Curating a new exhibition about Victoria’s schooling history brought new discoveries and old memories, Kate Luciano tells Madeleine Er in the May-Jun issue of Inside History. Read on to learn what makes Victoria’s educational history so special.
What first drew you to the education system in Victoria during the 1800s?
Victoria has a rich history when it comes to education. The 1872 Education Act heralded an unprecedented era of expansion in Victoria’s education system, unmatched since. We were the first state in the world to adopt free and secular education so there’s a lot of great, rich history there to explore.
What was really interesting was seeing all the records related to the rural schools of Victoria. I myself went to a rural school in the western districts and it was fascinating to see the architecture plans of similar schools and be able to say, “My school looked like that, too!” The exhibition also features a huge collection of photos of school activities — it was really nostalgic to see all the games, classes and activities I experienced in primary school. They’ll certainly bring back a lot of memories for visitors.
What are your favourite items from the exhibition?
The needlework sample book by student Marie George, of State School 1075 in Kew, is one of my favourite items. Created more than 100 years ago, the book features a small dress Marie made in needlework class which is absolutely exquisite and reflects the importance placed on sewing as part of a girl’s education.
We also have a school strap on display for School Days, and as someone who never experienced the strap as part of my schooling, I found it really interesting to learn that it was an acceptable disciplinary tool up until 1983! In Victorian schools it was a badge of honour among young tearaways to get “six of the best”.
What was your favourite personal story you discovered from the collection?
The story of Private William James Gunn Murray is featured in the School Days exhibition alongside many other moving stories of Victorian schools during World War I. Almost as soon as war was declared, teachers began to enlist. A total of 753 Victorian teachers and Education Department staff enlisted in the armed services. Of these, 146 died serving their country.
Private William Murray was a junior teacher at Horsham. Serving first in the 6th and then the 58th Battalion, he was twice mentioned in dispatches for bravery as a runner, delivering messages from the front line to headquarters. It was on one of these missions, on 26 March 1917 at Lagnicourt in France, that Private Murray was killed. His name appears on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial with those of 11,000 other Australian soldiers whose remains were not found.
Was it difficult deciding which items or photographs got to go in the exhibition?
Putting School Days together was a very tough process of selection. Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) received a transfer of all Victorian Education Department archives so there was an endless supply of materials to sort through for this exhibition. Once we found the themes that best told the story of the history of Victorian schooling, it was a matter of finding the records that fit into those themes. The rewarding part was finding so many great stories and being able to offer Victorians a trip down memory lane.
After curating “School Days”, do you now feel inspired to work on another exhibition?
We have over 100km of records at PROV filled with stories just waiting to be unearthed. So it’s always exciting to start on a new project and put together exhibitions straight from the archives.
To read more about Australian history, pick up issue 28 of Inside History today.