AN exhibition explores how Australian childhoods have changed, writes JOHANN LEGGATT
Russell Jack is quick to point out he was good at sport at school.
This may seem like an inconsequential fact, but when you are one of two non-European students in your primary school in pre-multicultural Australia, you look for ways to fit in.
"Sport cut across all barriers at school, and I was never made to feel like an outsider," says Russ, who grew up in Bendigo during World War II.
"All of the children used to come to my house for dinner because they liked my mother's Chinese cooking.
"They wouldn't say much: just walk in, pull up a chair, eat some food, say their thanks and leave."
There is no greater entry point to Bendigo Art Gallery's new exhibition, Childhood: Growing up in Bendigo, than through the stories of gold rush descendant Russell Jack.
Russ, as he is known by locals, has contributed a number of childhood stories to the show, and visitors can pick up a vintage telephone and listen to him recall first-hand some of his fondest wartime memories.
He has also contributed a picture of himself in his sister's hand-me-down jumper, which he mockingly regards as a source of much embarrassment.
"Everyone had hand-me-downs in those days, and I had to wear one of my sister's jumpers, which had the puffed shoulders and the pom poms hanging down," he says.
"And I was a little bit embarrassed; I used to tuck the pom poms by my side and put my arms over them so no one could see them, but I couldn't hide the puffy shoulders."
Born in Long Gully in 1935, Russ was one of nine children whose grandfather first migrated to Australia in the gold rush era of the mid-19th century.
He recalls a happy childhood where poverty was a levelling influence, and a sense of fair play defined the community. "Most people were poor," he reflects. "In summer there would be kids going to school without any shoes on, no one had any designer gear. But that really brought you together as a community, because you had to rely on each other."
Russ says his father instilled in him a responsibility to give back, a brief he has fulfilled many times over - he was the president of the Chinese Association of Bendigo for years, and was the driving forced behind the successful Golden Dragon Museum.
Bendigo Art Gallery curator Clare Needham says residents like Russ are a goldmine of historical information, having witnessed Australian society transform over the latter half of the 20th century. She says the show, which features 60 objects and 40 audio stories, taps in to this rich vein of history through the prism of childhood.
"We wanted to look at our local history but from the perspective of childhood, which is not really done that frequently," says Clare, who put out the call some months back for locals to offer up their memorabilia.
"At first people tended to think they had not led interesting enough lives, but once we explained we were after a broad reflection of the Australian childhood, we got quite a response."
Many locals sent submissions about life during the tough war years; others spoke about the momentous occasion of the Queen's visit in 1954.
Clare says she noticed a profound nostalgia for the childhoods described in the exhibition.
"People were really looking back with a sense of romance," she says.
"There was a sense that the 1920s, 1930s and '40s were a safe time, that they may not have had much materially, but they were quite resourceful and made a lot of things themselves and they were a part of the community.
"This was in complete contrast to today's childhoods, which can be quite commercial, and children's worlds can be as small as their own backyard."
- Childhood: Growing Up in Bendigo at the Post Office Gallery, Bendigo, until February 24.