Christopher Allen revisits our glorious days
Glorious Days: Australia 1913
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until October 13
DATES, anniversaries, the beginning of new years and especially the turning of a new century all have a natural appeal to the human mind, as we try to give shape and meaning to the endless flow of the duration we experience as time. We wonder what the new year will bring, or we look back on the ethos of a decade drawing to a close and speculate about the character of the new one. A new century tends to give us the symbolic distance from which to consider the previous period more critically, as Lytton Strachey looked back on and helped to characterise Victorian society in Eminent Victorians (written during World War I and published in 1918).
Yet as has been observed, the division of time by the round numbers of centuries can be misleading. It is less the year 1700 that marks the end of the 17th century, for example, than the death of Louis XIV in 1715. And the 19th century can be understood best as the period from 1815 to 1914: the first of these dates marks the fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna, which reshaped post-Napoleonic Europe, and the second, with the outbreak of World War I, signified the end of that world and the collapse of empires from central Europe to the Middle East.
Between was a remarkable century of economic growth and development for Europe, interrupted only by the short wars that in 1860 and 1870 accompanied the unifications of Italy and Germany respectively. It was also a period that coincided with almost the first half of the history of Australia as a part of the modern world. It was a time that saw the remarkably swift development of the various colonies, the beginnings of self-government and, finally, the movement towards Federation and the granting of formal independence as the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
Even after Federation, however, several political questions remained to be resolved between what were now the states. One of these was the site of the future federal capital. It had already been decided that it would be somewhere in NSW and at least 100 miles (160km) from Sydney, but it was not until 1913 that the site and name of Canberra were announced. It is to mark the centenary of the capital that the National Museum has mounted an exhibition designed to take the visitor into the world of Australia immediately before the catastrophe of World War I.
The show is at once complex — set out in a single vast space — and clearly structured. The centre of the hall is filled with cars and mannequins in period costumes, while different themes are presented in successive bays around its perimeter. Much care has been put into researching each of these, combining artefacts, images and works of art to evoke the reality of historical experience, but also to bring out nuances and details that give us the impression of rediscovering even things we thought we knew. The exhibition is accompanied by a book that is not so much a catalogue as an anthology of essays exploring the central themes of the time in greater depth.
It turns out 1913 was not simply the year of the foundation of Canberra. It represents in several respects a significant date in the history of the new commonwealth. It was, for example, the year the new Australian state printed its first banknotes and its first postage stamps. There was strong sense of the excitement and responsibility of assuming nationhood, and the great nation-building railway line across the continent was begun, starting from Port Augusta in 1912 and from Kalgoorlie in 1913; the tracks would finally link up in 1917.
There were risks in being independent, and we can see the efforts to balance a nationalistic will to autonomy with the need to cling to the empire for security, whether commercial or military. Such official celebrations as Wattle Day and Empire Day speak of these partly competing aspirations, as does the iconography of posters and other images in which Australia is represented, allegorically, as a younger woman — a daughter — accompanying the traditional female personification of the empire as Britannia.
But Australia was not imagined simply in a subservient and dependent relationship to the mother country. We were also aware of being progressive in numerous respects, including in educational policy; the University of Western Australia was opened in this same year, 1913, as the first free university in the empire, and primary and secondary schools and workers’ education had a long history going back to colonial times.
Attitudes towards women were in many respects advanced: they had enjoyed the vote in commonwealth elections since 1902.
The situation of the Aborigines was more complicated, but they were not in the forefront of most people’s thinking in the context of modern nation building. They remained in the background and even sympathetic observers tended to assume they were slowly fading away. The exhibition does not preach to us about the attitudes of a century ago, but a significant and impressive group of Aboriginal bark paintings collected by Walter Baldwin Spencer occupies the far wall of the exhibition, striking images that, even when recently made, seem to come from a distant past.
Another reality acknowledged without editorialising is the White Australia policy, one of the measures that, like high tariffs, protected the working class from competition. It is good for museums to trust the audience to draw their own conclusions, rather than spoonfeed them with interpretations.
The new country was not only concerned about the threat of cheap regional labour but also about the risk of invasion, again a theme that occasionally had been in the air in the 19th century but acquired new urgency with independence. The Royal Australian Navy was also established in 1913, and the entry of the fleet into Sydney Harbour in October that year was an important event, commemorated here in two small paintings by Ethel Carrick Fox.
An army too was being built up, beginning, after Lord Kitchener’s visit in 1909, with the compulsory military training scheme of 1911, and the formation of the militia system that preceded the regular army. Interestingly, for all the patriotism of the time, there was much unwillingness to be regimented into compulsory training, and a small booklet titled Songs for Soldiers appears to be an effort to instil the proper enthusiasm for patriotic duty; but the author seems to have no understanding of the kinds of songs soldiers really like to sing (think of Colonel Bogey, En passant par la Lorraine, Waltzing Matilda, Lily Marlene) — and the jingoism and mawkish sentimentality of the words are matched only by the incompetence of the versification, which makes it hard to see how they could be sung at all.
Indirectly related to an awareness of the need to stand our own feet and be responsible for our own defence is one of the more unexpectedly interesting themes of the exhibition, that of fitness and health. The origin of this concern must lie in the question raised from the early days of the colony, whether it would be possible to build a great nation out of a population tainted with the inferior stock of convicts. Thus Australia became an experiment in the nature and nurture theories of development: if the former were right, the convict taint would persist; if the latter, then healthy diet, an outdoor life and exercise would turn proletarian runts into supermen.
The idea that the healthy rural world of Australia could breed such a race recurs in the 1920s when, for example, JS MacDonald wrote, in discussing the work of Arthur Streeton, ‘‘ we can yet be the elect of the world, the last of the pastoralists, the thoroughbred Aryans in all their nobility’’ — arguments, and language, that were to be brought into discredit by the events of the following decades.
But here already, in an advertisement of 1914, we read that ‘‘ Australia needs thousands of healthy British lads of good character. Boys of every class and calling, between the ages of 16 and 26, are invited to throw in their lot with the happy rural citizenry of the Commonwealth a young country distinguished by the health of its citizens.’’
The exhibition, in fact, opens with the benign ideal of the health benefits to be gained from swimming, whose popularity in turn led to a relaxation of standards of dress and rules about segregated swimming. But there is a glimpse of more complex attitudes in the display about a famous boxer of the time, Snowy Baker, who won a silver medal in the 1908 London Olympics.
By 1913, when there was apparently a boxing craze in Sydney, Baker had become a brand, and he even had his own magazine, adorned with a kind of music-hall version of a classical athlete on the cover. It includes articles on boxing, swimming and ‘‘ physical culture for men’’, and Baker was also the author of a book titled General Physical Culture, again published in 1913, and sold a mysterious oil or liniment called Snowy Baker’s Embrocation, whose purpose is unclear.
A more bizarre concern with health and wellbeing appears in the eccentric William Chidley, who self-published a booklet titled The Answer and travelled the country promoting it. He was worried about degeneracy and believed we should wear loose clothing, adopt vegetarianism and, above all, practise coition in a way that is more or less mechanically impossible. Needless to say his public dis-