The Maralinga Souvenir Clock

The Australian artist Brook Andrew was invited by MAAS to respond to the exhibition Disobedient Objects. Creating an immersive installation titled Evidence he incorporated ‘disobedient objects’ from the MAAS collection with newly created artworks. The Maralinga clock is one of the objects on display.

Maralinga souvenir clock, maker unknown, Australia, 1956-1980, MAAS collection, 85/1043
Maralinga souvenir clock, maker unknown, Australia, 1956-1980, MAAS collection, 85/1043

In 1985 a MAAS curator spotted the souvenir clock at an antiques market and bought it for $65. The curator intended to include it in an exhibition alongside royal souvenirs and other items depicting Australia’s devotion to Britain. However, it didn’t make the final cut and remained in storage.

This improbable object combines two traditions: themed novelty clocks and Australian mulga wood ornaments. Varnished products shaped from mulga (Acacia aneura) in the form of bookends, ashtrays, inkwells and paperweights, were sold in gift shops in the mid-20th century. Today collectors seeking retro kitsch Australiana are attracted to this giftware.

Maralinga – the word conjures images of a mushroom cloud over Aboriginal land, of reckless British military authorities laying waste to the Australian outback. When Britain started building nuclear weapons to halt its decline as a world power after World War II, it had no suitable territory on which to test them. The Menzies government eagerly offered sites at Western Australia’s Monte Bello Islands and in South Australia.

Atomic tests, Operation Antler (Maralinga), photographic evidence presented to the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia, 1985, National Archives of Australia collection, photograph P771
Atomic tests, Operation Antler (Maralinga), South Australia, 1985, National Archives of Australia collection, A6455, RC597 PART 3

At Maralinga, on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, in the middle of a fenced-off area as large as England, the British carried out seven major nuclear explosions between September 1956 and October 1957. They conducted the tests in relative secrecy, although the explosions were reported in the press. Absolute secrecy surrounded the ‘Minor Trials,’ a series of hundreds of experiments, some with smaller, tactical nuclear weapons, which continued until 1963. Their details were concealed even from the Australian government and remained secret long after their conclusion (Walker, 2014, p 169).

This was not uninhabited land, but the desert homeland of the traditional owners, the Tjarutja people. Even those who now lived in missions or settlements would return for periodic visits (Palmer and Brady, 1991, p 1). The Tjarutja did not call this place Maralinga. Government officials bestowed the name on the bomb site, appropriated from a word meaning ‘thunder’ or ‘field of thunder’ in a distant Northern Territory language (Mazel, 2006, p 169).

In the 1950s people didn’t fully understand the dangers of radioactive materials. However, it became evident that Aboriginal people had been exposed to radiation that damaged their health. Some had unknowingly entered restricted areas that were highly contaminated (Palmer and Brady, 1991, p 2). From the late 1970s journalists and whistleblowers began to uncover the harm inflicted on the Tjarutja people and their land. In 1994 the Australian government, after a Royal Commission, paid a $13.5 million compensation settlement to the Tjarutja people.

Preparing Maralinga souvenir clock soft sculpture for Evidence exhibition, 2015, photo provided by Brook Andrew
Preparing the Maralinga souvenir clock soft sculpture for Evidence exhibition, 2015, photo provided by Brook Andrew

Whoever decided to create an ornament commemorating these events did not leave their name or brand on the surface. They combined three separately made components: a wooden block in the shape of Australia, a clock mechanism (made in West Germany), and a metal disk bearing the image of the mushroom cloud and the word ‘Maralinga’. A detectable amount of radiation is emitted by the luminous paint applied to the face and hands. The disc is adhered flush to the surface, not inset. Strangely, it is not centred between the clock and the edge, and seems clumsily positioned. The layout lacks the proportion and balance that we expect of a mass-produced item.

The disc was certainly mass produced and its artwork appears to have been applied to other products (for example, in the Education collection at the National Museum of Australia). Could somebody have glued a metal disc to an existing mulga wood clock, rendering it a one-off, homemade memento of the bomb blasts? Another explanation is that the product was assembled in limited numbers by a small firm specialising in Aussie mulga wood souvenirs. A sticker on the back depicting a faded map of Australia signifies local production. At the time of acquisition, the curator assumed the clock originated from the period of the bomb tests but a later date is plausible.

Protective clothing being worn at the Maralinga site, South Australia, 1950s, National Archives of Australia collection, A6457, P214
Protective clothing being worn at the Maralinga site, South Australia, 1950s, National Archives of Australia collection, A6457 P214

The nuclear weapons test program was perhaps the last gasp of Britain’s dominion over Australia. It has been described as ‘a second Gallipoli in Anglo-Australian relations’. Australians gained nothing from the tests and paid a heavy price. The remaining radioactive debris, including lethal plutonium, is a terrible legacy of the post-colonial relationship.

The existence of a souvenir clock commemorating this catastrophe leaves some troubling questions unanswered. Whatever the circumstances of its production, the maker assigned patriotic importance to the bomb tests, with no hint of disquiet, anxiety or doubt. With the benefit of hindsight, we project a more disturbing meaning onto this object. It celebrates a series of unimaginably destructive events that caused lasting human suffering, cultural desecration and environmental damage. Its banality contradicts the enormity of its subject. It trivialises tragedy.

Post by Peter Cox, MAAS curator

Peter Cox is a MAAS curator whose principal research areas of Australian social history, performing arts heritage and popular culture are tied to his interest in their preservation as material culture in museum collections.

This post was originally published in the catalogue for Evidence: Brook Andrew by MAAS Media. It is on sale now in our online bookshop.

List of References

Frank Walker, Maralinga, Hachette Australia, 2014

Kingsley Palmer and Maggie Brady, Diet and Dust in the Desert: An Aboriginal Community, Maralinga Lands, South Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 1991

Odette Mazel, ‘Returning Parna Wiru: restitution of the Maralinga Lands to traditional owners in South Australia’, in Marcia Langton, Odette Mazel, Lisa Palmer, Kathryn Shain & Maureen Tehan (eds), Settling with Indigenous People: Modern Treaty and Agreement-Making, Federation Press, 2006

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