History on Display
A new exhibit on Oxford Street celebrates the colourful and diverse history of Sydney Mardi Gras.
Talk to Ken Davis and even he will admit that as one of the organisers of Sydney’s very first Mardi Gras in 1978, it remains hard for him to remember the cultural climate of fear and repression that infused all levels of Australian society when it came to homosexuality. But with the opening of the Sydney Mardi Gras Museum this week, there’s a good chance generations to come will be able to immerse themselves more easily in LGBT history and share in the memories of the first 35 years of Mardi Gras and beyond.
To run from January 30 until the end of the Mardi Gras Festival, the Museum will temporarily take up a site at a City Of Sydney-owned building on the corner of Oxford and Palmer streets –in the epicentre of the long-running protest and celebration for queer rights.
Among the items on display will be Davis’s country and western frock he was wearing during the 1978 march as well as the banner he painted with the words ‘International Gay Solidarity’ for that historic night.
“I think it’s really hard – even for us who lived through it – to remember how different things were in the 70s,” Davis, now a member of Sydney’s Pride History Group, tells SX.
“The Mardi Gras, in particular, was a watershed in terms of public visibility and a chain of events leading to anti-discrimination law reform ... and most importantly the repeal of the Summary Offences Act in 1979 which controlled police powers in public places which was very dangerous for lesbians and gay men.”
Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras director David Wilson, who has played a key role in setting up the museum, tells SX the exhibition will use archival footage of previous marches, photos and documents, many of which have been provided by the Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives (ALGA) in Melbourne and the Pride History Group, to tell the story of Mardi Gras so far.
“The Museum exhibition is an important celebration of who we are, where we came from and where we are now,” he explains.
“It allows people to think about where we should be in the next decade. The Museum exhibition is a non-exhaustive taster of what a permanent LGBTIQ Museum could look like in regards to material.
“It is a wake-up call to many that we all need to start preserving our history and not rely on others.”
Questions though remain on whether a permanent home for a Mardi Gras museum can be found in the near future, as well as the shape and scope of the exhibits.
Wilson informs SX it still remains Mardi Gras’s intention to apply to use the currently vacant T2 building on Taylor Square as a permanent museum despite strong support for the site to be transformed into a cycling hub. He believes strong community backing may get the proposal over the line.
“The T2 building is in an ideal location for such a Museum and I believe would help to invigorate the Oxford Street precinct, helping to restore its importance as a LGBTIQ destination for locals, interstate and international visitors,” Wilson says.
“We are working through the commercial viability of the site through the tender process and are also open to other sites should we not be successful with T2. This will all be determined by the community support which assists in providing evidence of the need.”
If a lasting home is to be found for the museum anytime soon, Davis, for his part, says there will need to be plenty of discussions with stakeholders as well as consultations with organisations such as the Pride History Group, ALGA, the National and NSW state libraries, and the Powerhouse Museum, to name just a few.
“What’s going to be the identity of this museum? Is it around Mardi Gras or is gay and lesbian and transgender? Does it include bisexual and intersex? Is it Sydney or is it about NSW or all of Australia?” Davis muses.
“Or is it about how the international community relates to Sydney as Mardi Gras was originally an international event – we were doing it in solidarity with San Francisco. What’s the subject?
“I don’t think any organisation can do something like this by itself. I think the museum is a great idea but it needs a lot of thinking about if it is to work.”
The Sydney Mardi Gras Museum, corner Oxford and Palmer Streets. January 30-March 3, 11am-7pm. Free.