From antique underwear to Roman banquets, Elizabeth Burness has a passion for the past.
And, beyond her life as a historian, she is a woman of many talents: artist, storyteller, writer, educator – committed to bringing Canberra’s heritage to life.
She now pours much of this love into the Tuggeranong Schoolhouse Museum at Chisholm, an 1880 brick cottage where she curates about 2000 items collected over the decades.
Elizabeth styles herself as `History with a Difference’ and her ideas to enthuse people with older times are certainly different.
“For example, my collection consisted of quite a few pieces of antique women’s underwear – particularly corsets and underpants,” she says. “When I decided to feature these ‘unmentionables’, they were a hit and I was amazed to think I could get away with presenting history in this way.”
From history studies at Melbourne University that didn’t always fill her with enthusiasm, Elizabeth has taken great strides to become today’s vibrant storyteller.
“I was a very insecure young person who spent her life in books,” she says.
But in her first job as a school teacher, she knew she had to recreate herself to survive.
“I was given 40 14-year-olds to teach in country Victoria and I found I had to change my personality absolutely.”
So she trained herself to act, using drama, colour and movement – and the raconteur was born. In 1974, she began work as an educator at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).
“I’ve been tremendously lucky,” she says. “I loved Australian art and costume – features of the NGV collections.”
A Dante Alighieri scholarship to Italy in 1975 showed her how to infuse life into ancient Roman artefacts at the gallery.
“I hadn’t been able to get my head around antiquities and the Renaissance but, once I got to Italy, it all gelled. That’s how I got into experiential learning.”
Some lucky schoolchildren visiting the NGV “experienced” this learning and were treated to Roman banquets and dressed in bedsheet togas.
Reclining on benches, they were fed grapes by Elizabeth and her colleagues, then taken to inspect the Roman antiquities still dressed in character.
During her time with the NGV, she transferred for a year to the South Australian Art Gallery where she found new venues to host a suburban travelling art show. They included a children’s orthopaedic ward and, most successfully, an abattoir where “a whole heap of artists” worked to support their creative endeavours.
In 1983 Elizabeth moved to Canberra as an educator at the Australian War Memorial where she remained for 15 years. She later went back into teaching and secured various grants that enabled her to take her collection into aged care facilities – where she jogged failing memories – and Canberra schools.
To bring history alive, she often dresses in costumes from her collection. Not content with just showing old undies, Elizabeth includes a dramatic ending to her popular presentation There’s History in the Bottom Drawers, or Secret Women’s Business.
After showing the audience a pair of ‘open’ drawers, also known as crotch-less knickers, Elizabeth reveals herself in a facsimile pair (modestly worn over a pair of bike shorts).
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it,” she says. “To get people at the end of life laughing and remembering the good times, it really is tremendously rewarding.”
Through a women’s grant, she has also recorded oral histories of several older Canberra women. Those stories are available on her website.
Elizabeth has looked after Tuggeranong Schoolhouse Museum, an ACT Government property, as a volunteer for 11 years.
She displays her own collection there, reflecting the time when the school was in use. She’s keen for visitors to experience the era, touch and feel the items. The display uses no labels or barriers.
She has a soft spot for the family of Francis McGee, the longest-serving and most influential teacher at the schoolhouse, who taught and lived there from 1898 to 1927. One of his seven children, James, became an eminent international scientist and was involved in the development of television.
With plans to leave the schoolhouse when her lease is up, Elizabeth aims to spend more time on her artwork. Sketching portraits is one of her great loves, something she has continued since her university days.
Wherever Elizabeth Burness next directs her talents, it’s fair to say she’ll embrace it with passion.
The Old Tuggeranong Schoolhouse Museum is at 34 Enid Lorimer Circuit, Chisholm, ACT. It is open on the second Sunday of every month from 10 am until 4 pm, and at other times by appointment.