The exhibition A Thousand Words has been viewed more than 115,000 times online, and many people have contributed their own responses, forever changing how the photographs are understood. 

This innovative exhibition, on display online and at the Museum of Sydney, provides a space for the public to interpret historical images through the lens of their own knowledge, background, values and life experience. Prompted by the selection of 100 compelling photographs from the Sydney Living Museums and NSW State Archives collections, visitors have generously shared their thoughts on a wide variety of topics, from the difficulties of performing rescues on telegraph poles to historical details about rail travel, and even provided the names of previously unidentified people. Responses range from one-word contributions that capture the feel of the image, to detailed explanations revealing specialist knowledge, and delightfully personal reminiscences. Some of the comments are topical, touching on COVID-19 and the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse. Established and emerging writers and artists have also responded to the photographs from their own unique viewpoint. This interweaving of social history and individual memory has created a new perspective from which to view each image. 

Treats and trains 

One photograph (ATW060) inspired a particularly large number of nostalgic responses from the public. From the NSW State Archives Collection, it depicts the Railway Refreshment Rooms (or ‘RRR’) on the platform at Granville Railway Station in Sydney’s western suburbs. Some contributors recalled that the best part of changing trains at Granville was this cafe, a fixture on the platform from the 1960s. They remember meeting friends here on the way to school or work – one commenter shared memories of couples who first met at the RRR and later married. Others recollect stopping here to purchase Mars Bars, potato scallops or meat pies. Memories of summer afternoons at the nearby Granville swimming pool resurfaced as contributors recall buying ice-cream and lime-flavoured soft drinks on their way home from a day spent poolside. The RRR was also an important signpost on the daily commute: travellers who’d lost track of their whereabouts were alerted to their arrival at Granville station by the distinctive shape of the refreshment room. Other commenters recalled the apparently ‘terrible’ taste of RRR coffee. 

Generating word clouds 

The responses contributed to all of the images on social media have been harvested and incorporated in word clouds that can be viewed both online and at the Museum of Sydney. The largest word in the ‘cloud’ represents the most common one-word response, and the smallest the most unique. 

Initially launching online, the exhibition opened on site at the Museum of Sydney in July, and both online and museum visitors continue to share their responses to the images. Visitors to the museum can also see the culturally charged artwork Truism Australia by Blak Douglas, who responded to a powerful 1950s photo of three Aboriginal boys. 

View A Thousand Words at atwonline.com.au or at the Museum of Sydney

About the Author

Portrait of woman smiling, wearing a patterned shirt.
Dr Penny Stannard
Head, Curatorial
Penelope (Penny) Stannard grew up learning about the stories, memories and mysteries of her family, and the places and events that defined the artists, writers, diplomats and scientists who make up her ancestral tree.

About the Author

Sydney Living Museums Image
Nerida Campbell
Curator
Justice & Police Museum, Museum of Sydney, Susannah Place Museum
Nerida’s passion for history was influenced by childhood holidays spent at her grandmother’s farm, happily rifling through chests brimming with family photographs, generations of clothing and things she still can’t identify.

Jungle House outlook Photo © Michael Lassman

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