Having a Voice, the theme of the National Trust’s 2017 Heritage Festival, was a boon for oral history collections, with the very obvious potential to showcase voice and history. On 20 May the Women’s Committee of the National Trust presented a one-day exhibition at Lindesay, the 1834 domestic Gothic style house at Darling Point in Sydney and home to the committee since 1963, based on its oral history collection.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Women’s Committee has achieved extraordinary results since its formation in 1961: influential, commercial - exhibitions, tours, house inspections, publications. Its first exhibition in 1962, No Time to Spare! combined the photographic eye of Max Dupain with the National Trust’s call to save heritage buildings. More than 8,000 people visited David Jones Art Gallery in just nine days to view the exhibition and the potency of its title remains undiminished: two months ago the Trust President signed off his report with that phrase.
The Women’s Committee has curated and overseen many exhibitions, but The Voices of the Women’s Committee was different: the first exhibition about the Women’s Committee, highlighting its achievements and significant contribution to history, heritage and the work of the National Trust.
The idea for the oral history project began in 2011, after the Women’s Committee’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Rosie Block was consulted, and the connection with Oral History NSW continued with Sandra Blamey. Since 2012 I have assisted with support, research and recording the last interview in 2016, and Jill Auld and I curated the exhibition.
Jill, a member of the Women’s Committee, conducted all the interviews – a simple sentence that masks uncertainties, slight terror and a very steep learning curve from a standing-start! Jill is not an oral historian but she attended training at an Oral History NSW seminar and bought recording equipment. Ellen Dyer operated the recording equipment, edited the audio and prepared abstracts and CDs for each interview. Eleven interviews were recorded between 2013 and 2016, and the professionalism of the collection is impressive.
Creating an oral history collection is one thing; what to do with it prompts a new conversation, sometimes a challenge when the options are unknown. Since its formation in 1961 the Women’s Committee has raised approximately $20 million for the work of the National Trust, contributing to the conservation of Trust properties across the state and Lindesay. The committee is highly organised, highly professional and quietly, modestly, entirely voluntary. Never has it tooted its own trumpet!
The committee recognised its oral history collection was important but was unclear how it could fit within its traditional work or the imperatives to fundraise and increase visitor numbers at Lindesay. So, the idea of a very small exhibition linked to the Heritage Festival’s theme seemed not only too great a chance to miss, but also an obvious way to highlight the collection.
Previous exhibitions at Lindesay included furniture or silver, items which could be placed in different rooms, appropriate to Lindesay’s presentation as an elegant house museum. What would an oral history exhibition look like, and where to present it at Lindesay? Nothing must be hung on interior or external walls, or under the marquee, nor interfere with the morning tea tables. What about the cellar, around the circular driveway or A-frames in the garden beds?
Little more than a few paragraphs about the work of the Women’s Committee appears in formal AGM reports of the National Trust and even at the time of its 50th Anniversary the chair of the Women’s Committee wrote only a two page report which she read out at the celebratory luncheon. Working around the Women’s Committee’s reticence about being the focus of the exhibition was essential, and discovering the extent of the committee’s work led to too many words. Whilst my initial suggestion of just four panels seemed very doable, the resulting exhibition became 13 panels.
Memories of the National Trust’s efforts in 1988 to sell Lindesay, the ensuing Supreme Court case and florid media were still sharp. Contextualising these momentous years between 1988 and 1990, The failed attempt to sell Lindesay, required parenthetical themes: Beginnings (1961-62 formation of the committee); Lindesay (gifted in 1963 to the Trust for the Women’s Committee); and Work of the Women’s Committee (merchandising, exhibitions, special events, house inspections and country weekends). Two panels were devoted to interviewees, their photos and additional extracts, and a catalogue was provided.
The only commercial aspect of the project was the design and panel production by Wombat Grafx, who were extraordinarily generous. Each panel is A1 x 5mm thick white coreflute, lightweight, easy to move, store and reuse, and eyelets in each corner facilitate installation in a variety of settings, indoor or outdoor.
Interviewees and family members were invited to the exhibition launch on 21 May. The day threatened rain so plans to exhibit in the garden were abandoned and instead panels were displayed in the entry way to the marquee. It was heartening to observe the interviewees’ excitement and close engagement with their own and each other’s stories, while members of the public with no association with the Women’s Committee were astonished by its successes.
The metamorphosis of the voices of the Women’s Committee Oral History Collection to something tangible, an exhibition, has energised the committee. The panels could readily become a pop-up exhibition at many of its events, or extended and reproduced in a modest publication. The committee has always understood the important role it plays for the National Trust, but the oral history collection and this Voices exhibition have legitimised pride in, and celebration of, its achievements and asserted its educational role.
… the first important exhibition … made a lot of people in Sydney generally realise that there was actually heritage that needed to be saved. So in those days the Women’s Committee … were the educators of the members … and they have gone on doing that.
Diana Hazard OAM interviewed by Jill Auld and Roslyn Burge, 3 November 2016.