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Federation Ephemera Archive

State Library of New South Wales
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Reviewed by:
Kirsten McKenzie
University of Sydney
October 2003

This site provides a populist perspective on Australian Federation, which saw the six self-governing British colonies on the Australian continent unite to form a new nation in 1901. It covers the period from the late 1880s through 1901. The basis of the archive is formed by an unpublished album compiled by Alfred Lee (1858-1923). Born in Dublin, Lee arrived in Sydney in 1874 after living for a decade in New Zealand. Lee was a notable bibliophile and collector of Australiana.

The process of Australian Federation was a protracted one, stimulating intense debate among both politicians and the wider public in the 1880s and 1890s. As the site explains, Lee’s album is representative of the intense political and cultural ferment that was spurred by the context of the Federation debate. Collecting printed Australiana was part of this process. The album contains a wide variety of printed ephemera including menus, invitations, certificates, broadsides, and postcards. The site also contains selections from two unpublished collections of handbills pertaining to the process of Australian Federation (dating from 1891 to 1901) as well as selections from the Library’s manuscript and ephemera collections and collection of coins and medals.

The site is divided into five sections. One gives information on the project itself, and two provide background information on Alfred Lee and the Federation process. The latter is particularly useful for those unfamiliar with Australian history. Three sections contain the primary source material of the site arranged in Web books. They are the “Alfred Lee Album” (159 reproductions of diverse federation ephemera), “Handbills” (15 reproductions of handbills), and “Realia” (images of 18 commemorative coins and medals).

The site is easy to navigate. The contents of each section can be displayed in thumbnail sketch or full size as well as in transcription when they include text. While the site is not searchable, this is not a major disadvantage, given the material it contains. Browsing through the site, which is of a manageable size, would be more useful to students than a search function. The contents list available for each section provides a good overview of what the site contains.

A key advantage of the site is that it overtly presents the social and cultural side to political transition for analysis by students. The menus and invitations included in Lee’s Album, for example, are eloquent testimony to the part that spectacle and social gatherings had in the construction of political power. The programs of re-enactments, concerts, parades, aquatic displays, and the like are similarly suggestive of the manner in which Federation was experienced by diverse social classes in Australia.

The ephemera items can also be studied as artistic productions of their time. Many are lavishly illustrated and ornately constructed. The ambiguity of colonial nationalism is startling in the federation ephemera and vividly demonstrated through the iconography brought into play. Questions such as the representation of women in imperial and national iconography would be particularly pertinent avenues for students to follow. As the introduction points out, the cultural roots of the images in the federation ephemera are complex, combining the influence of classical mythology with cultures of empire and involving the sometimes uneasy relationship between royalty and democracy.

Students might also explore the material on the site in the context of the 1990s debate over declaring a republic in Australia. In juxtaposing these two moments, students might consider the persistence of the attempt to reconcile change and continuity in Australian political language that is so marked a feature of the federation ephemera. On the question of Australian Federation, The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation1 is useful to teachers.

1 Helen Irving ed., The Centenary Companion to Australian Federation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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