Unarchiving the archive

The Children Hospital at Westmead has a long and robust history dating from 1880. From its early days as a 40-bed facility tucked into three terraces in Glebe, through its expansion and 89-year occupancy in Camperdown and to its current incarnation as The Children's Hospital at Westmead, the hospital has maintained a more or less cohesive collection of documentation about itself.

Consider it a family history of sorts; a rich record of the births, deaths and marriages of an organisation, a late colonial brainchild of the charitable folk of the Benevolent Society, since underpinned by a long line of talented and passionate nurses, doctors, researchers and administrators. This lively genealogy tracks the development of fledgling treatments to advanced diagnostics and details the multiple 'firsts'.

Amongst these are the identification of German measles as a cause for congenital deformities (1941), the first administration of penicillin to a civilian (1945), and the development of the first paediatric cardiopulmonary by-pass machine (1958), placing the Hospital in good stead with international paediatric leaders. It features unique objects such as the pathology collection of over 1000 irreplaceable medical specimens including samples of ulcerative colitis, scurvy, osteogenic sarcoma, tuberculosis, leukaemia, and more than 100 waxed babies’ hearts dating from 1960.

It's rich with doctors' private papers, nurses' day books, hospital minutes, uniforms and one of the first child-sized examination beds. And like all big families, there's even a hand-me-down assortment of silver plates and memorial platters. 

The archive grew as the years went by and accompanied the hospital as it relocated. From 1992 to 2012, Anne Cooke, a trained archivist wrought order over the contents of 180 boxes of papers, two large safes, multiple filing cabinets of photographs, glass plate negatives and film reels, and associated ephemera. Unfortunately, since then the archive has been relegated to various remote outposts within the hospital, and our rich history left languishing.

That is, until last year, when the CHW Heritage Committee was established, and its members began dusting off the archive. At Easter, the committee held its first forum, inviting various specialists including Joanna Capon OAM, art collection patron and SCHN Board member, Guy Tranter from the Australian Society of Archivists, and Jenny Horder, former manager of the Museum of Human Disease at UNSW. The gathering discussed how to bring the archive in from the cold: opening access to students and researchers, displaying some of the objects, integrating stories with the art collection, and addressing the conservation needs of the A-list objects.

In May, the committee applied to the National Library of Australia under the Community Heritage Grants scheme to have the collection assessed for the level of national significance it represents. Depending on the outcome of this assessment, the committee will be eligible to apply for more substantial funds to preserve the collection and prepare parts for interpretation and display.

Not everyone is interested in history. The past is, after all, the past. But the importance of the archive lies in it being the DNA of our existence; it contains the primary evidence, a concrete reference point from where all interpretations, stories or investigations into the past can occur, and for that reason alone, should be conserved into the future.

In the words of James Baldwin "If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Photographic credits: courtesy of photographer William Yang who took these images as part of the 20-year anniversary of the hospital in 2015.