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Canberra on Screen at the 2019 ICOMOS Australia conference

Photographer unattributed. Aerial view of the opening of the Provisional Parliament House, Canberra, 9 May 1927.
Fairfax archive of glass plate negatives. PIC/15611/1-12000. Collection National Library of Australia.

In November 2019 I enjoyed presenting the paper Big sky Canberra at the Australia ICOMOS Conference, Heritage of the Air: Modernism, Machines, Migration Memories.

The paper explored Canberra’s development as a uniquely twentieth century city through a fresh focus on the contribution of aerial photography and the moving image.

Concepts of the aerial view and ‘a big sky’ are invoked in the earliest descriptions of Canberra and remain central to how the city is perceived in the national imagination, and to its representation across the globe. The exciting advances in aeroplane technology of the early twentieth century transformed the way Australians came to experience distance, landscape and urban life by the century’s end. The use of aerial photography in town planning, in military applications, and in promotional imagery, was particularly influential in Canberra’s development, marking it out as a uniquely twentieth century city. However this image of Canberra, so carefully woven into the uplifting spirit of modernity, is only one of the ways that air technology and the moving image have left their mark. At times a failure to consider the ‘Canberra project’ from-the-ground meant that the technology of the air and the magic of the moving image came together in unscripted, unexpected, and sometimes tragic ways. This paper examined these unanticipated histories and the learnings they hold for a more grounded imagination of Canberra’s future.

Special thanks to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive for permission to screen footage from Australasian Films Canberra The Capital of the Commonwealth of Australia (1927), and the inspired conference team at Australia ICOMOS and the ARC-funded research project team at Heritage of the Air.

The paper will appear in a future edition of Historic Environment.

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Conjuring Canberra forth: one magic lantern slide at a time

A black and white image in which a branching gum tree frames a view of undulating, prepared earth that shows a few faint lines of white lime powder and white upright sticks. Treed, rolling hills form a background.
Figure 1. Mildenhall, William James (Jack). Site of Parliament House marked in lime 1927 [1923?].
From a collection of 453 glass lantern slides held at the National Library of Australia.
Retrieved February 24, 2019, from

This favourite slide seems to ask the question ‘How do you take a photograph of a building that does not yet exist?’
A sprinkling of lime dust prompts us to picture Australia’s provisional Parliament House rising from the bare earth.

An extensive and compelling photographic archive created by William James (Jack) Mildenhall between 1921 and 1935 records the early development and community of the national capital. The archive is made up of over 7700 black and white glass plate negatives and is held at the National Archives of Australia. (1)

Smaller selections of images from this archive can be found in at least three separate collections of glass magic lantern slides. (2)

In a collection of 453 slides held at the National Library of Australia, Mildenhall’s images appear alongside the work of other photographers, as well as slides that reproduce maps, drawings and cinema advertisements. This collection includes slides showing Australia’s 1901 Federation celebrations in Sydney, and Canberra’s official naming ceremony in 1913. There are also slides which show the Murray River, a ‘laughing’ chimpanzee and a drawing of the ‘sheep-maggot fly and its parasite’. A number of these slides, which do not appear to be Mildenhall’s images, bear the same caption: the ‘first inhabitants of the ACT’. In reality, these slides appear to show Aboriginal people from areas well outside the region (Figure 2).

Group of four Aboriginal people fishing spearfishing from a sand shore with Mangrove trees.
Figure 2. Mildenhall, William James (Jack), First inhabitants of the ACT. 1927[?] From a collection of 453 glass lantern slides held at the National Library of Australia. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from

This surprisingly misleading slide purports to show the first inhabitants of the ACT. However, it seems unlikely that
the people pictured, convincingly spear fishing in a mangrove-fringed estuary, would have had any significant
connection to the Canberra valley at all (see note).

Alongside many black-and-white slides, some of the slides in this collection are delicately hand-coloured, and others in full photographic colour.

The larger archive of Mildenhall’s work evidently fulfils a set of prescribed government requirements, variously evidentiary, technical, political and promotional. But the three smaller collections of glass lantern slides each have the character of a working projectionist’s image bank. They are made up of those Mildenhall images that are most evocative and given to incorporation into a projectionist’s changing narrative. Martyn Jolly observes that all lantern presentations were, ‘…changed from night to night depending on circumstance, and evolved and mutated as new elements were added and others retired.’ (3) We can imagine the slide selection that illustrated a projectionist’s ‘Canberra lecture’ being revised again and again, as the story was ‘improved’ and audience needs differed.

In the context of these three slide collections Mildenhall’s images are decoupled from the administrative context in which they were conceived. Their evidentiary power is traded for a more evocative power as they achieve a second life in the stories of the projectionist.

Weeping willow trees fringe a curving river stretching to the centre of the frame
Figure 3. Mildenhall, William James (Jack). Molonglo River, Acton, 1920. From a collection of 453 glass lantern slides held at the National Library of Australia.

This restorative slide may have illustrated a story at least one projectionist told: that the Molonglo River’s Weeping Willows were propagated from cuttings taken from Napoleon’s tomb on the Island of Saint Helena (4).

Although my investigation of the use of these slides is at an early stage, there is evidence that at least some of them were included in presentations by Harry L Dawson in Sydney, Australia in 1927 and in Palmerston North, New Zealand in 1932. (5)

Dawson was a Methodist missionary described as a ‘racy and fluent speaker’ with ‘the art and the material to kindle an audience’. (6) He delivered evangelical lectures in Eastern Australia between at least 1916 and 1948, except for five years he spent touring New Zealand from 1930. Dawson’s lectures covered a diversity of topics including ‘The Dark Side of Sydney’ (1916), ‘World Wonders’ (1935), ‘What of The Empire?’ (1943), ‘Russian Relations with Britain and Australia’ (1948), ‘Perils of Palestine’ (1948), ‘The World’s Worst Disaster’ (1954) and ‘The Unseen World’ (1954).

On 22 May 1927, Empire Sunday, Dawson delivered an illustrated lecture entitled ‘Canberra: The City Beautiful’ at the Lyceum Theatre, Sydney. Five days later, The Canberra Times published an extended text from Dawson’s lecture. (7)

In his lecture Dawson tells his own ‘glorious’ history of the Canberra valley and the growing capital, recounting a series of prophetic insights from early residents, and contemporary advocates, in evidence of the site’s predestined glory.

Dawson describes the Canberra valley prior to the 18th century as an ‘abundant paradise’ in which ‘black people hunted and throve’. He then speaks of a phase of pioneers who, he tells his audience, sought ‘…the star of strong intent, a handful of heroes scattered to conquer a continent.’  Then he reveals that a Member of Parliament recently confided in him that, ‘it would seem as if nature has especially endowed her to be a capital city.’

Dawson casts Canberra’s present as a ‘model city’ in a narrative framework and language that would have been familiar to his largely Methodist audience. His narrative history of Canberra proceeds from a distant idyllic past through a period of struggle, guided by faith in a majestic future, to a glorious destination, where even the highest aspiration seems certain of fulfillment.

What better means existed to ignite an audience with such a miraculous story than a magic lantern show?

Dawson’s presentation not only drips with attributed stories that magnify the beauty of the Canberra valley and the glorious destiny that awaited it. He also dwells on its historical connection with greatness, reminding his audience that the Molonglo River’s weeping willows had been grown from cuttings taken from Napoleon’s tomb on the island of Saint Helena.

While it is uncertain whether the specific slides referenced here were used in Dawson’s presentations, it is easy to imagine his use of a similar selection.

The adventure of viewing these three Mildenhall glass slides collections through the lens of Dawson’s narratives provides an opportunity to reimagine the Canberra-fervour which would have been ignited in their audience. I look forward to further investigation of these collections, and the projection of their contents. They promise additional insight into how stories of Australia’s developing capital were grafted into already familiar and powerful narratives. They also promise an understanding of how such story-making processes fostered a ‘shared imagining’ of the future capital and the community it would serve.

Dawson’s magic lantern presentations are essentially productive in nature. They use prophetic stories from Canberra’s past as foundations on which to build a story of the city’s glorious future. His history is mostly one of adding things, rather than of taking things away. However, several of Mildenhall’s magic lantern slides remind us that building a functional new city is not just about making things appear. It is also, necessarily, about making certain other things disappear.

Two black and white image side-by-side. The first shows construction material forming an excavation channel across a small stream. The second shows two men in overcoats and hats in a dark subterranean tunnel.
Figures 4 and 5. Glass Lantern Slides of the opening of Federal Parliament, Canberra in May 1927 and other contemporary scenes of Canberra. Left: Construction of sewerage tunnel under the Molonglo River, with Parliament House and West Block Offices, Canberra in the distance. Right: Party inspecting water pipes in tunnel. Images courtesy of the National Archives of Australia. NAA: A3348, 16 and 18

These revealing slides document the construction of subterranean tunnels for the transport of fresh water to and sewerage from the growing national capital.

The frenzied work of augmenting an inadequate sewerage system to accommodate the arrival of parliamentarians and their staff in Canberra in 1927, is an example. As the new capital’s buildings, bridges and roads spread out across the surface of the Canberra valley, its water and sewerage infrastructure tentacled deep under the surface and into the surrounding landscape. 

The wholesale extraction of fresh water from and injection of human waste into the surrounding ecosystems of the new capital was a story less glorious perhaps than the one told by Dawson. From this perspective it could be seen as the beginning of a slow environmental degradation of the Canberra valley which continues in many respects to this day.

Thinking about how these glass lantern slides have and might have been used to project the story of the emerging capital into an already familiar narrative challenges our history-making. Canberra’s contemporary urban identity is evidently still subject to complex processes of story-telling today.

This blog post is reproduced from ‘Archive in the Spotlight’, Heritage in the Limelight,
(accessed 4 March 2019). ARC Discovery Project ~ Heritage in the Limelight: The magic lantern in Australia and the world. DP160102509

Note: it has been suggested that Figure 2 may represent the work of Thomas Dick, a photographer who worked with a group of Aboriginal men as subjects between 1910 and 1927. I am still actively researching this possible connection. Dick’s work is considered in McBryde, I. (1985). Thomas Dick’s Photographic Vision. Seeing the First Australians. I. D. a. T. D. (eds). Sydney, George Allen and Unwin: pp.137-163.


(1) Mildenhall undertook government-commissioned work in Canberra from 1921 and was official government photographer from 1926 to 1935. Most of the work Mildenhall produced over this period is included in the photographic archive referred to at the National Archives of Australia, NAA: A3560 – Mildenhall collection of glass plate negatives.

(2) The following three collections of glass lantern slides reproduce selected Mildenhall images.

Collection of 453 slides – National Library of Australia.
Mildenhall collection of photographs of Canberra Retrieved, Glass Lantern Slides. February 24, 2019, from

Collection of 86 slides – National Library of Australia.
1913-1935 Coloured lantern slides of early Canberra Retrieved February 26, 2019, from

Collection of 50 slides – National Archives of Australia.
NAA: A3348 Glass Lantern Slides of the 1927 Opening of Federal Parliament and other contemporary Canberra scenes 1947.

(3) Jolly, M. 2013.  Soldiers of the Cross: Time, narrative and affect. Early Popular Visual Culture, 11:4, 293-311, DOI: 10.1080/17460654.2013.838517

(4) A CAPITAL CITY (1927, May 24). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 1. Retrieved February 27, 2019, from

(5) A CAPITAL CITY (1927).

CHRISTMAS CHEER CONCERT. LAST NIGHT’s PERFORMANCE. Manawatu Standard, Manawatu Standard, Volume LIII, Issue 17, 17 December 1932

(6) “WORLD WONDERS”, Otago Daily Times, Issue 22522, 16 March 1935

MARQUEE MISSION, Horowhenua Chronicle, 7 April 1933

(7) CANBERRA, THE CITY BEAUTIFUL (1927, May 27). The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), p. 4. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from

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A closer look at Canberra on screen

William James (Jack) Mildenhall (1891-1962) Photographers and press outside Parliament House (9 May 1927) Glass Lantern Slide, Courtesy of National Library of Australia.

I will be privileged in April, this year, to commence study toward a PhD with the Australian National University School of History. Living on Ngunnawal land as the Director of Canberra Museum and Gallery it will be no surprise that my topic concerns Canberra’s identity. It seems an appropriate time to share a few thoughts about what I plan to do.

My research will take a forensic look at Canberra’s history on screen: from magic lantern to cinema and from television to smart device. How have our city and our sense of nationhood developed together in the age of the moving image?

In a country of vast distances, the moving image plays a privileged role in shaping the ‘imagined community’ of nation and influencing perceptions of what for many is a remote national capital. I am, of course, also keen to examine the way that galleries, libraries, archives and museums have made use of archival film of Canberra to tell stories of nation; and how this material is coming to be accessed digitally, on demand.

 ‘Canberra is more than a group of government buildings set in a Garden City, it’s a community of 12,000 people… Most Canberra people know each other, at least by sight, and share a casual friendliness that is part of the Australian Character.’ Still from National Capital c1945. Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive.
‘Canberra is more than a group of government buildings set in a Garden City, it’s a community of 12,000 people… Most Canberra people know each other, at least by sight, and share a casual friendliness that is part of the Australian Character.’ Still from National Capital c1945. Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive.

The way the moving image has bound us together as Australians and even as Canberrans fascinates me. In 1901 Australia became the first nation to have its federation recorded on motion picture film; in 1913 Canberra became the first national capital to have the ceremony of its official naming recorded likewise. Among the many iconic moving images of Canberra are the 1927 opening of Parliament, the 1964 inauguration of Lake Burley Griffin, the 1972 installation of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Dismissal of 1975 and the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations. Together with a raft of ‘unofficial’ films these sequences will form key parts of my study. More contemporary material such as a 2013 montage of archival film prepared and publicly screened by the National Film and Sound Archive for the Centenary of Canberra, and the 2016 Foxtel television series ‘Secret City’ will provide contemporary touch-points.

On 13 February 2008 crowds gathered in Australian capital cities to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver The Apology to the Stolen Generations live from the House of Representatives at Australian Parliament House. This crowd is watching from the lawns in front of Australian Parliament House. Still from Emily in Japan – The making of an exhibition 2009. Courtesy Ronin Films.
On 13 February 2008 crowds gathered in Australian capital cities to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver The Apology to the Stolen Generations live from the House of Representatives at Australian Parliament House. This crowd is watching from the lawns in front of Australian Parliament House. Still from Emily in Japan – The making of an exhibition 2009. Courtesy Ronin Films.

In his recent Australia Day Address Hugh Mackay spoke of the current crisis in social cohesion facing the nation. While Mackay reminds us that we can still be proud of Federation as a ‘…glorious symbol of our willingness to bring six sovereign states together to form the Commonwealth,’ he warns of the increasing social fragmentation our society is experiencing. Mackay identifies our now almost obsessive use of information technology as one of three critical changes that are now shaping Australian society. He describes this as ‘…a paradoxical revolution: on the one hand it promises, and does, connect us like never before; on the other hand it makes it easier than ever before for us to stay apart. (No wonder that, among young people, the heaviest users of social media also report the highest levels of loneliness and anxiety.)’

What are the implications of this paradox for our national identity as it is portrayed through information technology?

Attorney General, Catriona Bailey (Jacki Weaver) feeds a story to investigative journalist Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv). Still from 'Secret City' 2016. Based on 'The Marmalade Files' and 'The Mandarin Code' written by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. Courtesy Matchbox Pictures.
Attorney General, Catriona Bailey (Jacki Weaver) feeds a story to investigative journalist Harriet Dunkley (Anna Torv). Still from ‘Secret City’ 2016. Based on ‘The Marmalade Files’ and ‘The Mandarin Code’ written by Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis. Courtesy Matchbox Pictures.

The generosity of my employer, the Cultural Facilities Corporation, will allow me to take extended leave for the first phase of this research, recognising the benefits it will bring to our organisation. I don’t take for granted that this leave flows from the working conditions I enjoy as an ACT Public Servant and the critical work of our unions in securing these conditions. Where we can do so, we should always put our leave to good work for the community that sustains us.

Alongside the professional, organisational and academic value of this research, it would be wrong not to acknowledge the personal stimulation I will enjoy in going ‘back to the well’ of academic study. There has been some significant commentary on life’s transitions recently, and through my own personal life transition, I hope to find new ways to improve my own society’s cohesion. New research in this field was compellingly explored in a recent episode of ABC Radio’s Life Matters with clinical psychologist Delyse Hutchison and author Jonathan Rauch.

I am pleased to have had warm interest in this planned research from the ANU School of History and from the institutions that house Canberra’s rich collections of still and moving images. These include the National Film and Sound Archive, National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia and ACT Heritage Library. ScreenCanberra, which supports the growth of the ACT screen industry will be an equally important ally in the project.

I look forward to posting regular updates, reaching out for advice, and welcoming contributions from others via a new webpage . I invite you to check in and contribute to the conversation when you get a chance.


Emily in Japan – The making of an exhibition 2009, video, 82min, Directed by Andrew Pike, Ronin Films, Canberra. Distributed by Ronin Films. Available at

Is the midlife crisis the great equaliser?, Life Matters 2019, ABC radio, streaming audio. Broadcast 21 January 2019. Available at

Mackay, H 2019. Australia Day Address 2019 By Hugh Mackay AO. Available at

National Capital c1945, film, 17min, Australia Department of Information, Melbourne. National Film and Sound Archive ID 1259. Available at

Secret City 2016, television series, 296min, Directed by Emma Freeman, Foxtel Productions / Matchbox Pictures, Sydney. Available at

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