57 Murray Street

I finished off this project late last year and really had to take a break from it before I could think about writing a post about it. I have talked about this work here so I won’t rehash. The National Trust now have the final report in their hands and I’m told it will be an appendix to the revised conservation plan.

I wanted to share some my conclusion from the report here as a way to wrap up this project:

A generation – more than seventy years – of colonial and then State governments, boards and then departments attempts to understand, legislate, govern, control and protect Aboriginal people in Western Australia had passed when the Department of Native Affairs left 57 Murray Street. Early legislation had attempted to define how Aboriginal people fitted into the society developing in Western Australia. In 1944 the Native (Citizenship Rights) Act was still struggling with this concept. Aboriginal people had moved from being free, albeit invaded, to administered then tightly controlled. By 1944 the first movements towards recognition of racial equality were being made but it would still be decades before any real understanding would surface in government actions.

The building at 57 Murray Street witnessed the many and varied discriminatory regulations and actions of the departments within. Layered within its walls is this story of paternalism, racism and sexism as well as failed attempts to understand Aboriginal people and their lives. These important struggles are part of the building and need to be understood in order to appreciate the heritage the building is valued for.

There is much this history has left out due to time and space limitations. Aboriginal voices are most obviously missing and further work needs to be done on collecting responses to the departments that operated from 57 Murray Street. While two significant books have been written on the history of Western Australian Aboriginal people, governments and departments, they are becoming dated (Biskup, 1973 and Haebich, 1988). As social and popular opinion about the lives of Aboriginal people shifts, so the history should be revised with contemporary eyes.

It has been equally fascinating and horrifying to compile this history, but through the details examined a far more thorough understanding of Aboriginal people’s disadvantage has been gained. It is hoped that this history also achieves that for others.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what the National Trust decides to do with this building and how they’ll go about interpreting it.

I can’t finish this post without mentioning my lecturer for this and many previous units of this degree; David Dolan. He passed away just the day before my last meeting with the National Trust about this project. I feel incredibly lucky to have known him as he was a huge presence in the heritage industry in WA. He’ll be sorely missed for his expertise, generosity and commitment to heritage and his students.

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