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Discovering the Domain
Sydney’s Domain - one man’s view
The story of the Domain is in the book, in the text so ably edited by Ed Wilson, in the quotations and in the pictures. This will be a personal view. I write it in my last day as Director. Directors are supposed to say only those things of which still higher powers approve. If my most worthy predecessors had always stuck to that precept, they would not merit the honour history accords them.
Nearly forty years ago I began to come to work at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, walking each day through the Domain. Since 1972 it has been part of my charge. I have been in every part of it, yet do not know it all. The map in my head does not show every path or set of steps. I have never fished from its rocks or sea-wall (this mildest of the blood sports is the only one allowed in the Domain). I have never played football of any kind in it and have watched only the relatively civilised soccer. Its speakers, whether national politicians or more simple individuals and prophets, have seldom drawn me from lunch, work, sleep or occupations elsewhere., though one great rally in 1976 came at the end of idealism in Australian national politics and the beginning of our era in which events and the media have created an electorate perhaps more cynical than the politicians themselves.
Patriotic parades, avant-garde artists, and well intended but rather artificial ethnic festivals have passed me by. The ‘Gay’ Mardi Gras and rock concerts find me far away, though being a nineteenth-century gentleman at the re-enacted first inter-colonial cricket match and going aloft briefly in the basket of hot-air balloon were fun.
Sweating, pounding joggers shaking their buttocks and breasts (female and male!) - and damaging their feet and spines - are creatures at whom I walk direct, neither flinching nor taking breath until they have passed. Amatory pleasures there for me have been of a mild nature, unlike the young woman in Ruth Park’s novel of a more innocent Sydney a half century ago, who lost her virginity - what a quaint phrase that now seems - in the ‘long grass behind the Art Gallery’. (We have kept it well mown for many decades, but it still serves for the rites of Aphrodite from time to time). Opera, ballet, symphony concerts in the Domain have become civilised parts of the Festival of Sydney and have drawn happy crowds.
I am revealed as an unblushing cultural elitist, but then if you are reading this book you are probably not exactly a snob yourself. Neither of us, I believe, is a social elitist. The beautiful people do make brief appearances in the Domain, but mostly only at the Domain’s restaurant - when it is in a fashionable phase - and at invitation openings at the Art Gallery. Some provide decoration or amusement, some are actually real and worthy people, with functions other than increasing the sale of Bollinger. But I am always most pleased, at the Art Gallery, to meet its unjustly seldom-mentioned former Director Peter Laverty, the man who brought it from dullness to life and did so without too much razzamatazz.
But for most of its history the Domain has existed for the people and today it is indeed used by people of all tastes. That is all the more reason for it not to become debased. It surrounds the Royal Botanic Gardens, which must remain a peaceful though vigorously living place. Moreover, a principle in the administration of the Domain is that it should allow people to enjoy the ambience without annoying each other - most of the time at least. This calls for some restraint, and some taste. I trust the future administrations and governments will ensure that restraint and taste are not lost.
Sydney has always had, and still has, more than enough greedy people; to read this book is to see how some of them have prevailed and have filched considerable parts of the original Domain. What remains is pretty well safeguarded against personal acquisitiveness but not always against short-term commercial exploitation or the more subtle incursion of public bodies. For forty years I have see City councils or their officers encouraging the misconception that the Domain was within part of the purlieu, while quickly disowning it any hint of trouble. The Domain belongs to the people of New South Wales, not to the burgesses of Sydney.
Expediency has always been one of the greatest threats. The Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust Act is there to protect the domain. Only vigilance will ensure that it really does so. Acts can be amended - and are. It will be claimed that a little piece of land for this or that adjoining and irrelevant institution can surely be spared. Watch it!
In retirement, I hope for time to wander and ponder in the Domain especially the outer reaches of the Yurong and Wolloomoolloo Precincts. In this quiet place, I hope the tidiers’ and restorers’ zeal will not insist on patching up all the old paths and steps, this has indeed recently been proposed to me. With 200 years under the belt, Sydney can surely tolerate a modest ruin or two - a worn and grassy stairway leading nowhere, a mildly defaced pillar, some honeycombed stonework, a piece of rusting iron.
To me these things, the old trees, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, the waterfront, the grassy knolls, will be the Domain. The ‘temporary’ music shell (now forced on the administration for more and more weeks each year), the portaloos, the hideous sigh of the Phillip Precinct unnecessarily filled with cars during the transport strikes, the excrescences of the freeway and to a lesser extent the railway, the ugly Council parking station may all be necessary ( a great word, that) but whether or not there is harm in them, there is certainly no charm in them.
The Domain is yours. Please don’t love it to death, and keep the ravishers at bay.
Editor: Edwin Wilson.
Dr LAS Johnson assisted with the final text, initially produced for an exhibition in The Domain (mounted by Jennifer Stackhouse) and in the Visitor Centre, Royal Botanic Garden, under the supervision of a committee of the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust chaired by Professor MJ Pitman, OBE.
The committee comprised of Professors Brian Fletcher and Marjorie Jacobs (University of Sydney), Don Blaxell, Vincent Serventy, Mrs Irene Morphett, Grant Kearney and Karen Balstrup (Heritage Week), Edwin Wilson, Michelle Frank, and Shirly Colless who was employed as Research Assistant.