Stunning archive-inspired exhibitions speak of our past, present and future

NSW State Archives Captured: Portraits of Crime exhibition. Image courtesy NSW State Archives.

NSW State Archives Captured: Portraits of Crime exhibition. Image courtesy NSW State Archives.

For many, thoughts of official archives summon up images of old documents and photos that help trace our family tree. Turning up a convict or two if we’re lucky. But as custodian of one of Australia’s most valuable cultural collections, NSW State Archives cares for many treasures that can tell us much more about the people and events that impact our lives.

The Archives has developed an award-winning program of exhibitions that make it easier for communities to experience its collection and its significance for understanding the forces shaping society today. The exhibits allow visitors to truly see how intimately we remain connected with our past.

Its newest exhibition, Electric Domestic: Modern lives, Suburban Dreams is now showing at the Western Sydney Records Centre at Kingswood. The exhibition responds to the transformation taking place around the Centre as new suburbs rise from once-farmed estates. Unique photos and advertising material provide rare snapshots in time, transporting us back to mid-1960s Australia when power, consumerism and modern ‘luxuries’ underscored the Australian suburban dream.

Penny Stannard, NSW State Archives’ Senior Exhibitions Curator says exhibition themes consider contemporary Australian issues and debate, then leap into the past and into the State Archives Collection to research how these issues have evolved over time.

“The major exhibition for 2018, Blaze: Working Women, Public Leaders, engaged with the ongoing issue of the underrepresentation of women in public sphere leadership,” Penny said.

“Visitors routinely experience a sense of recognition of how their personal story fits within a larger story. Others experience strong emotion, seeing how people today and in the past have faced incredible challenges with great resilience. Many simply enjoy the story-telling, visual and historic material, imaginative elements and design of exhibitions.”

When exhibitions can’t be found at venues across greater Sydney they are on tour throughout regional NSW.

“Currently we have two significant exhibitions touring NSW,” Penny said. “Captured: Portraits of Crime, 1870-1930 explores the stories of men, women and children who were incarcerated in NSW gaols spanning 60 years. Photographic portraits and prisoner descriptions obtained from the State Archives Collection are powerfully engaging for visitors. Every face tells its own unique tale.

“The exhibition’s success saw it receive a Highly Commended Award at the recent Museums and Galleries of NSW IMAGinE Awards.

“Meanwhile, Windows into Wartime, based currently at the Orange City Library, was produced for the Centenary of Anzac and to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the First World War. The exhibition presents a selection of images produced by the NSW Government Printing Office Photographic Branch during and immediately after the Great War.”

Penny says even unexpected and surprising finds in the collection tell compelling stories of how life, social values and what we take for granted has changed over time.

“We have found birth control devices in some divorce files used as evidence from times when ‘at fault’ divorce was the norm. Vaccine samples encased in small glass plates from the mid-1800s, printing blocks and templates for war propaganda campaigns tell of past fears and strife.”

2019 is set to be a big year for NSW State Archives, with a not-to-be-missed exhibition planned for the 200th anniversary celebrations of the birth of Queen Victoria.

The Queen’s Album will reimagine an album of images presented by the people of NSW to Queen Victoria in 1882,” Penny said. “Another planned exhibition will offer compelling photographic images from the collection that depict the ‘child’ within the context of the work of the State.”

For more information about exhibitions, dates and locations, visit the NSW State Archives website.

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Published: 5 December 2018