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Mechanics’ Institutes

Mechanics’ Institutes were radical, voluntary, self-help organisations which began in Scotland and England in the early 1800’s and soon were transplanted to the colonies. The first Mechanics’ Institute was established in Melbourne in 1839 just four years after the colonisation process began. Pam Baragwanath, in her seminal Centenary of Federation publication, ‘If the walls could speak : a social history of the Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria’, outlines in her meticulously researched hard covered 355 page tome the history of over 500 of possibly 1,000 Mechanics’ Institutes that were established by ordinary Victorians to act as a permanent space for working people.

The death of the Mechanics’ Institutes as a viable, self-funded community centre was, to a large degree, due to both the state being forced to take a more active interest in the lives of people and technological innovations that, to some degree, have temporarily broken down the need to physically interact with the people around you.

I'm writing about Mechanics’ Institutes because as I try to tidy up my life by divesting myself of what I no longer need or want, I stumbled on a pristine copy of Pam’s book. I'm going to keep this book because it does what very few historical accounts do, it details the history of pivotal institutions, built, financed and used by ordinary people whose important role is rarely acknowledged, let alone celebrated.

I do a lot of travelling in my work, what I find disturbing is the lack of public facilities. Pubs, restaurants, pokie venues, coffee shops have sprung up everywhere. Public buildings have closed down in the age of privatisation. The much maligned Whitlam led Labor government tried to roll back the tide by providing funding for Neighbourhood Houses, Community Health Centres and Women’s Centres. Although a few manage to survive, most have closed down as a result of funding cuts.

Community space no longer exists as the Wednesday Action Group (WAG) has discovered over the past 18 years as public private partnerships privatise public squares, railway stations and community centres. The birth of the Men’s Shed Movement is the only ray of sunshine as far as public space is concerned in the 21st century.

The rise and rise of the world wide web, smart phones, Twitter and a thousand other technological innovations has not diminished the need for public buildings and public space people can enjoy. The changing face of public libraries seem to be driving away, not attracting, people to them.

The need for human interaction in safe public spaces is not some nostalgic yearning for a past age, it’s a necessity. Transforming public buildings and spaces into private enterprises further alienates those who are alienated, increases divisions within society which in turn breeds insecurity and violence.

Thank you Pam Baragwanath for reminding us of our vibrant public past.

Dr. Joseph Toscano

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