Australian performing arts take center stage at the National Library

The National Library of Australia’s latest exhibition, On the scene, is a celebration of Australia’s love of the performing arts.

It showcases cultural treasures, dynamic characters and defining moments in the history of Australian performing arts from the 1790s to the present day.

Featuring over 180 objects, this free exhibition brings together highlights from the National Library’s extensive performing arts collections.

On the scene curator, Dr Susannah Helman, said Canberra Weekly the National Library’s extensive performing arts collections reflect “how much Australians love the performing arts”.

“Australians have enjoyed going to performing arts of all kinds for decades and centuries,” she said.

“As a huge fan of live performances of all kinds, I thought I knew the history of Australian performing arts, but our collections opened my eyes to the cultural life that Australians of the past might have known,” she said.

Beginning work on the exhibit “a few years ago,” the process has seen Helman comprehensively examine the National Library’s performing arts collection.

It was a highly collaborative project that involved talking to colleagues, reading and doing extensive research, and a lot of research: “opening drawers and going with the happy kind of thing by accident; You never know what you might find.”

“It’s a bit overwhelming because we have such a rich collection, and it’s hard to make decisions because you can only fit so many items in a space,” she said.

“It’s always a balance, it’s a puzzle. It’s just a matter of selecting some of the interesting and compelling stories, pulling them out of the piles, and putting them together into a narrative.

“It’s been great fun exploring our collections and bringing them out.”

Having started working on the exhibition before the COVID-19 pandemic, On the scene is particularly timely and relevant given the devastating effects pandemic restrictions have had on the performing arts sector in Australia.

“It’s clear from the collections that Australians have a long love of the performing arts, and I think we also have a rich history to look back on and look forward to better days ahead,” Helman said.

The exhibit is presented chronologically, beginning with Australia’s oldest document printed in the country, a poster for a convict-directed production at a Sydney theater in 1796.

The whole of the 20th century is well represented, with rooms documenting the turn of the century, WWII, retro 1970s style and design, as well as more contemporary photography and posters from Bangarra, AC/DC, Big Day Out, and The Hilltop Hoods.

Helman said On the scene brings together a wide range of stories, making a point of balancing elements of great importance with others where there is much more to it than meets the eye.

“Some objects may look a bit simple at first, but when you examine them, you can find gold,” she said.

“They show very interesting details of the history of the performing arts in Australia, and in particular the passion and activity that has gone on in this area.”

Props like scale models used by Jørn Utzon when designing the Sydney Opera House sit alongside printed salary books full of notations and a deed register that was shown at Sydney’s Tivoli Theater in 1914.

“It’s full of richness, because it basically shows you all the performers,” Helman said, “you’ve got a comedian, you’ve got dancers, acrobats, gymnasts, contortionists.

“I find it really evocative to see this detail.”

On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts is open at the National Library of Australia until Sunday, August 7;

On the scene is presented chronologically, with a poster from the 1790s through to contemporary photographs and posters of Bangarra, the Big Day Out festival and The Hilltop Hoods.

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