What's in store?

What’s in store? is a fascinating exploration of Australia’s retail history from 1880 – 1930. The exhibition draws on the Museum’s extensive retailing and advertising collection to examine the development of urban and rural stores and the social links between city and country that they fostered.

The exhibition also explores the intimate relationship between local communities and their stores by telling the story of a pioneering Chinese-Australian family and their small rural shop near Crookwell, New South Wales.

The exhibition is divided into three major sections: ‘Selling in a modern world’, ‘The general store’ and ‘A shop family’.

‘Selling in a modern world’ focuses on the rise of the modern city department store and the dominance of brand names and advertising at the end of the 19th century. These multi-storey ‘palaces of desire’ employed state-of-the-art techniques in advertising and goods display. Beyond the department stores, people were also exposed to a huge range of product names across billboards, shopfronts and in magazines.

‘Selling in a modern world’ also highlights technological advances in handling money – the cash register and the centralised cash exchange system that came into widespread use in response to the expansion of shops and the increase in staff numbers. Iconic objects such as an elaborate brass NCR cash register (see top left) and a large Bushell’s tea window display demonstrate the development of modern display techniques, advertising and cash management technologies.

‘The general store’ uses the Wong family store as a case-study for exploring the vital role the rural general store played in regional communities throughout the 19th century. The Museum’s Wong store collection includes original shop fittings, a variety of merchandise, account books and order notes which will help visitors understand how Australian rural stores sustained their communities by providing access to merchandise from across the world and much needed credit in hard times.

‘A shop family’ takes a more intimate look at the Wong family and the community in which they lived and worked. Amelia and Sat migrated to Australia in the 1850s – a decade of dramatic social change due to the discovery of gold – in very different circumstances. Amelia arrived with her family from England and they acquired farmland near Bathurst. Sat was one of the thousands of Chinese men who came to the ‘New Gold Mountain’ of Australia in search of gold. Despite their disparate backgrounds they married in 1864 and went into business trading on the goldfields while raising a large family. In 1879, Sat was naturalised which allowed him to buy a sheep property in Bolong, New South Wales. It was in this relatively isolated location that he and Amelia operated their store, servicing the farming families around them.

The Wongs were highly respected members of their local community. Education was important and their son Henry recorded local people and events in hundreds of photographs. The Wong Family is an important example of cultural integration in an era marked by hostility towards Chinese people and ‘racial mixing’ in Australia.

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