In 1972 artist Robert Ingpen, writing of Swan Hill’s Pioneer Folk Museum, suggested that “seeing how our forebears lived, we discover how they fitted themselves into the new land and established a balance which we must maintain for the sake of future generations.” For fifty years, the Museum has been a key element of the Rural City of Swan Hill’s suit of tourist attractions. Its creation, to a design by Roy Grounds in collaboration with Victorian National Gallery director Eric Westbrook, coincided with both men’s research work on the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne. Inspired by Stockholm’s “living Pompeii” of Skansen, its example would go on to inform the creation of numerous historically based “folk villages” around Australia.
This paper uses newspaper reportage and previously unexamined material in the Folk Museum’s archives. It examines the role of the museum within Swan Hill, its creation as a “by-product” of Grounds’ and Westbrook’s (and the people of Swan Hill’s) interest in furthering a founding narrative. It also positions the iconic Folk Museum in the space between Grounds’ fame as a modernist architect of consequence in Australia; the mid20th century expectation or understanding of pioneer life; and the desire of progressive regional cities such as Swan Hill to make its way in the automobile age as a tourist destination.