Ive been accused of jeopardising Beechworths Ned Kelly Vault by publicly pointing out some of the places where I believe the Vault doesn’t live up to its own claims to be historically accurate, balanced and impartial. In particular the Vault promotes uncritically the central element of Jones-Kelly mythology, the baseless contention that the Kelly Outbreak was all about setting up a Republic of North east Victoria.
So far, the response from the Vault has been disappointing. Nobody from the Vault was prepared to defend the Vault except in Private. No one has answered specific questions I asked about an unlabelled gun on display in the vault, or confirmed that all the documents on display are real and not facsimiles. I asked those same questions of the Custodian at the Vault when I was there, but didnt get satisfactory answers. I am still waiting for them, and would point out that if harm is being done to the Vault, its not because questions have been asked but because they haven’t bothered to answer them, or even respond. Open-ness and honesty earns respect, but denial, shutting up Shop, censoring Face-Book discussions, and keeping silent loses it.
In this post I will provide another example of the Vaults failure to live up to its claim to be ‘ historically accurate’, with reference to an object on display there which is said to be “the most significant Kelly discovery in 50 years”.
This discovery was a piece of metal, and the inscription reads “...beyond doubt this piece of unremarkable metal is in fact an offcut from Joe Byrnes breastplate”
It was found by amateur Kelly historian Darren Sutton in the bush at a site thought to be the ruins of an old Bush Forge. Its claimed that the shape of this piece matched a cut-away part of the Breastplate of Joe Byrnes armor, and thus not only was the find an original piece of the metal used to make Joes suit, but it also identified for the first time one of the places where the armour was actually made in the Woolshed Valley
‘It should be noted that after this body of work was concluded the author was contacted by a person claiming to have some of the parent material used in the manufacture of the armour. Subsequent examination of this material via the same techniques led to the conclusion that it was NOT of the same material as that used to construct the armour of Joe Byrne’
What happened was this : ANSTO tested the Breastplate in several places,and they also tested the helmet, back plate, side plates and lap plate, and in addition they tested a small peculiar circular area on the front of the breastplate they called the ‘mark’. For completeness they also tested the back of the breast plate immediately behind the “mark”. What their tests showed was that the “mark” was “an impregnation of lead in the steel, consistent with the impact of a lead projectile, perhaps a low velocity bullet.” Traces of Tungsten in the mark indicated that this bullet had been fired at the breast plate long after the Gang had been destroyed, because Tungsten wasn’t used in bullets until WWI. Woolshed Jack was completely off the mark when he wrote for Wikipaedia “The reason given by Heritage Victoria was that Joe’s suit contained large amounts of lead, and the piece found in the bush contains no lead, so they cannot be the same.The test results from Ansto clearly state that the lead found on Joes suit was from a bullet impact ..”
In fact what ANSTO said was that Joes armour was made from steel that had SMALL amounts of lead in it from the time of its manufacture, not ‘LARGE amounts’ as stated by Woolshed Jack. At the “mark” , and only there, the lead concentration was very much higher because that tiny area had been “impregnated” with additional lead, most likely from a bullet that was fired into the breastplate at or after the time of WWI. If as Woolshed Jack states, the Sutton steel had NO lead in it, then THAT would be the reason why ANSTO determined it was not part of the moldboard steel that Joes breastplate was made from – every single piece of Joes armour that they tested had small amounts of lead in it, but , like many other types of steel made back then, Suttons piece didn’t have ANY. Nothing to do with the lead Bullet. An unequivocal result. End of story.
“Its about putting history right” says Sutton.In fact, the testing was not flawed – it was thorough and professional. The flaw is in Suttons understanding and interpretation of the results, as Ive described above.
And what has happened to the results of his ‘further testing’ , due out five years ago that would prove ‘he was right’? I would hazard a guess and say that ‘Woolshed Jack’ is Darren Sutton, and the independent tests that he arranged didn’t give him the results that he wanted, so he has quietly ignored them. Theres little doubt in my mind that if his independent tests had proved his point, those results would have been trumpeted throughout the entire Kelly world. The fact they haven’t tells the story. It would seem that inspite of what the science is telling him, he refuses to concede he is wrong about that piece of metal. But if he’s fair dinkum when he talks about “putting history right” he is five years late, and he needs to go back to Wikipedia, re-do his Edit, explain that the ANSTO testing was not flawed and tell every one what the results of his independent tests were.
He also needs to go to the Kelly Vault and tell them to change their display of his findings to reflect the truth about his piece of steel. If it becomes widely known that one item on display is not what it claims to be, why should anyone believe any of the others are? Maybe that table is fake? Maybe the gun is? And if there are other places where he has spread this nonsense about ANSTO having got it wrong, he needs to go there as well and correct the record.
This does not mean that Darren Sutton cannot display his interesting finds or speculate on their origins, but – lets call it for what it is – its a lie, to say “beyond doubt this piece of unremarkable metal is in fact an offcut from Joe Byrnes breastplate” Lies are not what people expect to read in their Museums. Suttons steel is not an off cut from Joes armour and so, sadly for Mr Sutton it wasn’t the greatest Kelly discovery in 50 years. But his story could still be told, and be far better told openly and honestly as an example of one mans passion as an amateur historian for Kelly artefacts and relics, and the frustrations entailed in the search, the way in which Science helps to prove or disprove our hopes and dreams. Instead, the way it is now, for some it harmfully undermines true science in favour of personal subjective belief, is actually a story of the way in which tunnel vision can over-ride logic, clear thinking and rational thought and result in people advocating things that are demonstrable nonsense; Embarrassing for the man, embarrassing and damaging for the Museum. A Lose-lose when it could so easily be a Win-Win. Wheres the Vaults imagination and creativity gone?
The really important point here is about integrity. Publicly funded Museums are not places for trivial entertainment, or for the advancement of private agendas about history, but serious and important places where Science should be respected and honoured. In Museums people expect to be educated about our history, to learn about what is known and also what is unknown, what is theory and what is speculation, what is true and what is untrue. People who visit Museums trust the professionalism of the Curator to tell them the truth, and not to pull the wool over their eyes as might happen if they visited a Creationist Museum in the USA. Its not enough to have visitors tick the Box and say they think it was a great Museum – the Curator needs to know that what visitors go away with is accurate and reliable information, genuine insight and understanding and that the objects they’ve seen and wondered at are really what they are claimed to be. If Curators don’t adhere scrupulously to basic principles of honesty and integrity and openness in their Museums, people will leave thinking they’ve been entertained and informed but instead they’ve been misinformed, they’ve been had. Ultimately, as people realise they’ve been ‘had’ the reputation of the museum will be trashed.
I am sad to say thats whats happening now at the Kelly Vault- people are going away thinking the Kelly Republic of North East Victoria was the inspiration for the Kelly Gangs murderous spree in 1880,and believing they saw an off-cut from Joe Byrnes armour. Well, it wasn’t, and they didnt, and these two problems need to be fixed. If they aren’t, then the Vaults credibility is eroded, and its status is reduced to shrine, and wacky side-show rather than something that supports the tone and the serious commitment to History so evident in the Burke Museum itself, in the Courthouse and other sites in the Cultural and Historic Precinct at Beechworth.
For me, Kelly myths and dodgy artefacts spoil the Kelly Vault – I found myself starting to wonder if I should trust all that was written there, if some of the other artefacts were genuine or just facsimiles…However ordinary tourists would not spot these things, and probably come away impressed, which for some in the Kelly World is all that matters. For others though, like Bill and me, accuracy, honesty and historical truth are more important. Matt Shore, Kelly Vault curator what group are you in?