Between the flags: 100 years of surf lifesaving
review by Marion Stell
After 100 years the most astonishing thing about the surf lifesaving movement in Australia is that it is currently at the vanguard of some critical areas of social and political change in Australia. That an association of about 113,000 volunteer members, drawn historically from Anglo-Celtic working class and lower working class socio-economic families,[1] who adopted at their inception a military-style model of organisation and who only admitted women to full membership in 1980 is capable of leading major social change in Australia is a subject worthy of further analysis.
Cottesloe rescue and resuscitation team with Don Morrison as beltman
Cottesloe rescue and resuscitation team with Don Morrison as beltman, 1949–1950
copyright unknown

Consider their recent record. Following the disturbing 'Cronulla riots' of December 2005, Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) formed a partnership with both the Sutherland Shire Council in southern Sydney and the (then) Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs to establish the 'On the same wave' program. This ongoing program has both a practical and emotive focus. Its goals are:

to provide support to young Australians of all backgrounds, particularly young Australians of Middle Eastern background to engage [with] Surf Life Saving around Australia. It also aims to increase Surf Life Saving's openness and responsiveness to cultural diversity and increase diversity within clubs.[2]

The aim is to take this program to communities and surf clubs across Australia. Already one highly practical result has been the training and qualification as surf lifesavers of 17 men and women from Sydney's Muslim community, aided by the development of the 'burquini', a swimming costume designed especially for Muslim women recruits. The burquini is a head-to-ankle suit in the distinctive official lifesaving colours of red and yellow, that looks much like the stinger suits worn by lifesavers in the tropical waters of northern Queensland. The suit has already attracted interest from Middle Eastern and European countries where Muslim women lack the freedom to qualify as lifesavers.[3]

But SLSA's realisation of the need to reach out to the Australian community more broadly does not stop there. Nor does their ability to reflect shifting public attitudes. Last year the popular gay troupe the Asian Marching Boys dressed and performed as surf lifesavers in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade. In homage to the official Year of the Surf Lifesaver the advertising campaign theme of the 2007 New Mardi Gras adopted the lifesaver icon as its own, an easy borrow. But this is not just for show. In 2007, for the first time, Surf Life Saving Australia entered their own Mardi Gras float in the parade, featuring up to 80 gay and lesbian lifesavers and their supporters. The chief executive officer of SLSA, Brett Williamson, openly expressed his organisation's support:

Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) acknowledges and supports any member who wishes to participate on the Year of the Surf Lifesaver float in this year's Mardi Gras. During the year-long celebrations to mark Surf Life Saving's centenary, this is another opportunity to highlight the organisation's diversity and deliver key beach safety messages at the same time.[4]

Clearly an association as large as the SLSA does not reach such a level of tolerance, adaptability and inclusiveness overnight. But visit the exhibition Between the Flags originating at the National Museum in Canberra (and destined for other venues around Australia in 2007–08) and a safer, more traditional picture of surf lifesaving emerges.

Surf Life Saving Australia is well-positioned to make the most of 2007 as the Year of the Life Saver and the centenary of organised surf lifesaving in Australia. This exhibition is part of a wider suite of collaborative activities and publications planned for the year.[5]

For me to choose to go to an exhibition, no matter the theme, it must spark my interest in some way. It must offer the potential to ask some questions, raise some issues, provide some insights and strike a chord of relevance. Those questions, issues and insights don't need to be life-changing — they can be quirky or trivial and purely entertaining, but they must provoke or spark something.

Shark alarm bell, 1909
Shark alarm bell, 1909
Bronte Surf Lifesaving Club

My first reaction on visiting Between the Flags was that the design of this exhibition is simply beautiful. It exhibits the clean, crisp lines and clear graphics so distinctive of a Bannyan-Wood designed exhibition. Not only is it pleasing to the eye, but everything works. Lucy Bannyan is the maestro at clustering multiple single objects. Her skill and eye is evident in the opening display of the hundreds of coloured caps of surf lifesaving clubs throughout Australia. They drift like jellyfish suspended on a wave. The effect is overwhelming. Everywhere the design is aesthetically pleasing with simple touches that make the exhibition easy to absorb and, presumably, easy to travel. Large graphic panels are back-lit and care has been taken to depict the 'everyone' aspect of beach culture.

At the rear of the exhibition three overlapping screens project a seascape that flickers light pleasingly across the whole darkened exhibition. If the budget had allowed, I would have liked more of my senses engaged — the sound of the ocean (rather than the airconditioning), the squeak of sand, the sound of the shark bell or siren, the smell of the sea or suntan lotion.

The main content is divided among five major text panels representing the themes of the exhibition. Wanting a fresh and edgier history of surf lifesaving I found them predictable and traditional. These are the theme panel titles:[7]

- The birth of surf lifesaving
- Discovering the beach
- Competition in the surf
- Tools and techniques
- An Australian icon.

It is the flatness of the text and its themes, in contrast to what I would describe as the potential, vibrancy and dynamism of the topic (and the design), that disappointed me the most. That is not to say that the text isn't well-researched and comprehensive and that the story of lifesaving in Australia isn't filled with controversy and interest. Just that what is presented here is too safe and predictable to capture my interest. Sadly it is text with the drama of the story removed. I wanted an exhibition on lifesaving — on matters of life and death — to strike some spark, some emotive connection with me. For the 'rescuers' I wanted to get to the heart of their involvement with stories framed around pride, duty, service, humanitarianism, bravery, honour, friendship, heroism, diversity, and challenge. For the 'rescuees' I wanted to engage with stories framed around panic, fear, survival, relief, gratitude, life and death. For the organisation I wanted to know something about the struggle, resilience, diversity, adaptation, morality, egalitarianism and challenge. I wanted an exhibition that stepped outside its subject. I wanted the museum to position surf lifesaving within a wider cultural framework; one that looked back over the last 100 years to explain the present and shed light on the future. On the day I visited the exhibition in its Canberra venue, I observed few visitors lingering to read the text panels, although other days may be different.

Program cover for surf carnival
Program for International and Australian Surf Championship Carnival, Torquay, Victoria, 1956
Surf Life Saving Australia

On balance, however, the flat thematic presentation is saved (pun intended) by the selection and treatment of the objects, many of which were borrowed from SLSA, surf clubs and individuals, and other museums such as the Australian National Maritime Museum. The objects can be grouped into a number of types — caps, 'cossies', blazers, clothing, medals, trophies, pennants, ephemera, equipment, reels, belts and boards with one large surfboat. No surprises there. But it is the confident selection, handling and presentation of the objects that create the most interest.

Dense display areas linked to the five themes mass the objects and create a nice sense of the depth of surf lifesaving, its long history and the number of clubs involved. Fortunately surf lifesaving competition has generated a number of spectacular trophies (in design rather than size) and these are displayed imaginatively. Additional mini showcases grouped along the sides of the exhibition feature a number of individual stories with some unusual trophies and other memorabilia. Some clever design techniques, such as displaying medals on long supports that bring them to the front of the case, make small objects easy to see and appreciate.

Stories of some individual lifesavers are provided through a modern video loop: 'Meet the lifesavers', and there is also a separate historic newsreel loop. There is a fun interactive — the surf rescue challenge — which pits two paddlers against each other. Scattered throughout are a number of smaller interactives and challenges, some of which I found slightly bewildering: you can feel shark skin (in case one rubs against you in the surf perhaps?), hunt for two cereal packets among a cluster of costumes (to denote the surf lifesaving sponsorship cereal wars) and feel 'fake fur' similar to the material of the tracksuits of lifesavers from the 1940s. Just as entertaining might have been an interactive that challenges you to read a beach, in order to recognise a rip and other dangers.

Clearly some risks have been taken with the design and they are rewarding. The mass display of the colourful and distinctive club surf lifesaving caps (I recall 15 large cabinets) seems deliberately random rather than conforming to any traditional notion of state, location and foundation dates. Similarly the exhibition leaves the timeline 'a date with the beach' until you are almost outside the exhibition. Consult it if you want to know the names of each president of SLSA but not if you want to know the date of the Cronulla riot. Clever and simple 'Surf stories' notepads are invitingly positioned at the exit for you to leave your own contribution, and previous stories are displayed under the glass-top table on which you write.

Despite the clever and satisfying design and the successful selection of objects, I couldn't help but wonder how the exhibition had undersold the important place of surf lifesaving in Australia today. In defence of the museum, part of the answer lies in the long lead times needed for an exhibition of this scale and the difficulties of incorporating very recent events and imbuing them with the necessary perspective and insight. Another answer lies, I suspect, in the nature of collaboration itself. We cannot be privy to the complex negotiations needed to stage this exhibition, the nuts and bolts relationship between the two organisations: who had editorial control, how many stakeholders needed to be consulted, what compromises were made, and so on.

We do know that the material describing the exhibition states that it has been developed in conjunction with SLSA. In the booklet produced to accompany this exhibition the director of the museum, Craddock Morton, writes:

When Surf Life Saving Australia approached the National Museum of Australia seeking advice about staging a centennial exhibition, the Museum jumped at the opportunity to assist. As Australia's national social history museum, we wanted to tell the story of this key aspect of our relationship with our coastal playground.

Surfboat at Australian Championships 2006
Surfboat competition at Australian Championships, Kurrawa, Queensland, 2006
photograph by Dean McNicoll
National Museum of Australia

Museums do have a role in venturing into the difficult territory of presenting collaborative corporate-style exhibitions. They can offer the necessary expertise to 'assist' them in telling a worthy story. Any good design firm can produce an exhibition, but I would argue that what a national or state museum can do is not merely present the history of that organisation, it can provide the scholarship and insight to see that organisation within its wider social and cultural framework. Of course, strictly speaking, Surf Life Saving Australia is not a corporation in the sense of a Coca Cola or Cadbury exhibition, but it is clearly a brand in Australia and their merchandise is available for you to purchase at the museum shop. For me, the exhibition also raises wider questions: what will our national or state museums jump at next? Are there some organisations that would be judged unsuitable, and by whom?

At the end, a good solid exhibition is let down by some safe and unchallenging conceptualisation of content and a failure to engage with the place of surf lifesaving within Australian cultural history. Surf Life Saving Australia misses an opportunity to say something significant about their organisation and the museum misses an opportunity to look at a 100-year-old institution with fresh eyes and fresh insight. Ultimately the space between the flags is safe. But perhaps that was SLSA's and the museum's collaborative aim after all.

Marion Stell is research fellow in the School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics, University of Queensland.


National Museum of Australia in partnership with Surf Life Saving Australia


Matthew Higgins (curatorial manager), Joanne Bach (lead content curator), Pip McNaught (content curator)


Bannyan Wood Graphics
Hawke Graphics

Exhibition space:

about 650 metres in National Museum of Australia gallery space (smaller in some tour venues)


National Museum of Australia, 6 December 2006–11 February 2007
Australian National Maritime Museum, 8 March – 29 April 2007
Queensland Museum, May – August 2007
South Australian Maritime Museum, September – November 2007
Western Australian Museum, December 2007 – March 2008

1 Garry Browne O'Byrne, 'Making the legend: Coogee Surf Life Saving in the 1950s', Australian Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 6, November–December 2006, p. 18.
3 Sunday Telegraph, 4 February 2007.
5 See also E Jaggard, Between the Flags: One Hundred Summers of Australian Surf Lifesaving, UNSW Press, Sydney, October 2006, written by a team of sports and social historians and produced in association with Surf Life Saving Australia.
6 The full text of the theme panels is reproduced on the National Museum of Australia website
7 'Director's foreword', Between the Flags: 100 Years of Surf Lifesaving, National Museum of Australia Press, Canberra, 2006, p. vii.