The UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register
Arts writer Yolande Norris, in a Canberra Times article, ‘Our past is so easily buried’, reflected on the ephemerality of memory – even of the recent past – and her need to gain access to archives in order to uncover the history of the modern city in which she lives.
She had found a poster at Megalo Arts for the Toucan Lane coffee house, which in 1984 was located in a laneway in Canberra city’s Melbourne building, and ‘boasted bands, poetry and stayed open until 1am on a school night’. Norris realised that ‘the city didn’t materialise when I was old enough to start participating in it’ – its cultural life had existed before then, and she wanted to discover more about it. Her attempts to chronicle Canberra’s arts scene were frustrated by lack of access to documents that would unlock the vibrant past of the city’s cultural life. Norris wrote:
I wanted a history tracked, mapped, timelined and Googled, but the resources I sought were stuffed in mouldy shoeboxes and plastic bags under the beds and in the top of cupboards of the people who had lived the times. I know because I have my own collection – bundles of flyers, programs, crumpled posters, set lists and VHS cassettes chronicling places and people that have mostly disappeared.
Norris attributed the lack of historical memory in Canberra to ‘a mad rush to align with the new and the now’, as the city ‘boasts of a “cultural renaissance” while seemingly suffering from a collective amnesia’.
How acute this condition had become was borne in on Norris when she visited the Loading Zone café located in the laneway where the Toucan Lane coffee house had operated thirty years before. When she mentioned this previous occupation to the waiter, he replied, ‘There hasn’t been a café here before. We’re the first time anything like this has been done in the laneway.’ Norris was left to ponder how the history of the building’s usage had been excised from public memory and ‘instead lodged in minds and shoeboxes of a handful of residents’.1