Contested Memories of Eureka : Museum Interpretations of the Eureka Stockade

The significance of the Eureka Stockade has been a lively topic of discussion since the event occurred in 1854. This paper focuses on its public interpretation in Ballarat, as a case study of the politics of memory. Its central question is how to interpret a contested political event so that people with ownership of conflicting versions of the story can all be accommodated? The paper analyses the development of the Eureka Stockade Centre in Ballarat, and compares this public interpretation to other attempts to present the story, notably at Sovereign Hill. It concludes that only by embracing the contests can the interpretation be successful.

Ever since the Eureka Stockade at Ballarat on 3 December 1854, people have remembered the event and explained its significance in very different ways. Eureka has always had special significance for the Labour movement, and the symbolism of the Eureka flag — the flag of the Ballarat Reform League — has become almost synonymous with the Trade Union movement. However there have been many other uses of Eureka — for nationalist political purposes, for religious and cultural purposes, and for commercial purposes. In fact Eureka can be likened to Norman Lindsay’s magic pudding, capable of constantly being cut up, yet always able to renew and reinvent itself. The problems of trying to interpret an emotive story in a museum environment were argued out in the process of constructing the Eureka Stockade Centre at Ballarat, which opened in March 1998.[1] The Centre is one more piece in a jigsaw that attempts to give a comprehensive public interpretation of Eureka.

The Eureka Stockade Centre proclaims that Eureka was the birthplace of Australian democracy. This slogan is itself controversial, as many commentators have debunked the importance of Eureka, claiming that it had no political significance.[2] The Centre chooses to use the ‘birthplace of Australian democracy’ claim on its advertising brochures, so the visitor could expect to discover what the claim means and whether it is justified. This is the role of an interpretation centre, as the name implies — to interpret the different aspects of a subject by presenting material that will allow certain claims to be made. In doing so there is an obligation to present conflicting interpretations. Ideally, the visitor should leave the experience challenged and stimulated to discover more about the subject.

This professional challenge of presenting conflicting narratives, of being the popular memory bank, is a central issue for museums, which play a pivotal role in shaping historical consciousness. In the prelude to the opening of the National Museum, a conference was held in Canberra in 1999 to bring together international participants to examine how museums negotiate and present national histories, with particular reference to allowing multiple voices and different perspectives to be heard. David Lowenthal addressed the plight of the modern national museum, torn between the post-modern demand to demolish canonical truths, the latest trends in display, and the mainstream demands of patrons and political elites. This was the dilemma for the National Museum as it prepared its exhibition spaces for its opening in 2001.[3]

Other new museums around Australia have faced the same issue. In fact the role of museums has changed dramatically over the last century. Where in the nineteenth century the museum was used by governments as an instrument of public propaganda, by the end of the twentieth century the museum can become an instrument of public critique of ruling elites.[4] The opening of Australia’s new National Museum is a pertinent example of this function, with museum curators defending their exhibitions from the criticism of the government (or its champions) that those exhibitions were biased. At issue here is the question of whether the museum should be telling an optimistic story of national achievement, or exploring the lives of victims of that achievement. The rise of new historical perspectives and methodologies — the use of memory, oral history, people’s history, cultural studies in the late twentieth century — have transformed the world of museums and the public presentation of history.[5]

Governments and many citizens believe in the ‘true version’ of history that celebrates national achievement, as it did in the nineteenth century when history was being written by the ‘winners’. That is the finding of studies into the use of the past. But the public understanding of the ‘true version’, and the historian’s understanding of the constructed and interpretative nature of all historical narratives, are very much at odds. This was dramatically illustrated in the United States in 1994, when the Smithsonian Institute was forced to withdraw its Enola Gay exhibition. The exhibition centred on the Truman government’s decision to use nuclear weapons to end World War II. The complaints of veterans’ organisations and members of the general public galvanised Congress to enter into the hitherto sacrosanct corridors of museum curators. Suddenly the professionals were accountable for their exhibitions, which were carefully scrutinised for ideological bias.[6]

A similar debate raged in Ballarat over the exhibition at the new Eureka Centre, taking up the same kinds of issues that had been argued in Washington, and the issues that would be debated at the new Melbourne Museum and National Museum in Canberra. These were over questions of content, the use of real objects versus reproductions, the context in which objects would be displayed, and whether to mount permanent or temporary displays. At heart here is the politics of memory, the differences in the objectives of funding bodies, management, professional curators, citizens, tourists and descendants of those who fought at Eureka.

Chris Healy used the metaphor of ‘history as memory training’ to consider different forms of historical consciousness in Australia.[7] He proposed that museums ‘do the work of collective memory by remembering for us’.[8] They operate in what Tony Bennett called the ‘public historical sphere’.[9] Bennett examined the political uses that governments have made of museums as ‘reformatories of manners’ and carefully constructed public historical spaces through which state public policy objectives are achieved. Ann Curthoys postulated the concept of the ‘public arena’, the virtual space offered by communications media in which discussion takes place, a space which Curthoys claimed was dominated by those in power.[10] Her challenge made historians more aware of the need to represent the experience of women and ethnic minorities in the public sphere of museums, which in many cases, according to Margaret Anderson, were dominated by corporate Anglo-Saxon, male viewpoints – the ‘big toys for the big boys’ syndrome.[11] However, recent developments at the National Museum, the Melbourne Museum and the Migration Museums in Adelaide and Melbourne show that this masculinist domination of the display cases is very definitely declining. Putting women into the Eureka story, traditionally a very masculine story, became a task in the development of the Eureka centre — albeit a very challenging one, because of their minimal involvement.

Early Attempts at Interpretation

Ballarat struggled from the first with the issue of remembering Eureka. The first monuments were at the cemetery, and then 30 years later an obelisk was erected near the site of the Stockade. Official concern that Eureka was not quite respectable ensured that this public space was reticent in its recollection. Little financial support was forthcoming. The plaque on the obelisk recorded only the simple words ‘Eureka Stockade, Sunday morning, 3 December 1854’, and the monument committee accepted the incongruous gift of four cannons from the Victorian Department of Defence. It would take another 40 years before the names of those who died at the ‘sacred site’ were added to the monument, which became the most important memory place for Eureka.[12]

The other emotional relic of Eureka was the flag of the Southern Cross, procured by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery in 1895 from the family of Trooper John King, who tore it down during the battle and kept it as a personal trophy. The Gallery displayed the huge flag in various unsuitable ways, until in October 1934 it was put in a glass case alongside Captain Wise’s sword, an unlikely juxtaposition remarked by international peace activist Egon Kisch when he visited the Gallery in 1935. Kisch visited the Eureka monument, and noted there, too, the impartiality of the monument, which put ‘heroes and minions of the law, fighters and executioners … on the same level’. For him the event was an important stage in national development, and the flag was a Republican symbol.[13] The flag was subsequently put away out of public sight and memory, and only conserved and mounted behind glass in 1973. Recent additions to the Gallery have seen the flag placed in its own shrine in the centre of the building, surrounded by works of art that place it in historical context.[14]

Until recently, people wanting to know the full story of Eureka were disappointed in their visit to Ballarat. This was a peculiar failure for a city that could celebrate an event unique to Australia — its only civil uprising. The possibilities of interpreting Ballarat’s history were first grasped in 1967, with the opening of Sovereign Hill, a manifestation of the new socially conscious museum. The historian of Ballarat, Weston Bate, in describing the birth of Sovereign Hill, observed a union of entrepreneurial businessmen with local people possessing a deep sense of Ballarat’s history, who came together in the mid-1960s to lay plans to ‘cash in on great beginnings’, Ballarat’s nineteenth century goldfields history. Such a new development was important for the regional city of Ballarat as its traditional manufacturing base was beginning to succumb to the winds of globalisation and the end of government protection of industry.[15]

Sovereign Hill capitalised on Eureka in 1993 when it introduced its sound and light show, Blood on the Southern Cross. Since its inception it has been spectacularly successful, seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors from throughout Australia and the world. As Graeme Davison points out, it has been successful because it relies on the imagination of the viewer, who constructs his/her own story from the sights and sounds, rather than receiving the story from the museologist’s text panels.[16] Since the 1970s, various citizens’ groups had been working to improve the interpretation of the actual Stockade site. Local Rotary clubs made a small but significant contribution with a Diorama in 1970, near the monument, to tell the story of Eureka. When Minister for Immigration Al Grassby came to Ballarat on 3 December 1973, he made encouraging comments about a ‘national shrine’ concept of a commemorative centre put forward by the Eureka Stockade Park Committee.[17] But the concept did not win government funding, because Sovereign Hill was seen as most worthy of tourist infrastructure support, and because of local bickering over the Eureka flag, and whether it should be moved from the Gallery to the proposed new centre.[18]

The 140th anniversary of Eureka provided the impetus for the diverse interest groups to come together under the umbrella of the City of Ballarat. The City nominated the Eureka Precinct to the Register of the National Estate and established a Eureka Broad Interest Group. It also encouraged the formation of the Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust, whose aim was ‘to be a catalyst for the promotion of the Australian spirit’ and to raise funds for ‘a Eureka education and interpretation centre of national significance dedicated to the ideals of Australian democracy and peaceful democratic reform’.[19] At the same time the University of Ballarat organised a conference The Legacy of Eureka that raised many broad issues relating to the commemoration of Eureka.[20] At this stage I became actively engaged in the public debate about the new centre, as a foundation member of the Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust. In becoming a member, I subscribed to the aims of the Trust and recognised the national significance of Eureka.

Gestation of the Eureka Centre

The City, with the approval of the Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust, asked Sovereign Hill to prepare an application to the State Government’s Community Support Fund for a grant of $2.4 million for a Eureka Interpretation Centre. The proposal was for an ‘interpretation centre (museum)’, showing confusion between the roles of an interpretation centre and a museum. It specified that a large-scale version of the Eureka flag would fly from a tall flagpole, that the centre would have changing exhibitions, a life-size re-creation of the battle and an opportunity to engage with the ideological controversies surrounding Eureka, allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions. The proposal made quite clear the importance of linkages with other heritage sites in Ballarat that held original Eureka memorabilia. Because existing museums such as the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and the Gold Museum held important artefacts, the proposal clearly stated that the centre would not hold original materials, and thus it would not need costly temperature and humidity control systems.[21]

The proposal was a tourism-based one, aimed at promoting Ballarat and complementing other Ballarat attractions.[22] Significantly, it made no mention of the original Eureka flag, the most important and most emotive artefact of 1854. The submission for government funding deliberately fudged the issues that Davidson and Spearritt, in their study of the tourist industry in Australia, called ‘sacralisation and simulacrum’.[23] The history of tourism is a branch of social history, reflecting the change in Australia’s dependence from sheep to tourism as a basis of the economy. With this new emphasis on tourism, Davidson and Spearritt and argue that ‘sites’ become ‘sights’, which go through a process of ‘sacralisation’ — of being marked off, framed, enshrined, mechanically and socially reproduced. They compare the Eureka Centre to the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, commenting on the way the Centre claims to venerate Eureka and the flag in a way that the simple monument could never attempt.[24] As Smithsonian director Stephen E. Weil pointed out, museums that hope to sustain themselves ‘as both a meaningful and viable institution will have to find that point on the spectrum (between market and mission) where they can comfortably accommodate both’.[25] This was the delicate balance that the 1994 Eureka submission aimed to discover. The submission tried to embrace a number of simmering divisions in the Ballarat and wider communities. There was a strong divide about the best location for the Eureka flag. There were passionate differences about the significance of Eureka, expressed by such groups as Eureka’s Children, the Electrical Trades Union, National Action and the Small Business Association– a confusing mixture of right and left wing positions. The Sovereign Hill staff who wrote the submission were aware of these tensions, and tried to minimise them in the best interests of promoting Ballarat.

According to the Welshman Pyrs Gruffudd, the interpretation of heritage is at its most potent when it admits the mythic element in the construction of identity and engages with debates about identity. It is at its most dangerous when it hides the construction, and attempts to inculcate a hegemonic view of history. The City was promoting Eureka because it gave Ballarat something distinctive, and could be grafted onto the success of Sovereign Hill and its sound and light show. But the City was optimistic in thinking that it could harmoniously embrace all viewpoints. In fact concern was soon being expressed that the Liberal Government, through the City, was trying to impose its hegemony on the interpretation of Eureka. A particularly vocal group was Eureka’s Children, formed in 1988 from the descendants of those who fought (on both sides) at Eureka. The group, drawing on the estimated 10,000 descendants, has been influential in working to collect stories, documents and myths and to preserve the cultural memory of the Stockade with the hope of making these available to all Australians. Trade Union representatives, both in Ballarat and Melbourne, wanted their say, as did academics: historians such as John Molony and Weston Bate. The views of all these groups were aired at the monthly meetings of the Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust, which became increasingly critical of the development process.[26]

In August 1995, the State government, headed by Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett, announced that the application for funding for the Eureka Interpretative Centre had been successful, and the Minister for Tourism, who appointed a Eureka Project Special Committee to manage the project, would oversee the project. The Special Committee was made up entirely of Kennett government appointments with a very local focus. Significantly there was no academic historian, and no representative from the Left side of politics. The former Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly for Ballarat North, Tom Evans, provided historical expertise. Evans had invested much time since his retirement in reading about Eureka and his particular passion was the ‘actual’ site of the Stockade, which he argued was some distance from the Eureka monument. From his study he also believed that there was a ‘one true facts’ version of the Eureka story, that it was simply a colourful event making no contribution to the development of democracy or anything else. He was an avid writer of letters-to-the-editor in the local newspaper, and also inserted a number of full-page advertisements that attempted to demolish the ‘myths’ of Eureka ‘peddled by academic historians’. Members of the Eureka Trust were most unhappy about the conservative composition of this committee and its lack of historical or museological experience.[27]

The new committee instituted a design competition for a centre that would ‘commemorate, educate and interpret’ and which would give ‘a fair go’ to all community views. At a heated public briefing in December 1995, there was much criticism of the haste of the process, the prevailing influence of the Minister for Tourism, and lack of opportunity for public involvement. This probably led to the City exhibiting design concepts at the Art Gallery in February, and inviting comments, which were passed on to the panel of the Committee who chose the winning design. The architectural firm of Phillip Cox, Sanderson and Partners won the competition with their imaginative circular form that nestled into the earth, with a huge 50-metre high mast carrying a representation of the Eureka flag. The huge banner, to be seen all over Ballarat, would be a powerful symbol of Australian identity. Within the building would be exhibition spaces, a commercial area and a commemorative space — the attempt to combine ‘sacralisation and simulacrum’. The winning design concept was universally acclaimed.[28]

Authorising the Exhibition Text

Deciding on the interior of the centre, however, highlighted all the problems of popular history, for there was no ‘agreed’ national narrative around which an unproblematic heritage could be constructed. The Eureka Special Projects Committee appointed a Historic Content Sub-Committee, which would be responsible for the interior exhibition. There was no information available publicly about the terms of reference or membership of this committee, although it gradually emerged that the government appointed the members under the influence of Tom Evans. The members were Professor Geoffrey Blainey (chair), Tom Evans, Peter Butters and Lloyd Jenkins, the last three all amateur local historians. Butters and Jenkins were also Board members of Sovereign Hill. Professor Blainey had recently been appointed by the Kennett Government as foundation Chancellor of the new University of Ballarat. Conspicuous by their absence were Professors Weston Bate and John Molony, academic historians who had written acclaimed histories of Eureka.

The composition of this sub-committee and the ‘secrecy’ of its meetings were attacked in letters-to-the-editor in the local newspaper, and at a public meeting where Professor John Molony gave a stirring address on the ‘Significance of Eureka’. University of Ballarat academic and Eureka Trust member Dr Kevin Livingston wrote to university historians throughout Australia, urging them to comment to Professor Blainey and he organised a public seminar , which examined the ‘story line’ prepared by the Historic Content Sub-Committee. Mary Akers, an employee of Sovereign Hill, was given six weeks to complete a 60-page script. In order to gauge the enormity of her task, it is worth noting that the Enola Gay script took 12 months, and the script for the Holocaust Museum in New York took seven years! It is perhaps not surprising that the result was a simple chronology of events between 1851 and April 1855. Weston Bate attacked the script, questioning why the City should appoint professionals to design the centre, but leave the content in the hands of amateurs. Similar comments were made to Professor Blainey by experts such as Dr Linda Young from the University of Canberra, and Dr Alan Mayne and Dr Don Garden from Melbourne University.[29]

The Historic Content Sub-Committee met to consider public submissions, but was beginning to feel threatened by criticisms about the lack of professional historical expertise. Weston Bate argued passionately that the Centre should be concerned with offering explanations, rather than narrative — it should be about ‘making meaning’. Bate later used the simile of the bricklayer — you do not leave him a pile of bricks and expect him to build a house, if he has no building plans. This was effectively what the sub-committee was doing — giving the designers a large number of facts, and asking them to construct a story. Without such direction, the designers were incapable of contextualising Eureka within the development of democratic ideas in Europe in the 1840s, and the whole democratic thread was lost.[30]

The designers pleaded for a basic message. In a concession to community criticism — the ‘public sphere’ represented by the letters-to-the-editor columns of the local newspaper — the sub-committee agreed that Professors Bate and Molony, John Ireland of Eureka’s Children and Peter Hiscock, Director of Sovereign Hill, be invited to provide their views as ‘guest consultants’. A similar ploy was adopted by the National Museum Council in 2001 when it was criticised for lack of historical expertise.[31]

Heated public debates about the content of the centre continued throughout 1997. But when Sovereign Hill won a tender to manage the centre, control over the exhibition, though not the script, was handed over to Sovereign Hill staff. Eureka Trust members continued to write to the City emphasising the importance of exploring the issue of national significance, but the exhibition content still ignored events after 1855.[32]

The Trust, through Dr Livingston, won funding from the Australia Foundation for Culture and the Humanities and Visions Australia to make a film Flying the Flag about the Eureka Flag, which would explore larger national issues. I was appointed to research and develop the script. The film examines the myths of Eureka, in a fashion totally at odds with the Tom Evans dictum of sticking to the ‘facts’. However Sovereign Hill’s professional historian, Dr Jan Penney, had now been installed as manager of the centre, and she approved of the film and decided to show it continuously in the centre’s theatrette. At last the proponents of the ‘national significance’ of Eureka had won a victory, because the film reflects on the uses of the Eureka flag by Trade Union and other groups, and examines what Eureka means for contemporary Australians. It also tells some of the women’s stories.[33]

John Molony’s suggestion for a name change to the Centre was also accepted about this time. The Eureka Interpretative Centre became the Eureka Stockade Centre, with the contentious word ‘interpretative’ dropped. Molony had argued passionately that the word ‘stockade’, resonant with memories of human sacrifice, must be used.[34]

Molony, Ireland and Bate were consulted about the text being developed for the exhibition and expressed acceptance, if not enthusiasm. There was still a perception that women and children were being left out of the exhibition, and that it deliberately avoided the important story of Trade Union uses of the flag from the time of the Barcaldine strike in 1891. Around this time, too, the flag issue was reignited, when Premier Kennett declared that the Eureka flag should be moved to the new centre because it would become ‘a tourist icon and you ought to be able to come and pay homage to the flag on technically the site’. On this issue Kennett was the unlikely ally of Dean Mighall, Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.[35]

After the opening of the centre, a Eureka Special Committee was established by the City Council to advise on all aspects of public commemoration of Eureka. Although its deliberations have been stormy, this committee has been robust and democratic, allowing all of Eureka’s interested parties to have their say. In late 2001 it began to consider the issue of a second stage for the Centre and whether it should seek museum status so that it could house original artefacts.[36]

Communicating the Story

After all the bitter public debate about the wording of the script in the Eureka Centre, the task of realising the story, of ‘educating, informing and entertaining’, was left to a team of museum designers who had worked with Sovereign Hill on a number of projects. Sherman and Rogoff examined museums as ‘an intricate amalgam of historical structures and narratives, practices and strategies of display, and the concerns and imperatives of various governing ideologies’.[37] They distinguish between ‘exhibited culture’– what is displayed — and ‘exhibition culture’ — the ideas and values that shape the practices of exhibiting. By collecting, classifying and exhibiting objects, museums construct categories and establish significance. Hence they may both sustain and construct national narratives. This is even truer of an interpretation centre like the Eureka Stockade Centre, where the story is carefully scripted through storytelling and through following a sequential path, and where decisions about building design influence the amount of material that can be displayed.

The ‘exhibited culture’- text panels, illustrative material and objects — present the visitor with ‘the facts’. Surveys, such as the extensive American survey by Rosenzweig and Thelen, show that people are extensively and passionately engaged with their past – a useable past that helps answer questions about relationships, identity, immortality and responsibility. Significantly, museums are a highly trusted source of historical information. In this context it is noteworthy that while Blood on the Southern Cross calls on the imaginative powers of the viewer, it relies on a carefully scripted audio presentation by a narrator. In contrast to the experience of the Eureka Centre, there has been not the least controversy about the script of the sound and light show. This can be explained by the fact that Sovereign Hill is seen as a tourist enterprise, whereas the Eureka Centre claimed a more serious objective with its original aim of being a centre for the study of Australian democracy. Surveys conducted by Sovereign Hill show very positive responses to their show, demonstrating how museums shape historical consciousness by ‘remembering for us’.[38]

The text for the Eureka Centre exhibition panels was exclusively the work of the Historic Content Sub-Committee, chaired by Professor Blainey. It did not try to extend experiences beyond the personal and familial. In stressing the need for facts, it ignored imaginative representation and the possibility of exploring and challenging myths and legends. The task of the exhibition designers was to work with the final text to develop an experience for visitors. The budget was their bottom line. The lack of original artifacts also meant that they had to construct experiences to match the ‘timeline’. They chose to use soundscapes, with a realistic (over-realistic) video recreation of the death of James Scobie and the public meeting that ended in the burning of Bentley’s hotel. Text panels explain the sequence of events leading to the formation of the Ballarat Reform League, then lead the viewer into the core of the exhibition, the ‘larger than life sand sculptures’, which represent the battle, accompanied by appropriate battle sounds. These large white figures have been much favoured by exhibition designers over the last decade of the twentieth century. Most of the design budget was spent on these huge white figures of miners and soldiers, each five metres tall, made of steel and styrene.[39]

The text panels finish with the trial of the diggers captured at the Stockade, and there the exhibition abruptly ends. The visitor proceeds to a central ‘reflective space’, where an exact bronze replica of the flag (on loan from the Art Gallery) and a small fragment of the real thing (on loan from the Gold Museum) are displayed. This is the heart of the Centre, reminiscent of a Shrine, where the visitor pauses in a beautiful circular space surrounded by the sounds of water flowing in a pool around the circumference of the room. From this point ‘exhibition culture’ takes over, and the architects shape the ideas of the visitor rather than the historians. There is a small ‘hall of debate’, used as an educational space by school groups, and a theatrette, where two videos offer further explanation. This is the only place to address the issue of significance and of the uses of Eureka for varying ideological purposes.

In the contest between ‘exhibited culture’ and ‘exhibition culture’, a spate of new museums in Australia, and indeed the world, have manifested a pre-occupation with form and style over content, with technology over history and anthropology. Architects and designers have ensured that the modern museum is no longer a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, but instead a ‘theatre of knowledge’. The building itself becomes the prime message, with imposing spaces that fill the visitor with a sense of awe. The Cox Sanderson Ness design is a beautiful sculptural space, but large areas are impractical for exhibitions because of curved wall surfaces and exposure to direct sunlight. The architects also stipulated that the walls were to remain uncluttered. This has drastically limited the potential for the Centre to hold temporary exhibitions, and limited the kinds of artefacts that can be displayed. It has also proved a nightmare to maintain, with continual water problems and high running costs. These problems led Sovereign Hill to hand back management of the centre to the City of Ballarat from September 2002.[40]

Interpretation Centre versus Museum

Robert Hewison coined the term ‘heritage industry’ in 1987 to describe the huge development in ‘heritage centres’ and modern (non-government) museums in Britain in the previous two decades.[41] Underpinning this growth has been a rise in popular interest in the past and desire to be informed by the tourist experience. By 1984 international tourism had become the second largest item of global trade.[42]

Interpretation centres must be entertaining in order to hold the interest of the visitor, at the same time taking account of the great variety of educational, age and ethnic backgrounds of visitors. Because interpretation centres are part of the heritage industry, they must also be commercially successful. The rise of leisure and travel in the late twentieth century led to the need for tourists to gaze upon history, but through the mediation of some kind of interpretation. Robert Lumley argues that our globalised, post-modern world has seen the collapse of old cultural canons, and that in such a context ‘heritage’ becomes a sign of post modernity. The differences between heritage centres, museums and theme parks dissolve, and all become focused on offering ‘an experience’ to the visitor, ‘a simulacrum’ of the past’. Museum consultant Elaine Heumann Gurian sees this blurring of roles as a positive trend, because both museums and interpretation centres are concerned with ‘the physicality of a place and the memories and stories told therein’.[43]

This is a perceptive view of recent museum practice, and this blurring of roles can be seen at Sovereign Hill, which achieves a good balance between education and entertainment. Dozens of volunteers, the Friends of Sovereign Hill, dress in period costume and are expected to assume a character from the 1850s in their interaction with visitors. Davison comments that visitors want ‘to be immersed in the past rather than being informed about it’. He describes Sovereign Hill as a ‘theatre without walls in which patrons and museum staff conspire in an elaborate game of historical make-believe’.[44] Carefully trained volunteers are a vital part of Sovereign Hill’s success, for the organisation places a high value on historical accuracy. To this end Sovereign Hill employs a number of historians with museum qualifications, who maintain the balance between informing and entertaining. This is very much the successful formula of Blood on the Southern Cross.[45] A 1999 tourism survey showed that Sovereign Hill was more recognisable than Ballarat itself, thanks to its marketing. That publicity machine invites the tourist to ‘wake up in the 1850s’, and to re-enter the past. It prides itself on its authenticity — as do its successful counterparts like Colonial Williamsburg in the United States and Ironbridge Gorge Museum in England.[46]

Since the first discussions about interpreting the Eureka site in the 1970s, the question of ‘interpretation centre’ or ‘museum’, and the issue of artefacts, have been central topics of debate. The Ballarat City Council originally stipulated that the centre be a low-overhead operation, with minimal staffing, no professional curatorial staff and no museum collection. As an interpretation centre, it would rely on audio-visual technology for its effects — on sound, sculptural bodies, and film. As a tourist experience, it should mix education with recreation through telling a dramatic story, in the same way as heritage centres in Britain and Ireland. Commercial and political imperatives coalesced in the interpretation centre, giving preference to Tom Evans’s ‘one true story’ version of Eureka. The Eureka Stockade centre offers a highly structured presentation of fixed knowledge, using new media, but is very dogmatic in both its design and execution. In fact the display ignores all the possibilities of the new media — interactivity, questioning, the ‘adventure game’ mentality, which opens itself up to multiple interpretations. The viewer has no opportunity to negotiate a path; the path is very much set by the interpretation, and it is one way only. The role of the new media in opening up the public sphere has been ignored in the current display, except in the video that begins to address the legend and its sometimes contradictory uses.

The control of public memory by the Historical Content Sub-Committee ensured that the exhibition narrative is open to only one reading. The last text panel lists the gains of Eureka as the institution of the Miner’s Right, and the extension of the franchise. Here it fails to mention other important gains, such as the mobilisation of a political and national consciousness, reform of mining law and access to land. Here is an opportunity to challenge the visitor about Australian democracy, and what Eureka means to the viewer. The Hall of Debate was originally envisaged as a public space where these debates could take place. Unfortunately that space is very small, and is used only by school groups.

Reactions to the Eureka Stockade Centre

David Brett listed thee criteria for analysing the ideal historical exhibition — visualisation, simulation and the narrative topology. Both Blood on the Southern Cross and the Eureka Stockade Centre are strong on visual images and simulation through sound, and both employ a strict narrative topology. Graeme Davison reflected positively on both experiences. At the Eureka Centre, he felt, the large white figures ‘reinforce the heroic, even mythic character of the event’. He concluded that the centre ‘skilfully negotiates’ the dilemma of telling the true story as against exploring interpretations, and he noted the importance of the video and the Hall of Debate which ask questions of meaning and significance.[47]

Many visitors have not reacted so positively. Children particularly can be frightened and overwhelmed by the huge figures.[48] Peter Hiscock, who had a key role in the final stages of the design brief, reflected that ‘the display medium of the visitor wandering past giant figures, whether upright or prostrate, demeans Eureka. They seem rather reminiscent of fallen statues of Lenin or Stalin which litter the Russian landscape’.[49] Hiscock had undergone a dramatic change of opinion from the time when he had a major influence on the original funding submission, and had chosen the exhibition designers.

The sculptures might be heroic in scale, but they are cold and lacking in emotion. The display panels that present the chronology are very text-based. Despite the heated controversy about that text, Peter Hiscock suggested that few people read it. Hiscock argued, surprisingly in view of his earlier involvement, that the centre needs more real objects and should be given museum status. The most important relic is the Eureka flag. The Ballarat Fine Art Gallery firmly believes that it is the appropriate home for the Eureka flag, in terms of providing the best possible conservation and because it is an art work. Others, such as Professor John Molony and the Electrical Trades Union, believe that the flag should be housed at its ‘spiritual home’, the reserve where diggers died fighting for the cause it represented. The debate is sure to continue.[50]

If the Eureka Stockade centre is to collect original artefacts, it must concentrate on the ‘available items’ that might be donated or come up at auction. Deciding to collect original artefacts would require design alterations to the building to include conservation and security, a commitment to supervision by trained curatorial staff, and a budget for purchase of materials. These are the very concerns that the Ballarat City Council rejected in the original brief for the centre, but which were revisited in 2001 in the discussion of a second stage for the Centre.[51]

The truth was that the Eureka Stockade centre had failed to reach its very optimistic visitor projections. The 1994 business plan’s estimate that the centre would attract 78,000 visitors a year proved wildly over-optimistic (as shown below). Whilst Blood on the Southern Cross has been enormously successful in telling the Eureka story, especially to international visitors, less than half of those visitors go to the Centre. Very often visitors are on packaged tours that preclude them from spending time in Ballarat. The appeal of the Eureka Centre is much more to Australian citizens than to international visitors, who make up just 5 per cent of visitations.

On the other hand, the Centre demonstrably lacks local appeal, for less than 5 per cent of the Ballarat population visit it.[52] Furthermore, because the Centre does not come to grips with the ‘politics of memory’ and does not offer the tools for exploring Australian democracy, it fails to attract the socially and politically conscious visitor.


The Eureka Stockade Centre could become a new site of pilgrimage, but it lacks emotion. Like the huge white statues, it is devoid of humanity. The most successful exhibitions engage visitors as participants and developers of the exhibitions. There are many possibilities offered by the ‘shared authority’ of the new museum. Lowenthal suggests that these can be explored using new sources such as ‘furtive media, oral history and vernacular usages’ which can challenge the old certainties of monumental history by presenting variant histories.[53] This is true of several recent Irish exhibitions, representing contested political events. The Collins Barracks campus of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin has an exemplary exhibition, which was set up for the bicentenary of the 1798 Rebellion. It places the Rebellion within the context of European events, and critically examines the contested versions of its history. The exhibition includes many interesting objects – pictures, documents, uniforms, swords and pikes – drawn from the National Museum collection. But it is the questions the exhibition asks that make it memorable, exploring the politics of memory.[54]

Following the Irish example, Eureka’s Children could be asked to contribute to the exhibition at the Eureka Stockade centre. They could pose questions through examples of personal memorabilia, provoke the historiographical debate, bring passion to the centre and contribute to Lowenthal’s ‘variant history’. Gaynor Kavanagh offers a number of ways for incorporating oral testimony as both product and process in her study Dreamspaces, which draws on the example of social history museums such as the Edinburgh ‘People’s Story’, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and the pioneering work of the Irish Folk Lore Commission. Her argument supports the importance of objects as memory triggers, and the importance of collecting and presenting memories of the objects. ‘The object remains mute, yet its meanings are battled out between the lives, feelings of self and identities of a range of people’.[55] Her reference here is to the Enola Gay dispute in America, but she could equally be speaking of the Eureka flag. An informative exhibition could be created around the flag, which would raise important questions about identity, and engage visitors in issues of personal and social memory. Part of the exhibition would be a mechanism for collecting the stories and reactions of visitors. Such an exhibit could also engage in the question of who made the flag, thus bringing women’s stories into the Centre.

A very important issue that the Centre avoids is the site itself, which can be thought of as the most important relic. There is no interpretation in the Centre to discuss the heated public debates about the location of the battle site, or the construction of the 1884 monument, or the commemorative practices that have taken place in the reserve. The Centre has recently appointed an Education Officer, whom, it is to be hoped, can develop some of these issues. The possible addition of a second stage to the building, allowing extra exhibition and storage spaces, would enable more issues to be raised and questions asked.


The stockader John Lynch wrote his account of Eureka in 1893–94 when he was 65 years old, and he informed the reader that he had set down the details in writing because ‘the time is fast approaching when there will be no living witness of those things past’.[56] Paula Hamilton echoed this view when she argued that history and memory are essentially interdependent, for as memory is gradually lost, history steps in to write down the stories.[57] ]This should be the function of the Eureka Stockade Centre — to be a place of collective memory which enriches the sacred site of the Stockade, and makes the Reserve an ‘environment of memory’.

Where questions of collective memory are involved, there will always be contest in the public presentation of historical events. Should it be the memory of the miners, the soldiers, the government of the time, the citizens of the present? Museums and interpretation centres have been forced to react to a number of challenges — from postmodernist and post-colonial theories in the late twentieth century, from the winds of globalisation and changes to the demographics of museum visitors. The old monumental hegemony of the nineteenth century museum has been replaced with a spirit of relativity.[58] Should heritage sites be represented by simulacrum or sacrilisation? The question has not been resolved at the Eureka Centre.

Because of the nature of the Eureka story, because so many different collective memories have claimed it as their own, I am sure that the contests over ownership of memory, the right to commemorate, and control of the story will continue. The contest should be embraced in developing the full potential of the Eureka Centre. As Gruffudd said, heritage interpretation is most powerful when it engages with myths and how they shape our identity. Only by doing this can the Eureka Centre hope to meet its objective of being a centre for the study of Australian democracy.


1.� Premier Jeff Kennett opened the Eureka Stockade Centre on 27 March 1998. The full debates about the significance of Eureka were examined in my PhD Thesis ‘Birth of a Nation? Constructing and Deconstructing the Eureka Legend’, University of Melbourne, 2002.

2.� For example Manning Clark in his 1954 lecture ‘Re-writing Australian History’, in Imre Salusinsky (ed.), The Oxford Book of Australian Essays, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 129–138; Geoffrey Serle, The Golden Age, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1963, p. 180; Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia, Penguin, Ringwood, 1970, p. 142.

3.�National Museums; Negotiating Histories, conference convened by the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, ANU, 12–14 July, 1999; Darryl McIntyre and Kirsten Wehner (eds), National Museums; Negotiating Histories, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2001.

4.� Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Routledge, London, 1995.

5.� Dawn Casey, ‘Case Study: the National Museum of Australia’, Humanities Research, vol. 8, no. 1, 2001. pp. 17–23; Meanjin On Museums, vol. 60, no. 4, 2001; John Mulvaney, ‘Facing a politicised future for our past’, Canberra Times, 11 Dec. 2002; Gerard Henderson, ‘Howard’s odd museum choice’, Age, 14 Jan., 2003.

6.� Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History, Columbia University Press, New York, 1998. Also the Australians and the Past research project at the University of Technology Sydney led by Paula Hamilton; Edward Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt (eds), History Wars; The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, Metropolitan Books, New York, 1996

7.� Chris Healy, From The Ruins of Colonialism: History as Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, Chapter 3.

8.�Ibid., p. 78.

9.� Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum, p. 132.

10.� Ann Curthoys, ‘Historiography and Women’s Liberation’, Arena, no. 22, 1970, pp. 35–40.

11.� Margaret Anderson, ‘Selling the past; history in museums in the 1990s’ in John Rickard and Peter Spearritt (eds), Packaging the Past? Public Histories, special issue of Australian Historical Studies, vol. 24, no. 96, April 1991 pp. 130–141.

12.� Anne Beggs Sunter, ”Remembering Eureka’, Journal of Australian Studies, no. 70, 2001, pp. 49–56; Michael Evans, ‘From a hallowed spot to a miniature marathon’, Anne Beggs Sunter and Kevin Livingston (eds), The Legacy of Eureka; Past, Present and Future, Australian Studies Centre, University of Ballarat, 1998, pp. 43–50.

13.� Egon Kisch, Australian Landfall, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1969, pp. 204–5.

14.� For the full story of the flag see Len Fox, The Eureka Flag, Potts Point, NSW, 1992.

15.� Weston Bate, ‘Cashing in on Great Beginnings’, in his Life After Gold, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1993 pp. 196–207; Evans, Michael, ‘Historical interpretation at Sovereign Hill’, in John Rickard and Peter Spearritt (eds), Packaging the Past? Public Histories, special issue of Australian Historical Studies vol. 24, no. 96, April 1991, pp. 142–152.

16.� Graeme Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW, 2000, p. 171.

17.�Ballarat Courier, 4 December 1973.

18.�Ballarat Courier, 2 March 1992 For later debates on this issue see Ballarat Courier, 28 January 1998, 11 December 1999, 4, 5 June 2001, Age, 4 April 1998

19.� Charter of the Trust, first meeting 28 October 1994. Minutes relating to the formation of the Trust are in the City of Ballarat Archives.

20.� Anne Beggs Sunter and Kevin Livingston (eds), The Legacy of Eureka; Past, Present and Future, Australian Studies Centre, University of Ballarat, 1998.

21.� Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust, Minutes, 9 December 1994; ‘The Eureka Heritage Project’, submission to Community Support Fund from City of Ballarat, 1994.

22.� The City applied for funding from the Federal Government’s Regional Tourism Development Program, see Ballarat Courier, 24 May 1995. The Victorian Government’s funding came through its tourism initiatives, under the Minister for Tourism, see letter from the Minister for Tourism to City’s Chief Executive Officer, 4 August 1995.

23.� Jim Davidson and Peter Spearritt, Holiday Business: Tourism in Australia, Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2000, pp. xxvi–xxviii.

24.�Ibid., p. xxvi.

25.� Stephen E. Weil, A Cabinet of Curiosities: Inquiries into Museums and Their Prospects, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1995, p. xviii.

26.� Pyrs Guffudd, ‘Heritage as National Identity; Histories and Prospects of the National Pasts’, in David T. Herbert (ed.), Heritage, Tourism and Society, Mansell, London, 1995, pp. 49–67. Minutes of Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust.

27.�Ballarat Courier, 13, 28 September 1995; Tom Evans, ‘A Message of Truth’, full page advertisement paid for by Evans, 29 August 1997.

28.� The Committee ratified a ‘Call for Expressions of Interest for Professional Design Services for a Eureka Interpretative Centre’, on 11 October 1995. Eureka Special Committee Minutes, 9 November 1995; Ballarat Courier, 11 November 1995, advertisement for expressions of interest; Public Briefing meeting, 14 December 1995, at Town Hall. Cox Sanderson Ness, ‘The Eureka Centre, Ballarat’, Architect Victoria, March 1999, pp. 16–17; City of Ballarat Public Briefing, Notes of meeting, 29 March 1996; Ballarat Courier, 1, 7 March 1996.

29.� John Molony, The Significance of Eureka, Eureka Trust in association with the Australian Catholic University, Ballarat, 26 February, 1996; reported by John Lahey in Age, 27 February 1996; Kevin Livingston, ‘Eureka Centre’, Australian Historical Association Bulletin, no. 82, May 1996, pp. 64–68; Ballarat Courier, 15 August 1996.

30.�Ballarat Courier, 3 September 1996. Bate reflected on the Eureka Centre at a history seminar at the Ballarat Mechanics’ Institute, 10 August, 2001

31.� Eureka Project Special Committee, Minutes, 19 September 1996. See also Ballarat Courier, 26 September 1996, letter from Cr Geoff Howard ; John Mulvaney, Canberra Times, 11 December 2002.

32.� The debate became so intense that Bruce Morgan, editor of the Ballarat Courier, wrote to the chief letter-writers, including myself, on 11 April 1997, signalling a moratorium on Eureka ‘because letters have become personalised over point and counter-point’. Ballarat Courier, 14 May 1997 announces Sovereign Hill as winning tenderer.

33.�Ballarat Courier, 11 November 1996. The video was completed in March 1997, part of the Eureka: The First Australian Republic? exhibition, which opened at Manly, NSW, 21 March 1997.

34.� John Molony, ‘Remembrance of the Eureka Stockade’ in his The Significance of Eureka, Eureka Stockade Memorial Trust, Ballarat, 1996, pp. 13–16.

35.�Ballarat Courier, 28 January 1998, followed by debate on 29, 31 January, 3, 5 February, in letters-to-the-editor columns; Age 1 December 2001, Extra section, for Mighell’s comments..

36.� Eureka Special Committee, Minutes (held quarterly); see especially October, November 2001.

37.� Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff (eds), Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994, especially Introduction.

38.� John R. Gillis (ed.), Commemorations; The Politics of National Identity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1994, p. 17;Kevin Walsh, Museums and Popular Culture, Cassell, London, 1997, pp. 8–9; Rosenzweig and Thelen, The Presence of the Past, p. 91, p. 188; Paula Hamilton, University of Technology Sydney, ‘Australians and the Past’, an Australian Research Council funded Research Project. See Annual Reports of Sovereign Hill for data on visitor surveys.

39.� ‘Sound in Museums’, special issue of Insite, Museums Australia (Victoria) newsletter, December. 1999 – January. 2000.

40.� The public debate was waged in the media throughout 2001. An excellent example was an Insight documentary on SBS television, 22 November 2001, called ‘Museums -Relevant or Relic’; ‘Museums and the New Media’, special issue of Media International Australia, no. 89, November 1998; ‘Dimity Reed, ‘National Masterpiece’, Age, 22 March 2001; Architecture Australia, March/April 2001 reviews the National Museum; also special supplement in the Age 19 May 2001; David Dunstan, ‘An Empty Display Case, Age, 22 May 2001; Ballarat Courier, 21 March 2002, retaining wall problem highlighted.

41.� Duncan Light, ‘Heritage as informal education’, in David Herbert (ed.), Heritage, Tourism and Society, Pinter, London, 1995, pp. 123–4.

42.� Robert Lumley, ‘The debate on heritage reviewed’, in Roger Miles and Lauro Zavala (eds), Towards the Museum of the Future: New European Perspectives, Routledge, London, 1994, p. 62.

43.� Elaine Heumann Gurian, ‘What is the Object of the Exercise?’, Humanities Research, vol. 8, no. 1, 2001, pp. 35–36, especially p.26; Roger Lumley, ‘The Debate on heritage revisited’, pp. 57–69, esp. p. 66; J. Urry, The Tourist Gaze; Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, Sage, London, 1990.

44.� Davison, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, p. 168.

45.� Michael Evans, ‘Historical Interpretation at Sovereign Hill’, in John Rickard and Peter Spearritt (eds), Packaging the Past? Public Histories, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1991 (Special issue of Australian Historical Studies, vol. 24, no. 96, April 1991), pp. 142–53.

46.� Sovereign Hill Museums Association, Annual Report, 1999–2000, p. 17.

47.�Ibid., p. 172.

48.� Discussion with my own history students, and Education Officer Gael Shannon, June 2001.

49.� ‘Hiscock backs call for centre upgrade’ Ballarat Courier, 5 June 2001.

50.�Age, 1 December 2001, Extra section.

51.�Ballarat Courier, 5 June 2001; Age, Ballarat Courier, 26 October 2001 for flag controversy.

52.�The Eureka Heritage Project, 1994, p. 35; figures come from the report of the Eureka Centre Manager, 2002.

53.� Gourievidis discusses centres in Scotland; David Brett those in Northern Ireland in his The Construction of Heritage, Cork University Press, Cork, 1996; see also ‘Unsavoury Histories’, Australian Museums Online Journal, vol. 2, 2000, which discusses some centres in Australia and Ireland; Richard Gillespie, ‘Making an Exhibition’, Meanjin on Museums, p. 120 uses the term ‘edutainment’; Gay Hawkins and Julian Thomas, ‘Museums and the new media’, Media International Australia, no. 89, November 1998, p. 8; David Lowenthal, ‘National Museums and Historical Truth’, in Negotiating Museums: Negotiating Histories, p. 157.

54.� John Turpin, ‘Three 1798 bicentenary exhibitions compared’, Eire-Ireland, 1997–8, pp. 261–68; Elizabeth Crooke, ‘Exhibiting 1798’, History Ireland, 1998, vol.6, no. 4, pp. 41–5. I visited Collins Barracks in September 2000, and was immensely impressed.

55.� Gaynor Kavanagh, Dreamspaces: Memory and the Museum, Leicester University Press, London, 2000, esp. page 107.

56.� John Lynch, The Story of the Eureka Stockade, Australian Catholic Truth Society, Melbourne, n.d., p. 32.

57.� Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds), Memory and History in 20th Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994, p. 12.

58.� Lumley, ‘The Debate on heritage revisited’, p. 63; Lowenthal, ‘National Museums and Historical Truth’, pp. 156–70.

BY: Anne Beggs Sunter