History Reflected: about the exhibition

From important colonial-era documents and curious collectables to records of events that reshaped society, you’ll be surprised by what you can find in the archives. 

The new Museum of Sydney exhibition History Reflected takes audiences on a journey through the NSW State Archives Collection to see what these unique historical records reveal about the past and to reflect on what they might mean to us today. The exhibition has been developed by Sydney Living Museums and NSW State Archives to celebrate the coming together of two of the state’s signature cultural institutions. 

History Reflected presents a curated selection of 25 items from the Collection spanning a period of 213 years, from 1787 to 2000. Each of the selected items represents or symbolises an event, social movement, issue, cultural phenomenon or moment of change that impacted on NSW people – individually and collectively – with a resonance that ranged from the local to the global. 

Accompanying each of the items is an explanation of its historical significance as well as a reflection on its meaning today. These reflections give voice to a range of perspectives that explore questions about who we are; what we believe and understand about ourselves and others; our values, aspirations and hopes; how we express ourselves; the places we live, work or visit; our relationships with others; and our discoveries. 

Opening up history and the archive 

The idea of generating reflections in this way follows an approach that extends the research and interpretation of a subject or primary source record such as an archive across intuitive, creative and imagined perspectives, or through memories, public accounts or associated histories. It differs from the more conventional deep dive into official sources to substantiate the origins, provenance and documented trail of an item, and an interpretation that often takes a chronological or didactic form. It’s an approach that opens up history and historical research to a broader and more diverse range of perspectives and audiences, ensuring that the power of archives can be fully harnessed and enjoyed by everyone. After all, history isn’t a unilateral experience. 

The NSW State Archives Collection is one of the most complete and important collections documenting colonisation in the world. With over 14 million items and valued at $1 billion, this vast cultural archive contains multiple items included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. It details the development of NSW from before European settlement in 1788 through the wielding of colonial power to responsible government and statehood. 

Reflecting on the unusual 

A number of commissioned writers, artists, commentators and creatives have contributed to creating reflections for the History Reflected exhibition, as has SLM’s entire curatorial team. 

One of the State Archives Collection’s most unusual pieces, featured in the exhibition, is a sample of a cap worn by women working in the Leeton cannery in the interwar years. It was initially found by archivists among paperwork in a Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) file that details the specifications and costs for cannery workers’ uniforms. The cannery was established as a government-run enterprise under the MIA nation-building scheme to irrigate the arid south-west region of NSW and create a food bowl that could nourish the population. It later became the Letona Co-operative Cannery, and operated in Leeton until the mid-1990s. 

SLM invited Henrietta Cheshire, a textiles artist and member of SLM’s highly regarded volunteer soft furnishings group, to reflect on the Leeton cap. She engaged with a number of sources and accounts that detailed employment at the cannery, and the role of women there, and more broadly, in the post- World War I workforce. What intrigued Cheshire was the way in which young, unmarried women were recruited to factory work with promises of a career and independence, and whether the reality of the day-today grind on the production line lived up to the dream. Cheshire’s reflection is a textiles work re-creating the cap. Embroidered into the fabric are direct quotes from the promotional material that drew women to seek employment at the cannery, interwoven with strands of human hair that Cheshire sourced ethically from young NSW women today. It’s a reminder that behind the production cycle and its workforce is the woman, both the worker and the human being. 

Reflecting on the iconic 

SLM historian Jane Kelso has explored the first census held in NSW, in 1828. One of the Collection’s most iconic items, the census was inscribed on the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register in 2019. The census exists as six leather-bound tomes, housed in a lockable wooden cabinet, that list the details of 36,500 inhabitants of NSW some 40 years after the British Crown established the colony. Its purpose was to count the population – although the land’s Indigenous people were generally not included. Kelso reflects on its value and compares it to the role of censuses today, considering how governments and decision-makers collect, use and retain information about their populations, and how such data isn’t just a snapshot of the present but also a resource for the future. 

The earliest item in the exhibition, and one of the oldest documents in the Collection, is the 1787 Charter of Justice. The charter, issued by King George III, is the authority for the establishment of the first NSW Courts of Criminal and Civil Jurisdiction. The most recent item in History Reflected is a selection of promotional and informational publications from the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Although most material in the Collection isn’t open to public access until 30 years from its creation date, Olympics publications such as these were opened last year for the 20th-anniversary celebrations of the games. These publications will, no doubt, trigger memories for people who experienced, contributed to and participated in the Olympics or Paralympics in Sydney. 

From films to posters, letters, photographs and even a 67-metre-long public petition, there are so many fascinating items in History Reflected. Take a journey through the archives and be surprised by what you find. You may even discover a new passion and appreciation for the power of archives as you reflect on history as told through the NSW State Archives Collection. 

  • Blue and white hair cover on stand.

    Cap used by female workers at Leeton Cannery, Water Resources Commission, NRS 14511, Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area files.

    NSW State Archives

  • Plan of building from above, with scale shown.

    Sydney Opera House ‘Yellow Book’, 1962, site plan (detail), p1, NRS 12708-1-[SZ104]-Sz104.

    NSW State Archives

  • Dramatic poster with large orange target over house silhouettes, one house illuminated, and bomb falling. Words above: Target for to-night. Words below: Are you ready for the blackout?

    ‘Target for to-night’, designed by John (Jack) Gibson, 1942, National Emergency Services posters, NRS-19792-1 [Document 202] [SR Doc 202].

    NSW State Archives

  • Paper printed with British flag against stylised sun, with the words: One People, One Destiny, Empire Day 1915.

    Empire Day program, 1915, Samples of items printed on special occasions, NRS 4474, Box 1/265.

    NSW State Archives

  •  Ornately lettered two page spread of census document.

    1828 Census: Alphabetical return, Colonial Secretary, NRS 1272.

    NSW State Archives

  • Woman seated at table holding up white fabric, with circular mirror and sideboard behind her.

    Henrietta Cheshire at Elizabeth Bay House.

    Photo Mel Flyte © Sydney Living Museums

Authors

Dr Penny Stannard, Head of Curatorial, Sydney Living Museums, and Emily Hanna, Officer, Public Engagement, NSW State Archives