Arts / The surprising things people collect…

Tim Fischer with his collection of ties. Photo by Mark Nolan

“FINDERS, keepers; losers, weepers,” goes the old children’s rhyme – but the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House has decided to focus on the positive side of that adage in an exhibition running until next year.

“CityNews” recently caught up with Kate Armstrong, the curator of “Finders Keepers: Collectors and their Stories”, and took a whirlwind tour through the stories of five Australians whose lives and personalities are revealed through around 270 objects.

Some are famous, such as Australia’s first indigenous parliamentarian Neville Bonner, former National Party leader Tim Fischer and former senator Kay Patterson, but the others, activist Anne Picot and long-time Old Parliament House technician Neil Baker, are likely to become famous just through this exhibition.

Former telephone technician Neil Baker with his collection. Photo by Mark Nolan

“We’re focusing on collecting and collectors,” she says. “People take the trouble to keep their possessions safe, we get donations from any number of people and we get surprising pieces.”

Those surprising pieces may not look spectacular, but a commonplace object such as a hand towel or an old-fashioned iron can reveal a great deal about a particular era in Australian history, as Armstrong, who has worked in country museums, is well aware.

“Fight the Flights” T-shirt worn by Anne Picot at protests against the Sydney Airport expansion in the early 1990s. Photo Museum of Australian Democracy collection

Picot’s entertaining collection of protest T-shirts and badges is a case in point. Individually the items may not say much but collectively they are a perfect fit for the museum’s focus on influences and movements in democracy and political institutions. Now Picot uses Twitter to campaign for democracy and accountability, rights for refugees and to stop climate change.

Baker’s collection of old telephones might not sound electrifying, but up close the presence of a great invention is palpable. Working as a telephone technician at the building from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, he collected outdated telephones, including one used by Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Patterson, who was a Liberal senator from 1987 to 2008, donated a collection of 324 Parliament House souvenirs, mostly porcelain which she has said she used as an “icebreaker” with guests.

In the case of the Bonner collection, it was the late senator’s second wife, Heather Ryan Bonner, who has been the “keeper” of items that cover his early days in Ipswich, his love of boomerang collecting and his religious faith, seen in the book of psalms that is kept in his office. She continues to add to the collection, which also includes his golf socks, belt and boots.

Museum staff are promoting the theme that “collecting is cool”, with backpack “collector kits” that can be used by families and colour-coded activities such as “how to tie a tie” in the Tim Fischer section.

A selection of former senator Kay Patterson’s Parliament House souvenir collection. Photo by Mark Nolan

Fischer’s ties might not have been as colourful as the late Al Grassby’s, but as Armstrong points out: “They tell the story of a man who believes in wearing a tie”. Why? To be noticed, to support causes such as trains and to mark his progress with his old school tie, his Army ties, maiden speech tie and a wattle emblazoned patriotic tie.

“He knows his ties intimately,” Armstrong says.

Bowerbirds excepted, “keeping” seems to be a uniquely human trait, so, fearful of inundation when I mentioned aloud my own T-shirt collection, Armstrong outlines the correct way to go about donating collected items. Readers who would like to donate an object should email info@moadoph.gov.au with a brief description and image to get the ball rolling.

“Finders Keepers: Collectors and their Stories”, Old Parliament House. Entry is free after museum admission, 9am-5pm daily until mid-2018.

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