It’s a VERY exciting week to be an historian in Sydney this week with the opening of the new galleries and a learning centre in the historic Mitchell Library wing of the State Library of New South Wales, so today I thought we’d take a look back at the history of the Mitchell Library and celebrate one of the great cultural institutions of Sydney (and the world!).
If you have any interest in Sydney’s history, then at some point you will probably make a pilgrimage to the beautiful Mitchell Library, part of the State Library of New South Wales on Macquarie Street in the city. The Mitchell Library, housed in the older building facing the Botanic Gardens, is one of the great repositories of treasures and memories of Australian history.
In 2014, journalist, biographer and broadcaster David Marr wrote what I think of as a love-song to the Mitchell Library for the Dictionary of Sydney – a wistful reminder of what we admire and long for in any good library. It is all but impossible, according to Marr, to write or read about the history of Australia, the Pacific and the Antarctic without being in debt to the great collector and eccentric recluse David Scott Mitchell. (You can read the essay here.)
As its name hints, the Mitchell Library collection is based on the bequest of a man named David Scott Mitchell, a book collector who had used his wealth and position to amass an unequalled collection of Australiana. He bequeathed this amazing collection to the Public Library of New South Wales, and as part of that bequest, he required that a separate library be purpose built to house it for the people of New South Wales. The Public Library, that had been in existence since 1826, was primarily a reference library with a small lending library. It did have a diverse collection of its own, but as interest in the late 19th century in the documentation of modern Australia’s history had grown, this couldn’t compare to the private collections of men like Mitchell, or another later Library benefactor Sir William Dixson.
The Mitchell Library was officially opened on 9 March 1910, three years after the death of its acclaimed benefactor on 24 July 1907. Approximately 40,000 volumes were given to the new library along with a large collection of manuscript journals, diaries and letters, thousands of prints, maps and charts, pictures and portraits, miniatures, bookplates, coins and medals. One hundred and eighteen years later, Mitchell’s bequest to Sydney, to New South Wales and to Australia, remains remarkable.
The Mitchell Library has been Sydney’s memory and, as David Marr describes it, is a storehouse of treasures, and a club of eccentric scholars. I am one of those professional historians who can be found using the library’s collections, alongside students, history buffs, archivists, genealogists and Sydneysiders who just want to access a safe, quiet space or free wi-fi in the heart of the city. The Mitchell Library is our place and with the launch of the new galleries this week they are making even more of their collections available to the general public.
Generous new Library benefactors have come along in recent years to fund the opening of new galleries in the old building, making possible permanent and changing exhibitions of treasures from the collections. You won’t need the excuse of a research question to head to the Library any more, you’ll want to go in just to see what’s on display and to explore what they tell can us about the history of this place.
The six new exhibitions will stretch across the entire first floor of the Mitchell Building in the new Michael Crouch Family Galleries and refurbished Dixson Galleries. The opening exhibitions will include:
• more than 300 works from the Library’s collection of landscape and portrait oil paintings
• six UNESCO Memory of the World collections, displayed together for the first time, including First Fleet journals, personal diaries of Australian soldiers on the Western Front and the world’s largest glass-plate negatives of Sydney Harbour taken in 1875
• a collaboration with Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones and four Sydney elders that tells personal stories of Aboriginal Sydney and how the elders have continued the legacy of their ancestors
• extraordinary images of Sydney captured by the Macpherson family of enthusiastic amateur photographers at the turn of the 20th century
The Collectors Gallery on the ground floor is a new permanent display that features thousands of objects previously held in the Library’s underground ‘stacks’, including sculpture busts, miniature portraits, ceramics, coins, medals, cutlery, teacups, typewriters, even convict bricks. I can’t decide what I’m more excited to see: Henry Lawson’s death mask or Dame Nellie Melba’s Cartier hairpin box.
Also on the ground floor, there’s also the amazing John B Fairfax Learning Centre, which you enter through a hidden door and down a magical tunnel, that has been designed specifically for children and young people.
This is a momentous week for Sydney’s history lovers and I urge you to explore for yourself the extraordinary and unrivalled collections held at the State Library of New South Wales. The Dictionary of Sydney is built upon and illustrated by these amazing collections (you can see the thousands of items from the Library’s collections already on the Dictionary here) and we love sharing its treasures with you.
Access to the Library is always free, but this coming Saturday, they’re celebrating the opening of the galleries and the learning centre with an open day. There’ll be free talks from curators, tours, workshops, kids activities and more. Head there this Saturday and be blown away by our history.
Visit the State Library of New South Wales website for more information about Saturday’s events and all of the great exhibitions coming our way: https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/galleries
See you on Saturday!
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Lisa!
You can find out more about the State Library Foundation and discover how to become a benefactor yourself here!