Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Nightmare on Shaw Street: Getting Lost in Shorty's Private Collection

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Nightmare on Shaw Street: Getting Lost in Shorty's Private Collection

Article excerpt

Imagine the need to re-member through the constant repetition of images fixed, condensed, studied on, and made visceral, the need to watch, to chronicle ... the attachment to things that matter, the fascination of objects on which the mind can stare itself out ... Imagine the desire to amass such a place around you, to dig yourself into it, to occupy it.

Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road1

Zeehan's main street is silent and deserted as I drive through at lunchtime. The main street which bisects the town is lined with the abandoned shells of grand old 'frontier' buildings, one of which now houses a cafeteria that is closed as I drive through. Another building, lacking a sign-front, houses ghostly mannequins made up in dated attire, making it difficult to ascertain whether it's a museum of dead styles or another charity clothes shop which would add to the town's strange surplus of op-shops displaying colourful knitted jumpers and stuffed toys. Other shopfronts stand abandoned, windows splintered. When I go to the petrol station to fill up, the booth is unmanned and fuel is only accessible by the swipe of a credit card. After Peter Conrad passed through here in 1987, he added the place to his catalogue of Tasmanian ghost towns, noting 'a rusted cannon parked in a field of daisies outside the cream and blue-trimmed hut of the Returned Servicemen's League, its metal drooping with fatigue and rot'.2

At its height in the 1890s, Zeehan, on Tasmania's wild west coast, was known, somewhat glamorously, as the 'Silver City' for its wealthy silver mines; with a population of over ten thousand it was Tasmania's third largest town. Then, it boasted its own stock market, more than twenty hotels, its own port at Trial Harbour and two theatres. The Gaiety Theatre, attracting performing artists such as Enrico Caruso and Dame Nellie Melba, was, it seems, as Barthes said of the Le Palace theatre, 'a whole apparatus of sensations destined to make people happy, for the interval of a night'.3 Zeehan's sparkle began to fade in the 1920s when the ore bodies gave out, and the last silver mine closed in 1960. The town revived somewhat with the opening of Renison Bell tin mine fifteen kilometres away in the mid-1960s but this also closed in 2005 and workers leftto find work in Western Australia and Queensland. Zeehan's population now hovers around eight hundred; the town still houses a small, itinerant mining population, though this is more likely to work in the mines in nearby Queenstown, Rosebery and Henty, and in the other mines that are opening up in the region such as Renison Bell, now owned by Metals X. Other town residents work in the few shops or services in town, or live on unemployment benefits.

The highlight of the town for the passing tourist-indeed the only place open- is the West Coast Pioneers Memorial Mining Museum, the town's-and the west coast's-official museum. A branch of the state-funded Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the museum won the award for the best regional mining museum in the southern hemisphere, and is said to attract twenty-five thousand visitors a year. The museum appears to be all that saves this town from total dereliction. But so too the museum signals the deathliness that pervades this town. Inside the grand, haunted edifice that once served as the School of Mines and Metallurgy is crammed scores of dead train engines and black and white photographs of the mining towns throughout the west coast. The entire town appears to be vacant except for the figures in these photographs-a mortuary collection of ghosted populations.

The hills surrounding the town are burdened with industrial junk from worked out mines-old cogs, caved-in mine shafts, bits of disused railyard. While mining has not forged anything like the spectacularly grotesque landscape that nearby Queenstown is famous for, Zeehan's hills-densely forested-are pock-marked with abandoned but concealed mine-shafts. In his poem, 'Zeehan's Waste Acres' (1975), Roger McDonald had his subject walk through this landscape where 'Air, metal and rock/grow from the valley-old Hessian and concrete, mullock/cogs, fractured and half-buried bricks', and ask, 'Who else desires it but me? …

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