Tourists' pictures of the past: how Australians realised their past was worth visiting

9 September 2013

Australian tourist souvenirs and kitsch memorabilia tell the story of how tourism helped Australians understand their history. [Image: Tim Harland]
Australian tourist souvenirs and kitsch memorabilia tell the story of how tourism helped Australians understand their history. [Image: Tim Harland]

Domestic tourism is now an Australian rite of passage, but Australians didn't always recognise that they had a past worth visiting.

In a free Sydney Ideas talk for History Week 2013, the University of Sydney's Associate Professor Richard White will explore how tourists came to realise Australia's past as a destination worth visiting.

On Tuesday 10 September, the illustrated talk will show Australians' appreciation of their history through tourism using art, postcards, photography, posters, film, souvenirs and coffee table books. What sort of pasts did tourists visit, what were the exhibits that drew them in, and what were the souvenirs they took away?

The talk accompanies a free exhibition recently launched at the University's Macleay Museum, in which the breastplate worn by Mick Jagger in the 1970 film Ned Kelly joins an eclectic collection of Australian tourist souvenirs and kitsch memorabilia to expose tourism's surprising role in helping Australians understand their history.

Touring the past: tourism and history in Australia charts Australian tourists' fascination for convicts, criminals, scandals and underdogs, and explores the ever-popular phenomenon of 'set-jetting': the tourist's pursuit of film locations and anything associated with celluloid celebrity.

"We tend not to think about Australia as having a history that's worth looking at as tourists," says Associate Professor White, who teaches Australian History and the history of travel and tourism at the University of Sydney.

"The reason a lot of Australians go to Europe is to explore the past: to look at the great cathedrals, castles and ruins. Overseas travel has so much social significance in terms of status and culture, but we don't think about the Australian equivalent. People in early 20th century Australia started looking at ruins here and seeing them as quite attractive features of the countryside."

Kitsch souvenirs, tourist knickknacks, collector's teaspoons and commemorative crockery feature highly alongside artefacts, artwork and curios from collections at the University and across the country.

The exhibition explores the friction between the 'official', wholesome tourism promoted by the Australian government and respectable opinion, and tourists' fascination for the more salacious, macabre side of the story.

"Tourists in Australia started to get interested surprisingly early in things that we might now think are boring, like convicts and bushrangers, but at the time were seen as quite subversive," Associate Professor White says.

The Dog on the Tuckerbox, Gundagai's most popular tourist attraction and one of Australia's enduring folktales, is a textbook example featured in the exhibition. While the respectable version of the story praises the bullocky's dog who sat on the tuckerbox to wait for his owner, presumably stranded by inclement weather, it is widely conceded that the original story concerned a bullocky complaining about the dog who shat in his tuckerbox.

As we began to determine our own history in Australia, a patina of nostalgia began to develop, and artists stimulated an appreciation for colonial architecture and country towns.

Australians also developed a taste for 'dark tourism', or a fascination for places associated with death and cruelty such as convict settlements, prisons, shipwrecks and graves of bushrangers with a romantic history.

"Many exhibitions around Australia really exaggerated the horror of convictism, with macabre displays of the torture instruments of the convict system. The ball and chain, for example, was part of exhibits around Port Arthur even though it's unlikely the ball and chain was ever used as punishment there."

Event details:

What: Tourists' pictures of the past- a free Sydney Ideas talk for National History Week 2013

When: Tuesday 10 September 2013, 6pm to 7.30pm.

Where: Law Lecture Foyer, Eastern Avenue, the University of Sydney

Cost: Free, registration required

Exhibition open until 15 February 2014. Open 10am to 4.30pm weekdays, 12pm to 4pm first Saturday of every month at the Macleay Museum, Gosper Lane, off Science Road, Camperdown Campus

Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809,