By Teresa Singh
This week I followed a lead for my exhibition to the Trades Hall labor museum in Haymarket. As I was walking there through the fringes of China town, past retail stores and office buildings I almost missed the entry twice. Shouldered between a Glue store and a high rise sits a historic building, once a bustling unionist headquarters, a place where the ‘8 hour day’ was literally won, where the first industry guilds hung their banners… and now?
I walked around the empty museum mystified. My guides voice drifting in and out, the picture of trade unionism himself; I envisioned the room as it initially was in the 1800’s. Long tables filled with intellectuals, anarchists, disgruntled workers…the ‘buzzing proletariat’ for whom, someone as fond of Russian history as I am, has an irrevocable affection for.
Their collection on anti-conscription was kept in a corner swarmed by the banners they had assembled “don’t conscript our daddies”, “no more conscripts” and the moniker which brought me here “Save our sons”. When I asked my guide how it was they came by these signs, some of which were over 100 years old, having been used in the petitions against conscription in WW1, he said many were found in junk stores – on their way to the tip. I was visibly shocked, it was to be the theme of the day.
We began to move off topic from anti-conscription efforts, to the nature of the institution itself. Its own history providing hours of conversation. Neale and his colleague sighed, the funding of this precious site was virtually non-existent, and developers had already bought out a significant part of the building, which had survived since the early 1870’s. They conceded they had taken to buying certain items together, in order to spare them from disposal. The same tragedy almost befell their library. This library was a small room lined floor to ceiling with glass cases full of 19th century books, truly unbelievable relics. This collection was the work of the original Trades hall occupants, determined to create a body of literature which would educate the working class they devoted their lives to. I climbed up ladders to classical anthropological texts I myself recognised from my studies at Uni. A sea of worn and tattered time capsules stacked the cases…Darwin’s social theories, totemism, the American Revolution, poetry, ancient encyclopedias. The collection was a testament to the pioneers of the institute. I drank in their century-old literary choices; confident it did educate, confident it did now. I had never seen books this old in mere shelves, not displayed in glass boxes or guarded with airport level security such as those at the state library.
The idea that a room filled with classic texts this precious was threatened with dismantling seemed impossible. But indeed they had only just succeeded in saving it. ‘State and Federal significance’ is the way he phrased it, with many other beautiful Trade Halls Australia-wide having their libraries dismantled and contents disappearing, it was one of a few of its kind left.
Who did OWN these? Does anyone come here and help in the preservation of this important, priceless collection? No, he replied, they do what they can with the display and have a paper restorer on staff that volunteers her services but funding has not made its way to the trades Hall yet, they seemed doubtful it ever would.
When leaving the museum with copies of the material from the display and banners etc. I was again struck by their incredible willingness to share, their eagerness to lend me original items and their obvious joy in sharing union history. Stewardship over the past was entirely absent. Union history was, all at once, theirs to protect, share and impart. It was mine to take and repurpose in a peacemaking exhibition as I pleased. It dawned on me as I walked out, the building may be changed or come under attack, but as long as men with as great a passion for what it represents, remain, this history can never truly be endangered.
By Teresa Singh