AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL BOTANIC GARDENS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
TAPE NO. 3387/4 – MURRAY FAGG
INTERVIEWED BY MATHEW HIGGINS
5 OCTOBER 1995 - 2 TAPES
HIGGINS: Firstly Murray let me say thanks very much for the time that you have been putting aside for the project over the past few weeks or so. I know this particular project is something that you've had in mind for a good while and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed yourself. I am looking forward to hearing some of your memories and experiences in this establishment over the last twenty-five years this afternoon.
If I can start off by asking you about your early involvement with plants. I see by your CV that at the tender age of fourteen or thereabouts you were a member of the Field Naturalists Group in South Australia.
FAGG: Yes I got interested I guess very early in life and I used to go off on bus trips with the Field Naturalists Association when I was at high school and one of those tours that the Botany Club of the Field Naturalists organised was to the South Australian Herbarium. I think that was in about 1962 and I went along to the Herbarium and it just seemed the ideal job for me when I was a school kid and I went back a few weeks later to see if I could work at the herbarium during my school holidays and I started, I think it was the May school holidays, in 1962 working at the Herbarium in Adelaide. I didn't really stop from that time onwards through every school vacation I used to go to the Herbarium. Turn up at nine o'clock every morning and leave at five o'clock other than for about three weeks each Christmas when I had a job as a postal assistant riding my bicycle around and delivering letters which was in those days a fairly standard way for high school kids to earn some money for Christmas. The rest of my high school I worked unpaid at the Herbarium.
HIGGINS: They must have eagerly received you. Herbaria, it seems to me, are often short of staff and the more volunteers the better.
FAGG: Well it wasn't actually such a common activity in those days. At least during the high school time there were no other volunteers working there. There were scientific associates, retired professors, people that were actually quite prominent in the botanical world. Professor J B Cleveland, people of that nature that would come back and do honorary work but not people that actually did the hack work of mounting specimens on sheets of paper.
HIGGINS: Which is what you were doing.
FAGG: Which is what I was doing a lot of the time and then when I started university we came back as paid university students during vacations and there were several of us over that time in the late sixties that did that. Several of those people have actually gone on to careers in herbaria. Tony Orchard was one of those students who worked back at the Herbarium during the holidays and he's now the editor of The Flora of Australia. Bill Barker actually works in the Herbarium in Adelaide now. Rod Seppelt became a key person in the cryptogam field as a taxonomist. So quite a few of the people who actually had that student vacation work went on to get permanent jobs in herbaria.
HIGGINS: And made it their lifelong career.
FAGG: Yes. I guess I always was interested in not just the herbarium work but trying to bridge the gap between the scientific work done by herbaria and the popular public perception of plants and the final year between high school and university I got a job with the South Australian Museum rather than the Herbarium. Again it wasn't paid but I was pushing at that stage with the Director of the Museum to set up displays of plants in the Museum rather than animals because at that time natural museums, although they called themselves natural history museums, seemed to display animals and rocks and aboriginal material but never plants which are a fairly major part of natural history.
So there was no place for exhibits to do with plants and I tried to talk the Director of the Museum in Adelaide into doing plant displays but that didn't eventuate and it was interesting that when I first came to the Botanic Gardens I had another go at pushing the same barrow that I had pushed years earlier as a student and was actually able to get the management enthusiastic in doing this and in that way created a job for myself.
HIGGINS: Yes and I look forward to going into that in a few moments with you. Now before coming here to the ANBG as we know it now which was in 1970, you also did a stint at the Sydney Botanic Gardens for a time.
FAGG: Yes I had several vacation jobs. Because I had been working at the Herbarium I managed to get to know a lot of the botanists around Australia so although I was perhaps a lowly student I had friends in the other herbaria and I managed to get one vacation job with the Herbarium in Alice Springs in 1968, at the end of 1968 with John Maconochie who had been a masters student back in the Botany Department in Adelaide and had worked with the Herbarium so I had got to know him before he went to Alice Springs and by that means I got the job at Alice Springs and then the following year I got a job working in the Herbarium in Sydney so it was from there that I came to Canberra.
In Sydney I was doing similar sorts of things, sorting specimens, working on herbarium specimens all the time but again it gave me a lot of contacts with the staff at Sydney Botanic Gardens which have been very valuable over the years.
HIGGINS: If you could sum up what it was that was motivating you in this career choice basically. Was it simply a fascination with plants?
FAGG: It was a fascination with natural history and I guess if I hadn't been so squeamish at the sight of blood I may have gone on looking at animals but animals were out as far as I was concerned. Every zoological course required you to chop them and I wasn't into chopping. I never even survived the dissection of a frog at high school I finished up in the sick room half way through the session. Animals were out and I guess plants were in.
I was lucky to have parents who were very interested in natural history. We went out camping and travelling around on our holidays always out in the bush and going on picnics almost every weekend so I was brought up with an interest in bird watching and so forth. I guess I did find some flowers that I pressed when I was in about second year primary school. I had a whole lot of flowers pressed in ancient copy of the novel Black Beauty I think it was. I found them quite a few years later so I obviously was interested in pressing plants from a much earlier age.
HIGGINS: So in 1970 you come to Canberra and work as an assistant in the Herbarium and so you were working under Betty Phillips?
FAGG: Yes I was working in the Herbarium in Sydney and at the end of that job, that job was really a vacation job, and Mr Mayers, who was Director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney at that time when I was looking for more permanent work, rang Betty Phillips and asked her if there was a job down in Canberra and she said yes. So I drove my car from Sydney down here and turned up for work I think it was the day after Australia Day 1970.
HIGGINS: Now Betty of course is a major figure in the history of the Gardens here having been the botanist from 1960 till her retirement due to ill health I understand in 1973. Could you sum up for me what you believe to be her achievements?
FAGG: Well when I met Betty Phillips I think her days of glory were over. She must have been a very strong figure in the 1950s and early sixties when she was a ecologist with the Snowy Mountains Commission. I guess I came to the Herbarium here having worked in at least three other herbaria in Australia and it was a bit of a shock to find the way it was run. From my perspective I guess as a keen student it was a pretty sloppy management style. Certainly not up to the strict discipline of, say, the South Australian Herbarium under Hansjörg Eichler who had ruled it with a fairly solid hand I guess. Things were pretty slack here at the Herbarium.
HIGGINS: Could you give me some examples of what you mean by that?
FAGG: Well it wasn't actually uncommon in those days to go into one of the bays in the compactus unit where the specimens were held and find a beer glass that had dried out where somebody had quickly stuck their beer as the boss came along. There were lots of students employed. I think there were seventeen Asian students employed when I turned up here in 1970 some of whom had had botanical training, some hadn't. It was a bit of a party atmosphere.
Everybody was employed as a Gardener rather than as a public servant. I think for the whole Botanic Gardens there were only four public servants and another fifty or so staff who were employed as Gardeners. So all the Herbarium staff were categorised as Gardeners. Most areas of the Gardens actually worked 7.30 am to 4.00 in the afternoon very much industrial hours. We sort of bent the rules a bit to have the Herbarium staff working more normal scientific/clerical hours but I guess it reflected the fact that there weren't a lot of trained scientific staff here and I think Betty Phillips really didn't keep a very tight rein on things.
HIGGINS: What about her as a person? Lots of people have stories about Betty. I understand that she wasn't necessarily the easiest person to get on with?
FAGG: No, I guess initially I didn't have a lot of direct contact with her but after a while in doing the sort of identification of specimens and so forth that was the sort of work I was employed to do I needed to check things out with another herbarium and there was the CSIRO herbarium just down the road and I knew the people who were working down there, the scientific staff just because of my contact as a student with a whole range of different people.
HIGGINS: So was that being headed by Nancy Burbidge?
FAGG: Yes that was the herbarium that Nancy headed. So my first inclination if I had a problem was to go down and check it up with the relevant expert in the field down there. I quickly came to grief and was pounced on for colluding with the enemy as seemed to be the philosophy. Betty Phillips certainly didn't like any of the staff from the Botanic Gardens to go half a mile down the road and check anything up with CSIRO. She was quite happy for staff to pack a whole lot of herbarium specimens into an old suitcase and hop in the train and go to Sydney for the day to check things up with the Herbarium in Sydney but doing it just half a mile away was a real no no.
HIGGINS: Was that due to any sort of personal problem between Betty and Nancy? This lack of cooperation between the two organisations.
FAGG: I surmise that it was. I don't think I ever got a reason for this lack of cooperation between the two but I felt there was a lot of animosity, jealousy between two senior women running very similar institutions although Nancy Burbidge ran the CSIRO Herbarium as a far more professional scientific institution than the Botanic Gardens Herbarium was in those days.
HIGGINS: It seems to me a great shame that two kindred organisations, as you say so close to one another, couldn't have worked a bit more in the same direction rather than in opposite directions.
FAGG: Well there were actually even more herbaria in Canberra because you had a herbarium down at the Botany Department, the Gauba Herbarium.
HIGGINS: At the ANU?
FAGG: At the ANU. You had what in those days was the Forestry Bureau which later became the Forestry Section of CSIRO. It had its own Herbarium largely of eucalypts and forest trees and that was over the other side of the lake. Nancy Burbidge had actually brought two separate CSIRO herbaria together just before the time that I came to Canberra. So at one stage I think there were five quite separate herbaria in Canberra. Over the years they have tended to amalgamate.
HIGGINS: And in 1971 after say a year or so with the Herbarium you moved over the horticultural side of the Gardens. Can you tell me about the reason for that move and going from the area headed by Betty Phillips into the area headed by John Wrigley?
FAGG: Well to say it was a move is probably an understatement. I came in one day with a reprint that had been sent to me by Paul Wilson. It was actually a taxonomic revision of the genus Correa and Paul had been at Adelaide Herbarium all through the years that I had worked there so I knew him quite well as a personal friend and he had sent me a copy of this revision.
I saw Betty Phillips in the corridor and I had this in my hand and I casually said to her, 'Look we'll need to rearrange the Correa section of the Herbarium because we've got this new publication with some new names'. She grabbed this out of my hand and said, 'Why is this being sent to you? They haven't sent me a copy yet. Are you going around telling people that you're in charge of this institution?' And at this stage her voice was rising and she was a very large lady very sloppily dressed but when she lost her temper she sort of shook and trembled and went bright red in the face and it was quite a fearful sight for a young person of my tender age at that time. She just lost her temper more and more and started shouting at me that I shouldn't be telling people that I was in charge of this organisation and then she sort of went off on a different track to say that I had been talking to the horticultural side of the Botanic Gardens which was managed by John Wrigley and if I really wanted to go and talk to these people I might as well go and work for them. As far as she was concerned my employment at the Herbarium was finished and that was it.
She stormed away and she came back about two minutes later and shouted, 'Get out, get out of the Herbarium and take your books with you'. At this stage I had moved most of my library from Adelaide, my personal library, over here because I had a whole lot of reference books that I used and they were all in my working place in the Herbarium.
So in the middle of the day I finished up lugging all my books out of the Herbarium, piling them up in the corridor outside in the area outside the horticultural offices of John Wrigley, and unfortunately John wasn't at work that day. I forget where he was; in the field or somewhere. I just hung around until the next morning and wandered in and said to John, 'Well Betty has thrown me out of the Herbarium because I've been talking to you'. The conversations I had had with John were to do with setting up some displays to explain more about Australian plants to the general public so I said to John, 'Have you actually got a job for me?' He said, 'Yes well let's go ahead doing what we had been discussing but do it as a full time job'. So over night I finished up doing exactly the sort of work that I had tried to talk the Director of the South Australian Museum into four or five years earlier and that was it. I was then employed by John Wrigley to do what we called 'interpretation' to actually set up displays about Australian native plants.
HIGGINS: Before going on a bit further with that subject, of course this confrontation with Betty was in this building that we're in at the moment which was the 1966 Herbarium Building.
HIGGINS: I understand that the Herbarium Collection was on one side of the building and the offices on the other? Is that how it worked?
FAGG: Yes that's right. When the building was built the part of it with the raised roof was only half built and that was the half that had the Herbarium in it with compactus units. In 1970 after I came they completed the other half of that which was the horticultural laboratory and an office for the Curator of the Gardens. So by the time I had been booted out of the Herbarium John Wrigley was in charge of the living collections and just on the other side of the wall but in the building that we're actually doing this recording in at the present time.
HIGGINS: Prior to the first Curator's appointment, Ross Robbins in 1966, Betty had also been running the horticultural side as well as the botanical side of the Gardens. Is that correct?
FAGG: Well I guess I'm not too sure. Certainly there were major field collecting trips that Betty must have largely been responsible for but I don't know before the appointment of Ross Robbins I guess earlier than that I don't know how Betty Phillips related to the living collection side of things. It was five years I guess earlier than my time here.
HIGGINS: So the organisation basically had two halves, the botanical side and the horticultural side. How well were they getting on together? How well were Betty and John getting on at this time?
FAGG: Well from what I could see they weren't getting on very well at all but I never saw many people actually getting on well with Betty Phillips. Certainly by the time I left or was thrown out and over the following twelve months it was obvious that Betty was having a drinking problem and you could smell rum on her breath during the afternoon. So during the day she was drinking at work and becoming probably less and less rational in her management style.
HIGGINS: It seems a great shame that a woman of such capability had these other problems which were obviously having a severe impact on her professional and personal life.
FAGG: Yes I understand that her personal life wasn't a happy one but she wasn't looking after herself. She lived in a house with, as far as I understand, about seventeen cats that were never let out. She came to work dressed in clothes that were dirty, they smelled of cat piss. She was really a lady on the decline at that time.
HIGGINS: Now you began working under John on the Horticultural side from 1971 and particularly working in the interpretation side and really that was work through to 1985 and from that time on to the present at a different level. Could you comment on what your rationale or your philosophy of interpretation was when you were starting. I mean what were you aiming to do for example in that first display, the rather innocently named, 'What is a daisy?'
FAGG: When I was a high school student and going through the university I was a member of the Field Naturalists Botany Club in Adelaide and the Botany Club which was a group of non-professional people that met because they had an interest in native plants and they used to go on field trips. We had one lecturer from the university who used to come and address the Botany Club and explain taxonomy, the classification of plants, in a fairly low level way so that untrained people could understand it. I had always been very influenced by this and impressed by it and I saw that there was a great scope to get people more enthused in Australian plants and explain things in a way that interested amateurs could understand.
I guess as a rough guide if I was setting up a display I would think, 'Could my mother understand this?'. She was somebody who was interested in plants but had not had any formal training . It was always, 'Is this the way I would have explained it to somebody like my mother who had not had a high school education but spent a lot of time in the bush and liked native plants'.
So when I was setting up this display on 'What is a Daisy?' there is I guess an amateur perception that a daisy flower is a single flower and to be able to explain to people that it's made up of a head of very small flowers was the objective of that small display. I set that up on some display panels that had been designed for another purpose.
Prior to my doing displays we had had a lady called Miss Beaton working at the Gardens …
HIGGINS: Irene Beaton?
FAGG: Irene Beaton yes and she actually looked after the library here but she also had a flair for doing floral arrangements and we had display space and Irene Beaton used to do arrangements of flowers using native plants which I guess weren't all that common in those days. The space that she was using was the same space that I started doing these educational displays.
HIGGINS: And that was in fact a room at the northern end of the building we're in at the moment.
FAGG: Yes that's right. I can't remember when I first came here and worked for the Herbarium what happened in that room but at least by the time of the opening in October 1970 it was an open space where they had parts of the displays set up for the official opening of the Botanic Gardens.
HIGGINS: Just while you mention that Murray, do you have very strong memories of the opening ceremony? Was it a big deal? I mean the place had been open to the public for three years by the time John Gorton came and unveiled the plaque.
FAGG: Well it was obviously a big deal. Strangely for me working in the Herbarium it couldn't have registered a great deal. I don't have strong recollections of it. I have recollections of planning all the guided tours associated with the opening. When I was a guide on the day I had to take a party of the invited guests on a route around the Gardens and I can remember with Keith MacIntyre who was an assistant to John Wrigley, having a large map of the Botanic Gardens and putting pins all over the map and stretching equal length bits of coloured string around the pins to make sure that each guided tour was the same length and we all got back at the same time to the afternoon tea.
But my impressions of that whole event I think are shaped from looking at the photographs that were taken on the day more than a direct remembrance in my own mind of what was happening. Later on when I took over the curation of the photograph collection I had cause to go through all the photographs that had been taken I suspect by one of the rangers of the opening and there was even a photograph of myself as a long haired young lad leading a group of delegates around. I can't remember it being taken but I found it quite a few years later.
HIGGINS: OK well then going back to the display subjects, what determined the subjects for display? Was that up to you? Were you fairly autonomous in that position or would you discuss things with John?
FAGG: I really was fairly autonomous. I discussed things with John but John really didn't direct me a great deal. I guess I knew pretty much what I wanted to do. I knew the direction that I wanted to take, botanic displays. I had had a great many years to think about it. I saw my role as very much that of a natural history museum display person and in fact one of the first things I did in 1971 was to join the Museums Association and shortly after that we set up an ACT branch of the Museums Association along with what was then the Institute of Anatomy and the War Memorial, and there were representatives from the National Library and those people gave me a great deal of help in the initial years. I went off to quite a lot of the Museum Association conferences and really picked up an enormous amount about displays because whenever we had a conference we were shown through the various galleries of museums throughout Australia but also behind the scenes where the people were making models, doing the typesetting, doing the various layout for display panels. So for me it was a way for emulating the far more professional approach of natural history museums in displaying their animals and insects and trying to apply that to a very restricted budget that I had in a botanic garden.
HIGGINS: Just looking at some of these subjects for display over the years Murray, some of them have focussed on particular families or genera of plants, others have been rather differently oriented for example in 1972 and again in 1974 there were displays on Australian timber production, native timber resources and timber production generally. So that's taking quite a different slant. Is that looking at the use of Australian native timber?
FAGG: I guess I took any slant that I thought would get people interested in native plants and the uses of native plants was certainly one angle whether it was the uses of plants by Aboriginal people or by crafts people for the timber industry or as subjects for botanic art. I was just trying to get any angle I could to make Australian plants interesting.
HIGGINS: I see a couple of displays also focussing on the depiction of Australian flora in art.
FAGG: Yes one was a display of botanical art looking at a whole range of different artists in Australia and I wrote to artists. I borrowed paintings of artists who were no longer alive. Canberra was a much smaller place and there was a lot more give and take. I could borrow paintings from the National Gallery collection which at that stage was just housed in a tin shed out at Fyshwick. I could borrow art works from the Institute of Anatomy which held all the Aboriginal artefacts but also Aboriginal bark paintings. There was very little paper work involved in this. I can remember ringing James Mollison up and saying look can I borrow a couple of paintings that you've got by quite prominent botanical artists and hopping in the car and going out and picking these up from the shed out at Fyshwick.
HIGGINS: I was going to ask how you brought them back. Did you put them on the back seat of the car?
FAGG: Yes, basically that's what it was. I used to duck down to the Institute of Anatomy with my Volkswagen and load in a dozen Aboriginal spears and three or four boomerangs and so forth and come back to the Gardens. It was really a very free and easy time in Canberra. I guess the level of curation and security was horrible if you look at it by today's standards.
HIGGINS: It was certainly easier to put a display together.
FAGG: It was easier to put a display together yes and there was a lot of cooperation. People weren't as tight with salaries and time in those days so institutions were far more relaxed about letting their staff assist other organisations. I can remember the amount of time that the curators at the Institute of Anatomy gave me was enormous. I used to spend a lot of time going through their collection of glass negatives to find photographs that I wanted. I would then take all the glass negatives out with no apparent paper work and I would drive over to CSIRO Wildlife where the photographic darkroom staff would actually print the negatives that I wanted or to the Australian War Memorial where the photographic dark room staff would help me. The War Memorial towards the later part of the 1970s actually did all the typesetting of the display captions for me. These were just informal contacts that we made through the Museum Association but people were not pushed for time they were far later when institutions had to cut back on their staffing a lot.
HIGGINS: I'm not sure whether you mentioned it just then or not. You mentioned to me before about doing the hand stencilling in the earlier displays. So that preceded getting the typesetting done at the War Memorial?
FAGG: Yes in the early days everything I did as far as captions and even large panels of text were all done with rotoring pens and hand stencilling and you became very good at writing a text out by hand and then modifying it as you worked through the letters and started coming towards the end of the line or the end of your sheet of cardboard and knowing that you weren't going to fit it in so you started using shorter words, rearranging your sentences in the head to make everything fit on the cardboard.
Even when we did the main blocks of text on an IBM composer unit over at the War Memorial the actual captions under photographs I always did as hand stencils. It gave me more flexibility at the last minute to change things. To be able to stick in an extra photograph or remove it as we ran out of space on the display panels or needed to fill in a bit of extra space. Because I was trying to encourage the use of distribution maps to show where plants occurred I had a little stencil map of Australia that had actually come as a free insert to a Kellogg's Cornflakes packet when I was a school kid and that map of Australia was the one that got used as a template for all the labels for displays right through the seventies and even into the eighties here at the Gardens.
HIGGINS: You were talking there about photography. The Gardens did get its own dark room in 1975 and I think you were a prime mover behind that?
FAGG: Yes, I think it was actually earlier than 1975. We did some renovations to the building, I suspect it was 1972 in which there was the chance to actually build a dark room and I suggested it to John Wrigley. He ran with the idea and I got the job of actually designing a dark room and I ran around looking at other dark rooms at CSIRO, the War Memorial, places like that, talking to people at Kodak about what you needed and drawing up the floor plan and the layout of cupboards and stainless steel sinks. These were all made exactly to the specifications.
Part of our university course in Adelaide had been to do some darkroom work in black and white so I had a bit of a background in darkroom work and I had done some at the Herbarium in Adelaide. I then enrolled here at the technical college to do the first year of a photography certificate course to give me the background in black and white darkroom work. I did that in 1972 or 73 I forget which. I never went on with the course because after it was getting on into far more arty type things and colour dark room work which we would never have the budget to actually handle here at the gardens. I was lucky in getting good equipment, enlargers and so forth. There seemed to be no budget problem in getting that sort of equipment and so we set up a very good darkroom and that was operated really for the next twenty years only doing black and white work.
The captions were all initially set up, the large captions when I stopped hand stencilling them, they were typeset at the War Memorial and then I would photograph them on high contrast lithographic film here at the Botanic Gardens and then blow up the caption to whatever size I wanted from a 35mm negative and they're the captions we used on all the displays. We did the same thing when we needed photo metal signs out in the Gardens which we started doing about 1980.
HIGGINS: So they were all being done inhouse as well.
FAGG: Yes. We had to do everything inhouse because we didn't really have the money to contract things out. Other botanic gardens started doing displays and interpretations after us and they went in a different direction they tended to contract out rather than do it with their own staff. In a way they finished up in a better position because they needed a lot more money to contract it out so they established their budgets and were able to proceed with a normal inflation rate. Because we were doing things on the cheap all the time it became harder when we wanted to get more sophisticated than what we could do inhouse.
HIGGINS: Of course photography of native plants and illustration of plants has become something of a forte for you, hasn't it? With your work with John Wrigley in the Australian Native Plants book?
FAGG: Yes although the Australian Native Plants book and all the publishing was something that I did outside of work. In fact when John and I signed the contract with William Collins Publishers at the end of 1976 to do the manuscript for Australian Native Plants the publishers wanted an example of a drawing that I had done. I guess so they knew that I could draw plants. In fact I didn't have anything to show them at all other than my botany notebook from university days. I can remember grabbing some cut plants from the Gardens and going home and drawing about three plants in ink on a piece of paper so I could take it up to Sydney when John and I signed the contract because really it hadn't been part of the sort of work I was doing here at the Gardens.
HIGGINS: At that time?
FAGG: At that time. I had taken quite a lot of closeup photographs of plants in the years before that but I really hadn't done any illustration work.
HIGGINS: Just a few more questions about the display work. Now I understand that notices were sent to schools within the ACT advising of each new display?
FAGG: Yes as soon as we started sort of setting up educational displays we had a little hand sheet that was designed to send out to schools and we would notify all the schools of what displays were on. This generated an interest from the schools in the Botanic Gardens. There had been school excursions just to look at the site I guess with no sort of botanical content prior to that and these had been taken by the rangers at the Gardens.
As soon as schools realised that there was somebody up here who was prepared to put some time into educational activities they would ring up and want a guided tour that had some botanical content especially on subjects like the web of life which was the biological textbook in the early seventies and it had a large component on family Myrtaceae. So high school biology teachers would want to look at that particular family so I finished up as the one who used to take the school excursions around the Gardens. That lead me into a totally different world of producing work sheets and liaising with teachers.
SIDE 2 OF TAPE 1
HIGGINS: And that again is the early seventies?
FAGG: That's the early seventies yes. I hadn't had any training in teaching anything like this so it was a bit of a new world. It was something I was really enthusiastic in so I took it on.
HIGGINS: How many tours would you have been doing say per week? Would there be several tours a week at the beginning?
FAGG: By the mid seventies yes. During some seasons I was probably doing four or five one and a half hour school excursions a week. I never got involved with primary schools if I could help it. I didn't actually like little children.
HIGGINS: Would they be running all over the beds?
FAGG: Yes, it wasn't my scene at all and the rangers continued to take most of the primary school excursions which were really just coming to the Botanic Gardens to look at what a botanic garden was.
HIGGINS: Did you ever have any jurisdiction over the rangers or were you independent …?
FAGG: Well at a later stage I was. I can't remember exactly when the rangers first came under my supervision but during most of the seventies I guess I sort of co-existed with the rangers. The rangers worked directly to John Wrigley and so did I because the rangers had a security role as well as taking guided tours which was part of their role in those days.
HIGGINS: For how long did you have a direction education role in leading tours etc? How long did that last for you?
FAGG: Probably from about 1972 through to 1980 or '81 when the first Education Officer was appointed. That was after Robert Boden became Director and one of the first things that Robert Boden and I discussed was the need to have somebody trained as a teacher to take the school excursions. I was quite happy to lose that component of what I was doing if we could get an extra staff person on. So Robert fairly early in his time as Director of the Gardens actually got a teacher appointed. It was a secondment through the Schools Authority to the Botanic Gardens.
HIGGINS: And what was that person's name? That wasn't Effie Mullins was it?
FAGG: No it wasn't Effie. Ah, no I've gone blank. The person was here for about a year and then they left. I've forgotten the name of the lady.
HIGGINS: That can be checked in the records anyway. Well, that name 'Effie Mullins' has been mentioned. She was in the education side too, wasn't she?
FAGG: Yes Effie initially I think was working with the stocktake team doing the labelling out in the Gardens but John Wrigley was very keen to actually have a horticultural teaching component of the Gardens. One year, and I'm not quite sure which year it was somewhere probably in the mid-seventies, John arranged with one of the local schools, I suspect it was the school that his own children were going to, that he would teach a propagation course for high school students here at the Gardens and John did that himself the first year.
It was very successful. Because of its success he looked around for somebody to actually teach horticulture, propagation to primary school students. Effie Mullins took that job on. It was probably started off as one or two afternoons a week but eventually it really became a full time job for Effie Mullins by about 1980 I think. When my position became more established Effie was working for me as both the horticulture teacher for primary schools and as Information Officer answering a lot of the public enquiries firstly on horticulture but later on on a whole range of just general enquiries from the Information Centre.
HIGGINS: Now as well as your displays there were also slide shows in the display room I believe.
FAGG: Yes with schools coming here to, say, study the family Myrtaceae I set up a slide show showing mature eucalypts and a whole range of things to do with Myrtaceae, the different families, virtually anything that the school wanted an excursion on. We tried to arrange some indoor component which included usually photography and slides and then some outdoor component so if they were coming up to look at Myrtaceae usually an excursion was about an hour and a half of which half an hour might have been indoors and then the rest of it outdoors following up on what we talked about inside.
HIGGINS: And those slide presentations, they were photos taken by you essentially?
FAGG: Well they part of the Botanic Gardens photo collection but whenever there was a gap of something I needed I used to go out and take it. Just as I did the black and white photography that we needed for displays so I started taking photographs. A lot of them were taken on my holidays and so forth.
HIGGINS: A lot of your holidays seem to be oriented towards your work?
FAGG: Yes. I actually only ever went on one real official Botanic Gardens field trip and that was in May 1970, the first year that I was still working with the Herbarium, and Ian Telford and myself drove a Landrover right up to just north of Townsville on a four-week collecting trip. After that I really moved into this education interpretation side so part of my job was not collecting plants any more. So everything I did after that was during my holidays and I always used to take a press with me and take photographs and collect plants. Later on after I got married my wife had been working in the Herbarium in Brisbane so a lot of her work had involved field collecting so on nearly all of our holidays after that I was taking photos of the plants and Rosemary was doing the actual pressing so most of the plants from then on went in under her name and her collecting number.
HIGGINS: Yes, we might just come back to that a little later. I'm interested now in talking about some of the trails that have been put into the Gardens and I would assume that you had certainly an input into this and perhaps they were your conception, the White Arrow and Blue Arrow Trail and also the Nature Trail and the Aboriginal trail.
FAGG: The White Arrow and blue arrow trails were really John Wrigley's idea. They were marked on the printed leaflet that was available at the Botanic Gardens when I arrived so they must have preceded my coming as did the routed wooden interpretative signs that explained the families. They were some things that John had initiated. As you can see with his involvement in teaching school kids about propagation he was very keen on education and I guess it's because of that keenness that he was willing to take me on in that role initially.
So the White Arrow Walk and Blue Arrow Walk were John's initiative. The Aboriginal Trail was the first one that I really got involved with and that resulted from a science festival in Canberra called 'Australia 75' and when that was being organised by Professor Birch at ANU I went to some initial meetings and offered our display area as part of the space within Canberra that was devoted to Australia 75.
It was agreed that nearly all the botanical components would be located here at the Botanic Gardens. The University, CSIRO, Plant Industry all had their displays here at the Botanic Gardens and one of the displays that was set up by Peter Latz from Alice Springs I think it was, was on Aboriginal use of plants and I arranged for a tour of the Gardens to complement that display and we marked all the Garden labels with a special marker and printed off a very cheap photocopied sheet for people to guide themselves around. I initially took guided tours during Australia 75 and when it was successful we had these sheets printed so that people could guide themselves around.
It was very very successful so that people demanded more and more and eventually we engraved numbers on the labels of these plants and a special Aboriginal shield motif was engraved on the labels so that people could find the plants from their printed sheets. This eventually became a little booklet and later on in the late seventies we decided to go with photometal signs with all the information that was on the leaflet actually on the plants. The first version of it was much longer and people found it far too long. They could never finish the actual trail.
HIGGINS: How did you evaluate that? Did you have a comments book somewhere where people could let you know?
FAGG: Well, we were pretty mean in those days. We didn't actually suggest that people took these sheets away with them, we asked them to bring them back so that the next person could use them and I think the back page of it asked for comments. We got lots of comments to say that people couldn't actually finish the tour and we cut down the number of plants by almost half. Most of the research for that was done from very old literature. There was almost no current literature on Aboriginal uses of plants in those days. I had to go back through papers that had been read before the various Royal Societies in the 1800s to glean what little information I could on the use of plants.
HIGGINS: So it was quite a research task?
FAGG: Yes, it was a very long research task. Now in the eighties it became far more trendy to study Aboriginal use of plants and at the end of the seventies there was actually a real industry in producing books with this as a theme but during the seventies it was really hard getting any information. A lot of the printed material only had common names of plants and you had to try and track down what these could have been and a lot of the plant names had changed so it was quite a taxonomic search to find out what they were referring to.
HIGGINS: Did you find that with that burst of publishing in that field subsequent to the trail that you had to do any revision or were you pretty right?
FAGG: We certainly did. There was some criticism of what was in our leaflet. That trail evolved into a printed leaflet and by the mid-eighties you had academics whose actual research work was on Aboriginal use of plants questioning some of the references that we had used. They were saying that the botanists in the 1800s had actually got it wrong so at that point we contracted one of our critics to actually re-write the whole trail leaflet.
HIGGINS: Who was that?
FAGG: Beth Gott from Monash University I think it was. Then we changed all the photo metal signs to match up with the revised text. We updated as we went along as more and more information became available.
HIGGINS: The line drawings that illustrate those signs, were they drawn by you?
FAGG: No, they were drawn by Terry Woolcott who had been an apprentice with City Parks in the 1970s and for a short time, I think about 1978 in the one year following her apprenticeship when City Parks had to provide a place for the apprentices who had finished or were in their final year, Terry actually worked as an assistant to me. She was very talented as an artist and she's actually gone on and is still with the Australian Nature Conservation Agency. She's editor of the Ranger Bulletins so she actually went on in that area of publishing and interpretation.
HIGGINS: Now you also had displays in the display area on the Aboriginal use of plants several times so it seemed to be quite an interest for you?
FAGG: It was an interest. I would be very reluctant to do it these days because it's a far more political activity. In those days I guess ignorance was bliss. A lot of the photographs that I used in the displays would be politically incorrect these days and I'm sure I wouldn't be game to do a current display on Aboriginal plant use without having involvement with Aboriginals and making sure that Aboriginal people were vetting everything that we did. In the mid-seventies that wasn't an issue and it was only when we started re-doing some of these displays in the 1980s that people started raising their eyebrows and saying that photograph that you're using to show various plant uses is not supposed to be looked at by women or things like this and we had to draw back a lot.
The displays that I was doing on the Aboriginal plant use were based very much on traditional pre-European contact with the Aboriginal people so I was always trying to use photographs of Aboriginals that had been taken by the early anthropologists, people like Basedow and so forth that were actually going up in northern Australia in the 1890s and probably in this day and age people wouldn't have thought that this was appropriate. Most of the Aboriginal people in the photographs that I used were not wearing any European clothing whatsoever. I think these days you'd have to take a very different approach to it.
HIGGINS: And the criticism that you received, was it mainly from white academics or was there any from the Aboriginal community and did Aboriginal people have any comment on the trail as time progressed and Aboriginal political consciousness increased?
FAGG: By the time we started having Aboriginal students coming on school excursions, I wasn't directly involved in the educational activities, and we had stopped using these early black and white photographs taken by the anthropologists last century and now we have quite a lot of classes of Aboriginal students that come down from Arnhemland or from northern Western Australia to do programs that Julie Foster is involved with, Aboriginal plant use and Julie has produced a lot of literature on this but it is all being done in conjunction with the Institute of Aboriginal Studies and having Aboriginal input into the whole exercise. So this wasn't done in the 1970s.
HIGGINS: Just continuing after changing rooms to get away from the lawn mower although an appropriate sound in a botanic gardens I suppose. I think we pretty well finished the Aboriginal Trail discussion. Now the other major trail is the Nature Trail which was opened in 1976. I understand that the rangers themselves conceived of that. Is that true?
FAGG: Yes we had a ranger employed at that stage called Owen Evans and he and Andy McWhirter, who was one of the very original rangers at the Gardens, had a concept for the Nature Trail though I suspect it might have been Andy's idea in the first place but Owen had the university background to actually do a lot of the writing for the Nature Trail. The rangers plotted a route for the Trail in some natural bushland at the top of the Gardens which is actually on the western side of the Gardens. Bridges across gullies were needed and a whole lot of clearing of the trail was all done by the rangers.
Where it went into a very steep gully which required a steep set of steps going down to the gully and coming out of the gully this work was done by the tradesmen of City Parks administration. They had a carpenter's shop and they actually did this as one of their jobs. The bridges and so forth over little gullies were actually constructed by the rangers using fairly traditional methods and using timber from the site so it was all done with stringy bark logs and railing.
One of the things we wanted on the trail was a termite mound and together with some people from CSIRO Entomology the rangers went out and collected a termite mound in the field which required digging this whole thing up with the colony of termites in it and digging a huge hole on the Nature Trail and then burying the termite colony and this was successful. We finished up with an active termite mound up on the Nature Trail.
We wanted a bark hut to illustrate how the stringy bark was used and this was built using stringy bark from the property of a friend of Kurt Thaler, one of our rangers, and jointly built with City Parks carpenters and Kurt Thaler, if I remember correctly.
HIGGINS: That surname, Thaler?
FAGG: Yes. We were lucky we had one rogue Pinus radiata growing on the area so we interpreted this to show the invasion of exotic pine trees into the natural bushland. There was a whole range of different plants on the Trail. There is a hybrid between two of the natural eucalypts which we just fortunate in finding. So it gave us a chance to interpret the hybrid and there were some bulldog ant nests so we could interpret this. There was even the scar right through the middle of the site where they had run the cable up to the original towers on Black Mountain and we knew the age of the scar so we could actually talk about how long it took bush to regenerate.
Owen Evans prepared the actually typesetting and this was sent off to a photometal company. I arranged all the actual signs and so forth and they were put into the Nature Trail. Owen left shortly after that. I don't know where he went after he left the Botanic Gardens. The Trail was opened by Minister Staley who I think later went on to become Chairman or President of the Liberal Party of Australia.
HIGGINS: And still is, I think.
FAGG: He may be. I can remember being horrified at the actual opening ceremony because we had classes of school kids invited up there and Staley got up and talked about his love of nature and he illustrated this by saying that his children actually caught dragonflies and tied strings around their tails and let them go and ran around his backyard with these live dragon flies attached to a string and his kids pulling at this. This was his way of illustrating his love of nature which wasn't exactly the message we wanted to send back to school kids in Canberra.
HIGGINS: So the Nature Trail was designed to give visitors an idea of the natural flora of the Black Mountain area and uses that are made of it and abuses in the case of the cable trench and that rogue radiata.
FAGG: It was very much designed for school kids. The rangers, as I was saying earlier, got a lot of the primary school students coming through and they gave them tours of the Botanic Gardens, so this was a way of providing something more for primary students and a general introduction to the natural history of Black Mountain. It required about one and a half hours for a school excursion because by the time the kids came to the car park in a bus they had to walk right up the hill to the highest part of the Gardens to actually get on to the trail.
HIGGINS: Which was a good way to quieten them all down.
FAGG: Well, it was a good way to quieten them down but schools seemed to change their pattern of excursions by the mid-eighties and it became too long for most of the schools. They didn't allow enough time to walk up and back so it became a very rushed trip. After the bad bushfire in 1984 that actually entered the corner of the Gardens our gardening overseers became quite paranoid about fires coming over Black Mountain and one of them decided to burn a fire break all around the Botanic Gardens and the Nature Trail was included as part of this fire break. So after that because it was a cold fire, it wasn't anything like a natural bushfire it ceased to be a particularly natural area and we never really set it up as a nature trail after that again.
HIGGINS: Is there any plan to re-open it at some stage?
FAGG: No one of the things about it was that it was one of the first nature trails in Australia in the mid-seventies. Since then national parks have nearly all got nature trails. It became very trendy in the eighties to set up nature trails in national parks and in a way there was nowhere the need for this to be in the Botanic Gardens. It served a role when there were no equivalent things in natural bush area but I think in future we would be looking at putting any of our resources for interpretation into garden type activities rather than natural bushland because that is a more logical role for a national park and most national parks do it. There are nature trails on Black Mountain. There certainly weren't when we were doing it. We were breaking new ground in the seventies.
HIGGINS: OK we might go on now and talk a bit more about the interpretation signage around the Gardens. We have mentioned it a little bit to this point and when I interview John Wrigley I will talk to him about the early routed family and genus signs. You made the point earlier to me that this Botanic Gardens were the first to have interpretative signs.
FAGG: Yes as far as I am aware when the routed wooden signs went in in the late sixties there were no equivalent signs in the other botanic gardens or at least not Sydney Botanic Gardens or Adelaide and the use of photometal labels on the Nature Trail and later the Aboriginal Trail were really a first for Botanic Gardens. Now they're quite common in nearly all the botanic gardens and some botanic gardens have a team of drafting, artists, layout people to actually do them but they were pretty much a first in Australia.
HIGGINS: Now the photometal signs, you mentioned in an earlier comment that they were being sent outside to be done by a particular firm obviously you didn't have the resources in here to make those yourselves?
FAGG: I doubt that any botanic gardens would have the resources to do the true photometal signs. They require high vacuum equipment and very high temperature. They're actually an amalgam of silver into the surface layer of the aluminium so it really is an industrial process. What we do these days is prepare the actual typesetting and total layout on a Macintosh computer and send a bromide to the company that makes the final photometal signs. I suspect that all the botanic gardens would do that. There were in the early eighties some cheap photometal processors but they were nowhere near as permanent as the sort of photometal that we're using.
HIGGINS: Now there are photometal signs on the Mallee Section, Section 211 including a drawing of a mallee woodland, is that one of your illustrations on there?
FAGG: No, in fact really I've done very few drawings for the Botanic Gardens. As I mentioned, when we signed the book contract I had no art work to even show the publishers, and after that I tended, from 1976 onwards, to avoid any suggestion that there was an overlap of what I was doing at work and what I was doing for private publications. I really didn't take any photographs of plants during my official duties at the Gardens. All the photographs of plants from 1976 onwards that I took were all done in my own time which meant coming back here very often on weekends. I still do that about every second weekend I wander around taking photographs of the gardens.
HIGGINS: As far as, for example, the Rainforest Gully goes, the actual wording on some of those major signs. You know 'The McPherson Ranges' were you involved in the writing of that text or was that in John's area.
FAGG: After John Wrigley had left we got some money to interpret the Rainforest from the federal government initiative in the mid-eighties where they were putting a lot of money into rainforests in the states and we put up a submission saying if you're going to give money to all the states what about the ACT it actually has a rainforest too in the Botanic Gardens. We were able to get I forget how much it was, but quite a few thousand dollars to actually put those interpretative signs in the Gully. It was all done in my area but by that stage I had several staff and a couple of people were involved in the project to interpret the Rainforest. I think Rod Harvey and Pam Beesley were both involved in writing those labels and chasing the photographs.
HIGGINS: Looking at the general plant identification signs throughout the Gardens were you involved with those or is that purely the horticultural staff who were doing those? For example the small signs giving the name and family of plants and also the Australian map with the yellow section showing where the plant naturally exists?
FAGG: When I came to the Gardens all the labelling of the plants was done on Formica. It was a plastic material and Garden staff were actually engraving the Latin name on the Formica and this was attached to metal stakes with clips. In fact in 1970 before the opening of the Gardens I was actually relegated to a shed in the Gardens to engrave because there was a mad panic before the opening that there weren't enough plants actually labelled so there was a great push to label them and all hands were called on to work the engraving machines and churn out the labels.
Later in the seventies we switched over to using aluminium stakes and actually engraving on the aluminium stake to replace the strips of Formica.
HIGGINS: When you say 'we' do you mean you as well?
FAGG: No, it was always done in what is now called the Plant Records Section which in those days we always referred to as Stocktake. The engraving was for many years done in the Green Hut which was on the land between the existing Gardens and Clunies Ross Street by a range of industrial staff. My involvement was I think about 1980 when the Rockery was established and given that the plants were going to be low growing we decided that these stake labels wouldn't look very aesthetic, it would look like a porcupine of stakes and we needed a much smaller, different shaped label. I got landed and I'm not quite sure how I got landed with it, but jointly with Comalco the aluminium company in designing a new label. That's how we finished with the Rockery labels. I drew it all up and Comalco produced an extrusion that went together to form that Rockery label and we've been using them ever since.
After we decided to look at a similar sort of extrusion for the tree labels, the ones that are about six inches by twelve inches and I got involved with another project with Comalco to design that extrusion but once we had organised it and we actually had the labels introduction then it was all handled by the Plant Records Section and that was the end of my involvement.
HIGGINS: So that Plant Records Section that would have come under John Wrigley and subsequently Jim Armstrong?
FAGG: Yes, that's right and then after under Arthur Court.
HIGGINS: In fact in 1980 you wrote an article on labelling or a paper on labelling?
FAGG: Yes, during the seventies and early eighties I attended quite a few museum conferences. Normally not in a very official capacity. In the early seventies I went to the Museum Association annual conference almost every year but it doesn't show up on the records because mostly I signed a leave form which was kept in the top drawer and when I arrived back safe and sound the leave form was screwed up and I got to the conference by any means possible. Sometimes by driving my own car, sometimes I paid my way.
I can remember one conference in Ballarat where I got a lift to the conference with the people from the War Memorial and actually hitch hiked back from the conference. These were conferences that I was preparing papers for and attending in a quasi-official capacity. The conference that I prepared the papers on labelling for was held in Perth and that was one of the first that I had actually got paid officially to go to and with government paid air tickets.
HIGGINS: The changes in nomenclature of plants as taxonomic research goes, there seem to be constant changes to the names of plants. As one walks around the Gardens here you can observe where a sub-species name has been blacked out for example. That must be a real headache from the point of view of labelling within the Gardens?
FAGG: Yes all the plant labels are based on the information on the Herbarium specimen so whenever the taxonomists change or revise the name of a plant on a Herbarium specimen then that is transmitted to the Plant Records Section and they either have to produce a new label or try and modify the label, if they can reasonably aesthetically, to reflect that name change. So in some cases where you had the dominant eucalypt that occurs on Black Mountain, Eucalyptus mannifera, called a sub-species maculosa and one of the botanists decided that it wasn't that sub-species it actually meant changing some four or five hundred labels.
HIGGINS: It's the most commonly altered one that you notice as you go around.
HIGGINS: Well we're pretty close to the end of this first tape so we might stop that one and go onto the next tape.
HIGGINS: We just finished our discussion of labelling, Murray, and I'd like to discuss with you for a moment the more general philosophical question of what the Gardens set out to be and what it has become over the years. It seems to me that the original intentions of the Gardens here were to be primarily a scientific and research oriented organisation which certainly was open to the public but it was not to be a public recreation park as some of the older botanic gardens elsewhere have become. For example in 1967 the Canberra Times reported at the time of the public opening of the Gardens that there would be no kiosk for example in line with that policy but then in 1980 a kiosk was opened. So obviously there has been some evolution in that outlook?
FAGG: Yes I think there's a lot of ways that has evolved and I guess I have mellowed over the years in my approach as well. I can remember when I came here I was very anti the use of common names for plants. It sort of seemed to reflect a non-scientific approach to things but with time and a great angst as far as the people at the time we decided to put common names on some of the larger labels, the tree labels in the Gardens. This is the cause of a great deal of debate of whether we should do it. There were hardly any common names used in my initial displays that I did in the seventies. Now the displays that are produced, certainly in my area, often have common names as the larger typeface and the scientific name, the lesser one.
I think, well for me, I can see that things are more accessible to people if you use common names. Although I still have a problem with many of the common names and certainly the way common names are made up by people. So I mean that's an evolution over the years just from my point of view and my changing attitudes.
There's been an evolution as far as activities in the Botanic Gardens go. You mentioned the kiosk. This was proceeded by a mobile snack van that stood where the present kiosk is now for a couple of years before the kiosk was built, almost as an experiment. In fact the snack van was operated by the wife of Andy McWhirter who was our head ranger at the time so there was a bit of perhaps nepotism going on at that time.
It was done as an experiment just to see whether there was a niche for a food outlet in the Botanic Gardens and because it was so successful then we went ahead with the kiosk. I guess it was a pretty pragmatic approach. It's reflected even more in that the plan of management for the Botanic Gardens that was tabled in Parliament in 1994 has provision for a full scale restaurant in the Botanic Gardens as well as the kiosk. Whether that happens or not we don't know but at least it shows a change in thinking of people.
The other way it's reflected is in some of the events that take place in the Gardens. Over the recent years we have had some musical activity in the Gardens. Jazz over summer during late opening and over the last couple of years we have had concerts. This year we had Peter and the Wolf with about three or four thousand people on the Eucalyptus Lawn listening to the SBS orchestra.
Those type of activities wouldn't have happened back in the seventies and I don't know that John Wrigley necessarily thinks that they should be happening here at the Gardens now from private conversations I have had with him. But certainly the present management of the Gardens sees that one way of bringing large numbers of people into the Gardens and perhaps introducing the Gardens to these people for the first time is to have events that are not necessarily scientific and botanical and could be seen as purely recreational. We don't know how much we capture people's hearts and minds by bringing them into listen to a musical concert and then hoping they will return later on to look at the plants in more detail.
I think it also reflects the fact that people place more importance on numbers and there's always that question at the end of the year of how many people visited the Gardens. We don't know exactly how this translates into what our allocation of funding is for the year but certainly if nobody was coming here then I don't think the government would give us money to operate. Some ministers have seen it as a nice little part of their empire and haven't been looking at it as a scientific institution at all. They see it very much as bread and circuses for the public and like activities that they can say, 'Oh this is all happening in my portfolio'. I think we see more and more of this bread and circus activity here at the Gardens. We just hope it works.
HIGGINS: Of course on the brighter side of this more general outlook of the Gardens through activities such as the Spring Fling and other major events that bring people in and the Friends of course have an opportunity to sell plants and to raise money for their organisation which in turn funds other activities like this oral history project.
FAGG: Yes I guess the establishment of the Friends Group reflects that greater community involvement in the Botanic Gardens and the fact that they're selling plants was a flow on that we didn't really think about at the time we set up the Friends group but it evolved and nobody is really objecting to it at a management level. In fact we're certainly welcoming it and when the Friends put up the proposal that they establish a propagation unit which they are calling the Growing Friends, the Gardens allocated some space to them at the back of the Gardens where the cottages are and this year we have decided to give them more prominence by bringing that Growing Friends activity right down to the Joseph Banks Centre area of the Gardens so it will be a prime activity that the public will become very aware of.
HIGGINS: For the sake of people listening to this tape the odd chortle you might hear is due to the fact that we are in the dark room and we are now under red lights and yellow lights to get away from the buzz in the fluorescent tube.
I think that has probably concluded the discussion on this philosophical evolution of the place. Now in 1985 your role in the organisation changed in that you moved upwards and became Assistant Director Public Programs I believe and your more hands-on role in terms of interpretation changed and you were now supervising people. From that time on wards you still have had quite an input into the sorts of displays that go on etc. 1985 was also a big year for the Gardens in that the Visitor Information Centre was constructed at that time. What was the need for such a centre? The place had been open for fifteen years without one.
FAGG: Well there was a need to expand I guess because as well as the Visitor Information Centre being built the administrative building, the offices for the Director, the Dickson Room were also built as part of that project. I think the Gardens always saw the need for a purpose-built display area. We had made do with the space at the end of what is now called the Ellis Rowan Building for a long time and it was modified and modified and expanded over the time between 1971 and 1985. I think the fact that NCDC which had an enormous amount of power in Canberra in those days actually had the money available to build a new building for us.
Part of the actual move for it came from the NCDC and we responded. We prepared what we wanted and the NCDC engaged architects to do it. There was always this NCDC between us and the architects and it meant that the Gardens didn't get the building where we wanted it which was where the walk way goes across the rainforest gully and we didn't necessarily get the building that we wanted. A lot of the final decision making was taken out of the hands of the Botanic Gardens people so although I was the one who had to set up displays in the Visitor Information Centre at no stage did I ever have any face to face contact with the architects or have any direct input. It ways a very contorted mechanism through the NCDC and it became an architects building rather than a building that necessarily was what the Botanic Gardens staff wanted.
HIGGINS: There was obviously some lead up to this because I understand as early as 1983 there was a survey of visitor information centres in Sydney and Melbourne so you were trying to see what was around and what you wanted.
FAGG: That's right. I mean we knew that we were going to get this building. It was on the books and I went around looking at all the other information centres. I looked at desks and so forth but as I said, having gone to a whole lot of information centres in national parks, museums and so forth and taken a lot of photographs, I came back with some fairly fixed views like people telling me never to go with a curved information desk because equipment will never fit on it. Despite this we finished up with an information centre with a great big curved desk because that's what architects like. So there were a lot of instances of that. Some things we did get but we finished up with a very unusual building and things that have been a pain to us ever since in some ways.
HIGGINS: The book shop seemed to be a great success in that centre in terms of the attractiveness of the presentation and also the volume of people who go through there. You played quite a centre role in getting the legal background to that sorted out?
FAGG: Well yes. The bookshop, as you've said, finished up as a great success but it was certainly not in the way that was intended. We initially planned to operate the bookshop as a government bookshop and when we had drawn up all the plans for the proposal for NCDC it was to be operated with Botanic Gardens staff and that meant that you had several Botanic Gardens staff in that building.
What happened was that a bookshop was put into the final plan and we could not get the Botanic Gardens additional staff to operate it before the official opening of the Information Centre. So at the time of the opening by the Prince and Princess of Wales we had been campaigning to have a couple of extra staff on our books with the Department of Capital Territory that we were in at that stage.
In a final desperate move the Director said, 'Well you realise that when the Prince and Princess of Wales come to open this building and have a look around it there is going to be this vast empty room there that says "Bookshop" without anything in it'. The powers that be in the Department of Capital Territory had a fit at the thought of this. They still wouldn't give us the staff to run the Bookshop but they told us that we had to create the appearance of a bookshop, a pseudo bookshop, and our whole library budget for that year was to be spent in stocking this bookshop by going out and buying books commercially so that it looked as if there was a bookshop there and operating for the Prince and Princess of Wales. We even had to go out and buy magazines like Your Garden from the local newsagents to put there as if there was a magazine rack selling current magazines.
Following this debacle and the way a few weeks later the Botanic Gardens was transferred from the Department of Capital Territory to the Department of Arts, Heritage and Environment and we continued to try and get staff to operate a bookshop. It was only after another few months that we eventually had to give up the whole concept of running the bookshop with our own staff and look at the possibility of franchising the operation out in the same way that we did to the kiosk. I got involved in writing up all the legal contracts to get people to operate the bookshop. I think the result, the group that we got in to run the bookshop, probably ran it more successfully than we could have done using government staff in hindsight. Certainly we had intended to use government staff to start off with.
HIGGINS: Now I think you were also involved in organising the actual royal visit or that part of it was associated with the opening. If that is so, what was it like, was that something of a nightmare?
FAGG: It was a nightmare mainly because the building was delayed. It was behind schedule but you have to book a royal visit a long time in advance so we had a fixed date for the opening. Six weeks before that all we had was the shell of a building because at the last minute there had been all sorts of cut backs and we didn't have any display panels or anything like that and we had to look to getting contractors in. We couldn't find contractors that would do it. We approached a whole lot of people. None of them could do it in the time.
Eventually one of my assistants went to a friend of his who was a carpenter and we had this very strange deal where this carpenter would do all the internal fitting of panels and so forth if my assistant worked for him on weekends on overtime. So in desperation we went along with this arrangement and most of the actual internal fittings of that building were done on weekends and at night with one carpenter and one Botanic Gardens assistant in a way moonlighting with a second job which gave us the point of contact of how we wanted everything but it got done.
I can remember the night before the Prince and Princess of Wales arrived to do the opening we were still putting the final touches on the theatrette and we had scaffolding in the theatrette with Robert Boden as Director and several of my staff plus their partners, husbands and wives, clambering over scaffolding trying to get the video projector attached to the roof. This was about eight o'clock on the night before the official opening. We were all working back every night and on weekends to set up the displays. I can remember Robert Boden and Ann Boden arriving at about six o'clock on the night before with a whole lot of pizzas I think they were because we were all working non-stop through into the evening and they turned up with all this takeaway food and we all sat in the chaos of the Information Centre eating this food and trying to nail displays up and fix cables across rooms and get videos and projectors working in time. So it was quite chaotic.
HIGGINS: I wonder if the members of the royal family are aware of these nightmares that confront all these minions because it happens to be them who are opening the building next day?
FAGG: I'm sure it probably happens everywhere they go, they are just never quite aware of it.
HIGGINS: Yes. The boundaries of the Gardens haven't always been that sacrosanct and in the late 1980s there appeared to be a threat with the proposed John Dedman Parkway which would have come through on the boundary between the Gardens and the CSIRO. What sort of reaction was there between the Gardens and the CSIRO? What sort of reaction was there from the Gardens staff when that was first mooted?
FAGG: Horror I guess at the thought of having a four lane highway right along the boundary. It also resulted in quite a lot of public outcry especially I think from the sort of people who in their private homes would have been affected by the whole John Dedman proposal and a lot of those people came out protesting about it going near the Botanic Gardens. I suspect that they were as much protesting about it going near their front yards. It gave us quite a lot of public support.
There were some rallies along our fence line and the press came along and it also I guess raised with management the need for a community group that we could call on to support the Botanic Gardens whenever we came under so called threat from an outside force like the freeway proposal. Other botanic gardens and museums at that stage had a Friends group and it was seen as the time for us to rally, get a friends group so that we had people to call on when we needed them.
HIGGINS: Of course since then the Friends have taken on a very important guiding role I think from 1992?
FAGG: Yes before Robert Boden left there were a couple of attempts to establish a friends group. They didn't really work. We had a committee set up for a while but it didn't eventuate into a Friends group and after Robert Boden left and Roger Hnatiuk was looking after the Botanic Gardens he said to me that one of his priorities was to establish a Friends group and my response was that we couldn't do this without an extra staff member. I couldn't do the sort of things I was expected to do and the enormous amount of time I knew was involved in establishing a community support group because I had been involved with others. I knew through the Museums Association just how much resources were eaten up in actually establishing the group and after they were established there were quite a lot of staff resources involved in maintaining this group and maintaining the liaison between the management of the organisation and the support group.
So my response was that if we really were serious about having a Friends group then we needed an officer whose responsibility it was to establish the group and I successfully argued for the appointment of a Public Relations Officer. It was only after that position was created as a new position at the Gardens that things really moved and happened and it took the full resources of a person to actually make that happen. The same thing with volunteers and volunteer guides. You really need a staff member who is dedicated to doing that and not just doing it as part of another job. The Public Relations Officer was responsible for getting the Friends Group going and the volunteer guides.
HIGGINS: OK. I'm interested in the industrial side of life at the Gardens. You made the point earlier that when you started virtually everyone was a 'Gardener' and there were very few public servants. For those of you who weren't actually out with a pitch fork or a spade every day it must have been a bit psychologically difficult to be white collar but with a blue collar name?
FAGG: Well I guess nobody would necessarily know the conditions under which we were employed. I can remember going off to museum conferences as the Education Officer at the Botanic Gardens and mixing with all the other education officers with other botanic gardens and museums and art galleries. None of those people would have realised that at that stage I was employed as a Gardener Grade 3 or a Gardener Grade 4. I guess I acted as if I was a public servant and I had the same sort of responsibilities as anybody in those other positions did have. It was just a classification on a piece of paper and a rather low pay packet that reflected the difference but nobody else would have known that. In the same way they didn't know that I was necessarily hitch hiking to get to the conference rather than flying first class airfare the way they were.
HIGGINS: Yes I was going to remark earlier when you mentioned that. It showed very poor support for the organisation's professional staff that there would be such little support for that activity.
FAGG: Well I mean the problem was that we weren't professional staff, we were gardeners and there wasn't the wherewithal to send gardeners to a museum conference in another state. I mean it just wasn't done. So we had to be very resourceful.
HIGGINS: Sounds like the place was acting on pretty archaic Parks & Gardens structures and things just hadn't caught up with the more scientific orientation of the Botanic Gardens.
FAGG: I think it was more the fact that the Gardens had grown 'like Topsy'. Almost we had been created without any official approval so that most of the other national institutions whether it be the National Library, the National Museum, the National Gallery, the War Memorial, all had Acts of Parliament. They were established and when they were established there was a staff went with it. I mean you can't set up the National Gallery of Australia and not have curators and support staff, technicians, security staff, all sent along with the package of establishing a National Gallery but the Botanic Gardens never went through that phase.
We were created without any of the official Acts of Parliament or any regulations so it was quite difficult to have staff under the old Public Service Board regulations. There wasn't any institution to actually allocate the staff to so we grew up in what was almost an underhand manner established by default.
HIGGINS: You mentioned to me the other week that the method of payment was rather novel for the first two years. A caravan would roll up.
FAGG: Well it was probably not novel for gardening sites and industrial staff in any place in Australia. I think that was just the way industrial staff were paid from a caravan or a pay office and everybody's standing in line and counting their money. It's just that for people working in an office structure it was not the normal done thing. Certainly it was one of the strangest things I found in coming to work here as a Herbarium Assistant that I had to stand in line with a whole lot of gardeners to get a pay packet and count out my money in front of the little window in the pay van. I kicked up quite a fuss about not wanting to do this and wanting to have my pay paid directly into a bank account and as far as I am aware I was the first industrial employee in the City Parks to actually win the fight and get my pay paid directly into my bank account after that. Once the precedent was established I think quite a lot of other people did it.
HIGGINS: That would have been in the mid-seventies?
FAGG: Oh yes probably 1971/72 it was one of my first battles with the bureaucracy..
HIGGINS: Just in terms of pay, you mentioned a moment ago Murray that in comparison with the professional staff from other national organisations who you would meet at conferences etc you were relatively poorly paid?
FAGG: Yes. I was actually on the books as a Gardener I think until about 1978. From about 1975 onwards I was actually acting in public service positions and getting the equivalent pay but I didn't have a permanent public service position until 1978. Certainly in those first five years that I was here gardener's pay wasn't particularly great compared with what an education officer would have got in a government institution elsewhere. They would have at least been paid the same salary as a school teacher which was a great deal more than I was being paid as a gardener.
HIGGINS: Looking at the resourcing of the Gardens in general terms, how do you look back on the period that you've been here in 25 years? Has the place been resourced as well as it deserved to be and has it changed through different phases of leadership?
FAGG: Oh it certainly changed a great deal and the amount of money we've got to spend say in my area on displays, interpretation, education has increased enormously. I think the more successful we became in doing what we were supposed to do the more resources we got. Whereas in the eighties we had no money whatsoever to actually advertise the Botanic Gardens. Now with a Public Relations Officer we've got a reasonable budget, we can afford to put newspaper advertisements, magazine advertisements, even the occasional radio and TV advertisements in.
So compared with the 1970s and 1980s my area is I think quite well resourced. I think where the Gardens has suffered most is in cutbacks of staff I guess along with other government agencies. With various razor gangs over the last fifteen years there's been quite a lot of cutback of staff but if you think that when the Gardens were opened in 1970 we had 56 staff I think, 25 years later we've only got 72 staff. For any other national institution that is an amazingly small growth. If you were to say compare what the National Library had in 1970 compared with their staff or the War Memorial or the Art Gallery or any equivalent national institution they would have had huge growth in staff and that's what we haven't had.
HIGGINS: In fact you've had a drop in staff I believe. It was during the eighties there was a reduction?
FAGG: Yes in 1988 we had 88 staff. Now we're down to about 72 so that's quite a significant reduction. If you look at the number of tasks we're doing it's increased enormously over that time and the area of the Gardens that is under cultivation has increased a lot too. So the number of gardeners to actually look after the garden beds is where we've suffered most.
As well as that we used to employ a lot of seasonal labour during summers so although we had say 56 staff on our books, you may have had another 20 people employed for three months over the summer vacation at the height of your growing season when we need most people. Now that doesn't happen at all now and hasn't happened for many years.
HIGGINS: To what extent has improved technology and equipment been responsible for that? For example the watering system in the gardens. Has that advanced much since that time. With the summer workload has that become more automated and made the need for summer staff less pressing?
FAGG: I don't know that I'm the best person to talk about it but the Gardens certainly when I came had a fully reticulated sprinkler system of overhead sprinklers. I think what has happened now is we're using more sophisticated micro-irrigation which is saving the cost of water bills so you don't waste as much water applying it to the plants but I don't know that it has actually reduced the amount of labour. This is I think where government policies on improved technology and reduced number of public servants hasn't worked in the Botanic Gardens because although in offices computers and so forth have cut down the amount of people you need to do the same jobs, we haven't really had the same dramatic technological advances in gardening. So we've had to cut down the gardening staff but there aren't any compensations for that. We just have more weeds around and less tender loving care on the actual garden beds.
HIGGINS: As far as the management of the organisation goes I guess one of the major structural changes was in 1979 when for the first time a Director was appointed and up until that time it had been the Director of Parks & Gardens who had been ultimately in charge and in 1979 the first Director of the Gardens is appointed. How significant do you see that in the history of the organisation? Did it make much of a change? Did it help to for example draw together the two halves of the Gardens, the horticultural and botanical sides?
FAGG: I think it was a very significant benchmark in the growth of the Gardens. For the first time we had a real Director of the Botanic Gardens and there's a perception around the world that each botanic gardens has a director and that position has a sort of social standing in the community. People expect there to be a Director of the Botanic Gardens and Robert Boden sort of fulfilled that role and instead of having two rather disparate sections of the Gardens, the Living Collections with its own Curator and the Herbarium with its own Curator, you actually had somebody to draw the two together. Robert attempted to do that. That was a big change for the Gardens.
HIGGINS: Another theme in Gardens work has been the encouragement of cultivation of native flora by the public generally. It is indicated by those early routed signs out there, a series of publications on growing native plants and I think some of your displays possibly. Has that been a dominant theme through the 25 years that you have been associated with the organisation?
FAGG: Certainly the production of Growing Native Plants, the little publication was quite a landmark. At the time that the Botanic Gardens produced those there was nothing equivalent on the market and for many years they actually were the top selling government publication through the Australian Government Publishing Service. By the early eighties there were a range of other publications fulfilling that need and perhaps the publication that John Wrigley and myself produced in the late seventies almost spelled the death knell of the Botanic Gardens Growing Native Plants series because it provided a lot more information on native plants.
Then in the eighties there was a great number of publications of a similar nature coming out in both slim paperback versions and heavier tomes. You also saw the production of the Encyclopaedia of Australian Native Plants by Elliott & Jones so there was nowhere the need for a little publication like Growing Native Plants but I think in its time it served its purpose very well.
The whole establishment of the Botanic Gardens and the fact that it devoted itself to Australian native plants reflected a changing community attitude with the formation of the Society for Growing Australian Plants in the late fifties and the decision that the Botanic Gardens would be a native botanic gardens or predominantly one in the early sixties. With this sort of trend it led to the enormous growth of that Society for Growing Australian Plants. Certainly at one stage it was the largest society in Australia as far as the number of members went. I think by the late eighties there was a bit of a turn around. There was almost a backlash against native gardens and they ceased to be quite as trends as they had been in the late but I think the Gardens did have a very significant input into that sort of awareness of our Australian flora.
HIGGINS: The fact that your book with John, Australian Native Plants published in 1979, had a print run of 5000 I think was sold out in two months which while certainly being very pleasing for the authors is also surely a sign of tremendous interest within the Australian population growing our native plants.
FAGG: Yes it is and over the three editions that we've produced now I think we've sold 120,000 copies of that book. Yes there is a tremendous interest in native plants still. I don't know that it is quite as narrow minded as it became in the late seventies, early eighties. I think people grow now less exclusively native plant gardens. People see that you can mix native plants and non-native plants together.
I think in the late seventies and early eighties you had a great many very very bigoted narrow minded native or nothing type people. I don't necessarily go along with that and certainly in my own garden there are a lot of natives but there are a lot of non-natives as well. John Wrigley is not a purely native person. He's got a garden that has a wide range of natives and exotics so we were never pushing this exclusively native theme although the book was only talking about native plants.
HIGGINS: One spinoff of course from the Gardens concentration purely on native flora has been the tremendous growth and variety of bird life around the Gardens area and I think that's an attraction for many visitors today. Of course the wrens are all banded which gives an indication that there's scientific interest in that. Would you like to comment on that aspect of the Gardens? It's not directly related to your work I know but …
FAGG: Well the birdlife has always been a major attraction. Early in the seventies we used to produce a colour leaflet on birds of the Botanic Gardens and bird tours, specialist bird tours have always been a very special part of what the rangers have done in the Botanic Gardens and we were fortunate in having one ranger, Kurt Thaler who was very good on recognising birds and has been a great asset over the last twenty or more years in taking bird tours. We always knew that if we had a prominent overseas person who wanted to come and look at birds we had somebody that could take them around and was an authority on the local birds.
With the banding of the wrens I suspect that the blue wrens in the Botanic Gardens are the best known population of birds anywhere in Australia, this is done through the Zoological Department of the Australian National University. I guess one thing that always dismayed me was at least up until about five years was the lack of use of the Gardens by the university Botany Department and there was little liaison between the Botanic Gardens and the Botany Department at ANU. Why this was the case I'm not sure. I suspect it was personality conflicts at some early time but I was also always disappointed that there was never the close links between the Botany Department and the Botanic Gardens that I was familiar with in Adelaide between the Botany Department in Adelaide University and the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
With the move of Mike Crisp, one of our Botanists, down to a position in the Botany Department at ANU a few years ago there has been a turnaround and there is a much closer liaison now. I think we really missed out for twenty or more years on those close links. We actually had closer links with the zoologists and the entomologists than we did with the botanical people at the university.
HIGGINS: Finally Murray and this is a question that I'm asking each person to try to gauge their personal attachment to the Gardens, do you have a favourite place within the Gardens here? One place that appeals to you more than others?
FAGG: I hadn't really thought about it. The fact that I'm presently I think three metres from where I started off in 1970 in my office space I guess could reflect that I haven't made any move to leave the building and the view from my office is the view that I had when I first came as a herbarium assistant twenty-five years ago. Perhaps I could say that that's my favourite view. I can't think of any other spot in the Gardens that actually gives me goose bumps or anything like this as I walk through it.
I lived in the Botanic Gardens in one of the cottages at the back of the Gardens for one and a half years in the early 1980s and in that sense the whole Botanic Gardens became my backyard for a while. I really know the place like the back of my hand. What with coming back here every couple of weekends to take photographs and the times we were doing the various books probably coming back here every weekend to take photographs and checking the location of plants, I really know the whole Botanic Gardens very well so perhaps for me it's the whole Botanic Gardens. It's just like my backyard for twenty-five years.
HIGGINS: Murray thank you very much. That brings us to the end of the questions I had in mind. Is there anything that we haven't covered that you think is significant and which you would like to add?
FAGG: No I don't think so. I suspect that after this long I might be around for whenever the next lot of oral history is done as well so perhaps we'll catch up with that the next time.
HIGGINS: Well thank you again this afternoon. It's been fascinating listening.
FAGG: OK Thanks.