A Tale of Two Heritages
Shane Talia is a recent graduate of the Master of Cultural Heritage program at Deakin University. From October 2013 to March 2014, he completed an internship as an Archival Documentation Project Officer at UMA. This placement formed part of the University’s 2013 Cultural Collections Projects Program.
The values, ideologies and ambitions of a corporation are generally legible through the tools it adopts to articulate its real, envisaged or desired ‘essence’. The most widely identifiable means of expressing this ‘essence’, apart from the name of the corporation itself, is through strategic visual and symbolic means, i.e. the design and function of logos, crests, coats of arms or flags. These visual tools serve as integrated markers for a definable corporate cultural identity, unifying messages about this identity to key, but sometimes disparate, stakeholders. Likewise, they build consumer trust towards a corporate brand; reinforce a specific set of values; and just as significantly, nurture said brand’s reputation and recognisability. Where identity-building and cultural meaning-making are concerned, visual semiotics theory accepts the equally instrumental role played between, for instance, a workplace uniform’s colour scheme, and the imagery developed for a corporate advertising campaign. Therefore, to convey these shared values and identity attributes consistently, these visual elements should synergise to establish a coherent ‘corporate identity structure’ for an organisation.
So how does a corporate entity reconcile this objective of narrative coherence with evolving values and identities over the period of 130 years, especially where significant organisational diversification or change has occurred? And how do emerging trends associated with the broader socio-cultural and political context within which an organisation is embedded harmonise with such significant events? The findings of my internship project at UMA on the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia’s (NMLA) collections uncover this interplay between cultural contexts and two distinct corporate histories, within the historical framework of its merger with another life assurance mutual society. In this placement, I provenanced, inventoried and documented a series of almost 220 objects that belonged to NMLA during its 130 years of operation, including office machines, portraits, and most relevant to this article, flags, plaques and ephemera bearing the company’s changing logos.
One of the oldest objects in the collection is a crest plate on a wooden backing (reference 2013.0112.0051). The lower segment of the plate features the lion and unicorn of the Royal Coat of Arms, the enclosing garter ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’ (God and my right), and the accompanying Latin inscription ‘Quis Separabit’ (Who shall separate us?); a motto adopted by the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick in 1783. The Royal Coat of Arms has assumed several forms during Britain’s monarchical history, but NMLA’s version aligns with that of the Hanover succession and therefore the reign of Queen Victoria, during which period NMLA was founded. A palm tree towers over the coat of arms, representing NMLA’s centre of operations in the Southern Hemisphere. This introduces a marked visual dichotomy between the imperial and colonised subjects, making this object a quintessential product of its socio-political context – at least at face value. Of course, Australia was yet to federalise when this logo was developed, so paying homage to the imperial power under which it was conceived seems natural enough. But in delving deeper into NMLA’s history, one detects an interesting nuance within this dichotomy. In its early years of administration, NMLA’s cornerstone of service and business practice was ‘enterprise with stability’, and the company pinned its faith in treating enterprise and stability as mutually indispensable and exclusive values to ensure a successful business. In fact, enterprising approaches to life assurance translated to a number of ambitious innovations by the organisation’s founding fathers including, for instance, the principle that NMLA should be wholly mutual without favouring any one policyholder. That being said, Britain’s staid life assurance sector looked askance at these ideas, despite the fact that the ideas ultimately proved to have a profound positive influence on practice globally. Regardless of the gulf of insurance practice ideas that alienated these two worlds, the Crown was to remain the subject of colonial allegiance and thus drove at the helm of NMLA’s most prominent identity anchors – for the time being.
It was not until some 90 years after the foundation of the organisation that we see significant evidence of the organisation taking bold new steps to democratise its brand-building strategies, and who better to reflect the current and future values of the organisation than the coalface? In the mid-1950s, senior management invited its employees to design its house flag: ‘would it not give character, interest and identity to our buildings if we had a National Mutual house flag which could be flown all year round?’ Adopting Australia’s unofficial green and gold colour scheme, the winning design (reference 2013.0112.0058) combines a more-than-ever robust impression of Australian national identity with evidence of a burgeoning sense of self-contained cultural identity as a corporation. It mirrors the template of the Australian flag with its inclusion of the Southern Cross in the field of the flag and the Commonwealth Star (also known as the Star of Federation) in the lower hoist region. However, the NMLA acronym sits in place of the Union Jack in the canton, bypassing any commitment to necessarily acknowledge our British colonial history here. NMLA’s own sense of self is further corroborated by the binary function the flag’s Southern Cross performs in representing the five-star constellation of the Southern Hemisphere and, on a more symbolic level, the five continents in which the organisation operated its international offices during this era.
This winning design was subsequently replicated in NMLA logos used elsewhere at this time. Held in the collection are two lever-armed seal makers (provenanced to the 1950s-60s) that produce an embossed impression of the company logo crest onto paper (2013.0112.0003/2013.0112.0004). There is a slight variation between the seals and the flag, however, and further variations of this logo design are found in later objects of this series. This lack of consistency may be a symptom of National Mutual not having yet introduced any corporate identity guidelines to regulate the visual presentation of its core company values. This would not occur until the mid-1980s.
By the early 1970s, NMLA had completely extricated itself from symbolic gestures of both its loyalty to the nation’s once imperial powerhouse and the well-established climate of nationalism that surrounded the company, instead opting for a politically benign logo. NMLA was finally standing on its own two feet. It had recently reached its 100th anniversary milestone, and was therefore primed to incorporate a more relaxed symbol that would usher it into a second century of administration, with a readier sense of ‘cultural self’ unfettered by its national socio-cultural milieu. Designed in the late 1960s and in use by the early 1970s, the superimposed ‘NM’ letters are well recognised today thanks to a high television-campaign profile in the 1980s. Affectionately dubbed ‘the worm’ due to the likeness of the ‘N’ to a crawling red worm, this logo figures on a number of objects, including house flags and advertising signage (see reference 2013.0112.0163).
At the height of ‘the worm’s’ recognisability, perhaps the most significant event to impact on the organisation’s cultural evolution was its merger with T&G (Temperance and General) Mutual Life Assurance Society in 1983, as this gave rise to significant expansion into the Asia-Pacific. T&G was founded in Victoria in 1876, and for its first six years it was led by the Independent Order of Rechabites, a Friendly Society that staunchly espoused the British temperance principles of complete abstinence from alcohol. During this era, Friendly Societies played an important role in the colonies as guardians of the property and savings of its people – critical during an era of non-existent social services. Eventually, T&G served the interests of both abstainers and non-abstainers (hence General), but policies and expenditures of both sets of clientele were divided in its early years, engendering a policy and culture of marked segregation.
In 1983-84, we saw recognition of this merger with the brief use of dual logos (see references 2013.0112.0068/2013.0112.0166). However, this was short-lived in an apparent bid to assimilate T&G swiftly into the fold, and perhaps even to shirk any residual associations with the traditional values of the temperance movement. This blended logo strategy may have been a savvy customer retention tool for existing policyholders, as well as a means of facilitating cultural transition for the organisation’s broader stakeholder-base. The corporate identity guidelines introduced in the 1980s for NMLA could not have come about at a more appropriate era for the company, it seems.
Alongside its NMLA-branded coffee mugs, swizzle sticks and other ephemera, series 2013.0012 is a rich source of T&G objects depicting founding figures and extra-organisational landmark events during its administration. Such objects include an oil painting of John Toon, first T&G chairman (2013.0112.0112), a roll of honour for staff casualties of the Great War (2013.0112.0121) and – perhaps most amusingly by modern standards – a framed loyalty statement dedicated to a 1920’s branch manager from his staff (2013.0112.0122).
These are but a few of the T&G objects that, as a standalone collection, are significant for the wide palette of historic and social values they encapsulate. As an embedded collection within the whole series, the T&G contingent does not shy away from honouring the heroes of a successful mutual assurance practice, and the visions of moderation and abstinence that the company’s figureheads articulated in their work. Cognisant of this scope of heritage significance, I documented the confluence of shared corporate heritages that constitutes series 2013.0012 with some philosophical trepidation. From the viewpoint of best information-management practice, I appreciate the historical context of UMA’s custodianship of these objects, and thus, the need to inventory the merged identities of both organisations in the one archival series – in other words, to remain faithful to T&G’s ultimate fate. However, when it comes to expounding these values more deeply, the heritage student in me questions whether merging both parties’ collections into one archival series is tantamount to discounting the independent relics of corporate heritage that both companies amassed prior to merging. Archaeologist Tim Murray writes – albeit in a completely removed context – ‘[t]he existence of ‘shared histories’ and ‘shared identities’ does not mean that there can ever be or should ever be a single account of those histories or those identities’. This quotation underscores the powerful role that an exhibition or interpretation program would play in unpacking both the intermingling and separate strands of narrative and identity that encompass both organisations; strands that have otherwise been fused together in my documentation of these objects as a single series. Perhaps a future project for UMA?
Corporate entities absorb complexly layered internal and external cultural contexts within which they operate, reflecting these cultural attributes strategically and subconsciously in their visual identity markers. Moreover, corporate material culture – as a supplement to archival material, oral histories and secondary resources – is an indisputably rich resource for revealing tales about an organisation’s own cultural identity or merged identities, and its responses to broader social and cultural contexts.
 Balmer 2012, pp.290-291
 Olins (1989) examines this area of corporate visual identity in more depth.
 National Mutual Life Association operated under that name from 1869. In 1995 it demutualised and AXA gained 51% of ownership. In 1999, it changed its name to AXA Asia-Pacific as part of the merger process (AMP n.d., n.p.)
 National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1957, p.13
 National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1969, p.5
 National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1969, p.9
 National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1969, p.6
 National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1956, p.18
 ‘Australia’s national colours, green and gold, were popular and well loved by Australians long before they were officially proclaimed by the Governor-General on 19 April 1984’. In fact, they were used at international sporting events prior to Federation (Australia.gov.au, n.d., n.p.).
 NMLA 1992(b), p.3
 Kousidis, C & McLaughlin, H 2008, p.26
 Thomas 1976, p.1
 AXA Asia Pacific Holdings deposited this blended series (original control codes: NMLS 1-370) in 2007.
 Murray (2002, p.218)
AMP, About AMP, retrieved 29 July 2014, https://www.amp.com.au/wps/portal/au/AMPAUMiniSite3C?vigurl=%2Fvgn-ext-templating%2Fv%2Findex.jsp%3Fvgnextoid%3D06dc6b05196e1210VgnVCM10000083d20d0aRCRD
Australia.gov.au n.d., Our National Symbols, retrieved 29 July 2014, http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/our-country/our-national-symbols#Australiasnationalcolours
Balmer, J.M.T in Juergensmeyer, M & Anteier, H. K (eds) 2012, Encyclopedia of Global Studies, Sage Publications, Santa Barbara, USA
Kotter, J.P. & Heskett, J.L. 1992, Corporate Culture and Performance, The Free Press, New York, New York, USA
Kousidis, C & McLaughlin, H 2008, ‘The AXA Collection: Discovering the Social Value of Business Records’, University of Melbourne Collections, vol. July, no. 2, retrieved 2 August 2014, https://www.unimelb.edu.au/culturalcollections/research/collections2/kousidis.pdf
Murray, T 2002, ‘Epilogue: An Archaeology of Indigenous/Non-Indigenous Australia from 1788’, in Harrison, R & Williams, C (eds.), After Captain Cook: The Archaeology of the Recent Indigenous Past in Australia, Archaeological Computing Laboratory, University of Sydney, NSW
National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1956, ‘Wanted – A House Flag’, Enemelay, vol. 1956, issue June, p.18
National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1957, ‘The Story of the Association’s Seal’, Enemelay, vol. 1957, issue September, p.13
National Mutual Life Association of Australasia 1969, A Century of Life: The Story of the First One Hundred Years of the National Mutual Life, National Mutual Life Association of Australasia, Melbourne
National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1992(a), ‘The Evolution of the Worm’, Enemelay, vol. 1992, issue July, p.2
National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd 1992(b), ‘Looking After Our Image: The New Corporate Identity Standards’, Enemelay, vol. 1992, issue July, p.3
Olins, W 1989, Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design, London, Thames & Hudson
Thomas, S 1976, Yours for Life: The History of T&G Mutual Life Society Ltd – 1876-1976, T&G Mutual Life Society Ltd, Melbourne