Jack Lang visits the Nicholson Museum

Candace Richards

University campuses are well known to be politically charged grounds. Our current politicians’ pasts as young political activists or student council representatives often haunt them during their time as members of Parliament. The University of Sydney not only has a proud legacy of political graduates and social activism but also of political shenanigans.


Each year between 1888 and 1975 the students of the University of Sydney celebrated ‘Commem Day’. Originally, Commemoration Day, was to celebrate the founding of the university and to confer degrees; however the celebratory aspects of the day expanded as students first began to organize concerts and then parades as festivities grew.[1] The cornerstone of these celebrations was the parade from the university’s Camperdown campus to Town Hall, featuring student floats often related to contemporary social and political issues. By the 1930’s Commem Day celebrations were notorious for their frivolity, social commentary and tensions with the authorities.[2] In 1934, the Commem Day celebrations were held between 14 and 16 May,[3] coincidentally falling exactly two years after the dismissal of NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang. An anniversary some students sought to mark.

On May 15 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that:

“A bust of Mr J Lang was discovered in the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities at the University yesterday. The bust was at the end of a row of Grecian busts. It is believed that the bust was placed there as a practical joke.” [4]

A witty cartoon about the prank was printed in the News published in Adelaide, SA (fig 1).[5]

The Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney holds Australia’s largest collection of antiquities from Mediterranean, Egyptian and Middle Eastern ancient cultures. At the time of Jack Lang’s “visit”, ancient ceramics and sculpture were displayed alongside an array of plaster reproductions of famous Greek and Roman busts and sculpture. Photographs of the museum during this period show the gallery to be almost overcrowded with antiquities and plaster casts.[6] To place the bust inside the museum during this time, while a bold act, could be much more readily disguised than a modern museum visitor might expect. But who were the pranksters?

In 1934 the Nicholson Museum was only open to visitors for one hour every Tuesday and Thursday and a visitor register of names, associations and addresses was kept. In the week before the prank only four visitors are recorded in the register. On May 10, Mary Masson visited from the University of Melbourne. She was the wife of University science professor Sir David Masson, and seems an unlikely perpetrator. [7] On May 8, three students visited the museum: Marjorie Simpson, Marjory Reed and William Grozier. According to the University of Sydney Calendar for 1934 they were all first year undergraduates, with both women enrolled in the Faculty of Arts and William in the Faculty of Architecture.[8] While these are the only students recorded in the register during May 1934, it is difficult to determine if they would have managed to place the bust almost a full week ahead of Commem Day and the anniversary of Premier Lang’s dismissal, without it being discovered until the most opportune moment. This mystery, it seems, will remain unsolved.

The Bust of Lang

During Lang’s later years as Premier of NSW, the Great Depression had taken full effect across NSW and the nation. While in 1930 the Lang-led Labor party won the election with a twenty seat majority, his popularity did not last. The infamous ‘Lang Plan’ not only divided the Labor party and put Lang at odds with the federal government, but also provided Governor Game with the grounds for his dismissal in May 1932.[9] During the month prior, Lang supporters formed the “Lang is Right campaign” committee in an attempt to petition the NSW Government to hold off any resignation.[10] “Lang is Right” rallies involving NSW labor MPs, unions and constituents were held throughout Sydney in an attempt to garner more supporters and regain the confidence of the public.[11] On April 29, it was reported that the committee commissioned hundreds of plaster and bronze busts to be distributed throughout Labor branches, unions and similar institutions, each of which were inscribed with “The People’s Champion, J. T. Lang”.[12] It is one of these campaign busts that made its way into the Nicholson Museum just two years later.

The ‘people’s champion’ inscription encapsulates how much of Sydney’s working class and Labor members regarded Lang and his vision for NSW during the Great Depression. Known throughout his political career as the Big Fella and referred to as ‘greater than Lenin’ by his followers[13], the title people’s champion fits in with these other epitaphs of Jack Lang.

With such a grand and pervasive contemporary image of Lang, what then was the intent of this prank?

Was it a conservative’s satire of Lang (then still leader of the NSW branch of the Labor party and opposition leader) and his political and fiscal ideas being stuck in the past? Or, was it a supporter’s attempt to immortalise Lang alongside the ancient Greek and Roman politicians and philosophers on display in the museum?

Although the prankster’s bust was removed from the Nicholson, two of the Lang is Right busts have been retained in museum collections in Australia. The Museum of Democracy in Canberra has a plaster copy,[14]and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney possesses a bronze version.[15]


[1] ‘Glimpses of the early University’ Record Archives and Records Management Service, The University of Sydney, p. 10

[2] Ibid. p. 11

[3] ‘Commem: Sydney Undergrads Run Wild’ Canberra Time, 16 May 1934, p. 1

[4] ‘Bust of Mr Lang’ Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 1934, p. 12

[5] ‘Outsider Among Immortals’ Originaly published News (Adelaide SA: 1923-1954), 15 may 1934, p4 reprinted from Trove,NAL http://nla.gov.au/nla. News-article 128438869

[6] ‘A Vista in the Nicholson Museum’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 January 1930,  p. 13

[7] Lady Mary Masson (1862-1945) was the wife of Sir David Masson and was an active member of the University of Melbourne community during her husband’s tenure as a science Professor. Weickhardt, L.W. ‘Masson, Mary (1862–1945)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/masson-mary-7778 (published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 9 January 2015)

[8] Calendar of the University of Sydney for the year 1934, Angus and Robertson Ltd., 1934. Marjorie Simpson: p. 757; Marjory Reed: p. 757; William Grozier: p. 786. http://calendararchive.usyd.edu.au/Calendar/1934/1934.pdf (accessed online 9 January 2015)

[9] Nairn, B. ‘Lang, John Thomas (Jack) (1876–1975)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lang-john-thomas-jack-7027

(published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 11 January 2015)

[10] ‘Lang is Right Campaign’ Barrier Miner, 14 April 1932, p. 1

[11] ‘Lang is Right Campaign: Meetings in Sydney’ Kalgoorlie Miner, 6 May 1932, p. 4

[12] ‘Lang is Right: Busts of Premier to be distributed’ Barrier Miner, 29 April 1932

[13] Latham, M. ‘The Forgotten Lang’ The Hummer 34. Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1992,  http://asslh.org.au/hummer/no-34/lang (accessed online 29 December 2014)

[14] Registration number 2011-0117, Museum of Democracy online collection: http://collection.moadoph.gov.au/objects/2011-0117

[15] The Powerhouse version is sighted in its online catalogue record as a money box, however this is the only reference to the busts being used in such a fashion. Registration number 85/651, Powerhouse Museum online collection database: http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/collection/database/?irn=52152