Often overlooked and unnamed class exists in Australia. It is present in the homes we buy, the cars we drive, the schools we attend, the type of employment we have, and what we know about culture, high, popular or otherwise. Usually it doesn’t seem that important, maybe because we surround ourselves with people who have similar interests, levels of education and money, so we rarely feel out of place. In unfamiliar settings, when we are unsure about a particular aspect of culture, or fail to display the desired material wealth, an uneasiness alerts us to the fact that we are out of place: out of our class. It is somewhat irrelevant if we are above or below those around us, it is our failure to ‘fit’ that creates discomfort.
Class in Australia
Class exists in Australia, but it is rarely talked about, when we do it is described with dry terms – socio-economic background – a discursive blotting paper that soaks up the fluidity of class, replacing it with measurement, disconnecting it from the emotions of lived experience. Australia’s silence on class can be attributed to many things, perhaps we just don’t care, maybe the trope ‘Australia is a classless society’ is perpetuated by a small minority whose interests it serves, or it could be that as a society we have bigger problems to deal with, sexism, racism, religious fanaticism, homophobia are probably the most likely candidates. Class though intersects with each of these and although the injustices of class may be less obvious, they are nevertheless very real.
Gritty Port Adelaide
I began to take a conscious and deep interest in class while researching Port Adelaide’s past and present. As I learnt more about ‘the Port’ I began to realise that much of the social dialogue in some way featured class. This was true for the 21st century development of the Port’s post-industrial landscape as well as 19th and 20th century industrial relations. In 2009 property developers downplayed Port Adelaide’s working class identity, Newport Quays claimed to transform the ‘working class suburb to something trendier’. Many residents were upset by the renaming of former working class suburbs and by the size and style of new buildings, changes they believed undermined the ‘heritage appeal’ of the Port, the very thing that attracted tourists. They may have been right: when visitors to the 2011 Port festival were asked, ‘What do you dislike about the new Port’ 41% indicated that they disliked the style of the new buildings, the next most common response was 28%, there hadn’t been enough change – the Port was still run down and dirty.
Of course visiting heritage precincts and appreciating 19th century architecture does not necessarily mean that ‘working class’ history is a desirable product to the majority of heritage tourists. One of the major problems with preserving and presenting working class history in post-industrial areas is that once industry ceases the aspect of working class life that is viewed positively by outsiders ‘productivity’ also ceases, what is left are negative associations with dirty and sometimes toxic industries and rundown vacant buildings. A slightly different point of view on the physical decline of the Port is to describe it as ‘gritty’ a term favoured by some of the Port’s residents. Grit describes the same physical and social realities of the post-industrial Port, but removes the pejorative connotations of rundown and dirty. Grit draws on alternative meanings, among which is strength of character.
The importance of grit to framing the Port in a positive light and championing more sensitive development was demonstrated by the recent award winning exhibition at Harts Mill, titled Grit. Although the exhibition included diverse works by artists who engaged with the theme in different ways, there were links to tenacity, connection to place, and a movement against sanitisation. The choice of venue, Harts Mill also highlighted the importance of maintaining industrial fabric within the landscape of Port Adelaide, a gritty, and yet appealing space.
Living in Port
Questions about what appeals to visitors were raised during the preparation of the Living in Port exhibition. Working class history and especially unionism and industrial relations are by their nature political. Although museums are ‘safe places for unsafe ideas’ there remain many points of view about how didactic political messages can or should be in museum exhibitions. A strong political message has the potential to turn away visitors who may have been engaged by a more subtle approach. There is also the related issue that, despite our intentions as curators, sometimes visitors arrive and leave with the same preconceived ideas about the social ‘others’ they encounter while visiting museums. Overcoming these roadblocks to understanding and empathy present a worthwhile challenge for 21st century museums.
The Living in Port exhibition does feature several show cases that examine industrial relations and presents positive examples of working class life. The aesthetic of the exhibition, likewise deliberately references the Port’s industrial past. The show cases are framed with graphite coloured textured angle iron, a gritty detail standing in opposition to the slick joinery. Similarly the colour palate was deliberately restricted, some coloured images were greyed, and photographs of the Port in the 19th century and early 20th century were used liberally. These images have a gritty quality – probably due to the unpaved streets, which were either dusty or muddy, and the photographic methods used to produce them. A yellow highlight colour also features throughout the text and graphic panels offsetting the otherwise muted tones.
Walking Tour App
One year after the exhibition opened the South Australian Maritime Museum and History SA began developing a walking tour app that extended Living in Port, taking it outside of the museum and into the streets. Again, issues arose around class. Questions were raised about how often industrial action should be mentioned in the tour. The choice from a curatorial point of view was initially based on the quality of the images available, how well they fitted with the existing exhibition aesthetic and the tour route. In the end two stories were altered to emphasise less controversial aspects of the history, leaving a further two locations, in a tour of 24, that include descriptions of industrial action.
The app also drew on the exhibition aesthetic, using black, grey and the yellow highlight colour, and repeating many of the grainy grey scale images used in the exhibition. This served the purpose of linking the app to the exhibition and hopefully continuing its gritty undertones. A key feature of the app is the inclusion of sliders where the user can swipe away a black and white image of the Port’s past, revealing the same view in the 21st century. Representing grit through a touch screen is no mean feat and ultimately users will be the judge of whether the app captures the Port’s rough edges, together with the tenacity, determination and playfulness of its residents.
The South Australian Maritime Museum is currently reviewing the Living in Port app. before updating content and releasing an Android version. If you would like to download the free app. from iTunes and test it out please tell us what you think in our online survey. Survey closes Friday 22 April.