Counting down the House

Counting down the House
Behind Old Parliament House's 90th anniversary timeline
22 June 2017

Old Parliament House, Mildenhall photograph

Mildenhall, William James (1891-1962) - Parliament House, Canberra.

Kate Armstrong is Manager of Content Development at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, and created the timeline to mark the 90th anniversary of the building’s opening in 1927. We asked Kate to give us an insight into its development and Trove’s part in it.

How did the idea of creating a timeline come about?

I had a quick look at what was reported in the Canberra Times and stumbled on the fact that the first edition of the newspaper had only come out on 3 September 1926 – nine months before the opening. The opportunity to count down to the historic occasion through what was being reported in the weekly editions of the local newspaper was too good to pass up.

The project didn’t begin as a timeline – it started as a series of Facebook posts and Tweets. In April 2017, we decided to string them together into a timeline.

… and what did you want to achieve?

I wanted to draw attention to the fabulous stories and characters surrounding the opening of the building, the momentousness of the historic occasion and the extraordinary scale of the event.

A continuing theme for me was the incredibly complicated logistics associated with running an event of that kind in an embryonic and undeveloped national capital. Many of the stories were quite funny and very revealing of Canberra society at the time and I was keen to give them their ‘moment in the sun’.

Was it something only made possible by Trove and the digitised newspapers?

If I had had access to a set of Canberra Times newspapers covering the period 3 September 1926 to 20 May 1927, I could have done this project using the print version but it wouldn’t have been as easy.

Being able to search the papers for keywords to identify the articles was handy, as was the ability to clip segments to use as graphics for the always-ravenously-hungry-for-visuals social media. It was also great to be able to link readers to the entire articles on Trove for the detail.

The lists feature in Trove was also handy as I worked through the content week by week and decided which article to feature.

Canberra Times 1926 article

From The Canberra Times, 6th January 1927.

 Did you aim for a mix of the historical and quirky?

I aimed for what I refer to as ‘entertaining historical’. The type of material that is very digestible, suitable for bite-sized social media but also memorable and sometimes amusing. I particularly wanted to encourage visitors to click through to the full article on Trove.

Did you learn something about Canberra you didn’t know?

Almost without exception, every single article revealed some new fabulous facet of Canberra and the district. Now when I travel around Canberra I almost have the sensation of viewing once ordinary locations with what I call the Trove lens. Take the Kingston shops, for example. When I am there I find the shops are overlain with the display advertising for the businesses in the 1920s.

What are your three favourite milestones or facts in the timeline?

1. The arboreal nonagenarians

I loved writing this piece because it gave me the perfect excuse to stroll over to York Park and hunt for the trees and gaze at them in the sunshine. They are both beautiful specimens and I felt very personally connected to my material. Maybe it was because these actual living things had stood so patiently in all weathers for 90 long years waiting for me to read about the original plans for their planting and to find them and read their plaques and touch their leaves and bark.

2. Say Yes to Yass … and Queanbeyan

I loved the way that Yass was vying for the Royals to alight from the train in their town and then drive to Canberra – partly to put themselves more firmly on the map, partly to get the road to Canberra sorted out. Classic. And then Queanbeyan tried to muscle in too. Nothing changes.

3. Bouquets on the Agenda

I loved following this vexed issue in the newspaper – the tension was palpable and you could easily imagine the heated debates in the committee meeting as thrusting mothers pushed their daughters forward.

Kate Armstrong

Kate Armstrong, on the 90th anniversary celebration of Old Parliament House's opening.

What advice would you have for other researchers embarking on such a project?

COPE – Create Once, Publish Everywhere. Well, not quite everywhere. I would strongly recommend producing the content for all the intended uses at the same time. It saves backtracking.

Do a deep and focused dive. I preferred to do a deep dive into the Canberra Times, the newspaper that was founded just months before Parliament House was opened and has grown up with Canberra ever since.

What an interesting way to have a new look at Canberra. We are often reminded of the historical importance of our capital city, but these articles in the newspaper timeline make it so much more about the people who experienced that remarkable time. I love those personal touches. Thank you Kate Armstrong