I sometimes think of myself as a ragpicker, someone who salvages the refuse discarded by other people. Ragpickers, or rag-and-bone men, were a common sight in industrialised towns and cities in the nineteenth century. They walked the streets with carts and sacks into which they would gather all sorts of detritus, literally including rags (sold for making paper) and bones (useful for many purposes, from buttons to fertiliser). There was even a market for horseshoe nails scraped from between paving stones.
Be assured that I’m not going to be sifting through your rubbish on bin night. In my day job as a social history curator I interpret historical material for display in exhibitions, and in that work the context and significance of objects is critical. In my downtime, though, I grub for the bits of history left behind in charity shops, collectables shops and markets. I’m not a collector; I just like being in the presence of old stuff.
Fine antique shops bore me because everything in them has already been assessed for its market value. All is tidily identified, with no space for adventure or mystery. I’m drawn to the places where I can be unsettled by orphaned artefacts and random associations. In charity and collectables shops it’s up to the customers to establish significance, and they’ll do this through Google searching of course, but also by drawing on their own imagination and memories.
“Oh, my mum used to have one of those!” is a commonly overheard remark, referring perhaps to vintage Tupperware or a Corningware casserole dish. I once spotted a glass jug exactly the same as the one my mother used for mint sauce, but I didn’t buy it, because really, it was rather ugly. Maybe she thought so too, but it was what she had.
Whether or not someone will buy other people’s discarded stuff depends entirely on how they reimagine its use and reinvest it with new meaning. Inversion of value is something that the French writer Raymond Queneau had great fun with in his 1967 poem “The Bin-Men Go on Strike”:
it’s strike day for the bin-men
it’s a lucky day for us
we can play ragpicker or peddler
junk dealer who knows even antiquarian
there’s a little bit of everything…
A little bit of everything. I like that. It’s a tough call, Queneau goes on, between the “eyeless armless noseless doll” or the tin of sardines “that lost all its sardines on the way” or the “can of French peas that lost all its French peas on the way,” all of it “yawn[ing] in the midday sun… ripe for the picking.” Suddenly you see a work of art abandoned by some “ignorant philistine”: the Mona Lisa is it? Or The Night Watch, the Venus de Milo or The Raft of the Medusa?
Carol Rumens chose “The Bin-Men Go on Strike” for her poem of the week earlier this year in the Guardian. She suggests that Queneau conjures “art from soiled fragmented images” and, in so doing, simultaneously goes in the opposite direction and reduces art back to rubbish. Who gets to declare what is art and what is not art? And so, I thought when I read the poem, who gets to declare what is history and what not? Anyone. Feeling superfluous is very freeing.
On a trip to Melbourne in June this year I was happily playing this game in my head in the Chapel Street Bazaar — one of the largest second-hand markets I’ve ever seen — when I was brought up short by a commemorative plate, one of those limited-edition ceramic pieces that people collect for display on shelf or wall.
After blinking at it for a few seconds I realised it depicts a moment shortly after the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. A couple of ships lie at anchor, a Union Jack has been hoisted, and convicts and marines are busy rowing barrels of supplies to a small jetty. Someone has pitched a tent, and already a few trees have been felled to create a clearing.
It was priced at $95. Gingerly I picked it up and turned it over. The painting was titled “Ships of the First Fleet, Sydney Cove” and had been commissioned by Westminster Australia (a company specialising in commemorative ceramics, I later learned) for a limited firing to mark the Australian bicentenary in 1988. The original work was painted by maritime artist Ian Hansen.
Immediately I was taken back to the raucous year-long “celebration of a nation” that was 1988. Most particularly I remember the promotional jingle that planted a twelve-month earworm in all our heads:
Come on give us a hand,
Let’s make it grand!
Let’s make it great in ’88,
Come on give us a hand!
“The road to the Bicentenary was certainly a winding and treacherous one,” notes Frank Bongiorno in The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia (2017). His remark makes me wish I had been paying more attention to the swirl of entangled ideologies going on at the time, but, living in Hobart and wrapped up in my own life, I wasn’t.
The First Fleet re-enactment did penetrate my world, mainly because the “tall ships,” as everyone called them, visited Hobart in early January 1988 for a race to Sydney ahead of the spectacular re-enactment event on the harbour on 26 January. Also on that day in Sydney a protest was attended by more than 40,000 Indigenous Australians and supporters from across the country. I don’t have Indigenous heritage and I confess it barely registered with me.
Mostly I recall a lot of people running about in period costume and the myriad television specials, concerts, books and so on. The official bicentennial logo — a map of Australia in green and gold diagonal stripes — was impossible to ignore. It was on everything from caps to coffee mugs to commemorative coins.
I thought it would be on the back of this plate too, but no, this was an unofficial production. I put it back on its little stand. It all seems such a long time ago now. Gradually I started to notice the clutter of other things on the same shelf. A matching hen and rooster in ceramic. A glazed figurine of a cat. A couple of lamps. A decanter and glasses. A bunch of artificial tulips in a vase. A stack of video cassettes topped by a biscuity-looking bust of the Madonna and child.
Tucked in next to the plate was a ceramic bell labelled “4 generations souvenir bell $45,” featuring an illustration of four generations of the royal family: the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince George. The illustration was obviously taken from a photograph of Prince George’s christening in 2013, and I discovered later that it was posed to match a photograph taken in 1894 of the christening of the future Edward VIII. In that photo, Queen Victoria is seated holding the baby prince while the child’s grandfather and father (later Edward VII and George V) stand behind. In each photo the elderly female monarch is flanked by three future English kings. Extraordinary when you think about it.
Here then, in this crazy jumble of stuff, was a glorious freewheeling rejection of the power of professional museums to control the language of acquisition and display; a laugh-out-loud moment for a curator on a day off. This is what I turn up for in collectables shops.
The centrepiece was the commemorative plate, innocently inviting the viewer to remember the earliest days of white settlement on this continent. The flag seen on the right had been hoisted at an informal ceremony on 26 January 1788 at which Captain Arthur Phillip, having decided that this was the best place to establish the colony, had gathered a small party of officers and others to drink to the success of the new colony and the health of their king, His Majesty George III.
And there, depicted on that other useless ceramic thing — the bell — are George’s smiling descendants. There’s his little namesake, who will one day (presumably) be crowned George VII. The god they all worship makes an appearance too, on that altar of video cassettes, also as a babe in arms.
A little bit of everything, at the heart of which was a yawning absence. “Ships of the First Fleet, Sydney Cove” doesn’t depict a single Indigenous person — not one of the Eora people who had cared for that coast for tens of thousands of years before Phillip’s men planted the Union Jack there.
There is nothing to suggest the complex meeting of two vastly different cultures, none of what Inga Clendinnen, in Dancing with Strangers (2003), called “hugger-mugger accidents, casual misreadings, and unthinking responses to the abrasions inevitable during close encounters of the cultural kind.” Certainly there is no hint of violent dispossession. This was a 1988 view of 1788, and all the manufacturer wanted was to make money by producing something that people would be happy to display in their living rooms.
Actually — and this is no surprise in a collectables shop — I was surrounded by numerous examples of complex cultures and histories reduced to toy-like simplicity for domestic consumption. Walking about with fresh eyes I noticed a moustached Mexican doll in a sombrero, several black baby dolls (one of them ludicrously dressed in a grass skirt), some “golliwogs,” some “African” masks and a couple of very choice examples of “Aboriginalia.”
It’s within the collectables market, in bricks and mortar and on online, that we find the best kitsch, and a lot of it is genuinely good fun. It makes us smile, and sometimes generates fresh inspiration for artists and other creatives. But look again at what lurks. While these objects tell us little about the cultures their makers sought to represent, they tell us a great deal about ourselves. Our ignorance, our insularity and casual racism take artefactual form and, over time, fall to the bottom to form a giant, heaving slurry of stuff that we often just don’t know what to do with.
“You’re not going to buy it are you?” my son Harry queried when I told him about the commemorative plate that evening. Of course not, I said, although the thought had crossed my mind. But to do so would enhance the market for this kind of thing, and would, I thought, make me complicit in the artefact’s reductive re-enactment of the past. To own it would be to accept its message. For the price of $95 I would be rejecting Clendinnen’s warning that the people of the past are more than “just ourselves tricked out in fancy dress.”
So I walked away. Yet the plain truth of it is that I’d be embarrassed to own the plate myself and I’m hoping that a public museum somewhere has acquired one so that I can shuffle responsibility from the personal to the collective. I did some searching through various online collection databases but had no success with this particular item, although that’s not to say it’s not there somewhere.
But the 1988 bicentenary seems to be fairly well represented in public collections generally, which is heartening. It shows that, after all, there is a role for publicly funded museums (and libraries and archives) to preserve evidence that disturbs and unsettles our comfortable views of ourselves and our history. It is a job too important to be left to chance. At some point, bin-men and curators all need to get back to work.
Post-referendum we are likely to be feeling more than unsettled. What does the future hold? Australia Day 2024 is not that far away. •