There was a time when a fond chuckle at a particular sign on Northbourne Avenue was a regular occurrence in Canberra. I mean, a nondescript executive apartment block offering a "Cuddle 'n' Bubble" package? How could you not have a chortle (even an automatic, subconscious one) as moved on with your day?
Until, earlier this year, the sign was gone, and we were left only with memories. Of the sign, that is - most of us never even got to find out exactly what the package entailed. Instead, there was an anomaly, a gap, where once there was a constant feature of the landscape.
In fact, the enticing offer at the Capital Executive Apartment Hotel was, back in the day, the very height of what luxury Canberra could offer. A room with a spa bath and champagne on arrival (bubbles all round), dinner for two at The Hague restaurant, chocolates and a late checkout? Back in the 1990s, this was highbrow stuff.
By the time the sign came down, more than 11,000 couples had taken up the offer. Let the maths do the talking (or cuddling)! And everyone had something to say about the sign - its comforting presence, its reassuring dagginess, its place in Canberra history.
It's for these very reasons that Canberra Museum and Gallery quickly acquired it for its own collection of signs, one that's has been building, in "dribs and drabs", for several years, to the point where there's now enough to make an entire exhibition.
Cuddle 'n' Bubble will be one of dozens on display at Sign of the Times, a fascinating and quaint stroll through the idiosyncratic history of this young capital. Dating from the early 1900s to today, they tell a story of a city growing up around itself - from the early Commonwealth (now Yarralumla Brickworks) to the seedy Private Bin and everywhere in between.
"With the Brickworks or the Canberra Steam Laundry, you can pull out some human stories, but it's also giving you that wider view about early industrial growth and the way that these businesses were starting, and the way the city was literally building up on itself," says senior curator Sharon Bulkeley.
Let's follow the signs to memory lane...
The family grocery store
It is, according to Bulkeley, like a series of snapshots of the city that give you the chance to dive deeper into the stories within, from shopping and eating, to recreation, accommodation and navigating.
A history of fashion
"By learning about, say, Sylvia Parsons and her fashion salon, that's giving you an idea of Canberra in the 1950s and 60s, the way people were shopping, the things that were important to them," she says.
It's times like this some Canberrans might recall the elegantly printed bags from Sylvia Parsons... which might lead to reminiscing on the nondescript wooden box for the tiny red or blue tickets (ripped from a book) you were given when you bought a movie ticket at Electric Shadows cinema... but more to come on that shortly.
You know you're on holidays when...
There are holiday detours to Casuarina Sands via the lifesaving signs and the Sands Kiosk on the Cotter, a bit of shopping at Fletcher Jones and styling at Christis Hair Salon.
Signs with an Impact
It's even more fun to remember flicking through the records at Impact, the below-ground music emporium that reigned supreme for all self-respecting music-heads from the mid-1980s onwards.
"I spent countless hours outside Impact because my dad was a mad fan and he was there all the time, going through literally every LP and cassette, looking for the new stuff," Bulkeley says.
"So my sister and I would be playing outside the store. I bought my first CD there actually. It's really embarrassing. It was Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation." (Mine was Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits; I think we came from different tribes).
The exhibition includes ephemera from many of the places represented by the signs. It's amazing, and slightly disorienting, to think that the dividers with labels for the different music genres, the ones so familiar to a couple of generations of music-lovers ("alternative", "metal", "hip-hop") would one day be part of an exhibition of curiosities.
We love the nightlife...
Another mainstay of what many of us are already calling Old Canberra, Electric Shadows, and its sibling across the way, Center Cinema, were the mainstay of arthouse (read: anything decent) movies.
Over in the next suburb, Mort and Lonsdale streets were just car yards not that long ago, but once home to the city's first gay and lesbian-owned community bar, the Meridian Club. Its rainbow sign, firmly in the collective memory of many older Canberrans, was a definite shoe-in when it came to adding to the museum's collection.
And then there's the nightlife that all of us know has always been there. Harking back to the 1980s and 90s, Bulkeley says, it's fun to compare the divey Private Bin with the far slicker nightclubs of today (nearby Mooseheads, with its sign still up and glowing, notwithstanding).
Bulkeley says there's no hard-and-fast policy for collecting, but it's usually clear when something needs to be acquired.
"There is a little bit of weighing up of its value in terms of the story that it tells about Canberra and its longevity and the way that the community interacted with that business or with that organisation," she says.
"Certainly the Meridian Club sign tells such a bigger picture story about Canberra's gay and lesbian community early on, and then the burgeoning sort of queer-friendliness of our city and the way that we've become such an accepting and welcoming place."
With a detour on the way home...
And then, to top off what was often a long night, there's Chicken Gourmet. The sign, once marking the dingy chicken shop on City Walk, would also have some tales to sell, collected from the hundreds of party-goers seeking a gravy-soaked pick-me-up in the wee hours.
"Everyone's got a memory and a connection to these signs... it's been a really interesting experience watching people get excited about it," Bulkeley says.
So many of these signs were once a part of someone's everyday life, until one day, the sign was gone. It's a sudden reminder - increasingly common - of the city growing and changing around you.
Many have been lost forever - Bulkeley still dreams of one day getting her hands on the Moonlight Cafe - but the ones that have found their way to CMAG are worth the trip down the strange and winding memory lane.
- Sign of the Times is at Canberra Museum and Gallery until February 20, 2021. Entry is free.