In preparation of upcoming walking tours, I am currently researching the many varied sculptures in Commonwealth Park, Canberra. I do love this work, and discovering the people behind the amazing artworks is just delightful. I am perplexed however, in trying to find any information on the sculpture that I have nicknamed ‘Big Blue’.
The sculpture lays on the western shore of Nerang pool. Snuggled into the tree line, the plaque has long ago lost all writing from it. I have managed to narrow down some evidence so far:
1. A photo of it in the garden appears in a 1995 newspaper
2. It does not seem to be one of the commissioned works from 1995’s Floriade
3. It does not seem to have been a commissioned work from 1994
1993 winners are currently being illusive, much to my aggravation. On the upside though, it creates a timescale of probably somewhere between 1975 and 1995, which is somewhat smaller then what I was originally looking at.
My current plan is to keep reading through old newspapers and to widen my search of photos around the area. In addition, once all the fencing is down, I’m going to try a rubbing of the plaque, just in case.
I’ll keep the search going and update my avid readers with the outcomes. If you happen to have any old photos of the area near Nerang Pool, I would certainly love to hear from you!
Canberra Times (1995) - Floriade Canberra’s Spring Festival: All the things you need to know
Canberra Times (1995) - Floriade Canberra’s Spring Festival: Gardens a show case for sculptors
Canberra Times (1994) - Canberra’s Spring Festival of Flower
Beckford’s Tower was on our list for the Open Palaces Programme, scheduled for a hands on workshop with Dr Amy Frost. Beckford’s Tower is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, along with a number of other buildings that I visited during the educational program. Dr Amy Frost is the Senior Curator and led two of our workshops, and also demonstrated her wonderful abilities in stone masonry at the Bath Museum of Architecture.
Beckford’s Tower is an incredible building that was lovely to spend time in. To reach the tower itself there is a quick stroll through a surprisingly beautiful graveyard. I felt a little like I was wandering into the beginning of a fairy tale, and wondered whether a princess would let her hair down from the gold gilded peak of the tower. I managed to make it up most of the tower until my terror of enclosed spaces and heights won out. It was an incredible view though. I loved the curation within the building and thought it was just a marvellous place to study.
The building was constructed in the 1820s, commissioned by William Beckford, an English novelist. He had a deep passion for architecture and landscaping, with a love for the picturesque movement. His tower was built as a place of solitude and quiet, landscaped to mimic the concepts within the picturesque art pieces that he enjoyed. It included a vast pleasure garden that stretched between his home, located on Lansdowne Crescent, to the tower which is at the top of Lansdowne Hill.
With his death, the land was sold to a publican who used the area briefly as a beer garden in the early 1840s. It was repurchased by Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, in 1848, who donated the building and land to the Walcot Parish, where it entered it’s second life as a graveyard. The tower was partly converted into a chapel to carry out funerals. Originally, Beckford had been buried in Bath Abbey Cemetery, but he was reinterred shortly after the towers transformation.
It’s third life started in the 1970’s, sold after being made redundant by the church. It had endured a catastrophic fire that had destroyed much of it’s contents in the 1930s. Privately purchased, the first intention was to renovate the building into two flats. The Beckford Tower Trust and museum were established in 1977 and it started it’s new life as a historical site. Bath Preservation Trust are now the primary caretakers of the building. As a side thought, if you ever want to stay the night it looks quite beautiful and is available through The Landmark Trust (link below).
The workshop at Beckford’s Tower was a hands on chance to create reports focussed on restoration and conservation of the building. There was a very pleasant 60 minutes of walking through sections and finding areas that we thought could use conservation. Dr Frost was brilliant, allowing us to come up with our own thoughts and I was pleasantly surprised that as a group we perhaps picked up on 50% of what we should have noticed. The other 50% included us madly taking down notes and asking a lot of questions. Dr Frost was incredibly enjoyable to listen to and wonderfully pragmatic about the limitations that are involved in small heritage sites without huge budgets.
The second part of the workshop included considering how to work on the interpretation of the landscaping, which has significantly changed since Beckford’s time. The area is complex, with management of the building being organised by Bath Preservation Trust, and the grounds managed by the Bath & North East Somerset Council. This style of situation in heritage sites is not unusual, but nevertheless awkward. I can imagine there must be a great deal of diplomacy and consultation being conducted behind the scenes. I did like the challenge of considering how you could interpret a site that can never go back to what it once was. Those bodies are happily buried for the rest of their existence. So how can you interpret something that is stubbornly no longer there?
My thoughts revolved around two concepts. One of my coworkers created a fantastic children’s activity that they called time telescopes. Using old photos printed on transparencies, they attached them to white PVC pipes. By looking through the pipe, you could overlay the picture with what now existed. This is a very low cost alternatives to the AR apps being used by multiple organisations, where an overlay of images can be created to call back to the past. However, there are not really any photos of the gardens during their existence. My idea was that an artistic interpretation could be designed, using paintings that were focussed on the written details of what was described in the garden, and painted in the picturesque style that Beckford loved. For a low cost option, large interpretation panels could be placed in the landscape allowing participants to look through the semi transparent window that had a view painted onto it. Alternatively you could design an app that painted those images onto the phone screen depending on where it picked a person standing. It was an enjoyable thing to image, and I think quite influenced by a video I had recently seen of Van Gogh’s Starry Night brought to life (I’ve popped a link in below).
Beckford’s Tower only opens on select dates during the year, so I recommend checking out their website. It’s well worth a visit!
Beckford’s Tower: http://beckfordstower.org.uk
Landmark Trust: Beckford’s Tower
3d VR version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Motion Magic
What can actively fighting discrimination look like?
After my post on reenactment and discrimination, I started thinking about a few of the practicalities around what options are available to people to actively fight discrimination. I thought a lot about how these ugly situations bleed into the museum and heritage world. It can be tempting to get involved in something that looks suspiciously like a ‘thoughts and prayers’ situation, where there are lovely thoughtful words but no forward momentum. It can be tempting to think that saying nothing is better because everyone should ‘know better’ or ‘know that you support people and stuff’. Or it can be tempting to want to walk away from the whole thing. Leaving will be the right move for some people, but reenactment (and the heritage sector) can be brilliant fun. So, if we never get the chance to witness an actual act of discrimination happen (fingers crossed), what are ways that we can be actively involved in promoting inclusivity and developing strategies around preventing discrimination?
Education is a key factor. It doesn’t need to just be about educating yourself on what discrimination is and how it can appear; it can be about finding the hidden voices inside societies. If you have a particular interest in the year 1456, and have been toiling to create the perfect button from the period, look up from the project and wonder “I wonder what it was like to be a child during this period”, or “Who actually made all of these things that I am recreating?” or “If I wasn’t from a wealthy family, what would that mean if I was disabled?”. In museum practice, it is often called finding the hidden stories, and we use it to humanise collections and bring a greater depth to narratives. You don’t need to make yourself miserable, but understanding what a time period might have been like without privilege can help to not only broaden understanding of the time period but also develops empathy towards modern causes. Try researching other cultures that might have brushed up against the one that you are most interested in, that maybe had a different level of freedoms or rights. Read about what religions or political ideologies existed. Find the humans in the clothes or behind the swords, they are what makes history actually come alive.
Be a thought leader. Did that person just say something that made people nervous laugh with how ‘controversial’ a ‘joke’ is? Maybe have a chat to them about that privately, or try to shut it down publicly if it is particularly heinous (be careful with this tactic, producing public shame is a double bladed dagger). Talk about other cultures in positive ways and don’t promote the use of tropes or stereotypes. These are straight forwards options. You can also share knowledge on hidden stories or ask people what they know about in their period of interest. Take a moment to ask whether everyone is having fun, and be okay if someone says no. Inclusivity can be difficult, and feeling like someone is accusing you of excluding them can bring about complex feelings of hurt and shame, but leaning into that discomfort and finding common ground with them can really cement a person into the group. Be aware of your own privileges and own that you have them, build others so that they can stand at the same height as you. It’s also powerful to verbally say how you want to be inclusive; it doesn’t matter if you assume everyone knows that, because the more we say it out loud and be visible as someone who cares, the more it pushes back some some of the darkness.
Create change. Or as I like to call it - destroy the joint. Change can only happen through people positively interacting with community. This is where it becomes particularly complex, because no one wants to look like they are rocking the boat. One of the very reasons I left was because I felt that I could no longer have a voice without being labeled a trouble maker. But staying in can be powerful, and creating change can be sublimely gratifying. Write letters, write ideas down, make a fuss politely (because I think gentle words are often louder words). If someone tells you that they feel excluded or discriminated against, help them write it down and send it through. If you can, back them up. Don’t belittle someone’s lived experience because yours has been different - everyone’s lives are relevant and honestly everyone is just trying to survive the best way they can.
Be open to the fact that maybe you have not always been a shining beacon of inclusivity. Even typing this now, I know I have not always been amazing and cringe thinking about some of my past thoughts and deeds. I have learned and explored and changed my mind and will likely never stop doing those things. Be open to the idea that people can have been a prat in the past, but are trying to learn and be better at inclusivity. Read articles from different view points and open yourself to the truth that writer is living in. It’s easy to be dismissive, it’s much harder to face our own biases and challenge whether they are the ‘truth’. Try and lean into the discomfort of having challenging conversations. None of these things are easy, but we only develop skills via practice and failing. Try and foster growth by being someone unafraid of it, because we need to keep growing, so that we can continue to push back the gilded words of the past and replace them with honest history.
My interesting read of the week popped up from Medium, with a fantastic article by Ben Freeland titled “When Does Good Art By Awful People Become Untouchable?”. My current fascination with discrimination and history certainly was looking for interesting articles around that topic, and this article had me thinking deeply.
Today in my collection, one of my multitalented coworkers (the lovely Tash) found a rice tin in a box of items we had been considering for an exhibition. The rice tin is likely the right time period, is in surprisingly good condition and completely unable to be used. Why? Because it’s trimmed in swastikas.
As someone who wants to teach good history and stare unflinchingly at challenging narratives, part of me rails against not displaying this, purely because someone might interpret it as an item that supports Nazi symbolism. I want to have deep conversations about the rich history that the symbol has and explain that it’s only problematic when used in conjunction with white supremacy.
This symbol is a little like an artist that has become undone by their own criminal behaviours. Admittedly, the symbol itself has never committed and act, but people have used it with intention and now it has this contextual history linking it directly to harm and pain. Would I display this in a war exhibition? Absolutely yes to create those strong links to that period. Will I place it in an exhibition knowing that the symbol causes fear and distrust? Absolutely not. The conversations about how a swastikas can be used is not necessary in a cute little cottage talking about early Australian life.
The article asks when is too soon, to allow art to become seen almost separately from it’s creator. I think this is really tided up with how long that person, or art, or thing, is used as a potential rally to arms for those who seek to justify a moral corrupt position. Richard Wagner, mentioned in the article for his strong links to the Third Reich, is likely not being listened to in reverence by those who currently ascribe to Nazi leanings. Swastikas certainly are. Even if something is no longer used for potential harm, historical narratives should not ignore that history but use it as part of it’s diverse history. Embracing the power of Wagner’s music, does not mean we should ignore that he was, likely, an awful person. His skills in music should not equate a get out of jail card for the impact he had on the people he effected. It may not be too soon for Wagner, but it still is for many others.
That rice tin may never go on display. Or it could stop being actively used, and with some distance maybe we can have some of those discussions in unexpected museums and heritage houses. Maslow hierarchy of needs tells us that you can’t be an open learner and deep thinker if you are afraid of being damaged. For the moment, it’s too soon. That very average tin could inspire even one person to not feel safe in an environment, and that is one too many for me.
Ben Freelands article can be found here: https://medium.com/@benfreeland/when-does-good-art-by-awful-people-become-untouchable-b24b8fdd118f
As a disclaimer, a number of years ago I joined a historical reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) . The medieval age as it should have been, sounded ideal as a hobby. I would spend weekends swanning around in a lovely dress, eating food and watching knights in shining armour. For many years I enjoyed playing, but I started to feel disillusioned by a brand of discrimination that made me distinctly uncomfortable, and decided that it was time to find a new hobby. I went back to gaming and doubled down on my career. At times I have a pang of regret and longing for the hobby, because while it was good it was amazing. As long as I could disconnect from the feeling that the ‘game’ was not balanced to support people from all backgrounds.
Fast forward to now, and the ugly rise of white supremacy into the public eye, reenactment of all types are finding themselves uncomfortably linked to discrimination on a grander scale then I personally saw within my little group. I have sat on the sidelines watching friends I adore grapple with what this means: what were the groups doing to attract these members to their fold? Are you a (insert descriptor here) if you liaise with a (insert descriptor here). I can see the pain that it causes the vast majority of people within the SCA, a group stemmed from a group of slight hippy uni kids with romantic Arthurian legends on their mind and a set of elf ears they were dying to try out.
Today I found myself reading a fascinating blog post by Guy Windsor, a mover and shaker in the Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) group, condemning discrimination within their group. While I read it, I found myself again thinking about how this keeps occurring. In pondering it, I found myself drawn to his explanation of the name HEMA “It stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and a sad and disgusting number of white supremacists, nazis, and other scum have latched on to the “European” bit (at the expense of the historical, the martial, and the artistry) and are bringing the term into appalling disrepute.”.
Historical Reenactment is tricky. On one hand, it can be a fabulous method of learning and teaching history. There is nothing like actually trying to walk in someone else’s shoes to get the full effect of what it means to live in a different culture or time period. Museums often use character actors to great effect to get a message through; immersion is a wonderful tool and can create a long term love affair with history. In the wrong hands though, it is extraordinarily easy to completely miss the reality of a time period. Brain Sarnacki (way back in 2011) touches on some of the danger points with this fabulous quote: Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history.
My first thoughts around this are: maybe all historic reenactments are a bad idea. After all, no mater what era you look at, there is a history of minorities not faring well. Sometimes the minorities change a bit, but generally speaking human rights and dignities is an ever changing land scape. Ideally, each generation is trying to be better then the next. Thus, maybe the smartest thing is to just avoid trying to recreate time periods so that we can avoid glossing over the inequalities and nasties that would have made living in those times a lot less comfortable. There are certainly groups that can achieve whole truth scenarios, but I’m not certain anyone specifically does them for fun. As people living in a modern world looking for enjoyable pastimes, maybe focusing on our current or future society and not romanticising the past would be wisest. This has the benefit of just not having reenactment groups for discriminatory practices to hide in, but certainly seems heavy handed.
My second thoughts were around history reenactment groups that have not publicised problems around harbouring secret Nazis. Admittedly, just because I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean they are not struggling with it. However, I think two points might contribute towards groups avoiding discrimination: Exclusivity and Knowledge. Groups such as The Companie of St George specialise in very specific time periods and require members of the group to be experts within that. There is no space for romanticism. The requirement to apply to join means that the group can be selective and chose people who are educated within their field.
Which brings me to my next point: reenactment and lack of education is a terribly bad mix. Where groups like the SCA formed from history loving geeks inspired by Arthurian legends and university textbooks, this is particular to geek pop culture from the 70’s and 80’s. I think I would be hard pressed to find members from the era who weren’t part of the geeky minority that was reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Their inspiration came from the ideal notions of chivalry and the hero of the day. I’m sure many new reenactors may have come from this as well. However, there is a growing number of people inspired by “historical” shows such as “Vikings” or even “Game of Thrones” (don’t even get me started). These are just examples, and I’m sure there are plenty of other options available in different mediums. These individuals find themselves caught up in a history that is dubious at best and highly damaging at worst. Before I go any further, I do want to acknowledge #notallreenactors, please don’t flame me. Connection however to “Might is right” is flowing into reenactment groups through people choosing to be Vikings, or Crusaders, or whatever conquering group that appeals to them, because it dials in with the ideals of a white strong Europe. A simple google search will find an assortment of articles approaching this topic for many different history based groups, with one I have linked below written by David Perry, that I think succinctly sums up some of the problems.
So, how do we fix this giant problem? Honestly, today I started to wonder something that would have made my mentors within the SCA go grey over night. I’m going to say something that people are going to think is me either trolling or throwing a grenade into the room and running away. But hear me out.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be ‘realistic’. Maybe those elf ears should come back out from the cupboard. Maybe it’s time to stop being serious unless you have very specific and restrictive recruiting processes.
Live action role play (LARP), has had a chequered past. LARP is where you will find people however remaking history in a fantasy style setting. In the SCA over the last year I have listened into the fairly serious conversations of whether a swastika should be allowed to be worn in public because some research proves that it has been worn by non-nazis 1500 odd years ago. That’s correct, but hiding behind historical ‘research’ completely ignores the fact the the world has marched on. It ignores that history happens in context, and sometimes things are inextricably tangled up in different events (particularly when those events happen in living memory). LARP has the benefit being able to say “Not in our make believe system” and bypassing those problematic conversations altogether.
In discussing the Richard Iott controversy in 2011, Robert Slayton explores some of the dangers in War Reenactment, and I think makes an excellent point in saying that “reenactments on American soil fail to reflect the historic record. They work against the noblest aspirations of the historian. By cleansing war of ideas and policy, they purge history of human meaning and of its moral dimension”. Most reenactments are going to be toeing this uncomfortable line. People will hide behind what they argue is a legitimate historical position with out understanding the full context of the history they are interested in. Or they will twist historical ‘facts’ and research by latching onto the small points that can back their opinions. The more we fall down the hole of defining history through the small details, we lose track of the big picture of why it’s good that we don’t live in the past. It’s not educational, it isn’t good representation, it the corruption of truth through good intentions and the search for connection.
I used to wonder why historians and museum professionals were so rare in the reenactment community. I think I understand now, and suddenly my occasional pangs for community based games with fun costumes makes me wonder if it’s time to check out a different course of action.
I also stumbled on an amazing article about LARP and consent culture that further sent my mind reeling while connecting up some ideas. When we enter into a historical reenactment event, we are in a sense placing ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We dress up and hope that we fit into the group. In Sarah Bowmans article, she touches on the problem of the ‘Cult of Hardcore’ within LARPing communities, and I have certainly seen these problems regularly in a number of historical groups. The answer that the Hardcore will give to a perceived slight is, in a nut shell, eat a spoon of cement and harden up. In a community where we ask people to trust that they will not be abused or hurt while being vulnerable, this style of interaction further damages the whole. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and agitation. To foster creativity and empathy, we need an understanding of group consent and personal consent within what is effectively a giant community led game. Learning how to accept that we will, inadvertently and sometimes deliberately, hurt others is paramount to developing the skills to appropriately address some of these extremely delicate conversations. Instead of bullheadedly sticking to “This totally isn’t a swastika and people are stupid”, opening ourselves to vulnerability and empathy by saying “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable and I want you to be having as good a time here as I am”. It’s hard to face our own failures, but owning them outright means we have any chance of learning from them and building the bridges we (generally) accidentally burn.
I have waxed lyrical now for almost 2000 words, and only touched on the tiniest part of this iceberg. I have linked below to some of the articles that I thought of while typing this up. I’ve made an additional list of extra things that I have gathered up while thinking this over as well. Please keep in mind, that I am not an expert on this topic, just a curious bystander hoping for the best and enjoying a good thought exercise.
Articles actually used:
Sarah Bowman: A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture
David Perry: White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong.
Brian Sarnacki: My View on Historical Reenactments
Robert Slayton: Reenacting Evil
Guy Windsor: Fascists are poisoning HEMA. Here’s one small thing I’m doing about it.
Articles I found interesting along the way:
If you have the time, the Public Medievalist has some really interesting articles that delve into some of these topics: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/
Jameson Adame: Why living history matters in teaching
Maury Brown: The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto
Joshua Green: What’s Wrong with Nazi Reenacting
Jamie MacDonald: Larp and the joy of collective bullshit
Kate Townshend: Role play, chivalry and a world without sexism: Welcome to the ultimate female fantasy
Clayton Willets: Reenacting in a Modern World
I have now turned into one of those odd sorts who stay up reading the Hansard report from Parliament House. Recent transcripts were interesting, not only because of Marriage Equality (Yay!), but also some comments by the Honourable Julie Owens MP about the Parramatta Female Factory:
“ The Parramatta Female Factory deserves and needs to be World Heritage listed. The national heritage listing provides protection for part of the site, but the New South Wales state government and UrbanGrowth, its development arm, are intent on developing thousands of units up against the walls of the factory. To join the campaign, I urge people to sign the Parramatta Female Factory Friends petition calling for World Heritage listing so that the community and future generations can enjoy this fantastic piece of history right in the heart of Parramatta. The oldest female convict factory, a Greenway building, right in the heart of Parramatta deserves World Heritage listing.”
Deserves and needs to be World Heritage listed? I’m not sure that holds up entirely. It’s an incredible site but is it of World Heritage standard? I would certainly describe it as nationally significant, which is why it absolutely deserves the National Heritage listing which it already has. And should we be using Heritage listing as a primary method of ‘rescuing’ places?
Sites on the World Heritage List are places of outstanding universal value. Admittedly, for the committee to find a place to potentially of value, it only needs to meet at least one of the selection criteria. Having read back over the available criteria to choose from, I’m not sure it would fit into any of the world heritage list categories. The criteria that marks it as Nationally Significant - women/children’s lives and convict history - is not necessarily of universal significance.
I’m not a huge fan of the emotional push for a building to be listed to ‘rescue’ it. ‘Rescuing’ a building takes a siginicant amount of emotion invested in something other then the evidence of whether a building deserves to be listed. It becomes a case of good-guys vs developers/government. In addition, it means that instead of choosing to list buildings which naturally fit into the selection criteria, the information is sometimes stretched in a bid to contribute towards saving the building. The emotional connection that we have to historic buildings can’t be denied, but not everything should be rescued. Much like museums, there is only so much space and money, and concentration should be placed on the buildings that truely deserve higher recognition.
I popped into the Hall School Museum and Heritage Centre last week and was totally blown away by their WW1 displays!
Having tackled fake food in a heritage house in the past, I have a lot of respect for anyone who can find items that don’t look a bit shoddy in someway. The last batch I bought were not too bad, but I still ended up with some very dubious looking carrots. Hall School Museum decided to make their own! A skilled volunteer led the process and has created some very edible looking food.
Beyond the awesome fake food, there were a couple of extra impressive pieces of museum design. The current exhibition space is a permanent zone for the display, but it started as a temporary exhibition for the WW1 anniversaries. Public reactions to the display were so strong that they decided to move the display into a permenant area which is slightly smaller then the temporary exhibition space. To achieve this, the museum has employed a couple of very clever tactics. The one that blew my mind was changing the wall panels into a swinging display a visitor could flip through in their own time. There is some brilliant design going into this small community museum, and it is certainly well worth a visit!
I briefly popped into a small exhibition on Joseph Bank’s Florilegium last night at the Australian National Library. Banks was a British naturalist and botanist, well know for his travels with Captain Cook. After his voyage around the word in 1976-1771 he returned with over 1300 plant species that to fully document. The Florilegium is the collection of those works and is widely held to be both beautiful and incredibly accurate. ANU is displaying a small collection of these works in preparation for a new book being released by David Mabberley. I took a couple of photos of the works, mostly of tiny snippets of the works. The details are just a glorious thing!
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.