Excerpts from the opening address at the exhibition opening, Wednesday 8 December 2010
President, Royal Historical Society, Victoria
Member, Archives Advisory Board, UMA
In the week of Wikileaks we are reminded of the power and the politics of Documents.1 As a one-time archivist and as an historian I find myself inclined to anthropomorphise documents, to give them human characteristics and perhaps super-human too. Mild mannered for the most part, documents have the power to make and break reputations, to tell truth and lies, to force us to confront our prejudices.
In his biography of William Golding – the man who wrote Lord of the Flies, John Carey writes of Golding’s early fascination with all things ancient Egypt. In time the novelist had a moment of illumination in ‘his yearning for direct communication with the people of the past’.
‘I would give all the Egyptian treasures ever discovered [says Golding] for one cedar box of papyri. Documents are what count: they speak to you, and there are too few of them.’2
Sometimes archivists and historical researchers have the opposite reaction: that there are too many of them. But better too many than the eternal silence when memory has been lost.
For the past century archivists have been arguing over, trying to define, where Archives belong – both documents and the institutions in which they live. Do you file them, as it were, under H for Housekeeping or under C for Culture? Are they Memory, Gossip, Detritus or Entertainment? Are they Administration or do they belong with the Arts, with Libraries or with History?
UMA has an usual nature, as the archival institution for the University itself and also as a distinctive collecting institution, holding the records of a wide range of enterprises and individuals and encouraging research. The breadth of records matters as documents are at their best when surrounded by other documents. The solitary document often refuses to account for itself. You can’t trust it to tell the truth or even to say anything useful at all. But bring other documents, other evidence, your particular knowledge and wisdom to it and it might just be a key to understanding. And that is why we have those long aisles of shelving and those endless runs of seemingly anonymous archival boxes whose contents may lie dormant and unscrutinised by researchers for years. They are there to give testimony, one day, when they are needed.
The keeping of archives in large repositories, as in the University of Melbourne Archives, seldom repays strict economic scrutiny if defined by the demonstrated making of profits. This again places Archives into the cultural category, along with libraries, galleries and museums which have to argue that they earn their keep in indirect and ultimately immeasurable ways. It is possible and sensible to make a defence of the keeping of archives on the basis of the money you save, by good housekeeping if you like. You retain your corporate memory, you are efficient, you avoid expensive lawsuits perhaps. But that is not the chief justification for keeping archives, and keeping them well.
There are some institutions that keep books, as Archives keep documents, simply because they show provenance, scale, perspective, change. Unpredictably some of the documents will turn our to be essential, maybe at a personal level, maybe to illuminate a hypothesis, maybe at a level that has economic meaning. How can you measure the goodwill that the University of Melbourne Archives has brought to the university, the scholars that have been attracted to study here and the scholarship that has resulted?
I will give my own testimony of the power of Documents in the UMA. One of the small collections consists of the business records of the defunct Melbourne goldsmiths James Steeth and Son. These are the people who made the annual Melbourne Cup trophy from just after the first world war until the death of James’s son Maurice in 1970. The contract then went (till 2000) to Maurice’s former apprentice, Fortunato Lucky Rocca who you will still find in business as a goldsmith in Elgin Street, Carlton. After Maurice’s death the Steeth children deposited the company records in the University of Melbourne Archives chiefly, I think, to ensure that the family contribution to goldsmithing was not forgotten. For it is a fact that many items the Steeths made went into the world with the brand of the retailing jeweller on it, usually William Drummond and Co. Steeth and Son had a lovely, eclectic trade, relying heavily on the Catholic church for chalices and crucifixes but also they made dog collars in silver and gold for greyhound racing trophies, and gold wonders for horse racing prizes.
So it was through informal notes in sketchbooks and seemingly inconsequential jottings about weights and dimensions, that I was able to collect and compare data to build the case ultimately to denounce as a fake a gold Melbourne Cup trophy brought to light by a Port Macquarie car dealer and purporting to be Phar Lap’s missing Melbourne Cup trophy from 1930, inscribed as such by forgery.
By matching this information with what might easily have been discarded as unimportant finance ledger entries at the Victoria Racing Club I was then able build up a data base that proved that some Melbourne Cup trophies, chiefly in the 1950s, were not made new at all but had been repurchased second hand, had been stripped of their original engraving by repolishing and had been presented to unsuspecting owners as new. Two or more sets of records, with associated enquiry and research, came together to tell much of the story. In the case of Steeth’s note books, apparently arbitrary comments and numbers became imbued with immense significance.
Many of you may have heard the story now that one of those trophies turned out to have been recycled not just once, but twice, and has been three times a Melbourne Cup. And the most likely hypothesis is that this trophy, last presented in 1980, had started its career in 1930 and was the Phar Lap cup we had been looking for all along.3
Archives tantalise, and each new fact discovered, each new document, modifies a hypothesis. You must have found this in your own researches, whether at the highest academic levels or in your own efforts to climb your way through your family tree. Last week I thought I had found a convict ancestor on the Calcutta, the first settlement ship at Sorrento in 1803 that went on to found Hobart. This week I discover instead he was on the other side, one of the oppressing soldiers who arrived to keep them in check in Van Diemen’s Land. What will I find next week?
1. In the first week of December 2010 the release of confidential US diplomatic cables through the internet site Wikileaks and the arrest in Britain of ‘Australian-born Wikileaks founder’ Julian Assange were the main items of news interest.
3. Andrew Lemon, ‘The Mystery of Phar Lap’s Cup’ in Stephen Howell (ed.), The Story of the Melbourne Cup – Australia’s Greatest Race, Slattery Media Group, Melbourne 2010.