Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

'Progress Is Great ... ': Making Sense of the Colonial Past in Outback Australia

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

'Progress Is Great ... ': Making Sense of the Colonial Past in Outback Australia

Article excerpt


Over the past seven years I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the small country town of Ceduna in the South Australian outback. Ceduna lies on South Australia's far west coast, the last in a string of isolated settlements beyond which looms the desolate stretch of the Nullabor Plain. This article is both about Ceduna locals' everyday attempts to make sense of the colonial past, and about my attempt as an ethnographer to get a grip on the past(s) of this place. I will have more to say about the relationship between ethnography and history shortly. But I begin this essay by traipsing through a particularly redolent 'site of memory': the local museum.1 While living in Ceduna in 2008 and 2009 I visited this museum on a number of occasions.

Upon entering the museum building, the visitor sees an old barber's chair with a yellowing, brown-studded leather seatback and ribbed silver footrests. A caption is attached: 'PROGRESS IS GREAT THE CHAIR REPLACED THE KEROSENE CASE IN THE BARBERS SHOP.' A wall lined with grainy, black and white images features photos of a camel team in front of the Globe Hotel, Fowlers Bay, in the late 1800s; bagged wheat being loaded on the train to be railed to Thevenard jetty in 1960; the cutting of hay with horses at Coorabie in the 1920s; a mouse plague in the wheat stacks at Denial Bay in 1917; the Waratah Gypsum Plaster Factory at Thevenard in 1959; assorted football teams and a new year's day picnic at Laura Bay in 1910-the women sitting stiffly for the portrait in long, white dresses amidst the low-lying scrub.

In the next room a cabinet contains football club medals; a watch and chain; a death penny given to the family of a man killed in World War I; sea opals; World War II souvenirs; a pocket watch; a photo of a bark hut at Laura Bay; a German hymn book. Another cabinet contains petrified wood; some chipped-offpieces of the Berlin Wall; a seahorse; eunusual small toolsf (according to the caption); some fossils; a handful of bird eggs and a collection of what I recognise as Aboriginal stone implements. A wooden school desk is crammed with Empire-Corona, Imperial 200, Remington Portable and Royal typewriters, some of them labelled with the names of their donor. Another is cluttered with rusted lamb bells and kerosene lamps. A blue galvanised iron babyfs bath is captioned: eMade by F.A. Blumson in 1947. Used by his daughters Valerie, Shirley and Reva and son Kelvin.

Floorboards creak underfoot as the visitor moves first from room to room, then outside and into a series of sheds. These display, among other things, wheat farming machinery and a cavernous whale's skeleton which once washed ashore.

Walter Benjamin's 'angel of history' famously had his face turned towards the past. 'Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.'2 Inside the Ceduna Museum, the angel of history sees perhaps not a single catastrophe but certainly the past as a single moment. The relics and wreckage of this time-before now-accumulate.

The barbers' chair's insouciant caption references progress, and the museum also emphasises a point of origin, giving prominence to a copy of an 1896 petition to the Surveyor General's office requesting the 'Government grant the surveying of a Township and erection of a Telegraph office' at a landing place on Murat Bay.3 Twenty-five farmers, a grazier, a blacksmith and a master mariner signed the petition, which eventually led to the surveying of the Ceduna township in 1900.4 But the urge to narrate progress within the museum or, indeed, the urge to establish any kind of linear narrative, has been sublimated to the urge to accumulate and acquire. The effect is a local museum that does not narrate, but instead piles material wreckage upon which little order or sequencing has been imposed. The collecting criteria for these objects appears to be that a thing either be old, or resembles something old, and thus is designated the subject of history. …

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