The Chamberlain Collection at the National Museum of Australia

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					The Chamberlain Collection at the National Museum of Australia
Chamberlain Symposium - August 14 2005

Key messages:
   o Comprehensiveness and power of collection
   o Ongoing public fascination
   o Personal collecting/public collection

1. Introduction
I’d like to thank the conference organisers for inviting me here to speak about the
Chamberlain Collection held at the National Museum of Australia [NMA].

The material related to the Chamberlain’s story is certainly one of the most fascinating
collections that has been entrusted to the Museum. Over 250 items in total that document
every aspect of events surrounding the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain and the
subsequent experiences of her family.        Formed through working closely with the
Chamberlain-Creighton family the collection will continue to be an invaluable resource
for researchers, historians, curators and the endlessly fascinated public.

Putting together the collection has not been without controversy. Both the Museum and
the Chamberlain-Creighton family have faced criticism on a range of fronts for our work
together. During the early years of collecting many saw the collection as being altogether
in bad taste. The collecting project was seen as another way in which Lindy was profiting
and exploiting her experiences. The Museum was criticised for participating in this profit
making exercise, somehow aiding and abetting the perceived exploitation. A number of
people expressed the opinion that the case too recent, the wounds too raw for the
Museum to have anything to do with it.

The collection began to take form when Mrs Chamberlain began her work with the
National Library of Australia [NLA] to document her massive archival collection in
1992. During the course of this work it became apparent that she had also amassed a
significant material culture collection for which the Library was not the most appropriate
home. When news of the NLA & NMA collections made it to the press there was initial
outrage with the Sydney Morning Herald declaring on the 7th of October 1993 ‘Azaria’s
jacket sold by Lindy’ (f.127 file 92/339) - seemingly another crime to add to the list.

The Museum was forced to issue a press release justifying the collecting activity and
stating that:

      Azaria’s matinee jacket not in Museum’s Chamberlain Collection

      The National museum has acquired a collection of personal items
      relating to the Chamberlain case, however speculation today that
      Azaria Chamberlain’s matinee jacket is among the items obtained is

      “We have recently acquired items relating to the Chamberlain case.
      Some items have been donated, others have been purchased and
      negotiations are still going on for further items. Until those
      negotiations are complete, the Museum cannot reveal details about the
      collection or the nature of the acquisition” said Senior Curator, Ian

      “The Chamberlain case was a very significant event in Australia’s
      history. We believe the collection is relevant and important for a
      number of reasons. It illustrates issues relating to the administration of
      justice, religious beliefs, attitudes towards women, Australian’s
      perception of their environment and media history.

      “It is for these reasons that we are acquiring this material, which we
      will display at some stage in the future”
Collecting work proceeded and the first display using the material, a small exhibition
called Lindy’s story, opened in 1994 to coincide with the staging of the opera Lindy, a
the National Festival of Australian Theatre.

The publicity surrounding this exhibition was an interesting test of public opinion and
mood a full fourteen years after the disappearance of Azaria. Liz Noonan, from one of
the Chamberlain Support Groups, who contributed some of the ‘joke’ t-shirts sold during
the trial to the collection stated in an interview that she felt that the exhibition was
important as it kept the case in the public mind. Perhaps it was this very thing that made
so many others uncomfortable with the display. There was a high level of discomfort and
a feeling this was too recent an event to be true history. The case had gone from flavour
of the month to something that left a bad taste in the mouths of many Australians who
would have preferred to forget. Most particularly people were keen to forget their own
fascination and participation in the frenzy of speculation that surrounded the case.
For others it was the immediacy itself that gave the display such power. High profile
playright and author Robyn Archer commented that:

‘What the exhibition does for me, is remind me of my immediate history – this was
something that I lived through’.
Adelaide Advertiser article – October 12 1994, pg3

The power of engaging with a living history was an important part of the second use of
material from the collection when, in 2001, we used Azaria’s black dress within the
Eternity exhibition when the Museum opened our permanent building at Acton Peninsula.

                                   The Eternity exhibition features the stories of fifty
                                   individuals. The individuals are grouped under emotive
                                   themes such as joy, hope, chance and passion. Azaria’s
                                   story was placed under the theme of mystery. Not to
                                   examine the disappearance itself but focusing on the
                                   mystery of the public’s fascination with the case – just
                                   why did this one event cause such upheaval, disruption
                                   and attention. The black dress was and is such a powerful
symbol of the ability of the public to judge, not judgements based on fact but judgements
of people, of behaviour and of their own perceptions of what is right and wrong and
therefore who is guilty and who is innocent.

The real power of the Chamberlain collection and the display of the material is the ability
of material culture, of real objects to remind us all that we are not dealing with fiction –
we are dealing with real people, real events.

In 2000 article written for the Australian magazine Paul Toohey wrote that: Lindy and
Michael Chamberlain became totally fictitious human beings, characters unrecognisable
even to themselves.

Lindy herself reminds us all of the reality of the case in her autobiography when she
states that:

        This is the story of a little girl who lived, and breathed, and loved, and
        was loved.
        Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton

This statement is at the heart of the collection of the National Museum. More than
anything else what objects serve to do is to connect us with an immediacy and an
intimacy to real people, to actual events. They often do this with a greater power than any
number of words can manage. As a visitor stands before a case that contains possessions
of a family that could have belonged to them, that could still belong to them, they are
reminded that these events are not fiction, that these people are real, living, breathing
individuals - people who felt, suffered and survived.

When viewed as a whole the collection documents every stage of events surrounding the
Chamberlain case. A brief look at some of the items from the collection demonstrates
We hold some material that helps to document Azaria’s own short life – dresses and
jumpsuits belonging and worn by that little living, breathing child. These items were
worn on the trip to Uluru.

The camping trip itself is represented in a range of objects including this lantern torch -
used to light the tent while Azaria was being fed. The tent pegs took on special
significance following the discovery by police of a bible in which the story of sacrifice of
Jael (pg173) using a tent peg was found supposedly marked in the Chamberlain’s house.
This parka is one of the items of clothing worn on the evening of the 17th. It bears the
marks of the forensic investigation.

This is another strong element to the collection. Many items still bear their evidence and
inquest tags. A number of items bear the scars of dismemberment for scientific analysis.
Here are some of the mattresses used at the campsite. Also used is the trial’s scene of
incident maps. A different element of the trials and inquests is represented by objects
such as this souvenir tea towel from the trial - a nice memento to take home.

Some of the objects, like the black dress, have become iconic.
Some take on significance as you read transcripts of the trials
and inquests or Lindy’s autobiography – important markers in
the trail such as the space blanket on which the dingo prints
were discovered only to disappear once the blanket was taken
by police. Or the miniature coffin used by Michael Chamberlain in his anti-smoking
campaigns but seen by police as further evidence of the Chamberlain’s guilt.

There are a large number of objects within the
collection that document Lindy’s prison experience.
These range from official symbols and uniforms such
as her cell door number and her smock worn during
craft activities. But also include more intimate items
that help us to document some of the sorrow brought
about through separation from loved ones such as this
– a small lock of hair sent to Lindy from her daughter Kahlia’s first hair cut.
The collection also includes material related to the Chamberlain’s experiences post
Lindy’s release. The dress Lindy wore on her way home. Or a range of props from the
making of the film Evil Angels.

This cushion was used during Azaria’s memorial service. This next cushion was the prop
used in the film – demonstrating both the accuracy of many small details in production as
well as the need for film to create objects larger than life.
This is the t-shirt that was worn by the production crew on the set. This biscuit tin was
gnawed at by dingos and was given to Lindy by the dingo trainer. Or this magnetic
sticker used to transform a vehicle into an official paddy wagon.

When seen together these objects demonstrate their ability to illustrate some of the key
aspects of the events surrounding the Chamberlain’s ordeal. They speak to issues of
public opinion, media and ethics, life behind bars, family relationships, religious
intolerance as well as attitudes towards the Australian environment, women and justice.

As a donor and a collector Lindy has been a remarkable resource for the Museum. Her
own experiences of public scrutiny and analysis have made her a remarkably perceptive
collector and archivist. This is a woman who is used to having her belongings handled in
the most public of ways. Many of these objects have been analysed, criticised and used
by police, the media and the public in order that they can make assessments of her. This
brings about a remarkable, and rather unique, perceptiveness of the power of material
culture. Lindy has used personal sentiment as well as her understanding of these issues to
put together this collection with us.
Lindy’s story is still featured in the Eternity gallery. The object on display is a piece of
metal from the Chamberlain’s Torana that was said to have been splattered with Azaria’s

Paul Toohey – in the same article I mentioned earlier from 2000 stated that:

      Lindy Chamberlain’s trail, conviction and jailing were more an event
      than a legal process. The events were managed by men, but it was the
      testimony of a woman – Joy Kuhl – that did the real damage. Her
      evidence was a picture of a Holden Torana awash with the blood of
      the baby. Anyone who claims he or she didn’t venture an opinion at
      the time on how it got there is either a saint or a liar.
      The Australian magazine July 15-16 2000 pg. 18

This object speaks strongly then to two issues - Firstly the fallibility of science. The
inability of scientists to distinguish between sound deadening fluid and blood
demonstrates that scientists are still human and that scientific evidence is still a matter of
interpretation and extrapolation. It is in the face of this type of evidence that it is still
highly relevant to wonder ‘what if that were me?’ How much trust do we place in science
and what role does it play in our justice system.

Importantly the object still also speaks to the issue of public fascination. As the majority
of content within the Eternity gallery is delivered electronically it is possible to gather
statistics on how often stories are accessed within the gallery. It is interesting now to
note that 25 years on from Azaria’s disappearance on a daily basis Lindy’s story is
reliably the second most accessed story on any given day (beaten only by the Wiggles
and let’s face it there are four of them).

This continuing fascination is testament to the power of the collection and the importance
of this story in the public’s understanding and imagining of Australian history.

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