Today souvenirs and memorabilia of Canberra are cheap and kitschy (I've just been out shopping for them and have an amusing $9.95 Parliament House snowdome at my elbow as I write this) but there was once a Golden Age or at least a Golden Year of Canberra memorabilia. It was 1927, when manufacturers rose to the challenge and the opportunity of making things that commemorated the opening of Parliament House in Canberra. They made and we bought the souvenirs that will astonish you. The Canberra Museum and Gallery has Dawn Waterhouse's grand collection of them. Back to golden 1927 in a moment.
Canberra memorabilia would have been on some Canberra minds lately because of the Postcode Pride promotion by Australia Post encouraging us to send small, Canberraesque items to Canberra-connected athletes in London for the Olympics. Tomorrow is the last day you can give Australia Post your parcel. What will you send? This writer scoured Canberra souvenir shops, but with depressing results. There is trash galore, and little else. The wares at the Canberra Visitors Centre are representative of the general awfulness. There are lurid ''Aussie Sheila'' coasters ($6.50) featuring just the sorts of things the average Australian woman always says, such as: ''Get stuffed, bitch'' and ''Could I bot a fag.'' The Centre bristles with Ned Kelly kitsch, even though Ned and his brigands never came anywhere near here. There are no souvenirs on sale at the Visitors Centre shop that speak of what a clever, cultured metropolis this is.
Something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with us since 1927. The Waterhouse collection at CMAG of 1927 souvenirs is a revelation. One morning last week Dawn Waterhouse herself, a famous, emeritus Canberran, took us on a guided tour of it. There are hundreds of 1927 items, ranging from oven doors festooned with pictures of (old) Parliament House, to dainty cups and jugs similarly festooned, to a blackened billy (''That cost me a fortune!'' Waterhouse reminisced, remembering discovering it in Mittagong) decorated with the blackened face of the Duke of York (giving him an eerie negritude one doesn't expect in his model Anglo-Saxon family). He was the star of the 1927 occasion. The billy was used by some who camped out to be at the great event.
Parliament House's image dominates the 1927 souvenirs. How we doted on the plain little temporary structure! It is everywhere, including on the chest of a dainty china cat and on the business surface of a gleaming copper breadcrumb pan.
How did her massive collection get underway? Waterhouse says that it all began with her mother's maid giving her mother in 1927 the present of one of those copper crumbpan sets. It was around the house when she, Dawn Waterhouse, was young, and so made her aware of 1927 souvenirs. Then the real collecting impetus came in the 1970s.
''When it was announced that the new Parliament House would be built I thought: 'They'll pull the old one down!' It was the 1970s. Everything in Canberra was being pulled down in those days.''
And so she thought it important to start collecting souvenirs celebrating and remembering a nationally important building perhaps soon to be lost for ever. ''So I went out to the Brickworks [the Yarralumla Brickworks once had little shops and fairs] and found a couple of little things for just a few dollars and that's when I started. And it just got more exciting and more exciting!''
Wherever she went in Australia (''Yes, I scoured the nation!'') she would plunge into op shops and curio emporiums looking for old Canberra treasures and trinkets.
The relative elegance and the sheer range of the 1927 objects, many of them ceramic items made by the famous Shelley pottery company, is astonishing. There is little that's cheap or cheap-looking. Treasures include a sensational silk headscarf (discovered in Tamworth) decorated with great parliament houses of the Empire, including our own modest little Aussie one.
Waterhouse says the range and its quality reflects the sheer, nation-shaking excitement the 1927 occasion brought to Australians. She says we were truly thrilled by this great moment in our history, and wanted significant items to mark and remember it by. The Shelley company and others, sensing this nationalistic hunger, duly catered for it.
Waterhouse says there was a great contrast, in Australian popular zeal between the 1927 opening of the first Parliament (that little wedding cake out in a paddock) and the 1988 opening of the second and permanent behemoth. She says that somehow not even the presence of the Queen at the second occasion seemed to set the nation a'buzzing the way we thrummed with joy in 1927.
''In 1927 everybody was enthused. Everybody was involved. And for 1988, the souvenirs were appalling! I did collect them [CMAG has that collection too] but I collected them just because they were so terrible. There was the most dreadful, hideous tea towel, and a mug and a T-shirt. But stupidly I bought them.''
Waterhouse believes there's been a long decline in our expectations of souvenirs. Nowadays we expect them to be ''tacky''. Yes, as my shopping expedition in recent days shows, those making and retailing the shoddy little horrors are meeting our cheapened expectations.
All of which makes the Waterhouse collection of 1927 wonders all the more dramatic and quaint a display of the way we were and what we wanted to buy. The collection is on display now with other Canberra delights (there is even a scale model of new Parliament House made of icing sugar) in CMAG's Canberra Stories Gallery.
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