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 incorrect. “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 McShane. “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 this. 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 blood. 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.