Something a little different today. This is actually something that I recently submitted for a uni assignment. Obviously exhibition reviews is not a focus of this blog, but I think that the issue of censorship is one that all film buffs are quite interested in. Apologies for the distinctly average quality of the photos sorry, they were taken on my phone.
Coffee makes everything better. The curatorial staff at the National Archives clearly agree, because the newish exhibition Banned takes place in the cafe of their Parliamentary Triangle location in Canberra. Banned showcases the history of banning books in Australia, a place where saucy titles such as The Hotel Wife, Road Floozie and The Villain and the Virgin sit side by side with those now considered classics – Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Nabokov’s Lolita and Baldwin’s Another Country.
A fantastic and colourful collage of the covers of formerly banned books grabs the eye as you enter the exhibition. It is a visual repeated on the very cool looking tables scattered around the cafe. The exhibition itself consists of two main aspects. Firstly the displays on the walls which examine a number of the banned books in detail and also include details of the censorship process of the day. It is refreshing to see a Government institution willing to shed a light on the secrecy and flawed processes that previously existed in our country. There are quotes from former Customs Ministers and members of the Book Censorship Board which really do showcase the inherent flaws in this process of censorship and serve to provoke questions about censorship in general. The second aspect of the exhibition is a selection of copies of the books in question, which attendees are free to browse as they wander around. These books each contain a bookmark which succinctly gives the official reasoning for the ban. The official verdict given from a Censorship Board member on Housekeeper’s Daughter for example was that “In my opinion, this book is rubbish.” As well as the books, there are a number of bright red folders which showcase documentation relating to the decisions to ban the books, including letters both in support of and denouncing the decisions.
As I sat down to enjoy my short black, I found myself flicking through an old copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as well as the folder outlining the reasons for its ban. These documents included a letter denouncing the book from the Social Service Department of the Methodist Church who were troubled by amongst other things, it’s “advocacy of promiscuity”; and letters of support for the book from the general public and publishers. One of the great choices of the exhibition is that rather than just heading over to Dymocks to get shiny new printings of these books, the folk at the Archives have scoured second hand outlets to find some brilliant printings from the 50s-70s, a time of both inspired and laughable cover design. Whilst obviously not the focus of the exhibition, looking at these old covers, yearning for a time past of books such as these, does become one of the joys of the exhibition. The way the books are set out enables people to shape the experience of Banned as they please, looking at the books that take their fancy for as long or short a period as they like. Exhibiting in a coffee shop does have its drawbacks though. Even though the cafe was close to empty when I was there, it was difficult for me to get as close to some of the displays as I would have liked because of the positioning of the tables. I would imagine that this inconvenience would be exacerbated were the cafe to be full of customers.
Banned is a relaxing kind of exhibition. It provokes thought about the issue of censorship and the issues inherent in it. All while also offering coffee and the opportunity to flick through great old copies of banned books – both the iconic and the pulpy. Definitely worth a visit. If you are interested in finding out more about the history of banning books in Australia and some of the specific titles in Banned, the Archives have set up a blog at www.blog.naa.gov.au/banned which is showcasing some of these in more detail.
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