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2006-03, 349, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Libraries

Book Review: ‘From Australia’s Great Libraries. National Treasures.’

From Australia’s Great Libraries. National Treasures.

Canberra. National Library of Australia. 162pp. $34.95.

Dr Tim Bonyhady, in his Introduction to the National Library’s profusely illustrated catalogue National Treasures, notes that, “exhibitions of ‘treasures’ have a long, though interrupted, history. They were first staged in the 1850s and the 1860s, then again from the 1970s. In both periods the public response has been immense, turning several exhibitions into blockbusters”.

The National Library of Australia’s 2001 exhibition ‘Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries’ was one such blockbuster, attracting more than 115,000 visitors during the eighty days of the exhibition with almost twenty-four hour opening to accommodate demand.

National Treasures, sourced from all of Australia’s national state and territory libraries, will travel to all capital cities until August 2007. Senator Rod Kemp, Minister for the Arts and Sports, said at the opening of the exhibition: “This exhibition brings together a magnificent catalogue of national treasures from the collections of Australia’s greatest libraries”. One caveat here is that treasures from Australia’s ‘great’ university libraries, such as Sydney and Melbourne, fell outside the library scope of the exhibition.

Nonetheless, there are riches, both culturally and financially, in abundance. One hundred and seventy items tell in Kemp’s words: “a unique story of the remarkable people and events that have shaped Australia. They bring our rich history and culture to life in a way that audiences around Australia will be able to enjoy and appreciate in the one place”. Manuscripts, maps, drawings, paintings and objects are organised under eight themes: Under the Southern Cross; Settlement, Land and Nature; Hope and Hardship; Heroes and Villains; War and Loss; Innovation and Industry; National Obsessions; and Culture.

There are some remarkable treasures and juxtapositions of material. The bringing together, for the first time since Captain Cook’s epic 17681771 Endeavour voyage ended, of  Cook’s own Journal (from the National Library) and Joseph Banks’ Journal (from the State Library of New South Wales) is a real coup. Elizabeth Macquarie’s gold earrings, probably unpublicised at the time to prevent a potentially disruptive gold rush in the 1810s, are displayed near to Harold Lasseter’s 1931 outback pre-death diary entry: “What good a (gold) reef worth millions? I would give it all for a loaf of bread.”

Australia’s indigenous culture is represented by several items including a patchwork quilt made by Aboriginal children in Western Australia circa 1845. Australian icons are well represented in physical artefacts. Bush-ranger Ned Kelly’s helmet, worn by him at the siege at Glenrowan on 28 June 1880, is displayed, as is Sir Donald Bradman’s bat with which he made his then world record test score of 334 runs at Leeds in July 1930. Other items include Utzon’s Sydney Opera House designs, the first Qantas log book and the only surviving complete convict uniform in Australia from the 1830s.

Swimmer Shane Gould’s diary of her extraordinary 1972 Munich Olympic Games gold medal success carries a freshness and innocence, particularly set against the background of the PLO terrorist attack on the Israeli team. The original music and lyrics of Waltzing Matilda by Christina Macpherson; the draft version of AB (Banjo) Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River, as well as Norman Lindsay’s original illustrations for The Magic Pudding, are just three other icons in a stunning display of Australian cultural heritage.

Exhibition curator Margaret Dent has stated, “through National Treasures Australians will see their history through new eyes”. The Google generation often bypass library physical buildings. The NLA exhibition reaffirms the importance of libraries for the collection and preservation of heritage material— seeing the physical originals brings history alive. Each item’s textual description and provenance is supplemented by colour illustrations. The National Library website also ensures the coverage of all bases at


The ABC’s comment that this is “arguably the most significant display of Australian history ever mounted”, belies the 1988 comment of art critic Robert Hughes: “People are apt to think of libraries as caves and gullies that support the marginal fauna of public life—the bookworm, the academic, the ‘pseudo-intellectual’ … all you can do in them is read and whisper and not much of the latter”.

The National Library exhibition, the excellent catalogue and the website constitute not a whisper but rather a triumphant roar judged on public accessibility, historical scholarship and cultural impact.

Colin Steele



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