University of Melbourne Archives

Vicarious communist: a reflection on the empathetic archivist

Adapted from a presentation given at the symposium ‘Bernie Taft and 1968: Tanks in Prague, Turmoil in Australian Universities’, Friday 24th August 2018 by Jane Beattie, Assistant Archivist, University of Melbourne.

Black and white flyer of an event called Wednesday Night at the CPA. The flyer features cartoon sketches of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx
Wednesday Night at the CPA, flyer, c.1975-1981, Bernie Taft Collection, UMA, 2010.0053.00537


To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 2016, I wrote a blog post about Lloyd Edmonds. Lloyd’s family donated his letters, written mostly to his father, from the battlegrounds in Spain. Lloyd was studying in London when Franco invaded and felt so strongly in the Republican cause, and that Spain should not fall to fascism, that he joined the International brigade, along with 64 other Australians volunteering in Spain. Soon after this anniversary, the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) ran a tutorial for a Hispanic Cultural Studies class, introducing students to the Archives using Lloyd’s letters and other material held at UMA about the war.

Group discussion commonly came back to questions of motivation, and ultimately led to the personal reflection “how far could I go for my beliefs?” Expanding on this question brought up further discussions about other people who went above and beyond to uphold their values; female Australian doctors who were barred from enlisting in World War One, paving their own way to Europe to work with voluntary medical outfits, and more recent examples of the young people who left various countries to fight with and against ISIL. As I started processing the Bernie Taft collection late last year the same question began to resurface; “how far would I go to uphold my values and beliefs?”

Flat lay of archival processing equipment with ‘The Dethronement of Stalin: Full Text of the Khrushchev Speech’. Includes brushes, pencils, erasers, blue gloves and paperclips.
Flat lay of archival processing equipment with ‘The Dethronement of Stalin: Full Text of the Khrushchev Speech’ June 1956, Bernie Taft Collection, UMA 2010.0053.01135

The 107 boxes of the Bernie Taft papers that are now open for researchers illustrate not only the various narratives of the world communist movement but also the commitment of a man to his beliefs. Although I did not get the chance to meet Bernie, there is a certain familiarity. It is not an unexpected result of spending hours reading and describing the life of a person. Germaine Greer curator Rachel Buchanan labelled her section of the Dawson Street offices as ‘Greertown’ and whilst I am yet to call my colleagues comrades, there have been times when communism has been part of my dreams. As Rachel might agree, if you are not careful the person or subject being described can begin to take over how you view the world. Suddenly it seemed like communism was everywhere; I rushed off to see the film The Death of Stalin, became absorbed in the Ken Burns documentary series The Vietnam War, and probably spent a bit too much time discussing the Soviet Union, China and Hungary in conversations with friends.

Stamp depicting Chairman Mao's head and shoulders in the middle of the sun, floating over a crowd of people.
Chinese stamp, 1968, Bernie Taft Collection, UMA, 2010.0053.00997

Before describing the material in a new acquisition, the archivist must understand how the creator of those records used them, and how they arranged them in some kind of system. In archives speak this is the ‘original order’, and with Bernie’s papers, I had a bit of work ahead of me. He described material his many filing cabinets a bit like a to do list, a never-ending register of reading, re-reading, researching and reflecting. The arrangement is at times scattered but also charming. Bernie wrote notes to himself instructing that certain documents be taken on his travels to re-read. He also gave folders titles consisting solely of a date:  a time frame in which he had to read material and then respond to a friend about its content. Multiple bundles of handwritten notes show a mind constantly thinking and planning. There are rushed notes scribbled on the back of pamphlets used during Philip Herington’s campaign for Brunswick, nearly always more passionate than the resulting report to the National Executive. Questions and answers to thoughts that just had to be written down at that precise moment, often on the back of an envelope or a scrap of paper; post it notes became breadcrumbs across decades of work.

These idiosyncrasies are reality for the archivist arranging and describing collection material. Diving deeply into records of a life means the archivist must confront the subjects that arise. Yes, the description of the record is made with objectivity and accessibility for research a top priority, however the imprint of those records onto the person is not objective. At times it can be overwhelming; I felt for colleagues working with the Red Cross POW cards and another Greer archivist who described letters from survivors of sexual assault. The profound and sometimes confronting nature of some of the material held in archives and other cultural institutions means archivists, researchers, and historians must care for their own mental health.

Front ocver of Monas University student newspaper "Lot's Wife" withe headline '1966 - the thirtieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War'. Pablo Picasso's work "Guernica" is below.
‘Lot’s Wife’, Monash University Students’ newspaper, vol. 6 no. 5, 19 April 1966, Bernie Taft Collection, UMA, 2010.0053.00662

UMA ran the Hispanic Cultural Studies class again in 2018, and I was probably a bit too excited that I could add some items about Spain from Bernie’s collection. I had new material that I hoped would connect these students to Franco’s Spain from an Australian perspective. Monash paper Lot’s Wife for example, featured the 30th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil war for most of its April 19 1966 issue, and so students were also introduced to the university as a site of activism, and the role it can play in the political landscape.

Reflecting on the Spanish Civil War and then processing a collection that contains sobering information about the way people have treated each other throughout humanity’s timeline is confronting and frustrating. There is so much history to learn from, held in places like UMA, and yet the same kinds of issues and movements repeat. I will admit to times where I have brought melancholy home with me; a crushing attitude towards humanity and a desire to never pick up a newspaper again. But I am held back from going down that path, and it is because of Bernie. The records have at times pushed me to despair but it is the person who ultimately has the most affect. It is a key lesson. His collection shows the importance of not throwing in the towel, to toil, to treasure and to keep seeking to understand the workings of this world. In a letter to Heinz Timmerman on July 5th 1984 Bernie relates his movements after resigning from the Party and his optimism in creating a new socialist organisation writing “I believe it has a good chance of filling a vacuum in Australian political life which the Communist Party could not achieve.” It is this determination to keep trying to enact change that I found uplifting. Realising that one door closing, slamming perhaps, means that you can open a window and let a new breeze in.

Black and white photograph of Bernie Taft speaking at a microphone
Bernie Taft speaking at a function at the Communist Party of Australia offices in Melbourne, University of Melbourne Archives, Communist Party of Australia, Victorian State Committee Collection, 1991.0152.00005

The publication of an online finding aid for researchers to navigate Taft’s collection is a win for study into Australian communism, the labor and trade union movements, and other interests of Taft’s such as Australian Jewish advocacy and socialist organisations. A significant amount of material from the Marx School and other CPA educational programs can be found, as well as material relating to CPA crisis of the 50s and 70s. There are also publications about communism and other political ideologies and figures, official CPA documents from Taft’s tenures in National Executive and Victorian State Committees, and as joint national secretary; researchers can key word search the full listing found here.

Cover of a song book with two stylized figures in front of the flag of the USSR. Cover is mostly red, yellow and black.
Collection of Russian Songs, undated, Bernie Taft Collection, University of Melbourne Archives, 2010.0053.00092

At the conclusion of this project and it is time to reflect on my learning as archivist and individual. In these past 8 or so months my personal politics have shifted, some beliefs rejected, others strengthened. I realise that my past knowledge of communism had been superficial, and so not only did I get to increase my professional skill but I got a free education in political history – I can say with all honesty that my understanding of the workings of this world got a little deeper and who can really say that in their profession? And so, what the public gain by having this collection open for use, the archivist does too.


International Human Rights Day 2017

Supporting democracy and human rights is one of the six principles of the Universal Declaration on Archives was adopted by the 36th Session of the General Conference of UNESCO on 10th November 2011. In acknowledging International Human Rights Day on the 10th of December each year, archives and their Galleries, Libraries, Museums (GLAM) colleagues have a professional obligation to reflect on their role as custodians of records document human rights violations.

Simba Mumengegwi speaking at the International Human Rights Day rally, University of Melbourne Archives, 10 December 1974, John Ellis Collection, 1999.0081.00778

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Hexed – discoveries and challenges in archiving born-digital records

Lachlan Glanville, Assistant Archivist, Germaine Greer Archive

5 ¼ inch floppy disks from the Germaine Greer Archive
5 ¼ inch floppy disks from the Germaine Greer Archive

Removable media such as floppy disks from the early days of PC ownership are now degrading rapidly and becoming increasingly difficult to access. Without swift action, years of unique records could easily become irrecoverable. Archivists at UMA have been collaborating with colleagues across the University such as Research Platforms, Digital Scholarship and the ESRC on a pilot project on how to extract and preserve digital records. The Greer Archive removable media is one case study. Continue reading “Hexed – discoveries and challenges in archiving born-digital records”

Considering the literary archive: William Gosse Hay

Dr Rachael Weaver
School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne

William Hay and pet magpie Jampot, undated, William Gosse Hay Collection, 2005.0025, University of Melbourne Archives, Unit 24, 9/4/12

I first became interested in the Australian writer William Hay ten years ago, when Ken Gelder and I re-published Hay’s 1921 story, ‘An Australian Rip Van Winkle,’ in our Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction (2007). The tale is a delightfully strange one, about a stockman named Jake, a romantic figure who resembles the writer R. L. Stevenson; only he is ‘slightly more melancholy.’[1] It begins with a meditation on the idea of the ‘nowhere road’ – the kind of mysterious sandy white track that winds its way into the Australian bush and seems to promise all kinds of imaginative destinations. Hay’s quaint story was published a little late in the day to be considered strictly colonial, but something about it seemed to belong to the nineteenth century. Like much of Hay’s writing, it has qualities that are anachronistic and modern at the same time. Continue reading “Considering the literary archive: William Gosse Hay”

Anniversary of the Chinese Republic

Katherine Molyneux

It is a photograph of an dusty street in an unnamed city. There are bicycles and a blurry power line. In the background is a low-rise building that might be a market. In the foreground – dominating the scene – is a ceremonial gate, which appears to be made of wood. It is topped by a large dome.

"10 October: Anniversary Chinese Revolution", c1920s
“10 October: Anniversary Chinese Revolution”, c1920s. University of Melbourne Archives, Una Porter album, 1997.0002 item 7/1

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On Una Porter’s Photograph Album

Oscar T. Serquiña, Jr.

"Wesley college students", 1926
“Wesley college students”, India photograph album, 1926. University of Melbourne Archives, Una Porter album, 1997.0002.00003

A personal photograph collection may reveal the roots and routes of its collector’s life. While its primary function is to collate representations of objects, persons, and events, a collection may also lay bare more than what is visible to the eye. Such is the uncontainable paradox of archival materials, especially photos, after all: on one hand, their enduring presence contracts, as well as suspends in motion, the humanity and entity they capture, but it also allows them to allude to the outside world to which they once belonged or continue to belong, on the other. Such is the case of Una Porter’s photo album in the University of Melbourne archives, which largely contains photographic souvenirs—ranging from portraits of individuals and groups to shots of sprawling landscapes and still lives, to documentations of ordinary objects and lush flora and fauna—from trips to countries such as China, Hong Kong, Japan, Egypt, and India. While some photos seem to have emerged from Porter’s missionary and philanthropic work, others look rather touristy, curious, and quotidian. Continue reading “On Una Porter’s Photograph Album”

“The Thoughtful East” / “Masters. Jaupur”

Nathan McCall

India photograph album, 1926
India photograph album, 1926. University of Melbourne Archives, Una Porter album, 1997.0002.00003

Accompanying the photographs are captions written by Ms Porter. These captions present an insight into Ms Porter’s reactions to some of the people and places that she saw. Of particular interest are three photographs captioned. The first is an image of a bearded man with a Tilaka painted on his forehead, indicating that he is probably of Indian heritage. This image is captioned The Thoughtful East. The second is an image of two western women, clearly distinguished by their clothing and complexions. One of these women is possibly Una Porter herself. This image is captioned The Thoughtless West. The final image is a group photo of twenty Indian men and one white male. The group are wearing of mixture of western attire and Indian garments. This photo is captioned Masters. Jaupur. Individually, these photographs do not provide any context for their creation and rely entirely on the larger photograph album to provide that context and the story of Ms Porter’s journey throughout South Asia. As the entire photograph album has been digitised along with these photographs, the viewer has access to all of Ms Porter’s time in the sub-continent however and makes these three photographs more poignant as a result. Continue reading ““The Thoughtful East” / “Masters. Jaupur””

Narrating Photography

Alice Helme

A picture says a thousand words. We all know that ubiquitous and often overused phrase. It is the cornerstone of art analysis and an art historical approach to dissecting pictorial representations. An image presents a visual narrative, conveying a story or meaning through the silent channels of sight. These narratives are fabled to tell a truth, an unaltered vision of the artists’ projected thoughts, or convey a reality of time and place. Photographs have always been revered as a mode of truth telling, as opposed to paintings and other figurative art forms that are imagined from the mind of the artist. Their image captures a moment, and in that scene of suspended time the photographer presents exactly what they saw. We are presented with the perspective of the photographer, or their directed framing of a scene. The image speaks for itself, to use another popular idiom. But what happens when alongside the photograph or series of photographs there are captions and a specific order, all of which were placed and curated by the photographer themselves? Does the meaning alter? And if so, does it reveal a kind of commentary by the photographer? Is this added information then lost in the processes of digitisation and online viewing?

"Outcastes", India photograph album, 1926
“Outcastes”, India photograph album, 1926. University of Melbourne Archives, Una Porter album, 1997.0002.00003

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“Dom Types”

Charmaine Toh

"Dom types", photograph album, 1926
“Dom types”, photograph album, 1926. Una Porter collection, 1997.0002.00003, University of Melbourne Archives

Martyn Jolly has noted that photographic albums were both oral and visual records – their owners would show them to friends and family accompanied by an oral narrative.1 This oral element is of course now lost, but I raise it that we might recognize the importance of situating the individual elements of such archival material within a broader context. In the case of this album, it seems to have been put together to narrate Porter’s philanthropic efforts in India. It is certainly more “formal” in tone than the other Porter album in the archive, which includes photos of family and friends and even her pet dog. One can speculate that Porter would have shown the India album to raise awareness of the situation in India and perhaps to even persuade her audience to support more of such efforts.2 Martyn Jolly, “An Australian Spiritualist’s Personal Cartes-de-Visite Album,” in Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920, ed. Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci (North Melbourne, Vic: Australian Scholarly Publishing Pty Ltd, 2015), 71–72. Continue reading ““Dom Types””

Una Porter Photo Album

Una Porter, c1990
Una Porter, c1990. University of Melbourne Archives, Una Porter collection 1997.0002.00001

Una Porter’s photographic albums, held in the University of Melbourne’s archives, present labelled photographs narrating her journey through China, Hong Kong, Japan, and India during the 1920s. Porter undertook her tour on a philanthropic mission, documenting her travels and compiling two albums of the photos she took. The albums are particularly important in revealing information about Una Porter’s missionary work abroad and the route she took, presenting a visual account of the Western experience in Asia. Continue reading “Una Porter Photo Album”

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