Opening speech by Seamus O’Hanlon

Opening Speech - Ephemera

October 2006

Seamus O'Hanlon
School of Historical Studies
Monash University

It is a great honour to launch this exhibition tonight.  I have been a fan of ephemera in both a personal and professional sense for some years now. As a would-be punk and then (second generation) Mod living in Adelaide in the early 1980s I was fascinated by the music, styles and ephemera (clothes, posters, record covers, badges etc) of the London punk scene of the mid-1970s, but also of the Mod movement centred on Carnaby Street and Chelsea both in the 1960s and as it was then reincarnated through groups such as the Jam, the Specials and others in the late-1970s and early 1980s. I still have some of these things I collected in those days. I should probably consider donating them to a museum or library at some stage, but I suspect my reluctance to do so is related to a concern that I don't want to be considered an historic relic at the grand old age of 43! I must say though, that it is very disconcerting to see many of my current students dressed in similar styles as I wore then or listening to similar music as I was into. That is the problem with history I suppose, it catches up with us all!

As I say my interest in ephemera is professional as well as personal. When researching Melbourne's interwar flats for my PhD thesis and first book I stumbled upon the wonderful Williams real estate collection at Melbourne University. That collection - boxes and boxes of advertisements for then new and exotic household appliances such as fridges, telephones, irons, even electric heaters, as well as floor plans, rent rolls, rent demands, and letters of complaint about tenants, neighbours and landlords - brought to life Melbourne's rapidly developing flat world in ways that government reports or newspaper accounts could never do. These things show us that ephemeral items, which might at first glance look like rubbish or at best nostalgia or novelty, can become important and enlightening entrées into the past.

As some of you may know I have recently co-edited a book on Melbourne in the 1960s, in which I have perhaps gone back to my teenage years to uncover the world of Mods, Sharpies, Hippies and Surfies, although this time those based in Melbourne, rather than London. In Go! Melbourne in the Sixties I drew on music magazines, posters and concert programmes to uncover the history of vibrant youth cultures and music scene in Melbourne in that decade. What these ephemeral sources can open up to us is the ways in which social and demographic change, when combined with technological advancements, can alter the most basic ways in which we live. A history of the 1960s that didn't recognise the impact of the music and youth industries, would be as absurd as one of today that didn't recognise how the internet and the mobile phone has changed our world 40 years on.

Other contributors to the book draw on pub and restaurant menus, newspapers and magazines, food and drink advertisements, photos, even record covers to illuminate the history and culture of the 1960s. But in doing so they tell us more than just about what people were eating, drinking and reading. They also tell us about the impact of migrant groups on our society, the changing status of women, and even the slow moves away from a British-influenced to a more American (or possibly global) sensibility, especially amongst the young.

In my latest project on the economic, social and cultural changes seen in Melbourne since the 1970s, I hope to again use similar (possibly off-beat) sources to attempt to capture life as it was lived in the everyday, as people attempted to cope with and adapt to the problems and the opportunities brought about by the move from a industrial to a post-industrial, multicultural society. I am already speaking to Richard Overell about possibly using some of the images and objects we see before us here tonight as part of that project.

As Graeme Davison notes in his introductory essay for this exhibition, for a long time historians shied away from ephemera as a reliable source, perhaps because it was too ordinary, too everyday to be the stuff of real History (that is History with a capital H). These days we can't seem to get enough of ephemera in our work, but, who knows, if we move towards some form of official or approved history curriculum we may find ourselves back relying solely on Hansard or Cabinet minutes to get a sense of the past. That may be no bad thing, but we can only hope that those who come after us will recognise that while good History requires a big picture and a strong narrative to succeed, it also requires recognition of, and empathy for, the daily lives of people from all walks of life. We need to recognise that is often the most familiar things that help us to understand the past, and more often than not it is these things that help us to keep History alive and make it interesting and relevant to future generations.  This is the beauty of ephemera and what makes collecting these things so important.

My congratulations to Richard and his team for this wonderful exhibition. I commend it to you and I am pleased to declare it open.