Housing – a Living History Exhibition

Lucy Taksa

This exhibition, presented by the Housing Commission, ostensibly sought to detail ‘the rehabilitation of public housing projects in New South Wales.

In fact, its title is somewhat misleading as it paid little attention to the receipients of public housing as compared to its treatment of issues relating to the State. In this sense, it featured the problems associated with housing shortages, the provisions of housing for low’income earners and the role of Government in housing construction. The last point appears as the dominant theme, throughout all the panels to the extent that one is left wondering whether the purpose of the exhibition was essentially to justify Government housing policies since 1912.

The first of a great number of panels represented the activities of the first Housing Board, which was established in 1912 and whose charter was to:

Show how workers’ houses should be built and grouped in order to provide pleasant homes and healthy suburbs and to show how cheaply they could be provided…

The reasoning behind such benevolence on the part of the Government is omitted from the history. It is left up to those who already have some historical knowledge and/or understanding to conjecture whether the advent of such a charter exemplified the influence of State Socialist ideas or whether it was a concerted policy to prevent the spread of such ideas.

Whatever the rationale for it may have been, in its twelve years of existence, the Board actively applied this policy. It developed the housing project known as Dacey Gardens for working class families to live in. Its ability to advance money for the construction of new homes meant that 315 homes, 8 shops and a community hall were built for this project. Also during its period of operation it built 818 homes for sale on special terms, and provided cash to build 516 others.

No mention is made of the fact that the incomes of most working people at this time were generally toolow to acquire the loans necessary to buy a house. This first panel established a trend in the varietyof mediums used to express this living history. These included photographs, plans, maps and explanatory text.

The next series of panels, raised upon hanging plastic sheets, focused upon the Redfern and Waterloo areas. Of the eight panels, six dealt with public housing policy for these suburbs from 1949 to the present.

The section of the exhibition which examined the ‘Legend of Green Valley’, provided a welcome respite from the glossy presentation of Housing Commission policy in the Inner City. It was the culmination of six months work by an artist-in-residence in a variety of suburbs, including Liverpool and Ashcroft. The artist, Victoria Middleton, photographed and apparently collected photographs from the residents and workers who settled in the area in the early 1960s. She also recorded their ‘oral histories’. As a consequence of this approach, this section of the exhibition should be classified as genuine public history, rather than a State promoted ‘consumer durable’. Its seventeen panels presented oral history transcripts with personal home photographs; a combination which provided insight not only into the manner in which these suburbs developed and grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but also into the “loss of community in today’s large metropolis” (quoted from the exhibit). Accordingly, this treatment illustrated that the early residents were working class families who migrated from the inner city of Sydney. As one man put it:

I just accepted travelling to work because it was, stay where we were or else move here and get a place of our own. (Quoted from the exhibit).

Daily, these traditional families disgorged their male members back into inner city factories such as the Eveleigh Railway Workshops and Resches Brewery. Simultaneously, the female residents spawned the population explosion of the period. Their struggle to overcome the loneliness of isolation in these new suburbs was well presented. The photographs and the text depicted such women playing tennis, organising lamington drives, tupperware parties and learning how to drive. A ‘trek into Sydney’ was considered only on special occasions, according to one woman’s testament, when “you’d get all “dressed up”. (Quoted from the exhibit). Consumerism was still in an embryonic stage in this period and its growth amongst this class was borne out by the following account:

We didn’t buy anything like the amount of stuff we buy now. For one thing, we couldn’t afford it – we did a lot of cooking. (Quoted from the exhibit).

Other issues raised in this section included the establishment and development of recreational activities and clubs by the new settlers and changing patterns in employment and migration. The role of the Housing Commission was treated as an adjunct to the actual lifestyles generated in the area, which made it unique in the exhibition.

A huge range of subject areas were traversed by the remaining sections. Some of these utilized glossy photographs together with largely lettered, but scanty, text. For example, these focused upon Construction and Development; Current Housing Commission Policy; High Density, Medium Density and Cottage Living and Special projects such as The Aged People’s Project undertaken by the Commission in 1956 and its Environmental Beautification Projects.

Other panels involved a novel use of magnified newspaper clippings together with historical photographs. The former provided a valid and effective substitute to the usual sort of explanatory text. Hence, a greater degree of in-depth information was presented upon subjects such as ‘The Move West’ – the establishment of schools in Green Valley and the introduction of the Prefabricated Fibro and Concrete Housing Construction Method by the Commission. Subjects such as housing shortages during World War II, the Post-War Reconstruction and Slum Clearances were presented in terms of Housing Commission Policy only. In fact, although the Slum Clearances were illustrated by historical photographs which showed the destitute in areas such as Newcastle, Herne Bay and Lalor Park, the text remained silent on the point. Housing in the 1920s, the effects of the Bubonic Plague, the destitution of the 1930s, the Homes for the Unemployed Trust and the Camps in which most unemployed people were forced to live were treated in a similar fashion.

Government Housing Policy in the 1950s was illustrated simply in terms of growth in the construction of flats and the promotion of the accompanying lifestyle. No demographic analysis was attempted – the treatment was purely descriptive. Finally, glossy photographs and huge print were again employed to depict ‘Joint Ventures’ recently undertaken by ‘The Community’ and the Commission which have involved the restoration of heritage properties and conservation in general. The Millers Point Room House Project and The Glebe Estate were presented as examples.

Although such a mammoth endeavour must be commended the effort, in the final analysis, was over-extended. Too many subject areas were presented in too superficial and descriptive a manner. Not enough analysis and more than enough text-served to dull the senses such that concentration was minimised.

The Exhibition suffered as a result of a number of factors. First, there appeared to have been little planning regarding layout and design. The novel approach of using hanging display panels merely served to disorient, and confuse as these were set up in a circular manner. This approach was not consistent, however, as other panels were arranged along the walls. Chronological development was thereby minimised and no overt effort was made to connect the various, discreet sections.

Other than developments in Housing Commission Policy and the Commission’s role in housing construction no overt themes were distinguishable. Moreover, although in some cases geographical location appeared as the basis of the different sections, this was also not consistent.

Unfortunately, as a result, many people viewing the Exhibition meandered like lost souls through the hall of the Mark Foys building in which it was situated. The effects of such problems certainly took their toll on this ‘lost soul’ who was too exhausted, after three hours of close examination, to view the video which accompanied the Exhibition.

Yet, despite these problems, this endeavour, no matter how ‘bitsy’, has added to the general interest in providing ‘the Public’ with access to its own history. The problems highlighted should therefore be seen as lessons for future undertakings of this sort. Indeed, the most important factors to be considered in this regard are layout and thematic continuity, the text/visual ratio, the presentation of some analysis and most importantly, the need for publicity for such projects.