New exhibition at UNSW Canberra celebrates Charles Bean, the historian and the man
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New exhibition at UNSW Canberra celebrates Charles Bean, the historian and the man

Enthusiasts of military history know the name Bean – usually in the rather stuffy Victorian form 'C.E.W. Bean'. Many will know that he reported the Great War for newspapers, wrote much of the Australian official history of that war, and created a national war memorial. Few know the man behind this formidable legend.

Effie Bean's Photo Wallet
Charles Bean Paperweight Wallet carried by Charles Bean's wife Effie

Effie Bean's Photo Wallet Charles Bean Paperweight Wallet carried by Charles Bean's wife EffieCredit:Michael Jackson-Rand

Exactly a century ago Charles Bean watched Australian battalions marching into the cauldron of the battle of the Somme. He recorded in his diary stepping over bodies shredded by shrapnel. Though having survived eight months on Gallipoli Bean faced the full horror of industrial slaughter on the Somme, and there he conceived the idea of creating a memorial to the men whose deaths he witnessed.

UNSW Canberra saw the need to acknowledge Charles Bean's achievements. In July we held a two-day conference in which we invited historians to discuss 'Charles Bean's Legacy'. They included the official historians who followed him, among them our UNSW Canberra colleague Prof. Craig Stockings, who is the latest to bear Bean's title and responsibility.

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Assets obtained from the Bean Family Collection Charles and Effie Bean, 1953 (courtesy of Anne Carroll OAM)

Assets obtained from the Bean Family Collection Charles and Effie Bean, 1953 (courtesy of Anne Carroll OAM)Credit:Michael Jackson-Rand

But we did not want to just extol the Bean legend: we wanted to explore and understand Charles Bean the man. Accordingly, we have mounted an exhibition, on display in the Library of the Australian Defence Force Academy between now and late October: Charles Bean: Life and Work.

It of course acknowledges Bean's achievement as a war historian – we display all of the 19 books he wrote (some 1000 pages long) which constituted his life's work.

But the exhibition also reveals aspects of the man, his life, his family, and the people he loved.

Having worked on exhibitions for big institutions for 30-odd years I've always felt that they mislead by not revealing who makes exhibitions – because institutions don't make exhibitions: people make them. One of the principles we adopted was that we would be open about who was interpreting Bean through the selection of items about him – many of which had never been seen before.

Effie Bean's Photo Wallet
Charles Bean Paperweight Charles Bean's paperweight

Effie Bean's Photo Wallet Charles Bean Paperweight Charles Bean's paperweightCredit:Michael Jackson-Rand

We were fortunate to be given privileged access to historical material still held in the Bean family. One of my co-curators is Anne Carroll OAM, Bean's grand-daughter. Anne selected items that have never been exhibited before and which reveal insights into the man behind the Anzac legend.

Anne showed us, for example, a tiny wallet, carried by Effie, Bean's wife of 46 years, in her handbag. (There's a Canberra connection here. Effie had been a nurse at Queanbeyan hospital – they met when Charles had mumps in 1920 – and their first marital home was Tuggeranong Homestead.) The wallet contains photographs of Charles, and a tiny reproduction of the famous George Lambert portrait of him. They were a devoted couple, and other items reveal Charles to be a warm and loving father to their adopted daughter, Joyce. In the exhibition Anne reflects on the Charles Bean she knew as 'Car'. She reveals aspects of Bean's life that have gone largely unrecorded – his commitment to the environment, for example, as a pioneer conservationist of Sydney's bushland.

The exhibition's subtitle is Life and Work: Bean's work was always present. One of the previously unseen treasures we display is a glass paperweight that lived on his desk. The photograph pasted to its base is the familiar shot recording Bean dispatching the manuscript of the first volume of his official history to Sydney for publication. That moment was before him every time he weighed down a pile of papers against the fan or an open window.

UNSW Canberra has also been fortunate to collaborate with the National Archives of Australia. Archives historian Anne-Marie Condé has selected documents that tell Bean stories we did not know.

Everyone knows that Bean had the idea to found a war memorial museum – its centenary explains the exhibition. But who knew that through his work in heading the Commonwealth Archives Committee – a body formed by John Curtin at the height of the dark year of 1942 – Charles Bean also helped to establish another national cultural institution, now National Archives of Australia?

Anne-Marie's research has also turned up other documents expressing a poignant end to Charles and Effie's story. While Bean's AIF file has been available to anyone thanks to NAA's magnificent digitisation program, it turns out that the file tells only part of the story. When Bean became ill in the late 1950s, Effie naturally asked if he could be treated by 'the Repat'. Astonishingly he was refused: his had been only an honorary appointment. It took the intervention of Prime Minister Robert Menzies to get Bean a bed in a Repat hospital, where he died in 1968.

Charles Bean: Life and Work, is at the UNSW Canberra Academy Library until October 28. Entry is free

Professor Peter Stanley, of UNSW Canberra, curated the exhibition.

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