20 January 2022

National Library to shine the spotlight on Australia's greatest performers

| James Coleman
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Music performance 1955

The Bushwhackers at the Smith Family Event, Sydney Showground, circa 1955. Photo: National Library of Australia.

You may not think of the National Library when you reminisce about the band poster you had on your bedroom wall as a teenager, but the objects and moments captured in their performing arts collections are immense. The treasures from these collections feature in a new exhibition opening in March.

Exhibition and Library curator of rare books and music Dr Susannah Helman said the Library oversees one of Australia’s most extensive and significant collections of performing arts memorabilia.

“As a big fan of live performance of all kinds, I thought I knew the history of Australia’s performing arts, but our collections have opened my eyes to the cultural lives Australians of the past could have known,” Dr Helman said.

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‘On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts’ will tell the story of Australia’s performing artists across the fields of music, ballet, theatre, variety and more from Friday, 4 March.

It includes photographs, posters, playbills, sheet music, costume designs, set designs and rare books from the Library’s vast archives.

Highlights include the earliest document printed in Australia, a theatre playbill from 1796, and a 153 cm ‘lagerphone’ with its ‘whacker’, associated with the 1950s musical group, The Bushwhackers.

Sir Robert Helpmann

Sir Robert Helpmann as Oberon in 1937 is the face of the National Library’s exhibition. Photo: National Library of Australia.

“In the exhibition, I’ve tried to represent key moments, productions and performers in our history, to give context to today’s performing arts scene,” Dr Helman says.

“There truly is something for everyone.”

The face of the exhibition will be Sir Robert Helpmann, who starred as Oberon in the 1937 Old Vic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. An oversized AC/DC poster is the centrepiece of another display.

Other artists, companies and performing icons featured include the Bangarra Dance Theatre, Peter Allen, Dame Nellie Melba and Tim Minchin.

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Director-general of the National Library of Australia Dr Marie-Louise Ayres said visitors from all walks of life would be entertained, inspired, challenged and moved by the exhibition.

“Our performing artists and storytellers are our escape, and having been starved of live performance over the past couple of years, turning this spotlight on the performing arts is a way of acknowledging the enjoyment that it brings to our lives,” Dr Ayres said.

Theatre playbill

The earliest document printed in Australia is for a performance of Jane Shore, ‘The Wapping Landlady’ and ‘The Miraculous Cure’ at the Theatre in Sydney on 30 July 1796. Photo: National Library of Australia.

‘On Stage: Spotlight on our performing arts’ is open at the National Library of Australia from Friday, 4 March to Sunday, 7 August 2022. Entry is free.

A smaller companion exhibition, ‘Circus: Roll up roll up’, is currently on display in the Library’s Treasures Gallery and will remain open until 19 June 2022.

Visit the National Library of Australia for more information.

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