The Griffin’s Archival Legacy

Welcome to this afternoon’s session entitled The Griffin’s Archival Legacy.

Soon I will introduce our speakers for this afternoon's session but first I would like to say a few words about the Griffin archive that we have at the National Library which we are celebrating today. I am going to make these comments largely from the perspective of the Dream of a century exhibition that my colleagues have developed to celebrate the Centenary of Canberra and the NLA’s Griffin holdings. It is interesting to note that on the other side of the world in the Block Museum of Art in Illinois, an exhibition is simultaneously looking at the world of the Griffins. Professor David van Zanten from Northwestern University has curated a show which has just opened entitled, Drawing the future: Chicago architecture on the international stage 1900-1925.  The exhibition looks at the Block Museum’s Griffin drawings collection which were given by Marion in 1962 and shows their American and Castlecrag houses. These beautiful works are balanced with the Art Institute of Chicago’s competition outline drawings and some other works. It is clearly a major moment for the appreciation and reevaluation of the Griffins’ work.  David wrote a précis of the exhibition for us and says in closing – what is it that one is looking at in …, Canberra? – a capital, a utopia, a spectacle (the view from Mount Ainslie so conscious for the Griffins) or just an idea wonderfully drawn on a dozen sheets of linen – an idea only made real long afterward by Peter Harrison and Paul Reid, Sir William Holford and Prime Minister Menzies, and now being celebrated by Prime Minister Gillard“. The exhibition in Chicago points to the continentally distributed nature of the Griffins’ archive - something which will be explored further today. But, if you want to find out more about David van Zanten’s show – Google it! It’s on until August if you’re passing through Chicago!        

Well, six years ago I was introduced to Christopher Vernon by my colleague Nicki Mackay-Sim, now our Pictures Curator, in the car park here during a fire evacuation. What seemed an annoyance at the time, the fire event not Christopher, has lead, to a memorable and long-awaited exhibition today in our new Exhibition Gallery. The Dream of a century: the Griffins in the Australia’s capital curated by Christopher with assistance from the Exhibition Branch’s Mathew Jones has been one of our most successful exhibitions in the new gallery space (visitation figure?). Every time I wander through it the gallery seems to be well attended and full of interested people intently looking at the remarkable range of material on display. In fact we've had to reprint the exhibition brochure as we were in danger of running out!  Every tour I've taken of the show whether it be for donors, sponsors or for Tony Burke, the new Arts Minister only two weeks ago, the response is the same - what a great archive to be able to display and how amazing the range of items included in the archive and the exhibition is. I should of course mention that Marie Nicholls, daughter of architect and Griffin partner Eric Milton Nicholls and the brother of Glynn, is with us today and that the exhibition and the marvelous archive that we have had since 2006 would not have been possible without her support and her family’s interest in the preservation of the collection and their considerable interest in the National Library and its broader collections as well. In this regard I would also like to acknowledge the assistance and guidance the Library has received from Christopher Vernon who you have heard from, so interestingly, earlier today.

The role of the National Library in converting its stored and digitized collection items into public programs in the form of exhibitions, treasures gallery displays, publications or symposia like today is obviously incredibly important. And I think our exhibition the Dream of A Century emphatically amplifies this point. To derive an exhibition of 150 representative items from such a large archival collection consisting of over 2,500 item is complicated, sometimes challenging, but also enjoyable work. To ensure the right balance of material and stories are adequately represented is critical and often debated – everyone has obviously has their favourites. We shall hear from the Library’s Acting Curator of Manuscripts, Kylie Scroope soon about the impressive scope of the Nicholls Collection and its relationship to the Papers of Peter Harrison, who was the first serious student of the Griffins work and whose archive is also held in the Library.

From an exhibition point of view it can be hard making some archival material shine and to get it to reach out to the visitor. I believe we have done this upstairs in the exhibition and what I like about the show is the rather democratic way in which it is displayed not privileging items over one another. So a small sketch, photograph or a blueprint has the same power relatively as something grander. Some things strike the eye first like the large carpet or the ensemble of the furniture but the smaller pieces contribute just as significantly to the whole experience and to the texture of the stories being told. This parallels how Marion and Walter complemented each other so well and how their interaction could be argued to have led to design results better than they could have achieved alone.  Christopher always contended, knowing the collection much better than I, or others did, that our exhibition could easily be created with about 90% of the items from the NLA. We’ve done this and the doing of it throws up some interesting questions. As we couldn’t borrow Marion Mahoney Griffin’s original drawings of the Canberra designs from the National Archives –– because they are on display in Design 29, there at present - instead, we have shown, backlit, Walter’s lantern slide of the finished Canberra and Environs Drawing.  Ian Batterham, Conservator from the National Archives will speak shortly about the dramatic rescue of these iconic paintings and their long period of neglect. But, what is more important in the context of the archive, the fugitive but well known original watercolours or a slide of them that Walter had made, contemplated and used in his lectures and talks which he gave? The connection of the prosaic slide with its creator and its intimate scale and its colourful physical presence here in the exhibition could be argued in some ways to be just as important. The slide is a perhaps surprising connection for the public linking to the larger narrative, to old technology and to the not often seen watercolours. 

The Library’s archival material is very varied as you might imagine. It covers finished drawings, but also preliminary sketches even some by Walter as a student, scrawled annotations to maps and drawings, typescript lecture and essay drafts, correspondence, newspaper cuttings, travel expense receipts, and the kind of paperwork usually associated with a working architectural office. Seemingly ordinary ephemera such as this puts a human face on the legendary designers and offers insights into the workings of their creative process. Indeed it is this rich ephemeral material that distinguishes the Nicholls collection from its counterparts in Australia and in the United States. The fact the Library’s material also covers the early American work and the later Indian experience is also significant. The collection also readily demonstrates now non-existent landscapes designs developed by the Griffins and stresses their sometimes unrecognized strengths in this important area. Thank god that the Griffins didn’t burnt it or edit it as some other might have done – like Patrick White claimed to have done, and to some extent did before we found and acquired his treasure trove in 2005. 

The very distributed nature of the Griffin archival material around the world is considered by Dr Anna Rubbo in her paper today – Searching for the Griffins: The Archival Trail.  She will explain the thrill of the chase or the detective work involved for her in searching for material in Canberra, Chicago and New York in various libraries but which started originally as an architectural student at Melbourne University.  Anna will also speak about the rather slanted depiction of Marion simply as to quote her paper, “helper and damn-good renderer!”

In conclusion then, I think the Library through acquiring this very important archive and thereby complementing other holdings it has, has honoured Marion Mahoney Griffin’s passionate wish that these materials  be preserved and be accessible to the public.

I think she and Walter might enjoy a wander through the Dream of a Century, who knows perhaps they already have!

So, now to the panel. I won’t introduce each speaker in detail to save time and because you all have a copy of each speaker’s abbreviated biographies in your Seminar papers. Each speaker has about 15 minutes to deliver their paper and then we will take questions at the end of all the papers today time permitting.    

Intro: Ian Batterham, Conservator from the National Archives who will present his paper A physical history about the Archives’ iconic Canberra designs by the Griffins and what their state of preservation and near loss perhaps tells us about how the Griffins legacy was viewed over time by the government and stakeholders. Thank you Ian.

Intro:  Dr Anna Rubbo, Adjunct Associate Professor Faculty of Planning and Architecture, University of Sydney and Senior Researcher, Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Columbia University, New York who will speak to us about Marion Mahony Griffin and the transcontinental archival trail.  

Thank you Anna.

Intro: Kylie Scroope, is Acting Curator of Manuscripts here at the NLA and today she will present her enigmatically titled paper  “An architectural tree”.

Thank you Kylie.

At conclusion of all talks seek questions from the floor.

Finish:

It seems highly appropriate that one-hundred years on from the founding of Canberra we can see the Griffins’ tree obsession coming to fruition with the opening of the National Arboretum in Canberra, and fitting too, that the next exhibition in the Library’s program will be a co- production with the Centenary of Canberra - City of Trees – featuring UK artist Jyll Bradley’s exploration of Canberra’s  treescapes and the people behind the stories of those trees. Please come and visit what will be an unusual, immersive and hopefully challenging exhibition from 5 July. 

Would you please join with me in thanking the panel for their thought-provoking papers interrogating the Griffins’ Archival Legacy this afternoon and for being with us today.  Thank you very much.

I am now delighted to introduce Professor Dr Karl Fischer who will present his joint paper The Continuing City. This paper was written with acclaimed Griffins expert Professor James Weirick from the University of NSW who, sadly, cannot be with us today.