Thursday, January 22, 2009

Move Curtin's home?

The West Australian reported on January 7th that Colin Barnett, WA’s premier, is happy for the former home of Australia’s wartime PM, John Curtin to be moved to Curtin University. He is quoted as saying that he "puts pragmatism ahead of the purist view". The journalist in response asks "how a building such as Curtin’s home can have any heritage value left when it is taken from its original site".
What’s right and what’s wrong in such an instance? My gut feel is that context is everything and this very ordinary suburban Perth house needs to be kept in its Cottesloe location for the full Curtin story to be understood. It ensures retention of what interpretation experts call ‘the spirit of place’. There is a management precedent with the Chifley Home in Bathurst run by the Bathurst Regional Council, who were incidentally the recent recipients of an Arts NSW grant of $82 000 ( to be matched by the Council) towards the development of the Chifley Home Interpretation Centre.

Alternatively the National Trust of WA, one of the country’s most successful state branches of the Trust, have apparently said they would be happy to restore and run it. Houses that have been moved have generally been done so for architectural rather than historic reasons - take the wonderful Weald and Downland Museum in West Sussex, UK where an entire village of historic houses have been brought together. The Cook House transported from Yorkshire to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne is a more questionable move, of interest now as a curiosity rather than for its celebrated explorer occupant.

But pragmatism inevitably must play its part. Historic house museums are a recipe for losing money. Virtually none of them make any money, and those that do mainly achieve it through hire of the premises for weddings and functions, something for which the Curtin house appears not to be designed. Moving the house to its namesake university might achieve a whole new focus for the building as a study centre. Macquarie University are rightfully proud of their Macquarie Room, containing panelling from Macquarie’s study and the Macquarie chairs, commissioned by Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and regularly used by the University’s chancellor.

Learn more about John Curtin's home here.

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