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Volume 5 :: Interpreting Historic House Museums

Another Prime Minister's House Museum?
by David Dolan

In 1999 the Commonwealth government and the Western Australian state government (then both Liberal conservative coalitions) equally shared the almost half-million dollar cost of purchasing the private home of former Labor Prime Minister John Curtin, in the Perth seaside suburb of Cottesloe. At that time there was no definite plan for its future use and management, although WA premier Richard Court stated to the media that the house was purchased "for Curtin University".

The university had already established the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library on its campus at Bentley in suburban Perth, and had indicated interest in the house and its contents many of which were directly provenanced to John Curtin himself. The purchase for in-situ preservation was generally welcomed as far better than an alternative proposal to relocate it onto the campus, as such relocations are not considered best heritage practice.

John Curtin's House, which was built for him when he worked as a journalist prior to entering parliament, has great cultural significance as the former home of Australia’s wartime Prime Minister, and is also a typical example of middle-class Australian housing from the 1920s. Its cultural significance was recognised when it was entered on the (WA) Register of Heritage Places. The registration, which (somewhat unusually but deliberately) specifically includes the 1920s-40s furniture and other contents, imposes legally binding conditions including that the Heritage Council of WA must approve any works on the place in advance.

In 2000 the Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University, Professor Lance Twomey, commissioned the university’s Research Institute for Cultural Heritage to prepare a conservation plan for John Curtin’s House. It was found to require considerable conservation and repair work, most urgently attention to the roof to stop penetration by water which was damaging the built fabric. As might be expected for an almost 80-year-old building which had been given only basic routine maintenance, there are other problems with floors etcetera. Ongoing conservation, maintenance, security and presentation of the place will require considerable expenditure. However, in the present financial climate for higher education, the university feels unable to take on sole responsibility for its future care on an indefinite basis. A likely scenario is joint vesting between the university and the National Trust.

There are already two other prime ministerial house museums in Australia, which coincidentally bracket John Curtin’s House chronologically. Home Hill, on the outskirts of Devonport Tasmania, was built in 1915 for then Tasmanian Minister of Education J. A. Lyons (Prime Minister 1932-39), his wife Enid and their many children, and remained their family home for the rest of their lives. As the only Prime Minister from Tasmania, Lyons occupies a unique place in his state’s political history similar to John Curtin’s in Western Australia. Home Hill was bequeathed to the Local Government Authority and has been open to visitors for a small admission charge since the early 1980s.

In her later years, the widowed Dame Enid Lyons consciously adapted Home Hill to become a museum to herself and her husband, so it houses a significant collection of Lyons memorabilia including cartoons, costume and presentation pieces, their books, and quality antique furniture. It is a generously proportioned wooden house with a large garden, and is maintained by the City of Devonport, and operated as a museum by the National Trust relying entirely on volunteers. Home Hill is big enough to accommodate a resident caretaker while allowing public access to the key rooms. Visitor numbers are small and do not contribute substantially to operational costs; and plans have been developed to facilitate bus tour groups.

The extremely modest scale and ambience of Ben Chifley's cottage in Bathurst comes as a surprise to many visitors. Chifley worked as a railway engine driver before entering parliament, later becoming Prime Minister 1945-49. By the time Chifley had become a senior politician, he and his wife were effectively living separate lives, she in Bathurst and he in Canberra, so he spent almost no time "at home" during the 1940s, so the house is representative of his earlier years rather than his time in power.

In terms of size and pretensions, as well as time, John Curtin's House is between Home Hill and the Chifley cottage. The point is not insignificant, as John Curtin’s House can be seen as embodying the standard of comfortable but not luxurious home-owning domestic lifestyle to which John Curtin felt all Australians were entitled as part of the ideal of the "fair go".

One option favoured by some in the university, namely the use of the house itself for accommodation (such as for visiting scholars), would create problems with regard to the furniture which is part of its historic significance. The conservation plan offers several possible patterns of use for consideration, including occupation of the house with replica furniture, and the redevelopment of the garage space as a compact studio residence.

By early 2002, the chief issue still to be resolved was the appropriate future use of the place. The implication of the acquisition with taxpayers’ money is that there should be some level of public access and community use. As the Research Institute for Cultural Heritage teaches museum studies, there would be obvious synergies and benefits in its development as a house museum and for appropriate functions. In June-July 2002 Curtin University and the National Trust were negotiating with the WA state Labor government (elected in 2001) for joint vesting of the property. After extended negotiations, the Department of Land Administration has given the National Trust $73,000 towards conservation and interpretation, and the Heritage Council has approved a further $35,000 grant for urgent works. Watch this space for news of further developments.

Date published: July 2002