Collecting the archives of protest

Written by Dr Katrina Dean

In the June 1961 issue of the University of Melbourne student magazine Farrago the university archivist, Frank Strahan, made a call to all readers who might be holding the papers of student clubs and societies: ‘Have you any Uni. Archives?’1 Among the first to respond was the Students Representative Council,2 which would later play a central role in student protests at the university. Many records of political and campaign clubs and societies were transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) in the second half of the 1970s. These collections are among the inspirations for the exhibition Protest! Archives from the University of Melbourne, held in the Baillieu Library on the Parkville campus.

An exhibition on protest in the period around 1960 to 1980, drawn from the holdings of UMA, is not confined to records of student clubs and societies. UMA was established in June 1960 for two purposes: to preserve the archival records of the university and to build a broader research collection. The papers of some professors active in this period document not only their roles in teaching and research but also their contributions to reform and campaign organisations. This duality is most evident in cases where the arguments and forms of campaign action were underpinned by academic expertise. The roles of economist Kenneth Rivett and journalist and English academic Hume Dow in the Immigration Reform Group are examples. So too is the role of architectural historian George Tibbits3 in the environmental and heritage campaigns of the Carlton Association.4 Recently acquired university records show this campaign as the subject of a student project, triangulating academic expertise, student learning and community action. There are remarkable cases too of scholarly interests casting academics as witnesses to the major protest events of those years, such as French lecturer Stanley J. Scott’s study leave in Paris during the student uprising of May–June 1968.5

In 1973 new sources on Victorian labour history were brought to the attention of UMA through the research of Melbourne history graduate Carlotta Kellaway.6 It was previously assumed that the Australian National University’s Noel Butlin Archives would serve as the main repository for union records nationwide. But some Melbourne organisations seemed reluctant to let their records go to Canberra; others were reportedly destroying records. Proximity and direct contact with UMA staff convinced a number of Victorian unions to transfer their records to UMA from the mid-1970s.7 These acquisitions were consolidated by a wave of deposits following union restructuring in the early 1990s. 8

The theme of protest since the 1850s is central to these trade union collections, but these holdings proved beyond the scope of this exhibition.9 Less well known are the collections of the community-based organisations supporting protest campaigns, which were identified in part through their associations with archives of the labour movement. Key collections represented in the exhibition are those of the peace movement, critically the Congress (later Campaign) for International Co-operation and Disarmament (CICD).10 Research interest in the peace collections was evident from the early 1980s. In 1982, UMA’s annual workshop with the History Department, led by Professor Greg Dening, took the archives of the peace movement as its subject, resulting in a series of catalogues, interviews and student essays.11

The photographic and poster collections of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) are central to this exhibition. Initial instalments, mostly pamphlets, circulars and campaign material, came to UMA in late 1975, while another tranche of archival material and ephemeral publications followed the demise and deregistration of the CPA in 1991. The photographic collection of peace activist John Ellis chronicles anti-war and other activism from the anti-Vietnam War campaign of the 1960s to recent times. The poster collections of Melbourne history graduate, student activist and later mayor of the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy Ralph McLean, and previous UMA archivist and labour historian Andrew Reeves, add to the striking visual aspects of the exhibition.

The women’s movement was an early contributor to UMA’s collections, and in sufficient quantities for the Archives Board of Management to consider seeking from the National Council of Women a grant to catalogue these holdings. For example, papers relating to the Women’s Electoral Lobby’s (WEL) crucial 1972 federal election campaign came to UMA through the auspices of WEL’s University of Melbourne graduates and other associates as early as 1974. Pamphlets and documents of the more radical women’s liberation movement trickled in from the mid-1970s, relating for example to equal-pay activist Zelda d’Aprano. These small deposits were later joined by a substantial collection gathered by the Victorian Women’s Liberation Archive, which began as a reading group in 1983. The eventual transfer to the University of Melbourne of this collection, which contains a plenitude of banners, posters, T-shirts and badges, resulted from a partnership forged in 2000 with the keepers of the successor Victorian Women’s Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives to preserve this record of women’s activism. This partnership represents an evolution of the community-based archive, in which preserving the story of a movement is a form of activism in its own right. This philosophy is still evident in the work of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives, based in Melbourne and with strong historical connections to staff and students of the university, following the origins of the gay liberation movement.

Yet it is important to consider the gaps revealed by research for this exhibition. UMA holds little documenting the crucial Indigenous protest movements from the 1960s and 1970s marked by events such as the 1965 University of Sydney freedom ride, the 1966 Wave Hill pastoral strike, the 1967 referendum campaign and the 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, to name but a few. As archivists we need to engage with the creators and custodians of collections that tell the story of Indigenous rights and protest movements, to find new models of collecting so that these important records can be preserved.

UMA holds evidence of solidarity with the Indigenous rights movement in the forms of posters, badges and photographs. But one voice in the exhibition evokes this above all: a recording of American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson’s appearance at a meeting of peace workers in Melbourne,12 introduced by ‘peace pastor’ the Reverend Alf Dickie.13 The year was 1960 and the meeting was well attended by an enthusiastic if polite audience. Robeson in his engaging speech and unaccompanied song referred to issues of racism and civil rights for Australia’s Indigenous people.14

Models of community archiving and partnerships with collecting institutions are being reinvigorated by challenges of the digital age, when the very nature of protest is being shaped by communications technologies of the Internet, social media and cloud computing. Recent examples ranging from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street suggest different ways in which archivists might assist in preserving evidence of today’s community protests and campaigns. While some of the organisational and technical issues are new, traditional issues of community identity, ownership, significance and access remain relevant. A workshop on collecting the archives of protest is a key event among the public programs for this exhibition.

Archives of the University of Melbourne document our contribution to positive social change as well as the difficulties faced by students, staff and the community at large. The advantage of UMA as both a place for the preservation of historical records about the university and a research collection is the ability to document connections between the university and the community in reflecting on and addressing wider issues. University of Melbourne Archives is well placed as an organisation to preserve those connections and, as a research collection, to respond to new directions for collecting the archives of protest in a digital age.


  1. Frank Strahan, ‘Have you any Uni. Archives?’, Farrago, 22 June 1961, p. 7.
  2. Reference no. 1961.0030, University of Melbourne Students Representative Council Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  3. Reference no. 1980.0095, George Tibbits Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  4. Frank Strahan was also a member of the association and the collection followed: reference no. 1984.0092, Carlton Association Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  5. Reference no. 1990.0006, Stanley Scott Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  6. Carlotta Kellaway, ‘The Melbourne Trades Hall Council: Its origins and political significance, 1855–1889’, PhD thesis, La Trobe University, 1973.
  7. Of the 37 unions that were approached, 28 agreed to transfer their archives for loan or copying, or expressed interest in doing so in the future.
  8. The trade union collections are discoverable in the online resource Australian Trade Union Archives (
  9. These were well represented in a 1984 exhibition documented in Andrew Reeves and Jennifer Feeney, Peace Progress Amity: Trade Union Banners and labour celebration. Melbourne: The Archives Board of Management, University of Melbourne and Library Council of Victoria, 1984.
  10. For others, see Les Dalton, ‘Archiving Community Activism’, UMA Bulletin, 14, 2004.
  11. Reference no. 1983.0058, Peace Movement Archives Workshop 1982 Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  12. This recording was found in reference no. 1979.0152, Campaign for International Co-operation and Disarmament Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  13. Reference no. 1983.0081, Reverend Alf Dickie Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.
  14. See Ann Curthoys, ‘Paul Robeson’s visit to Australia and Aboriginal activism, 1960’ in eds. Frances-Peters Little, Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Passionate History: Myth, Memory and Indigenous Australia. Canberra: ANU ePress and Aboriginal History Inc., 2010.