colonisation: Indigenous peoples lost their lands, lives, culture and languages. But knowledge of past generations’ lives, their understandings and experience has not been lost to posterity. The Australian Register includes a good representation of the varied Indigenous documentary collections held in our institutions, ranging from the papers of anthropologists such as Donald Thomson and Norman Tindale, whose records remain a valuable source to Indigenous people wishing to trace family histories and make claims to native title; the Yirrkala drawings in crayon on brown paper; the Mabo papers and the extraordinary Australian Indigenous Languages Collection that contains 3700 published items written in 102 of over 250 Australian Indigenous languages.
Those wishing to research the foundations of European settlement in Australia will find that the convict records preserved in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia offer rich and detailed information on the lives of individual convicts, who served their sentences and mostly remained to form families, farm the land and build communities. There are also official records relating to the founding of Port Phillip and South Australia, the Commonwealth of Australia and the design of Canberra. There are business records, documents on the film industry – The Story of the Kelly Gang, the world’s first full-length feature film – and papers relating to aspects of our political history. There are folklore collections, the James Gleeson Oral History Collection, a comprehensive collection of interviews with Australian artists, and war records, including Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s film of Gallipoli and Keith Murdoch’s damning assessment of the campaign in September 1915 as ‘undoubtedly one of the most terrible chapters in our history’.
Reading the inscriptions for these records fired my imagination. There is so much to write about. But I was also struck by the omissions. For a ‘Memory of the World’ project, there is too little recognition of Australia’s world-historic role in building an advanced democracy – with the introduction for example of the Secret Ballot (known internationally as the ‘Australian ballot’) in the 1850s, the 8-hour day in Victoria in 1856, payment of members of parliament, the introduction of the first legal minimum wage in the world (in Victoria in 1896) and its definition as a ‘living wage’ by HB Higgins in the 1907 Harvester judgment, that brought him recognition around the world as a pioneering theorist of social democracy. Perhaps HB Higgins’ papers in the National Library of Australia should also be listed in this framework. And I wonder about the representation of women. Germaine Greer’s papers are now in the University of Melbourne Archives; it is well recognised that The Female Eunuch had a global impact as a key text of the Women’s Liberation movement and has been translated into many languages.
A major objective of this volume is to encourage nominations to the Australian and other Memory of the World registers. It is to be hoped that it will inspire the custodians of the relevant documentary heritage and individual researchers to come forward with nominations.
Professor Marilyn Lake FAHA, FASSA, ARC Professorial Research Fellow and Professor in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, The University of Melbourne is Patron of the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Committee.