Montefiore: Is Adelaide a Time Capsule?

Sir Monty ponders what one might find if a City of Adelaide time capsule turned up at a 2040 garage sale, still sealed.

Late in 2016 Town Hall sealed and buried a time capsule crammed with mementos, to be opened in 2040. It is to be relegated to darkness for a bit short of a quarter of a century, in a footpath cavity below the clock tower’s flapping flags near the rush of King William Street traffic. Sir Monty pondered this matter from the smoking room of his 1864 club, as the billiard balls clicked and time moved slower than a busted Wendts Adelaide pocket watch.

The capsule plan, to celebrate Adelaide’s 175th anniversary and commemorate the 1840 formation of Australia’s first local government, had prompted councillors in 2015 to deliberate on the important things in life. Ultimately, a committee made a decision, which may explain matters below.

As you know, time capsules tend to contain things that once reflected profound matters, but when later dug up, can appear rather ho-hum. A classic example is the ‘time capsule’ of the Golden Record, a goldplated, copper disk – similar to a vinyl LP record – that was bundled on board the US spacecrafts Voyagers 2 and 1, which blasted off (in that order) in 1977 to the far reaches of space.

The disc contained sounds and images of life on earth, but the balance of musical mix from Beethoven to Chuck Berry probably would have challenged the ear of any little green men and women somewhere in the galaxy who might have tuned in. More particularly, it was the fact that the recorded disc was in analogue format, came complete with a spare stylus, but needed a turntable with a 16.66 revolutions per minute to work that really illustrated the challenges of time capsules.

Great idea in ’77, but out in space, where time is measured in millions of light years, turntables are probably now hard to come by, especially ones that turn that slow. The recording also contained greetings from Earthlings in 55 languages, as well as 115 images of Earth things, and recordings of a variety of natural sounds. One can only imagine the delight of Martians squatting around the capsule and disembowelling its contents – the snoring of buffaloes and the trumpeting of elephants.

However, there was no such grandiosity with Adelaide’s capsule. At the risk of deflating your anticipation 23 years early, here’s a sample: an Australia Day Citizenship Ceremony list of names, a statement of Friendship between Adelaide and Qingdao (a Chinese sister city), a Haigh’s chocolates 100th birthday celebration photograph, a Lord Mayor’s reception program for ‘Refugee Week’ and the guest list, a Novita Children’s Service 75th anniversary commemorative book, a baggy red cap signed by Travis Head, captain of the West End Redbacks, a vest and cap from the Adelaide Rowing Club, a summary of the City Library’s first birthday celebrations, a Chinese wooden stationery set from Qingdao, a booklet from the City of Adelaide Lions Club 50th anniversary, and major event merchandise, images and marketing material.

There was more, apparently, but it must be deflating to learn that there was no Golden Record, no greetings in the form of Adelaide’s multiple dialects (among which jabbers its elites (five economic variants); classes (three); sports codes (10); and tribes (the numerous factional wings of its bickering political parties). Neither were there 115 images of Adelaide things.

Speaking of the Golden Record, across the western world the popularity of vinyl and turntables is growing again. (At Sir Monty’s club, the 1920s Victrola turntable is still wound up, a shrewd anticipation of power supply problems, 95 years early.) Reflecting on that trend, Town Hall administrators ought to have included a high quality turntable, stylus and records in the capsule.

The symbolism would have been profound, because records go around and around, and one of Adelaide’s key features is that social and political problems often do precisely the same, sometimes for years. For example, the bid to fully upgrade Victoria Square has been going in circles for decades, but despite throwing $30m at it a few years ago, the place still looks like a wasteland. Then there’s Adelaide’s big traffic congestion problem and a decision to bring back trams, which were thrown on the scrap heap 60 years ago because they got in the way of cars. So many opportunities for a truly symbolic time capsule, so few taken up.

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