Exhibition unearths Bundoora’s traumatic past

A new exhibition at the Bundoora Homestead Art Centre will take visitors back in time through the homestead’s 73-year history as a repatriation hospital.

As a home to many war veterans suffering from the debilitating long-term mental trauma of conflict, Coming Home explores the long-lasting effects of war that endure often out of sight long after the armistices and homecoming parades.

Drawing from the collections of the National Archives of Australia, Australian War Memorial, Red Cross and City of Darebin Art and History collection, this social history exhibition brings together a range of artifacts, photographs and personal stories. Having worked for a range of organisations and collections on many different scales, curator Cassie May is an expert in breathing new life into stories and materials forgotten by the wider community.

“The exhibition commemorates the history of Bundoora Homestead as a convalescent farm and repatriation mental hospital from 1920 to 1993,” May explains. “For some, the burden of the horrors of war – be it in battle or a prison camp – simply became too much and resulted in significant psychological trauma.”

A world away from the ticker tape parades usually associated with soldiers’ homecoming, the exhibition reveals the painful aftershocks of war for veterans, their families and the carers tasked with repairing the often-debilitating unseen trauma of service.

In piecing together the exhibition, it was the stories of two of Bundoora’s long-term residents that hit home for May and her team. Gunner Wilfred Collinson was a World War One veteran who served at Gallipoli and the Western Front prior to arriving at Bundoora, which he called home for 35 years leading up to his death in 1975. Sergeant Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon was a medical orderly with the 2/9 Field Ambulance before serving as a POW at the infamous Changi Prison, and is often remembered for nursing British artist and satirist Ronald Searle on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway. Although years apart, the enduring trauma of Collinson and Cannon’s war experiences saw both men live out the final decades of their lives at Bundoora.

May and her team worked with the relatives of Bundoora residents to unearth their family stories. “We have been very lucky to talk to June Collinson, the daughter of Wilfred, who shared her personal story of visiting the hospital as a child,” May says. May’s correspondence with Collinson also shed light on the resilience of her mother Carline in fighting to receive treatment for her husband’s psychological scarring at a time when our understanding of ‘Shell-Shock or ‘Anzac Nerves’ – now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – was far from complete.

“It is difficult to comprehend the extremes of war patients must have endured – if a veteran was lucky to survive, a further price to pay was the loss of sanity upon the return,” May says. “For these men the opportunity of a normal life back home in Australia was not possible.”

While the pain endured by residents such as Collinson and Cannon colour the exhibition, Coming Home also explores Bundoora’s positive legacy and contribution to mental health care.

“The exhibition highlights the substantial contribution of Dr John Cade AO, who was medical superintendent and psychiatrist at Bundoora,” May explains. Himself a former major with the 2/9 Field Ambulance and Changi POW, Cade’s pioneering 1948 research into the effects of lithium carbonate as a mood stabiliser in the treatment of the condition then known as chronic mania was groundbreaking. Now known as bipolar disorder, Cade’s work in treating this illness is internationally acclaimed. It’s one of a few silver linings in Bundoora’s difficult legacy, which are now given the focus and reflection they deserves as part of “Coming Home”.

Coming Home
Friday, October 3 to Sunday December 7
Bundoora Homestead Art Centre