The idea had in fact been raised the previous year when it had been put to the University’s inaugural Vice Chancellor, Don Watts, by his Deputy, Professor John Sharpham.
In the 1970’s Watts had been a tutor at Currie Hall, University of Western Australia, with John Cowdell who had gone on to be Assistant State Secretary of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), and State Secretary of the John Curtin Foundation. The Foundation managed a fund, one of whose functions was to develop Labor history projects. It had close contact with the descendants of John Curtin. Cowdell had acquired for the Foundation a collection of about 60 books and memorabilia initially donated by the Curtin family for the opening of the ALP national headquarters, John Curtin House in Canberra, in 1975. When he heard during a conversation he had with Watts in 1996 that a memorial might be established on the campus of the new University, Cowdell offered the Foundation’s assistance. That assistance was specifically for a library memorialising John Curtin; it may well be run as a department of the University Library but it would have a distinct flavour and be the repository of Curtin’s effects and documents, giving a flavour of Curtin the man.
While some believe that the original library concept was simply for a resource room, Sharpham recalled that his suggestion for the library had been based on presidential libraries he had visited in the United States – he had “‘returned home fired up that the new university should develop such a library to honour our great war-time PM”. A prime ministerial library would be the first in Australia. He approached the Curtin family about gaining access to Curtin’s papers and memorabilia and “was getting that all moving” when Watts and he both left for positions in the eastern states.
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John Cowdell, key supporter of the Library
In October 1988, shortly after his commencement, one of the first meetings Maloney chaired was of a small group considering the development of a John Curtin memorial library. To this he added the idea of an art gallery, arguing that a combined memorial library and gallery would give the University’s staff and students and visitors the opportunity to see its excellent art collection in world class surroundings.
Maloney believed a presidential style library honouring John Curtin would be attractive to potential US donors – they were familiar with such libraries and many had positive personal memories of John Curtin from the World War 2 military service in which they or their families had engaged. Within Australia, there was likely to be general bi-partisan support, as many in Australia regarded John Curtin with both admiration and affection.
Maloney continued his predecessor’s close working relationship with the Australian Labor Party’s John Cowdell and the John Curtin Foundation, the latter sponsoring a glossy, multi-page brochure on the “John Curtin Memorial Library and Gallery”.
In May 1989 University Council approved in principle the establishment of a venue to commemorate John Curtin, to be funded by gifts and donations. Some felt this was a safe proposal – a symbolically pleasing but relatively insignificant endeavour that would cost the University nothing.
Knowing that the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke would be visiting Perth in July 1989 to address the Labor Party’s State Conference, Cowdell arranged for a model of the proposed “John Curtin Centre” to be set up in Trades Hall – and ensured that the Prime Minister saw it. Hawke was impressed and pledged $500,000 of federal government funds as initial support for it. This was matched by WA Premier Peter Dowding who was also in attendance.
Through 1989 to 1992 ideas for what a John Curtin Centre building might contain, and what it might cost, grew dramatically. Proposals included a Vice Chancellery, a Great Hall to honour the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Australian US Alliance and those who died in World War 2, a permanent replica of John Curtin’s Prime Ministerial War Office and even a mausoleum to which John Curtin’s body would be transferred from Perth’s Karrakatta cemetery. A John Curtin International Institute to offer programs of mutual interest to Australia and the US was added in 1992. Consistent with US presidential libraries, the Centre was envisaged as a potential tourism attraction for WA and funds-generator for the University.
Several high profile figures were enlisted to support interstate and overseas fundraising campaigns. Active members included “three knights” (former WA Liberal Premier Sir Charles Court and prominent businessmen Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall and Sir James Cruthers), federal Labor minister Kim Beazley and John Cowdell. Prime Minister Bob Hawke accepted the role of Patron of the Centre and federal government support continued under his replacement Paul Keating. Support was expressed by a number of US figures including former President George Bush, who had engaged former head of the US National Archives Don Wilson to set up his presidential library. Wilson visited Australia to assist with the establishment of the John Curtin Centre and made what would prove to be a helpful connection with Prime Minister Keating through the pair’s mutual admiration for the neo-classical architectural style of the US National Archives building.
Projected costings increased from the modest $5 million for a library in 1988, to $6.5 million for a library and gallery in 1989, to $65 million at the height of the optimism of the early 1990s.
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Fundraising leaders Vice Chancellor John Maloney and businessman Sir James Cruthers
Maloney also urged Williamson to undertake a study tour of US presidential libraries, which she did in 1993. Williamson’s study tour report included careful consideration of how the US context differed from the Australian one and how the US presidential library model would need to be downsized and adapted to fit culturally, politically and economically into the Australian environment.
While her predecessor as University Librarian had not been an enthusiastic supporter of the JCPML concept, Williamson was “captivated”. She later recalled that, when asked by Curtin Chancellor Harry Sorenson, who was chairing a University Council meeting, whether she believed [the JCPML] was a credible thing to do, though terrified of him, she looked him in the eye, took a deep breath and told him she was prepared to lay her professional credibility and career on the line to make the concept of the Prime Ministerial collection a reality. That was really when she thought she had to make it happen. Her vision formed the basis for discussions by an interim advisory committee for the establishment of the JCPML which had been set up by the Vice Chancellor at Williamson’s request in August 1993.
Within the University there was considerable opposition to the proposed John Curtin Centre, largely based on concern about whether the attention of its principal proponents and the funds being spent on it could be better spent elsewhere. Little of this opposition however appears to have been directed at the Library.
Finally, at the end of 1993, after consideration of a major presentation on the proposal and learning that $34 million in funding had been secured from federal and state governments (including the newly elected WA Liberal Government under Premier Richard Court), donations and University capital funding brought forward, University Council approved the establishment and construction of the John Curtin Centre. Detailed preparations for the Prime Ministerial Library, still administratively and physically linked to the Gallery, could now get underway.
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University Librarian and future JCPML Director Vicki Williamson
Carter Presidential Centre, visited by Williamson
- John Sharpham, letter to John Cowdell, 9 January 1987, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/47.
- John Sharpham, “Anecdotal Memory of the Formation of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library” (unpublished manuscript, 9 November 2003), typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00826/1, 1.;
John Cowdell, interview by John Ferrell, 21 February – 7 March 2006, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML0977/1/6, 1, 10-11.;
John Cowdell, interview by John Ferrell, 21 February – 7 March 2006, interview notes, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file MG/DON/J D/COW, 2.
- Cowdell, interview notes, 1.
- Cowdell, interview notes, 1.
- Cowdell had discovered that the boxes of books and memorabilia had not been used at John Curtin House, so he had them transferred to Perth for a 1985 exhibition at the State Library of WA to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Curtin’s birth. Cowdell, interview notes, 6, 9.;
Elsie Macleod, letters to John Cowdell, 25 October and 10 December 1985, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/47.
- Cowdell, interview notes, 2-3.;
Cowdell, interview transcript, 10.;
Ian Fairnie, interview by Isla Macphail, 3 December 1997, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00252/1/1, 3.
- Cowdell, interview transcript, 12.
- Vicki Williamson, interview by Lesley Carman-Brown, 9-17 October 2001, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00676/1, 6.
- Sharpham, “Anecdotal memory,” 1.;
John Maloney, interview by Isla Macphail, 25 February 1997, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00189/1, 10.
- Maloney, interview 1997, 2.
- John Maloney, letter to John Cowdell, 7 February 1989, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/47.; Maloney, interview 1997, 7.
- Susan Hart, Look Ever Forward: A History of Curtin University 1987-2012 (Perth, WA: Curtin University, 2014), 92.; Maloney, interview 1997, 10.
- Lesley Carman-Brown, Kandy-Jane Henderson and Lesley Wallace, “Australia’s First Prime Ministerial Library: Past and Future,” AARL, 36, no.1 (2005): 2.;
David Black, “Biography of John Curtin,” accessed December 2019, https://jcpml.curtin.edu.au/resources/johncurtin/;
As an example, a strong supporter of the John Curtin Centre was Sir Charles Court, former Liberal Premier of WA. His father had been a staunch trade unionist who had taken the young Charles to meetings that John Curtin addressed. Charles described John Curtin as “a man who served his country in a time of extreme danger”. John Curtin Centre News, May 1997, 3.
- John Maloney, letter with brochure to John Cowdell, 17 April 1989, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/47.
- Hart, Look Ever Forward, 96.
- It is not clear exactly which model this was. Possibly it was the one submitted by the architectural firm Brand, Deykin and Hay who had won a competition to develop a concept design for the John Curtin Centre, although it is noted in the October Minutes of the Campaign Appeal Planning Committee of the John Curtin Memorial Library and Gallery (JCPML00882/48) that Brand, Deykin and Hay were still working on a model.
- John Curtin Memorial Library and Gallery Campaign Appeal Planning Committee, Minutes of the Meetings 26 October and 2 November 1989 and 9 December 1991, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/48.;
Bob Hawke, speech launching the John Curtin Centre Appeal, 6 October 1991, transcript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/31.;
Working Party on the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library & Archive, Minutes, Report and Vice Chancellor’s Response, 1992, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records files COM3/1 and STR3 Vol 1; Cowdell, interview transcript, 43.
- Maloney, interview 1997, 3.;
Fairnie, interview, 3.
- Other figures included Bill Dix, the Chair of QANTAS; Dean Wills, CEO of Coca Cola Amatil; and retired Chairman of Caltex, Ray Johnson. John Curtin Memorial Library and Gallery Campaign Appeal Planning Committee, Minutes, 9 December 1991.
- Cowdell, interview notes, 7.
- 1988 $5 million figure quoted in Maloney, interview 1997, 2.; 1989 $6.5 million figure quoted in Cowdell, interview notes, 5.; $65 million figure quoted in Cowdell, interview transcript, 13, 23, 24.
- Working Party on the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library & Archive, Minutes, Report and Vice Chancellor’s Response.
- Members, who met almost weekly, included Vice Chancellor Maloney, future Executive Director of the John Curtin Centre David Waddell and future Director of the John Curtin International Institute, Jo Barker. Williamson, interview, 3, 5.
- Vicki Williamson, “Report on Visits to US Presidential Libraries July-August 1993” (unpublished internal Curtin University Library report, 1993), typescript, JCPML00885/2.
- Williamson, interview, 3, 5.
- Williamson, interview, 11.
- Interim Committee for the Establishment of JCPML, Minutes of the Meeting 30 August 1993, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file COM3/1.
- Cowdell, interview transcript, 32.
- Exceptions were a critical letter from John Curtin’s duaghter Elsie Macleod to John Maloney [based on an apparent misunderstanding of the nature of the JCPML vis-à-vis the University Library] and some concerns related to the possible splitting of the papers of John Curtin held by archival collecting agencies [which was actually not intended];
Elsie Macleod, letter to John Maloney, 1 April 1992, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML00882/47.;
Interim Committee for the Establishment of JCPML, Minutes, 7 October 1993, 3.
- Extract from Council Minutes attached to the Progress Report in the Interim Committee for the Establishment of JCPML, Minutes, 4 November 1993;
Vice Chancellor’s Report in JCPML Consultative Group, Minutes of the Meeting 23 March 1994, typescript, John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library, Perth, WA, JCPML corporate records file COM3/2.