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					Prime Ministerial homes

Sam Malloy

My passion and career has always been based around public history and house museums.
For thirteen years I was the manager of Miss Traill’s House and Garden, a National Trust
owned property in Bathurst, and I have also been associated with a diverse range of
projects, including oral history research, exhibitions, and specialised lectures and public
programs. In my present role as the coordinator of the Chifley Home museum in Bathurst, I
have been intrigued with the homes of Australian Prime Ministers, particularly those which
are now in public ownership. Chifley Home, where I have worked since 2000, was the
former home of post-war Prime Minister Ben Chifley and his wife, Elizabeth. The house,
together with its original collection, has been a house museum operated by Bathurst
Regional Council since 1973 – besides being the longest serving house museum of an
Australian Prime Minister, it is the only one in New South Wales.

The purpose of my Fellowship was to produce a research paper that formed a comparative
study of three house museums in Australia that were once homes to Australian Prime
Ministers. This is the first time that such a study has been compiled on this topic in the
genre of Australian political history or public history. The three Prime Ministerial homes that
I studied were: the home of Joseph Lyons, ‘Home Hill’ in Devonport, Tasmania; the home of
John Curtin, the ‘Curtin Family Home’ in Cottesloe, Western Australia; and of course, the
‘Chifley Home’ in Bathurst.

In my research I set out not only to understand these homes from an historical viewpoint –
how and when were they used by the respective Prime Ministers - but I also wanted to
discover how the houses reflected their roles as public figures, and privately, as members of
a family and a neighbourhood. It was not only the physical structures of the houses that
played a part in my assessment - it included the rooms and the interior features, the
collections both personal and ceremonial, the gardens and backyards, and the ordinary
community of the immediate neighbourhoods.

As publicly owned heritage sites, I discovered that the three homes were places that
powerfully expressed who the Prime Ministers were through other members of their family,
whether they be the wives, children or extended family members. The family are
fundamental in understanding better the character and careers of the Prime Ministers both
as private and public figures - and the homes and their surroundings provide a unique
opportunity to do this in a close-up and personal way. For the homes of Lyons and Chifley,
the stories of the Prime Ministers are told through regular guided tours and public programs
– but with the Curtin Family Home, these stories are explored through designated events
and open days as the house is normally leased to short-term select tenants or for an artist-
in-residency program.

One of the most revealing aspects of my research was that the three homes were pivotal in
exploring the stories of Lyons, Curtin and Chifley before they were Prime Ministers –
whether it was the struggles they endured as fresh political personalities in their electorates,
serving as frustrated back-benchers, or that of forced periods away from politics due to
election losses. In the case of Curtin and Chifley, their homes told of earlier and totally
different careers, one a journalist and the other a railway worker.

With the houses, my research would not have been completed without analysing the
collections belonging to each of the homes and what they expressed in their role in public
history interpretation. There is nothing more powerful or meaningful than the visual effect
and the stories behind collection pieces; particularly in a house museum context where the
objects are mostly in-situ and their sense of immediacy to the occupants are both personal
and compelling. All three Prime Ministers’ homes have a diverse and fascinating collection
of ordinary household items, on display or in storage, together with family heirlooms and
gifts, and ceremonial pieces presented to the Prime Ministers to mark important national
events – a time when Prime Ministers were allowed to keep such gifts as part of their
personal property.

What was particularly rewarding about my investigation were the oral histories and stories
that have been gathered from various members of the Prime Ministers’ families, friends and
colleagues, and equally important, ordinary people who lived as neighbours and members of
the community. A lot of crucial evidence in recent years has been documented on how the
Prime Ministers lived when at home, the daily lives of other family members, the layout and
furnishings of the rooms, and how the houses were used. Such memories are now
transcribed in all forms of museum interpretative material and public programs at the Prime
Ministers’ homes, ranging from guided tours, exhibitions, booklets, audio tours, film and
theatre.

My research was a joy to undertake – not only for what I saw and experienced, but the
people I met along the way. These included staff, committee members and volunteers at the
Lyons and Curtin homes, whose passion and enthusiasm are the driving force behind their
success as museums – a particular highlight was meeting two of Joseph Lyons’ remaining
sons, Barry and Peter. I also received invaluable assistance from the staff at the John Curtin
Prime Ministerial Library in Perth.

My research paper will be published online with the Australian Prime Ministers Centre from
August 2011. It is hoped that the research will form the basis of a travelling exhibition
together with an illustrated publication devoted to the theme of former homes of Australian
Prime Ministers. Finally though, I would like to thank the Museum of Australian Democracy
and particularly the staff at the Australian Prime Ministers Centre who gave me this once in a
life-time opportunity – their ever-present support and encouragement were fundamental in
the enjoyment and success of this project.



July 2011

				
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