State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 68 Spring 2001

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Library Profile
Keith Murdoch

THE KEITH Murdoch Gallery, which was opened by Sir Ninian Stephen this year, honours the role of this famous newspaper man in the history of the State Library of Victoria. Cultural historians have recognized his contribution to local culture in the revitalising of the National Gallery of Victoria, establishing the Chair of Fine Arts at Melbourne University, and promoting public appreciation of modern art; but until the recent opening of the Library space named after him, little attention had been paid to his association with what was, in his day, the Public Library of Victoria.
Keith Murdoch (1885-1952) was Managing Editor of the Melbourne Herald when he was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery in 1933. Born in West Melbourne, the son of a Presbyterian clergyman of Scottish origin, he had grown up in Camberwell, a suburb that was then almost rural. Among his teachers was his uncle, Walter Murdoch, after whom Murdoch University is named. It may be of some relevance that Walter Murdoch, who progressed from school teaching to university lecturing and eventually held the first Chair of English at the University of Western Australia, wrote journalism all his life. In 1905, when Keith Murdoch, having decided not to go to university but to pursue a career in journalism instead, was establishing himself as a district correspondent on the Melbourne Age, his uncle (under the pseudonym of ‘Elzevir’) was writing a weekly book column in the Argus. (Forty years later Walter Murdoch began a column entitled ‘Answers’ which was to run for twenty years in the Herald and other Australian papers.)
At the beginning of 1921 Keith Murdoch, acknowledged to be an outstanding journalist and reputed to wield considerable political influence in conservative circles, had returned to Melbourne from Fleet Street to become editor of the Herald. His first stay in Fleet Street (1908-09) had been unsuccessful, but his second began spectacularly in 1915 with the affair of his ‘Gallipoli letter’. Although he had failed in his bid to become the official Australian war correspondent, he had managed to visit the Australian troops on his way to a London post. From London he wrote of ‘the unfortunate Dardanelles expedition […] one of the most terrible chapters in our history’ to the Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, who was a friend of his family. Long before his powerful and disturbing report reached Australia, he had been persuaded to give a copy to the British Prime Minister, who had it printed as a confidential cabinet document. Murdoch's trenchant criticism of how the war was being waged influenced the decision to evacuate the Allied forces and led to a secret Royal Commission on what had gone wrong in the Dardanelles. The young journalist's position as an ‘insider’ in British politics was further enhanced by his
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growing association with W.M. Hughes, who had replaced Fisher as Australian Prime Minister, and he was treated in Britain as a kind of ‘unofficial ambassador’. He made his mark in Fleet Street, and although — perhaps, because — he was never an employee of the legendary Northcliffe, he had what Geoffrey Serle (in the Dictionary of Australian Biography) calls ‘an almost filial relationship’ with the man he called ‘the Chief of All Journalists’.
Much of what Murdoch had learnt from Northcliffe he applied successfully to the Herald, as Desmond Zwar documents in his In Search of Keith Murdoch (1980). Before he took over the paper, Murdoch had expressed the view that it was ‘shapeless and curiously characterless as a journal’, and that it suffered from ‘lack of fighting and push’. Under his leadership the paper was transformed, becoming a Melbourne institution and the centrepiece in the ‘Murdoch empire’. By 1928, when he became managing director, he fitted the public image of a ‘newspaper tycoon’. A knighthood in 1933, the same year that he joined the Trustees, confirmed his standing in the community.
To the Board of Trustees Murdoch brought breadth of experience in journalism, business and politics, vigour of mind, and an anti-provincial belief in cultural liberalism. He was a comparatively youthful member of the all-male 18-member Board, which had some extremely venerable members. Elected President in 1933, Dr E.H. Sugden (1854-1935), who had been Master of Queen's College for 40 years, had been a member of the Board since 1902. His record was outstripped by that of Dr A.S. Joske, his successor as President, who had completed almost 40 years’ service when he died in 1938. Even more impressive was the record of Dr Alexander Leeper (1848-1934), who had been Warden of Trinity College for 42 years: a Trustee from 1887 (when Murdoch was two years old), President from 1920 to 1928, he was Chairman of the Library Committee at the time of his death. The ‘unusual conglomerate’ was, in the words of his biographer, ‘almost as close to his heart’ as the college to which he devoted most of his working life (John Poynter, Doubts and Certainties, Melbourne University Press, 1997, p. 118). Such devotion, however admirable in the abstract, may not always work to the advantage of the institution.
The Public Library, the oldest of the institutions which made up the ‘unusual conglomerate’ established by the Act of 1869, was the original occupier of the Swanston Street site, on which all were housed from 1900 (the Natural History Museum had originally been at Melbourne University). It had to compete for space with both the Gallery and the two Museums. By the 1880s, when Leeper had become a Trustee, the Public Library was the largest such institution in the colonies, with an unequalled collection of books and newspapers; but in the years following the ‘bust’ of the 1890s it had steadily lost ground. There had been no benefactions in Melbourne to match the Mitchell and Dixson collections that had enriched the Public Library in Sydney in the early twentieth century. By the 1930s, as the full impact of the world depression made itself felt, the Library's best days seemed to be behind it. The Trustees’ Report for 1933 blandly noted that during the year the purchase of books had been reduced ‘in order to place the Library finances on a sound basis to enable
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them to meet future commitments’. The result was that the increase in the number of volumes was ‘by far the smallest increase for many years’. Another consequence was that ‘it has not even been possible to obtain current books that are necessary to keep the Library collection complete, and it has been out of the question to buy older books to fill the gaps in the Reference Library’. One sign of the times was that the Library had sought and obtained employment relief funds for binding books. (Chief Librarian Ernest R. Pitt did have one piece of good news for the Trustees, noting with a straight face that the Librarian of the Supreme Court, ‘on whose shelves they had been found’, had returned three books, one of which was appropriately entitled Imperial Law, missing from the Public Library since 1889. No culprit was named. For a profile of Pitt, see The La Trobe Journal, No. 65.) The following year Pitt was reporting that the grant was inadequate ‘if the Library is to function properly’. One detail in the same Report that exposed all too plainly the state of affairs was the note that cheap remainders were being bought in London for the Lending Library.

Unknown photographer. Black and white portrait of Sir Keith Murdoch courtesy of the Murdoch family.

The need for greater funding of cultural institutions was plain enough, but it did not have a high priority with governments, and there was no settled or comprehensive strategy for their future growth. Thanks to the Felton Bequest, which had existed since 1905, the Gallery was less affected by what was politely called ‘financial stringency’ than was the Library; but it was out of touch with the contemporary art world. In the Foreword to their history, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906–1931 (1932), Edmund La Touche Armstrong and Robert Douglass Boyes doubtless reflected the official view in referring to the Gallery as ‘in the forefront of the Galleries of the Empire’. Writing of the same institution at the same period, Desmond Zwar in 1980 described it as having been ‘an unenterprising, uninspiring branch of the Public Service and a dreary, if warm, refuge from the weather for those who had little to do on a dull afternoon’ (p. 112). The affairs of the Gallery dominated the meetings of the Board of Trustees, and
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controversy over purchases by the Felton Bequest Committee attracted public attention. An art collector himself, Murdoch's strongest interest was in the Gallery, where the inadequacy of the resources was only one of the issues with which he was concerned. During the late thirties the Battle of the Ancients and Moderns was being fought over again in Melbourne, with Murdoch cautiously on the side of the Moderns. Although hardly a radical in his tastes, through his newspapers and his public activities he contributed significantly to the creation of a more liberal and less philistine attitude towards the arts in Australia.
As a member of the Board, Murdoch was familiar with the problems at the Gallery and the other institutions, and was prepared to work for the fundamental structural reforms that were needed. When he was elected Vice-President in 1937, he became ex-officio a member of the various committees. Two years later, when the ‘powerful and determined Sir Keith Murdoch’ (as Leonard B. Cox calls him in The National Gallery of Victoria 1861–1968: A Search for a Collection, p. 165) succeeded Joske as President, he was in an unusually strong position to influence public policy on cultural affairs in Victoria. He had a high public profile; he could command attention in political circles; and he had the newspapers through which he could influence public opinion. Only a few weeks after he assumed the Presidency, a groundbreaking exhibition of contemporary French and English paintings sponsored by the Herald opened in the Melbourne Town Hall, and a Herald editorial attacked the insular buying policies of Australian art galleries. With his backing, Daryl Lindsay was appointed Director in 1941, and the modernisation of the National Gallery began. Murdoch and Lindsay believed that if the Gallery were to grow in the future it needed to be independent of the other institutions and to have a site of its own; and exactly the same argument could be made for the other institutions.
The Board of Trustees had to deal with recurring ‘domestic problems’ in the Swanston Street building (shortage of space, lack of funds for proper maintenance) and the particular problems caused by the war (staff shortages, the blackout, the removal of materials for safety, the supply of books to military camps). Nevertheless, under Murdoch the Board of Trustees kept in sight larger issues. In his first Annual Report (covering 1939), he told the Government that the Chief Librarian saw the need for an Archivist, ‘and I feel that in spite of the prevailing conditions this appointment should be made at the earliest possible opportunity’. Three years later he was urging the Government to establish an Archives Department ‘as soon as manpower conditions permit.’ This initiative was to bear fruit and lead eventually to the Public Record Office. Murdoch also backed the proposal to create a Library Service Board to investigate the provision of library services in Victoria and to recommend what action should be taken. Under the chairmanship of Ernest Pitt, who had collaborated on the landmark Munn-Pitt Report (1938) on Australian Libraries, this new board reported in 1944, and in 1946 the Victorian Parliament set up the Free Library Service Board.
Murdoch was a pro-active President, and under his leadership the Trustees began planning, not just for the immediate post-war period but for the next half century. In 1942 the Board asked a committee of architects to answer fundamental
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questions about the site and the institutions. One of the questions read: ‘It is probably necessary that the Public Library should remain on the present site. What must be done to it in order to make it quite first-rate by the most exacting modern standards?’ In 1943, following the report of the committee, the Board adopted the recommendation that the ‘Public Library should be rebuilt to suit modern requirements on the present site’, with the Technological Museum ‘housed on the Russell Street entrance of the present site’, and the Gallery and Natural History Museum removed to other sites.
Much of Murdoch's work to persuade the Government that the ‘unusual conglomerate’ should be unravelled was behind the scenes. He was noted for his capacity for work, and he had a wide network of contacts; but, as Leonard Cox points out, though his role in negotiations with politicians and the State bureaucracy must have been considerable, there is little documentation in the files of the Library, because he worked mainly from the Herald office. The campaign bore fruit in 1944, when the Parliament passed an Act establishing three separate administrations, thus reversing the arrangement that had stood since 1869. In March 1945, when the new trusts came into being, Murdoch was elected Chairman of the National Gallery Trustees, and also Chairman of the Building Trustees (made up of the office-bearers of each of the separate trusts), who were responsible for the Swanston Street site. The Wirth's Park site on St Kilda Road south of the Yarra, for which Murdoch and Lindsay had lobbied so strongly, had been reserved for the National Gallery. In his first report on behalf of the Building Trustees, Murdoch said proudly that ‘the opportunity of providing a large modern city with a people's art centre on an ideal location has aroused interest of the English-speaking world’. At that time it was planned that a new Natural History Museum would be built on the site of the old Observatory buildings in the Domain. The Public Library would remain on its Swanston Street site.
Hopes were high in 1945, but the Trustees were to be given a lesson in the necessity of patience in human affairs. Murdoch did not live to see the realisation of his hopes. Year after year the Building Trustees had to grapple with the problem of dilapidated buildings and increasingly cramped conditions, while waiting for the new Gallery and Museum to be built. In 1951, the year in which Murdoch stepped down as Chairman, they enthusiastically supported a proposal for a new development that came from R.M. Crawford, Professor of History at Melbourne University, to commemorate the centenary of responsible government in Victoria by establishing the La Trobe Library. The Annual Report of the Building Trustees dated 30 September 1952 was melancholy:
It is a constant cause of regret and concern, that the development of branches housed in the existing buildings is being seriously impeded because economic circumstances beyond the control of the Trustees have made it impossible to proceed with plans for the erection of any of the three new buildings so badly needed, namely the La Trobe Library, the National Gallery, and the National Museum.
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It is earnestly hoped, therefore, that these projects will be given a priority commensurate with their importance in the cultural life of the State.
In 1956 the Australian Encyclopedia remarked, apropos of the 1869 Act, that the ‘consolidation of different activities proved eventually to be an error which has not yet been overcome’. The ‘error’ was not finally ‘overcome’ for another 40 years. The Museum finally moved off the Swanston Street site in 1997, and new Museum building — the last of the ‘three new buildings’ that the Trustees thought so necessary — was finally ready in 2000.
The history of cultural institutions in Victoria seems to be mostly a history of delays and disappointments. Given their dependence upon public funding, such institutions need strong governing bodies, not merely to supervise the administration but also to represent their needs to those who hold the purse strings. Issues of governance and administrative structures excite far less interest than benefactions or controversies over appointments and policies, but they may be no less important. Keith Murdoch, the last President of the Board responsible for the ‘unusual conglomerate’, was like the first — Redmond Barry — an activist, a strong personality with a clear vision and a sense of dedication to what he regarded as his task. Unlike Barry, who was devoted to the Library above everything else, Murdoch's primary concern was the future of the Gallery. The Library, however, benefited at the time from his conscientious and energetic discharge of his duties as President of the Trustees, and ultimately benefited from his understanding of the need to free the institutions, one from the other, to allow them to pursue their own patterns of development.
In persuading the political masters of the day that a fundamental change had to be made in the way in which the major cultural institutions were being governed, Keith Murdoch provided the sort of leadership that is often needed but less often shown. From the perspective of more than 50 years later, the value of his work as a Trustee is plain to see.
John Barnes