Oral History NSW
Giving Voice to the Past
Giving Voice to the Past

Lost voices in Callan Park - Outdoor Exhibition for National Trust Heritage Festival 2017

by Roslyn Burge | July 1, 2017

Outdoor Exhibition @ Callan Park & Broughton Hall for National Trust Heritage Festival 2017, 23 April to 7 May 2017

Lost Voices in Callan Park represents a fraction of the myriad voices and layers of emotion, dread or memory of Callan Park and Broughton Hall. 

Lost Voices in Callan Park was public history and oral history in practice.  Presented by Friends of Callan Park (FOCP), the oral history extracts and images of individuals interviewed for the Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project were dominant features of this exhibition; and audio extracts were played during guided tours.  This is the first exhibition at Callan Park or Broughton Hall based on oral history interviews with former patients, workers or children who grew up there.  It’s the third outdoor exhibition since 1999 which FOCP has mounted at Callan Park and Broughton Hall and comprised 35 panels installed in 13 different locations across 61 hectares.

The potential publicity provided by the Heritage Festival for community groups such as FOCP is invaluable:  it presents opportunities for strategic advocacy and the encouragement of broader understandings of the collective cultural landscape that is Callan Park and Broughton Hall.  The exhibition also had international exposure; coinciding with World Parks Week at the beginning of May, it was one of two events in Australia registered on www.worldurbanparks.org

Callan Park is complex, and so too the curation of an exhibition with its political understorey and creation by committee.  Initially it seemed a very straightforward notion to simply reprise a range of panels from exhibitions in 2010 (at Callan Park) and 2015 (in local libraries) and incorporate three new panels.  However, preliminary decisions about panel selection and matching oral history extracts to relevant physical locations was necessary in tandem with negotiating with four tenants and one stakeholder to install panels on land they use under lease or agreement with NSW Health. The Office of Environment and Heritage (the government agency which has managed Callan Park since July 2015) also needed to approve the installation.

Because the exhibition was mounted outdoors for two weeks it needed to be visible, weatherproof, secure and without public risk.  Images and text were printed on A1 coreflute panels, attached by cable ties to star-posts (lent by Leichhardt Council) which were installed at sites relevant to the context.  No panel was attached to vegetation.  A two-page catalogue (map, acknowledgements and genesis of the exhibition) together with a coloured brochure describing FOCP and its objectives (the reintroduction of mental health services and establishment of a Trust for the site) were distributed during the exhibition.

The exhibition was self-guided and accessible 24/7, so impossible to staff fulltime. Weather-proof ziplock bags containing flyers and catalogues were attached to the star-posts for people to help themselves and bags were regularly restocked.  FOCP staffed a table at the Main Gates on six days (for about five hours each time) distributing flyers and engaging with passersby and visitors to the exhibition. 

Most panels presented people’s stories and it is these that spoke particularly to visitors.  Interviewees recalled their work (With mental health you’re always going to have a lot of variety … your day is never dull - Julie Gover), or care while patients at Callan Park (Seeing the grounds and the views.  It was all therapeutic - Peter Gray), and others spoke nostalgically about growing up there (The whole of Callan Park … that was our playground - Paul Gilchrist). The immediacy of their voices at locations to which they referred prompted a potent reinterpretation of the site for many visitors. 

Other panels highlighted the physical beauty of the landscape and its arboreal riches; reproduced the objectives of the Callan Park (Special Provisions) Act 2002; gave a brief history of the original Callan Park House (now the NSW Writers’ Centre) and Broughton Hall (a burnt out shell since the 1980s); or highlighted significant, indeed unique architectural features such as the two war memorials or the modernist buildings, surrounded and unified by their architect’s original landscaping, now occupied by the University of Tasmania.  Two tenants contributed stories, We Help Ourselves (WHOS) and Glover’s Community Garden.

Hundreds of people pound the Bay Run each week and FOCP hoped some might stop to look at panels along the foreshore, while other hundreds who play on the ovals nearby might be momentarily distracted from single-minded fitness to also consider different aspects of this site.  Every week a couple of thousand people come to Callan Park and Broughton Hall.  Some work with the NGOs and NSW Health entities on site, study at the two universities, or attend the NSW Writers’ Centre – and then there’s the army of regular dog walkers.  All these groups are destination-driven, work in silos, and some never visit opposite ends of the site.  This exhibition enabled tenants to wander throughout the site during lunchtime tours with colleagues. 

The only means of assessing the reach of the exhibition are personal comments and the uptake of flyers.  Many of the two thousand catalogues and brochures distributed during the fortnight via the ziplock bags, or handed out personally at the table, were shared between couples or groups.  It would be a conservative estimate that approximately two thousand people saw the exhibition.

Public responses were overwhelming.  Despite a close familiarity with the site for two decades, FOCP (and I) were astonished at visitors’ reactions to these interpretive panels.  Dog walkers who exercise regularly, or the mother from Orange looking for somewhere safe for her ice-addicted son, paused to read and look about them with a renewed interest and were intrigued by the oral history recollections.  One described the exhibition as a community service, and other regular users were surprised to discover how much more there is to Callan Park than most people realise … no idea a space the size of Callan Park exists so close to the city.  Even as the exhibition was being removed people expressed regret to see the panels go. 

Whilst environmental conditions were not ideal for playing audio extracts on tours they did augment the panels, and Peter Gray, a member of FOCP, speaking about his experiences as a patient at Callan Park in the 1970s was a bonus.  One tour specifically for a group of men in the residential therapeutic program offered by WHOS at Broughton Hall, was among the most heartening.  Perhaps because they lived on site with time to appreciate its features, their perceptive questions about the history and people of the site reinforced the curiosity and eagerness people continually have - to know more!

Roslyn Burge curated the exhibition, and is a member of the executive committee of Friends of Callan Park.

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