How Archivists Change the World – Curing Community Dementia

Slide01Slide 1 – Title

How Archivists Change the World: Curing Community Dementia through Free Access to Archives
A Presentation to the ASA National Conference 2013

by Gionni Di Gravio
Cultural Collections, Auchmuty Library
University of Newcastle (Australia)

Speech recollections: I wanted this opening slide to resemble the front cover of the Journal of Nature, or perhaps some medical journal. Unfortunately on the day the colours didn’t display properly, such is technology. It’s great when it works. How Archivists Change the World. How many people in the room believe that people can change the world? [A number of hands go up]. How many people don’t believe Archivists can change the world? [One hand, then withdrawn as he was only joking]. The aim of this presentation is to show the role archivists and archival collections can play in curing the loss of community memory. If the loss of memory in an individual is identified as a problem, then we should also identify communities that lose their collective and individual memories as also suffering.

This paper will be divided into two sections, diagnosis and prognosis. Diagnosis will idenitify the problem or illness, prognosis will show the course and what we can do as a treatment.

Slide02Slide 2 – Diagnosis

Recollections and extra bits: Back in 2009 we came to the realisation that Australia had a memory problem.

This was thanks to our historians in the University of Newcastle who identified the outbreak.

During the 2009 John Turner Memorial Lecture Dr (now Professor) Nancy Cushing presented the Index page under ‘N’ from a recent book published on the history of Australia. My home town of Newcastle was no where to be found. The book was Libby Robin’s “How a Continent Created a Nation” (2007), and according to this omission, Nigeria has played a more important role in the creation of the Australian Nation. Dr Cushing said on the evening that this was one of forty she could have used to illustrate the point that our beloved Newcastle and the Hunter Region had been all but written out of the history of Australia and even NSW.

In 2006 Dr (now Professor) Erik Eklund reported that in the Historic Houses Trust Exhibition at Hyde Park Barracks ‘Convicts – Sites of Punishment’ excluded all references to Newcastle except one with relation to Port Macquarie. How could this happen, for those of you who saw Team America, “No one can out act Alec Baldwin” and No one can out convict Newcastle!

If you live in Sydney or Melbourne, or anywhere else for that matter, you could say “Who Cares”. But when taking into account our estimated 7,000 to 50,000 years of documented Aboriginal dreaming, the first proper documented Aboriginal language on the continent, the place that saw the first discoveries of coal, first profitable export and ongoing mining of the black gold that continues to underpin the Australian economy to this day, you soon realize that you can’t understand the story of Australia, or Sydney or Melbourne for that matter, without the role that Newcastle and many little bit part characters play in the bigger story.

We came to the conclusion that Newcastle had been either written out of the Australian story, or Australia had simply forgotten about Newcastle.


Slide 3 – History Junked

Recollections and other pieces: So what happens when a country loses it memory? Well we soon realised there were symptoms all around us. The biggest one was the trashing of an important Aboriginal factory site, dating back at least 6500 years and displaying evidence of three waves of human occupation to put a fast food restaurant over the top of it. The only reason people found out about it, was of the fact that two of the Aboriginal Traditional owner groups working on site gave us permission and blessing to publish and promote the findings of an archaeological report on this significant Aboriginal site . The public reaction was swift and widespread, helping to trigger a wide ranging review of the New South Wales Aboriginal Heritage legislation which we, along with others  were able to advocate and advise on reforms. See:

The site was also part of the early Government farm dating from 1810. Even thought the archaeological digs concluded in 2009 the Newcastle community are are still waiting on the second report relating to the Colonial history of the site.


Slide 4 – Buried History

Recollections and extra thoughts: The local media such as the Newcastle Herald as well as local radio stations (ABC Radio 1233 and 2 NURFM) and Television station (NBN) really got behind the story. The Herald invited me to prepare an opinion piece which can be read in full here. It is in this 2011 op ed piece that I first equated what was occurring across our country with a mental illness.

‘Without documentary and physical evidence you don’t have a case in a court of law, and neither do you have a case for a culture, without evidence all you have are tall stories.’

‘Without history, our community suffers, and like a patient with dementia who has also lost their memory, we  become confused and fearful.’

To people who say we don’t need history, let’s have a close think about that. We humans are made up of history. We are, literally, a put together puppet of all the thoughts, books, music, TV, experiences we have witnessed and absorbed, that have meant something to us, that have spoken to us. We have placed these words and sounds and sights and smells and tastes and created a person out of them all. We are a product of our histories, and these stories shape who we are, and who we become.

So what happens when our memory fails, when we lose those stories? Without history we are nothing. We are made up of history.


Slide 5 – What if Archivists Didn’t Exist?

Recollections and extras: How many people have see the classic film  “It’s A Wonderful Life”? Just as Clarence the angel forces a suicidal George Bailey to see what the world would be like withoout him, we have to ask ourselves the question, “What Would the World Be Like Without Archivists in it?  George Bailey attempts to throw himself off a bridge. There is a bridge overlooking Lake Burley Griffin, but don’t try jumping off it, there is a sign saying “Don’t Jump Water Too Shallow” or something like it, what a thing to say to visitors! Anyway the angel show George what the world would be like without him in it. His town becomes owned and named Pottersville after Henry F. Potter, George’s antithesis the rich greedy banker. His town prostitutes all its values, its people become mean, cruel, ugly and uncaring. What is hilarius is the final crushing blow for George in this part of the film. As a result of George Bailey not being in the world, his wife never married but became a “old maid, she never married…she’s just about to close the library.” A librarian! We all have influence one another’s live in a myriad of ways.


Slide 6 – Dementia Symptoms

Recollections and extra bits: If we have a look at the symptoms of dementia in an indivdual we can see that the repercussions for a community are identical.

•First Stage – Memory loss – “Confabulation” – if we don’t know it we make it up.
•Second Stage – Diminished language skills – people who can’t pronounce the word “Archivist”
•Third Stage – Perception & Cognitive Skills – Misunderstanding people, getting into fights, being rude, throwing rocks at ambulances, glassings etc.
•Fourth Stage – Reasoning and Judgment “Shut Out Outside World” – Retreating inside yourself, stopping the boats, fearing and declaring war on huddled masses.
If Individual Dementia is understood as a medical problem then should Community Dementia also be all seen as a medical condition in need of immediate treatment? Who will argue that we are not living in communities that have lost their minds and memories. Who will argue that we are not governed by the demented?
Here is a beautiful quote from a resident of “Pommytown” in the Newcastle suburb of Mayfeld, recalling his observations during the 1920s of the Australian kids, and the “real” poverty they faced.
“I had the advantage over the other kids. When I knew I was a candidate to go to Australia I simply went down to the public library which was only a few hundred yards down from the school and swotted all that I could on Australian history…At 12 years of age I had read Dickens, Defoe and many top authors of the time. The Australian kids were handicapped in this regard and it was to be quite a few years before educationalists made libraries for juniors available. Some of the boys admitted to having never owned a pair of shoes and to having never ever read a book.”
– William Claridge – The Pommy Town Years Memories of Mayfield and Other tales of the Twenties. (Edited by Dr Helen Maccallum, 2000) pp 48-49


Slide 7. Sane and Insane

Recollections and extra bits: This is a photograph of the (alcoholic) continental cake my parents prepared for the viewing of the Tony Robinson’s Newcastle Timewalks show. It was screening on the History Channel and we didn’t have pay television, so ABC local radio personality, Carol Duncan got the Grand Hotel to have a special screening on it on the night of 8th October 2012 and we brought the cake. The inscription said “Viva Newcastle e la sua Storia nel mondo” or “Viva Newcastle and your story in the world.” After watching the show the whole pub had three cheers and we cut the cake. In Italian the word for a full cake such as this is ‘sano’, meaning ‘whole’. It can also mean to describe conditions of being healthy, healthfulness, well, wholesome, etc. This is where our word for ‘sane’ comes from. Being of fit mind for example. ‘Insane’ is therefore ‘not whole’, or missing a piece out of the cake, ‘having a screw loose’ or in Latin ‘insanis est’ . When you think of ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ think of this cake.


Slide 7. Prognosis

Recollections and extra bits: We clearly have a community that is unaware of its history, and therefore disconnected from itself and its own people. If we don’t know where we have come from, we do not know where to go, and so, with so many things threatening our way of life at present on Planet Earth, we are all missing in action. How can we have a future if we have forgotten our past? What about our powerful technologies? Aren’t they fab? Has this brave new world of information and global linkages created a better world? How are people and communities faring in this new renaissance of information and knowledge? We appear more connected than ever, with more access to knowledge that any scholar of any eras would envy, yet at the same time have we become more isolated, more fragmented, more surveilled and in some places more destructive and uncivilized than ever before. If we have a problem remembering anything, we simply “google it” and the answer appears as if by magic. We know all about the world wide web, but no one ever talks about the nests of spiders that inhabit it as well. What it has sprawled before us is the inside of our human psychological condition in all its tremendous highs and limitless lows.  Never before has the enormous capabilities of human mind been laid bare before us.  More and more of us do not interact with physical humans anymore, our interactions are interceded with plastici-metal things that give the illusion that we are contacting real things. Our kids play xbox playstation video games, interconnected with people swearing all over the internet. We call these sessions xbox turrets syndrome. If we want to ground them, we disconnect the machine from the internet, social network is now ‘down’.

So what can we do as a Profession?
1.  Get as much archival data in the form of images and other digital objects to act as memory nodes to recreate and restore mental linkages
2.  Get key parts of your collections out there FREE and in HIGH RESOLUTION
3.  Encourage multi-trans-interdisciplinary collaborative academic rigor and scrutiny to TEST those objects, get your communities remembering and discussing.


Slide 8. Restore the Narrative

Recollections and extra musings: In Newcastle we realised we had to restore Newcastle’s story back into the story of the world, Australia included. To do this we had to know our own story. Back in 2003 the University of Newcastle formed the Coal River Working Party to pull together a multidisciplinary research group of academics, business and community to study Newcastle’s history and advocate on its behalf. Our foundation archivist was on the original Working Party, and we sourced archives from our own collections, as well as tracking down records held across the world in various libraries and archives, and requesting high resolution copies as a form of digital repatriation.

In 2010 we prepared a series of Newcastle panoramas for an exhibition in the University’s Cultural Collections in honour of NSW Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell (see the Mitchell 1828 Exhibition). Among them was a hitherto “new” find of Newcastle circa 1825, idenitifed by Mark Metrikas, consisting of painted scenes all along George Street (now the present day Watt Street) by, who we believed at the time was Sophia Campbell, and now since has been attributed to Morpeth pioneer Edward Charles Close. When stitched together they formed a beautiful walk up the street. This was spotted online by author Edwin Barnard who ended up publishing it in his 2012 work “Capturing Time Panoramas of old Australia” along with 22 other historical panoramas of Australia. Newcastle appeared second on the list, under Sydney, restored to where it belonged.

In addition Newcastle was one of the cities featured in Tony Robinson’s TV Series Time Walks on the History Channel which premiered on Monday 8th October 2012 at 7.30pm. We spent six months working with researchers and producers pitching Newcastle’s stories, and providing information from our blogs, Snowball images from our Flickr site and expertise from the Coal River Working Party. It was a real buzz to see Newcastle’s history on the world stage given the Tony Robinson treatment. More Info:


Slide 9.

Peter Lewis’ Cartoon (Courtesy of Peter Lewis and The Newcastle Herald)


Slide 10. Share the Narrative

Recollections and extra bits: A story of a place is ongoing, but once a narrative takes shape it is important to share it, and the important background records that establish that narrative to the wider community. The University of Newcastle Archives in the Auchmuty Library has been publishing online content since 1996. Since 2007 we joined Flickr and have uploaded over 46,000 images in high resolution provided FREE of charge. These images have had over 8 million hits to date, 100K every few days. We also provide thousands of documents through our University Cultural Collections blogs, libguides and Coal River website. These links are that freely shared via print/radio/TV media, Twitter, Facebook (especially the Lost Newcastle) and utilised is all manner of collaborations e.g., City Evolutions, Victorian Newcastle apps, ABC Open Then and Now.


Slide 10. Share the Narrative – Examples

On the following slides I’ll take you through a number of projects and events, both public and private that have used our digital content. All this may not have occurred to such a scale, if we, as an institution hadn’t share our collections in the way we did.

City EvolutionsCan be described as a Newcastle ‘Vivid’ Festival featuring creative works and displays projected on the sides of building and lane ways along Newcastle’s oldest street Watt Street. We have been involved with this Project since it fledgling origins with Bronwyn Law and the Newcastle Precinct Business Committee back in 2009. It has been through three (or four) incarnations since then, culminating in two applicants from the University of Newcastle winning the grant last year from Newcastle City Council and co-ordinated by Sarah Barnes. These projections utilised our Cultural Collections images, especially the Ralph Snowball images, as well as some recorded interviews. City Evolutions Project:  The following Uni blog report features the 1830 Armstrong plan against the David Maddison Building:!/students-research-the-evolution-of-newcastles-oldest-street 

Lost Newcastle Facebook Group – Created and curated by ABC Newcastle’s Carol Duncan and inspired by ‘Lost Sydney’ – it was launched on the 12 August 2012 and in just over a year has now close to 11,000 members sharing, discussing and building a collection “of photographs of Newcastle through the generations”. It is highly active, and was spawned from Carol Duncan’s Local Treasures segment on radio every Tuesday where she interviews regular personalities such as Julie Baird (Newcastle Museum), Sarah Cameron (Newcastle Council Heritage Stratgist), Dr Ann Hardy (National Trust and Coal River Working Party), Vic Levi (former journalist and local treasure) and yours truly. A sample conversation can be seen on this and the following slides. and even though Carol regularly posts to the group asking them to acknowledge the source and provenance of images, many rarely do. It’s always great when people give you credit, but most of the time we have to be content that our work brings great happiness and connections to many many people. If you are upset about people not acknowledging things, then remember that over 200 years ago a fellow named James Cook sailed all along Australia and “discovered it”. The fact that Aboriginal people were all over the place didn’t see to matter. Most people see the internet in exactly the same way Cook saw New Holland, and undiscovered country that they just discovered! How it all got there is something to put off thinking about for a couple of hundred years.


Slide 11. Share the Narrative – Further Examples

“The Midden” – Andrew Cavill (2009) University of Newcastle architecture student Andrew Cavill created plans for a historical, cultural and environmental interpretation, discovery and learning centre as part of his final year project. ‘The Midden‘ which is the title of his beautiful and inspiring design for the Coal River Interpretation Centre. Andrew has synthesised thousands of years of Newcastle and the Hunter Region’s cultural and environmental heritage under the one roof in an iconic building design.

Slender Strand of Memories by Colin Spiers (2009) The World Premiere of A Slender Strand of Memories by Colin Spiers was performed on Sunday 1 November 2009 at 3pm in Newcastle City Hall (Australia). It was back in late 2007 that the Coal River Working Party initiated discussions that would eventually lead to a new Symphonic work in dedication of Newcastle in over 50 years. The piece utilises words from the historic records relating to Newcastle, and was performed during Newcastle’s sesquicentenary of local government celebrations.

Macquarie Pier Bronze Plaque – Designed by Danylo Motyka  (2010) The Macquarie Pier Commemorative Plaque designed by an Auchmuty Library colleague Danylo Motyka was unveiled by Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, Governor of New South Wales at a ceremony at the Nobbys Surf Life Saving Club on the 4 August 2010 at 4 pm. The occasion was kindly sponsored and organised by the Fort Scratchley Historical Society, The Newcastle Port Corporation, The University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party and the City of Newcastle. The Plaque is located close to the spot marking where the original Macquarie Pier (now Newcastle Breakwater) began and where the foundation stone laid by Governor Macquarie in 1818. Investigative work continue by the CRWP to  rediscover the original location of the buried icon. More info:


Slide 12. Share the Narrative – Further Examples

Reconstructing Victorian Newcastle (2012) – By Dr Tessa Morrison and Nicholas Foulcher. An exhibition and smartphone/ipad app was launched in November 2012 featuring classic glass negative images of photographer Ralph Snowball featuring the architecture of Victorian Newcastle. Mr Russell Rigby, a member of the University’s Coal River Working Party also assisted in the geo-referencing amd mapping of hundreds of the University’s Ralph Snowball images so that users could see the Victorian landscape while pointing at the actual locations in Newcastle. More info:

Now and Then (ABC Open) by Andrew Scully (2013) – Our online images also featured in this popular project and exhibition series. Local photographers armed with photographs from the past, re-take those images at the same locations. For more info:


Slide 13. Project into Unknown Futures

The Newcastle Time Machine – 3d Virtual Reality Project by Charles Martin (2012 – Present). Since 2000 I have dreamed for a 3D Virtual landscape that could bring together all historical data relating to historic Newcastle from Aboriginal dreaming to the early colonial period. In late 2012 Charles Martin (a design and illustration contractor for EJE Architecture) created a series of rough draft 3D Newcastle fly throughs from 1800 to 1830. I posted these on you tube and then embedded them on our facebook page and the local newspaper The Newcastle Herald loved them and dedicated a front page spread and feature on it. The Project continues to incorporate early paintings and drawings, as well as trusted authentic documents in order to recreate as accurate a model as possible. Our dream would be to be able to use this Project as a multi-disciplinary tool bringing scholars from all discipline within and without the University to inform it and make it a liveable digital space. Imagine being able to visit the Christ Church, see the original registers (that we have digitised), see virtual actors playing the roles of living residents, historians telling us its stories, architecture students informing the design of the colonial structures, design students finessing the details, Aboriginal Elders and scholars informing us about the methods of land use and how the original landscape was nurtured and maintained. The future research, teaching and entertainment possibilities are endless.

More info:

More info:


Slide 13. The Time Machine – Further images of Charles Martin’s 3D Virtual Historic Newcastle


Slide 14. The Time Machine – Further images of Charles Martin’s 3D Virtual Historic Newcastle


Slide 15. The Time Machine – Further images of Charles Martin’s 3D Virtual Historic Newcastle


Slide 16. The Time Machine – Further images of Charles Martin’s 3D Virtual Historic Newcastle


Slide 17. The Time Machine – Further images of Charles Martin’s 3D Virtual Historic Newcastle


Slide 18. Nothing New Under The Sun

Recollections: I never got the chance to read this quote during my paper. Another opportunity also came during the final discussions especially concerning trust. In the closing stages of my presentation I searched the internet for anyone that may have had similar ideas concerning the loss of community memory. I found this wonderful quote by Wendell Berry:

“For example, when a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help each other, and moreover they fear one another. And this is our predicament now. Because of a general distrust and suspicion, we not only lose one another’s help and companionship, but we are all now living in jeopardy of being sued.”

– Excerpts from the Writings of Wendell Berry Online: Originally pubished: Berry, Wendell. “The Work of Local Culture.” What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990: 153-169.


Slide 19: It’s A Wonderful Life

Recollections: All these things would not have been possible if our University of Newcastle, it’s Library and Archives had not been involved and played a part in sharing its archival and historic collections with its global community. We face incredible challenges, we need our communities to be informed and creatively enthused to know their past, their achievements, and forge heathy futures with sound mind and heart. Thank you.

Gionni Di Gravio
University of Newcastle (Australia)

One thought on “How Archivists Change the World – Curing Community Dementia

  1. Fantastic paper Gionni – and this is why it it is important to remember our musical history too – for all the people who where involved in our cottage music industry and the diverse relationships and careers it spawned as a result.

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