Memento. Issue 39, 2010, National Archives of Australia

Last week, the NAA celebrated Constitution Day – the day Queen Victoria gave assent to a federal constitution for Australia.  This is a new push for the NAA, and coincides with a new website exhibition.  Professor Helen Irving has written a brief overview of the events leading up to the development of the Constitution, including a discussion of the influence of the American Civil War on the wording of the document, in particular the insertion of ‘indissoluble’ as a term to describe the union of States.  It was this word, says Irving, which prevented Western Australia from seceding and ‘stands as a reminder of the greater blessings of union.’

In addition to the website, the NAA and the national broadcaster, ABC, presented a radio forum to discuss the Constitution and Federation –  Professor Greg Craven, who has written extensively on the legal debate surrounding secession, Federal MP and past WA Premier Carmen Lawrence, former High Court Judge Michael Kirby and Professor Larissa Behrendt were all asked to put their views during the forum.  The papers from Professor Craven, the Hon. Michael Kirby and Professor Behrendt are all reproduced in this publication.

Beyond the Constitution, the NAA looks at the sinking of the hospital ship Centaur in 1943.  A War Crimes Commision hearing was held in 1944, and the records from the Commission are held by the NAA.  The Centaur was found in 2009.  I’ve just come from the Australian Historical Association conference in Perth and Fremantle, where Dr Mike McCarthy spoke about the delay in holding a commission into the Sydney sinking, and the comparison is invidious.

Dr Nathalie Apouchtine writes about her research into the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Asia, concentrating on the role of two women who, while not on the ABC’s staff, provided a foothold in both Jakarta and Hong Kong.  Cathrin Cole, on retainer from the ABC, sang with President Sukarno, shot film footage of riot and revolution and generally exceeded all expectations.  Patricia Penn, working on commission from the BBC and ABC, investigated drug addiction, the civilian cost of war in Vietnam and covered the role of Communism in Hong Kong.

The NAA then moves from war correspondents to spies, with the extraordinary story of the four generations of the Aarons family, all actively involved with the Communist movement in Australia, and all actively monitored by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).  Mark Aarons tells the story of The Family File, based on the 209 volumes and over 30,000 pages held by the NAA.  Mark talks not just about his family, but also the process of research and the intensive clearance procedures required to make the files accessible.  He also looked at other records of his family, including service records, and comments on the role of archives generally:

These institutions preserve not just the history and memory of nations, but are vital in holding our governments to historical account.  The people who work in them are key links in one of the most powerful and important elements that makes up a vibrant democracy: the right to know what has been done by our government in our name and to interpret this record as part of a nation’s history. [p.21]

Following on from Mark’s article, Daniel Eisenberg at the NAA talks about two upcoming documentaries that use the ASIO files.  Peter Butt is producing I, Spry for the ABC on Charles Spry, director general of ASIO, while Street Smart Films is preparing a four part documentary series for SBS on Australian activists.

From correspondents to spies and thus to Australian patrollers in Papua New Guinea (kiaps).  The personal files and related records of these men form part of the NAA’s extensive provision of service records, and can be ordered through the National Reference Service.

On the recordkeeping front, native title records are now being managed in accordance with a Records Authority.  In line with the recently revised retention period for national archives, the records will be available for research when they are 20 years old. The NAA has also released a guide to looking after personal records and mementos, such as cooking legend Margaret Fulton’s grandfather’s tailor shears.

Finally, the NAA lets us know that a little bit of broadcast history, 4o seconds of the BBC series The Goodies, is safe and well in the archives.


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Archivist, historian, avid reader

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