“I am now eighty-two years old and these memories remain very clear. What happened to our childhood?” Carmel Durant, 2010
To walk through the new touring exhibition at Queensland Museum, Inside: Life In Children’s Homes & Institutions, is to be confronted with a palpable sense of the pain of our past – children abused and maltreated by those to whom their care was entrusted. Spanning three decades of institutionalised care, from 1950 to 1980, Inside is the result of a promise made by the Australian government during 2009’s national apology to the Forgotten Australians that their stories would be told. Literally hundreds of quotes cover every available wall space, snippets of conversations, pages out of journals, fragmented memories of lives torn apart by a disgraceful time in Australia’s history, when children were taken from their families and charged with neglect, forced into a life of terror and seclusion. Wire beds, syringes and leather straps sit alongside confiscated toys and photos of tiny children with haunted eye whose only crime was to be orphaned or neglected or the product of a single parent. Immigrant children sent from Malta wave from a train carriage, not knowing what their future holds. A cot carries the story of a baby who died and the nuns who let it happen. Paintings, poetry and sculpture created in the years after are heavy with the weight of sadness. The stories are harrowing, almost impossible to take in. No wonder there are tissues placed throughout the display, it is incredibly moving.
This is heavy stuff for Queensland Museum to carry, a place that ordinarily houses nothing scarier than a few thousand reptile specimens and a badly taxidermied wombat, and I suspect its location in the building acknowledges that. Inside is all but hidden on the top floor of the museum, tucked in a corner least traversed by visitors (it also backs on to the children’s learning centre, which I have to say makes for quite a surreal experience when you’re quietly reading tales of guardians calling children ‘devil’s spawn’ while teachers call out to their school groups only a few metres away). I’m not convinced Queensland Museum is the right home for this exhibition, but it seems both mean spirited and redundant to quibble about that now. The fact that it is where it is should not make the difference as to whether the crowds visit. What ought to make the difference is that this is a time in our recent history to which we should all bear witness. In the words of Frank Warren, “it’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it.”
There is perhaps a little salvation for all of us to be found in Inside.