The 1970s was a decade of rising nationalism in Australia, where local interest in cultural history grew alongside men's hair and moustaches and ever-expanding suburbs.
While it was a narrow interpretation of culture, playing up white men as heroes and developers at the expense of almost everyone else, and paying almost no attention to the role of women, First Australians or migrants, it saw the establishment of recreations of Australia's colonial past, or 'open-air museums' the foremost of which, still existing, is Ballarat's Sovereign Hill.
Opened in November 1970, Sovereign Hill was one of many 'vintage villages' around Australia which were trying to approximate the conditions of a different era - from the very first days of the colony at 'Old Sydney Town', near Gosford in NSW (now closed and derelict) to the Australiana Pioneer Village at Wilberforce (1830s-1870s, closed but heritage listed) and the Lachlan Vintage Village in Forbes, NSW (1850s-1890s, also closed and currently being dismantled).
Most of them received funding and grants from state and federal governments. The Whitlam government was very keen to to be seen supporting these educational and cultural institutions. And for a time they were immensely popular with holidaying families. School excursions almost obligatorily took in a day trip to the local 'living museum'.
So how did Sovereign Hill survive and thrive when so many others failed? It seems the driving force behind its continuing existence was in its planning. It was the brainchild of the Ballarat Historical Park Association, a disparate group of historians, enthusiasts, engineers and (it must be said) almost entirely composed of men who were passionate about the history and workings of mining.
Rather than being the vision of a single entrepreneur, buoyed by private cash, as Old Sydney Town was, Sovereign Hill's original 36 acres (9ha) had been set aside for public use in 1944. In 1970 the government passed the Ballarat (Sovereign Hill) Land Act 1970, which gave the then City of Ballaarat the ability to erect 'buildings and other structures and exhibiting objects to illustrate the living and working conditions, business premises, mining operations, transport, amusements and recreational activities of the gold mining period in Victoria.' The act is now revoked.
Closed during the COVID-19 restrictions, the future of Sovereign Hill in its semicentennial year remains to be seen, as Ballarat looks to reopen and once more celebrate its past.
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