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The dumpster. It’s the call librarians dread. The tip-off that a valuable collection has been trashed. A concerned neighbour or eagle-eyed historian spots books or documents. Boxes of stuff are rescued. The library is alerted.
But libraries can’t collect everything. Patient explanations are made. Collection policies are invoked. Is the material significant? Disappointment spreads. Priceless material has been rejected. Complaints are made. Who said the librarian has an easy life?
I’m making this up, of course. I’m not a librarian, and in many cases this scenario has a positive outcome. Priceless material is saved every week. We are all the beneficiaries and indeed the protectors of the state’s cultural collections.
Robert Hallams’ 35 mm colour photographic slides are one example of a happy ending. And as curator of the Library’s exhibition Planting Dreams: Shaping Australian Gardens, I’m in the fortunate position of helping to breathe new life into this largely forgotten collection.
In many ways, Hallams’ photographs help us understand the main aims of the exhibition: to examine how and why we create gardens and to trace the sources of our garden-making ideas.
Gardening is a passion for many Australians. It gives pleasure, sustenance and dignity to daily lives. It cuts across cultural, social and national boundaries like few other activities.
But it also helps define those boundaries. Gardens touch on spiritual values and cultural traditions. Landscapes tell of deep attachment to place and country, the comfort of seasonal delights, the mystery of beauty.
With its broad collection of rare books, photographs, manuscripts and ephemera, the Library is almost uniquely placed to tell these stories. I’ve been using these resources since I was a student in the 1970s and I’m always astonished at the breadth of works held here.
But I had not come across the Hallams collection until recently. Since its rescue from the proverbial dumpster in 1993, it has sat undisturbed in basement storage. During my research for the exhibition, I spent a privileged hour flicking through the slides, alive to the potential of the quirky and the obscure.
Comprising over 1800 colour transparencies from the 1960s and 70s, this collection evokes all the innocence and charm of an old-fashioned slide night. And perhaps even a touch of the boredom, as Uncle Neville reaches for the third or fourth carousel of slides. Here is the car park at Ryde shopping centre, there the flowerbeds at Parramatta psychiatric hospital and, coming up, a faux Georgian display house at Faulconbridge. Hardly the stuff of dreams, you might think.
Yet I was electrified when I saw this collection! The Library bulges with early colonial material, which can be easily accessed through vast digital portals. But contemporary garden material is much harder to locate, waiting in boxes of manuscripts or closeted among ephemeral publications such as real estate plans or nursery catalogues. And even among these riches, the Hallams slides are gems.
What beguiled the Library’s acquisitions team when they acquired the collection is easy to see. The slides are meticulously labelled and dated. (How many of us could say the same of our personal photos?) The transparencies are shot on relatively stable Kodachrome stock. And the images are prosaic to the point of perfection, capturing the ordinary and the normal with a flair for artless composition and deathless charm.
Suddenly the Ryde shopping centre car park can be seen in the context of Sydney’s postwar suburban modernism, the flowerbeds at Parramatta as the last gasps of Victorian moral welfare, and the neo-colonial style of a Faulconbridge house as part of an emerging national identity.
Gardens were not the main focus of Robert Hallams and his camera. The amateur photographer from the northern Sydney suburb of Eastwood, who died in 1981, captured a much wider range of city, suburban and rural imagery. But in the record of this phase of Australia’s social and cultural history, the garden stands as a marker of tradition and change. Rocket-shaped playground equipment at Earlwood sits alongside spiky rockeries; front gardens, clipped and prim, vie for attention with vases of dahlias and gladioli.
This is the Australia of Edna Everage and Norman Gunston. Yet this collection is not a parody. These slides are the real deal, documenting gardens in their unwitting fashion for Australia’s national memory.
This article first appeared in SL magazine, Spring 2016