© 2010, Michael Shirrefs
An extraordinary gift of books, made by the Government of France to the City of Melbourne, has recently been rediscovered at the State Library of Victoria. The gift was an act of cultural generosity to mark the beginning of the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81, probably the largest annual event of the global calendar—and what a gift it was!
There were in excess of 150 books, some of them very large, and in them the people of Melbourne saw Paris spread out in all its glory. Alongside maps, images and tales of old Paris were descriptions of a very new city—a very modern city. By 1880, Paris had reinvented itself as the very picture of modernity, having become the most advanced metropolis in the world. In fact these books were something of a template for the creation of a state-of-the-art city. For example, there were detailed plans of the world’s first fully-enclosed sewerage system and water supply, connected to every property in Paris.
But against this futuristic flourish sat another book, and this massive volume was possibly the most important in the collection. It was called l’Atlas des anciens plans de Paris, and it was a spectacular set of reproductions of old maps of Paris. These maps were the most vivid account of where Paris had come from. They told the story of its journey, from a small Roman settlement on the Seine, to becoming the grand European centre of palaces, gardens and high-culture.
The hidden story behind these maps is that they are testament to a city recovering from the debris and destruction of both the Franco-Prussian War and the fiery domestic battles of the Communes. Barely ten years before the creation of these books and the subsequent gift to Melbourne, Paris had suffered terrible damage. As a result, l’Atlas des anciens plans de Paris is a precious document that represents both the survival of one of Europe’s greatest cities, and a fierce determination to hang onto the memory of how the French capital came into being.
See also: Adventures with an Atlas
© 2010 Michael Shirrefs
Background to a discovery
The encounter was as innocent as it was unexpected. It was 1988 and I was being taken behind the scenes of the State Library of Victoria, up into the ‘stacks’. These were the areas of onsite storage that filled the spaces above the Library’s magnificent domed reading room and in truth it should have been out-of-bounds for an outsider like me. After wandering around the multi-level colonnades for some time, the full scale of the collection had begun to blur in my mind, until I came upon something unexpected. Behind one of the pillars sat a display pedestal with a massive book open, displaying maps—old maps. It took a while to get the subject of the maps into focus, but it dawned on me that this was Paris. And as I slowly turned the large pages, I realised that, with each new map, I was being taken back in time to some of the earliest visual conceptions of Paris as a distinct city.
The encounter was fleeting, but the impact on me was profound and persistent. Years later, I sensed that this experience of peeling back the layers of Paris in a book had influenced my aesthetic language as a printmaker. I also suspected that it had lent a new perspective to the way I articulated the world in other aspects of my life, not least of which was as a radio program-maker.
One of the most familiar names in the story of Australian colonisation is that of the Tasmanian Aboriginal woman ‘Truganini’. But for most people the story begins and ends with a single, very famous photo, along with a label describing her simply as the last of the full-blood Tasmanian Aborigines.
Not only was that label deeply misleading, we now know that Truganini’s life is one of the most significant foundation stories of European settlement in Australia. But there’s still one story that few people know about and about which little has been written—it’s the extraordinary tale of Truganini’s time as a bushranger.
© 2009, Michael Shirrefs & ABC RN
Nathalie Abi-Ezzi spent the first eleven years of her life in Lebanon before her family moved to England in 1983. It’s these early years of her life that provide the impetus for her novel A Girl Made of Dust. It’s a story of a young girl, Ruba, who tries to hold her family together through sheer force of will as war and indiscriminate violence creep closer.