As Griffith approaches our 50th year, our unique story continues to unfold. Griffith has a distinctive story—from being named after the lead author of Australia’s constitution (Sir Samuel Griffith), being the second Brisbane university (third in the state) and located in a forest to partnering in two Commonwealth Games (1982 and 2018) and always maintaining a unique approach to tertiary education—our history captures the values that have always been our foundation.
Griffith Archive preserves and shares our history from pre-foundation to the present through a collection of extraordinary images, artefacts and personal stories. With the release of the Archive’s latest digital exhibition Griffith Greats – Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt: Our First Female Academic, we sat down with Griffith Archive Officer Michael Banks to talk about our university’s remarkable history and his time as our archivist.
Q & A:
When you get the inevitable question of ‘what does an archivist do?’ how do you usually answer?
My simple response would be that an archivist ‘collects, records and preserves documents and photos’. Another response would be that ‘I tell the Griffith Story’. These are quite simple responses to what is generally quite a detailed job.
I also like to use this quip (not mine by the way) at times in explaining what I do: ‘Being an archivist is fun—if you like to read other people’s mail’.
You were part of Griffith Archive from the start. Tell us about how the archive started and a bit about the best parts of working in the archive?
The idea to finally establish the Griffith Archive […] came from Linda O’Brien, who was then Pro-Vice Chancellor of Information Services [now Digital Solutions and the Library]. The Griffith Archive had been started off in late 2012 […] in mid-2013 I came on board as the ‘Curator – Griffith Archive’. I accepted and with the role changing over the last seven years in many ways—I am now the ‘Archive Officer’.
If you enjoy learning about history (which I always have) this is the best part of working in the Archive. True, I look after a very specific history—but that is what makes it so interesting for me. I learn something new about Griffith University every day.
Can you tell us about one or two of your favourite archival projects for the University? How did they come about?
There have been a number that I have enjoyed working on, but I will talk briefly about two. The first one was back in 2015 when we launched the Archive online. The VC at the time (Professor Ian O’Connor) launched the website at an official event. This meant that our university’s history was now publicly available to anyone in the world. I still remember Linda O’Brien telling me at this launch, “The VC is happy with this. I would know if he wasn’t”.
The second one was being involved in the ‘Celebrating 50 Years of Teacher Education’ at our Mt Gravatt Campus in 2019. Our MG campus began life as a dedicated teachers’ college back in 1969. I really enjoyed this project as I was brought on board as the ‘historical expert’ and I had to undertake a fair bit of research to provide an historical account of not just the teacher training element but also the First Australian and European history of the site—before an education facility opened there. I really enjoyed learning more about the Aboriginal history of the site and sharing what I had found as part of the project.
You studied at Griffith and now you have a unique position working as archivist to see how we have developed over time. In your mind what makes Griffith stand out from the crowd?
I had a choice of studying the course I wanted to do at University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology or Griffith. Griffith always appealed to me because it was a chance to go to university in a forest. I love natural areas and the wildlife that comes with these spaces. So, for me as both a former student and now a staff member (at Nathan campus)—I consider myself very lucky to have been able to turn up to study and now work within a forest where I might see koalas, wallabies, possums, goannas and a multitude of different native birds. I have been involved with Griffith for over fifteen years now and for the first time on campus the other day, I saw a snake. For me, it is encounters like this that makes our university stand out from the crowd. A chance to walk through a forest and enjoy nature before starting or ending my working/study day.
What projects are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about them and how they came about?
I am currently working on three projects, or more accurately, three digital exhibitions. I am nearing the release of an online display which tells the story of our first female academic—Ortrun Zuber-Skerritt. This was a story that just had to be told given Ortrun was a pioneer of our university as both a woman and an academic.
I am also working on a special project for the University Librarian which looks at a unique piece of our university’s history. This will be released some time in November.
And towards the end of year, I will release a history of our multidisciplinary (interdisciplinary) approach to teaching and course design. Our Vice Chancellor is looking to reignite the idea of an interdisciplinary approach [in] our learning, teaching and research. So, this exhibition will support this agenda and show that the idea of a cross-discipline approach at our university is not something new. In fact, it was one of our founding principles and the experience we wanted to offer our students.
What is your favourite Griffith story or image that you’ve uncovered so far?
I am going to answer that in two parts. My favourite image is one taken after our ‘Ceremony to Commence Teaching’ which took place on 5 March 1975. The photo shows our foundation Vice Chancellor Professor John Willett, Prime Minister at the time Gough Whitlam and Queensland Premier of the time, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. I particularly like this photo because it shows how significant the opening of our university was […]. I also like the image as it has two of our country’s most famous political figures. Gough Whitlam remains the only Australian Prime Minister to be removed from office by the Australian Governor-General. And Joh Bjelke-Petersen oversaw one of Australia’s most corrupt governments while he was Premier. I also like that two vehement political enemies are sharing a moment that looks relaxed and friendly. This is very different to how they acted towards each other in public life.
My favourite story would have to be research conducted in 1976 by some of our then School of Australian Environmental Studies. These students had a legitimate article published which was entitled ‘The Brisbane Beer Strike – A challenge to the Drinking Man’. This piece was published in relation to a brewery workers’ strike that saw Queensland have no beer produced for three weeks and beer brought into hotels from southern states in mid-1976. This is an example of what makes our university’s history, the Griffith Story, so unique. I can’t imagine these foundation students ever saw themselves interviewing hotel patrons about their drinking habits after there had been a brewery strike in Brisbane. And yet, here we are.
For more of Griffith’s history and the Archive’s digital exhibitions check out the Griffith Archive website.