A Sunshine State? Remembering Queensland’s 1980s: Public Symposium and Film Screening

13 November 2019

On 9 October the Schonell Theatre and HPI hosted “A Sunshine State? Remembering Queensland’s 1980s: Public Symposium and Film Screening” to an engaged and enthusiastic audience. UQ former postgrad Dr Jackie Ryan (award-winning author and 2019 Queensland Writing Fellow) presented her film on Expo ’88, followed by a panel discussion where Dr Ryan joined prize-winning Australian novelist and journalist Matthew Condon, and ANU’s Professor of History Frank Bongiorno. UQ’s own Geoff Ginn facilitated the evening with great success.

A Sunshine State PanelThe documentary-style film showed never before seen footage from Brisbane’s Expo ’88 coupled with video reflections recorded at Brisbane City Hall’s 25th Anniversary exhibition of Expo that ran from 2013-2014. Expo ’88 was a specialised international exposition that showcased Brisbane as part of the series of World Expositions. The film explored personal memories of Expo from the construction of the exhibition grounds to the final moments of the six-month-long event. The theme for Expo was ‘leisure in the age of technology’ exhibited through 100 pavilions that boasted innovative technologies from different countries, businesses, and state-level organisations. The footage not only showcased the tech from the time, but the garish and fun fashions that really embodied the decade. Held as a part of Australia’s 1988 bicentennial celebrations, Expo saw over 15 million visitors through its gates – an enormous outcome for 1980s Brisbane!

Ryan’s film highlighted the vast range of Expo experiences that delighted and impressed the crowds. Some remember playing a role in the opening ceremony, dancing and singing to open the celebration with panache. Others recalled their time spent with friends, partners, parents, and children, reinforcing the family-friendly atmosphere Expo brought about. Although, one attendee believed there was just as much of a need for a ‘lost husband’ service as there was for a ‘lost child’ service! The live shows every Sunday night were remembered fondly, where one visitor recalled, “I experienced things I had never experienced before”. The ‘exotic’ food was a highlight for many, especially the orange juice from a bag found at the Tibetan pavilion. Expo was a truly international adventure for Brisbane.

The fanfare shown in the film was made real for many through the Expo ’88 stall positioned in the Schonell Theatre foyer with memorabilia from the event. Organised by a third-year history student as part of the capstone course (WRIT3613), such memorabilia included a ‘passport’ from the event, ‘where are they now?’ photos of the sculptures that were at Expo and are currently situated around Brisbane, and Expo advertising posters. Attendees could rediscover (or discover in the case of the few in the audience under 30!) the delights of Expo, and engage with public history coming to life through the memorabilia.

The panel event led by Geoff Ginn and featuring Jackie Ryan, Matthew Condon, and Frank Bongiorno, tied together the academic scholarship and public history threads of the evening. The discussion focused more broadly on Queensland in the ‘80s, and encapsulated the highs and lows of the state’s most contentious decade. The Bjelke-Petersen premiership, the 1982 Commonwealth Games, and (of course) Expo were explored as part of Queensland’s push towards increasing internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and industrialisation. The decade’s villains and heroes were deliberated, as was Queensland’s role in national affairs. The Q&A session was filled with wonderful memories and comments about the audience’s own experience in 1980s Queensland – with some even bravely confessing their dislike of Expo!

The evening was a terrific success and so wonderful to be a part of. All who joined in fondly reminisced on their unique experiences with Expo, as well as the shared memories. The sunshine state in the 1980s was as controversial as it was exciting, a theme that really reverberated at the symposium!

Cassandra Byrnes