How much does city value Eureka story?

Ballarat City Council is faced with an incredibly important decision this month. How important is the Eureka story to Ballarat? How important is it in marketing Ballarat’s pivotal place in Australian identity?

The federal government accepted its national importance in 2004, when the Eureka Stockade Gardens were added to the Australian Heritage Register, which is a very select list.

So the council must stand tall and affirm the importance of the Eureka Stockade Centre to our national identity.

I use the name Eureka Stockade Centre advisedly. I never liked the name MADE, which was meaningless in terms of what happened in Ballarat in 1854.

Professor John Molony, Eureka’s finest historian, has argued that we must use the resonant and powerful words Eureka Stockade in identifying the battle site.

The centre was never intended to be a museum. The key relics of Eureka are held in other museums – the Public Record Office of Victoria, the Gold Museum, and Ballarat Art Gallery. In 2010, when a permit was given to MADE, it was clearly stated that the building was not a museum.

A compromise was reached by which a special temperature-controlled pod was incorporated into the building, that could house the Eureka Flag on loan from the art gallery.

Since 2013, MADE has hosted many interesting events in the theatre and some temporary exhibitions. But it has not succeeded in attracting visitors on the scale of Sovereign Hill, or indeed the art gallery.

So, what can be done?

• The name is crucial. Let’s jettison MADE, and restore the Eureka Stockade Centre.

• Let Visit Ballarat apply its marketing expertise to alerting visitors to Ballarat about visiting the Eureka site. Signage needs to be vastly improved – and let’s put back the huge Eureka flag that used to float over the building.

• Bring back the Hall of Debate, a role-playing educational experience of the Eureka treason trials.

• Make the centre embrace the key stakeholders in the Eureka story, especially Eureka’s Children, the descendants of those who were in Ballarat in 1854, but also the Ballarat Historical Society, the Ballarat Reform League and the Old Colonists’ Association.

• Review the management of the centre. Should it continue to operate under an independent board, with a comparatively large work-force, or would it be better placed as a division within the art gallery, making it easy to organise special temporary exhibitions, and manage the status of the Eureka flag, which is undoubtedly the most important exhibit in the centre.

• Embrace the story of the Eureka Stockade site – the monument, the lake and the Eureka Hall. 

The story of the Eureka Stockade is central to the history of Ballarat, and the history of Australia. It is our key point of difference from every other community in modern Australia.

We must continue to showcase this story, to educate Australians about what the story means, and to captivate visitors when they come to Ballarat to learn about their past.

MADE must transform into the Eureka Stockade Centre that can do the work of educating, informing and entertaining Australians about one of our most important national stories.

Anne Beggs-Sunter’s PhD research revolved around the way museums have commemorated the Eureka Stockade.