1968: Changing Times

1968: Changing Times

Exhibition curators Dr Guy Hansen, Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll and Dr Walter Kudrycz examine a year of change for the world, for Australia and for your National Library

In 1968, Australia was entering a period of rapid change. At the beginning of the year, with the country still in shock at the disappearance of Harold Holt in the surf off Portsea, Victoria, the untested John Gorton became Australia’s new prime minister. Gorton brought with him an ambition to define a new nationalism for Australia, which was a different style from his predecessors Holt and Menzies.

Australian News and Information Bureau, Prime Minister John Gorton Visiting Australian Troops in Vietnam, 1968, National Archives of Australia: A1200, L73420

Gough Whitlam, the leader of the opposition, was also interested in redefining his side of politics. His goal was to make Labor more electable. He asserted control over the party, seeing off a challenge from left-winger Jim Cairns. The era of Liberal dominance of national politics was beginning to come under challenge.   

The news from abroad was unsettling. In Vietnam, Communist forces launched attacks across the country’s south, which cast doubt on whether the war was winnable. There were major protests in London, Paris and other cities. In Czechoslovakia, the momentary optimism of the Prague Spring was crushed by the arrival of Soviet tanks. In the United States, events seemed to be tipping out of control, first with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr and then Robert Kennedy. For many the question was whether the world had gone crazy.

Looking back, you can’t help but feel that there is an uncanny resemblance between 1968 and 2018. Then, as now, there were questions about the health of American democracy and the aggressiveness of Russian foreign policy. Protest movements were challenging the status quo across the globe. In Western countries, a newly assertive women’s movement was demanding equal pay for women. There were concerns about the state of the environment and the massive disparities between the rich and poor around the world. While the flash points are different today, there is a definite sense that the conflicts of 1968 were forerunners of many current controversies.

James Trelease, Election Poster: Bobby Kennedy, 1968, courtesy Posters, Inc.

1968 has a special significance for the National Library of Australia. It was in this year that the Library took up residence in its new lakeside building. In contrast to the tumultuous news being received from abroad, the Library’s opening represented a moment of optimism and confidence in Australian society.

The construction of this ambitious Modernist marble-clad temple represented a coming of age for Canberra. The Library’s collections could now be held in one place, vastly improving the service for readers. Designed by Walter Bunning, it would be the first major building completed in the Parliamentary Triangle since the opening of the Provisional Parliament House in 1927.

Bunning’s vision was to create a monumental building in a Classical-Modernist style, furnished with an impressive collection of building art and bespoke furniture. It would be a world-class home for the Library and would symbolise Australia’s growing cultural confidence. Later it would be joined by the National Gallery and the High Court, but in 1968 the Library stood alone on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin making the argument that the national capital could be more than just a home for the Commonwealth Parliament.

Max Dupain, Main Reading Room at the National Library of Australia, 1968, nla.cat-vn4318538

To mark the anniversary of the opening of its permanent home, the Library is presenting a new exhibition, 1968: Changing Times. This exhibition makes use of the Library’s extensive holdings of books, magazines, music, manuscripts and posters to explore this landmark year in world history. Engaging with this material provides the chance to travel back through time and remind ourselves of what was happening 50 years ago.

As you enter the exhibition, you are greeted by Australian artist Martin Sharp’s classic poster of Bob Dylan. With his swirling psychedelic design, Sharp reminds us how important a figure Dylan was to the social movements of the 1960s. If you wanted to establish your counterculture credentials in 1968, you could purchase this poster for 7/6d and use it to decorate the walls of your London bedsit.

The exhibition features other examples of Sharp’s artistic output, including a selection of Oz magazines. London Oz was established in 1967 by Sharp along with fellow Australians Richard Neville and Jim Anderson. Initially a satirical pamphlet, similar to its Sydney predecessor, the London Oz quickly evolved into a counterculture magazine. Sharp’s psychedelic covers were instant collector’s items and helped forge his reputation as one of the leading graphic artists of the 1960s.

While Oz was emblematic of the so-called ‘underground press’, its audience was relatively small. Much more influential were mainstream magazines such as Time and Life, both of which had an enormous readership around the world. The covers of Time magazine provide a series of iconic images of the major events of 1968, whether it be the Prague Spring, US President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s decision to cease bombing in North Vietnam or the wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis. Life magazine was famous for its influential brand of photojournalism documenting the drama of American politics and the tragedy of the war in Vietnam.

1968 was an important year for both fiction and non-fiction publishing. Tom Wolfe released his exploration of psychedelic drug use, The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, a work credited as being one of the first examples of New Journalism. Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich, working with his wife Anne, published dire warnings of mass starvation due to overpopulation in The Population Bomb. While many of their predictions proved incorrect, the couple succeeded in raising concerns about food security and the impact of overpopulation on the environment.

Also in 1968, Arthur C. Clarke worked with Stanley Kubrick to expand their screenplay of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey into a novel, while Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the inspiration for the 1982 sci-fi classic movie Blade Runner. Both novels explore themes of the impact of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence, issues that remain relevant today.

Anti-War Demonstration, Canberra, c.1968, Records of the Save Our Sons Movement, nla.cat-vn1773934

Radical politics was very much in vogue in 1968. Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations occurred in cities across the world. Following the execution of revolutionary socialist Che Guevara in Bolivia in October 1967, there was a huge demand for Guevara’s writings. Several editions of his diaries, speeches and other documents were rushed into print in 1968. In the United States, ‘Black Power’ had emerged as a major social movement. Eldridge Cleaver, a leader in the Black Panther Party, published Soul on Ice, a provocative series of essays on race and politics in America.

1968 was a landmark year in popular music around the world. Cream released their second album, Disraeli Gears, in November 1967. Featuring the hit singles Sunshine of Your Love and Strange Brew, it went on to dominate the charts in 1968. Electric Ladyland, Jimi Hendrix’s third and last album, featured a cover of Bod Dylan’s All along the Watchtower.

In August, the Beatles released Hey Jude on their new record label, Apple Records. Earlier in the year, the group had travelled to India for spiritual enlightenment resulting in the ‘White Album’, which debuted at number one on both the US and UK charts. In December, the Rolling Stones released Beggars Banquet, which included the rock anthem Street Fighting Man—Mick Jagger’s personal response to demonstrations in Paris and London.

Ian McCausland, The Who, Paul Jones, Small Faces Poster, 1968, nla.cat-vn6455287

Some of the major international acts who visited Australia in 1968 included The Who, the Small Faces, Paul Jones and the Monkees. The Who’s tour was mired in controversy with complaints about sound quality and the behaviour of band members. After an argument with a hostess on a domestic flight, The Who were met by police at Essendon Airport in Melbourne and escorted from the plane. Who concerts usually finished with their classic My Generation, often accompanied by the smashing of guitars. The Who would not return to Australia until 2004.

The Seekers also completed an extensive ‘homecoming tour’, which included a concert at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl attended by a record crowd of 200,000. The group had achieved huge commercial success overseas, especially in Britain, where high-rating television ‘specials’ complemented their concert performances and record sales.

Playbill, The Seekers Souvenir Program, 1968, Australian Performing Arts Programs and Ephemera (PROMPT) Collection, nla.cat-vn3530982, courtesy Playbill

One Australian artist who hit the headlines in 1968 was Normie Rowe. At the time, he was one of the most famous performers on the Australian pop music scene. In early 1968, he received a call-up for National Service. Rowe surprised many in the largely dissent-orientated pop music environment by accepting the call-up and serving in Vietnam. Although he continued as an entertainer after his release from the army in 1970, his musical career never regained its former momentum.

While much of the news in 1968 was depressing, the year ended on an optimistic note. The Apollo 8 mission launched on 21 December 1968 and successfully orbited the moon. Lunar module pilot William Anders took a famous photograph of the Earth emerging from behind the lunar horizon. The image was celebrated as providing an entirely new perspective of Earth from space (you can see it in the exhibition until 12 August!).

John Frith, Astronauts Leave Earth, 1968, nla.cat-vn6573275

Whether it was the wars in Vietnam, student demonstrations, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy or the blistering power of a Hendrix solo, there was a strong sense that the world was rapidly changing in 1968. Australia was facing its own challenges with the swearing in of a new prime minister and growing unrest about conscription for overseas military service. The opening of the Library’s new building in Canberra in August 1968 was a moment of national pride and achievement in the midst of this turbulent time.

1968: Changing Times is an opportunity to revisit the late sixties and celebrate the completion of one of Canberra’s great public institutions. The exhibition will run from 1 March to 12 August. Read more about the Library’s architecture in Dr Grace Blakeley-Carroll’s short article in this issue, ‘Classicism Meets Modernism’.