A Defender of Western Stories

Haffenden dedicated the rest of his life to the museum.

When he was a child, Haffenden’s parents owned a milk bar in Barkly Street, West Footscray. Wanting a good education for her children, her mother buys a set of encyclopedias and Haffenden devours them. From year six, aged 10, he left North Footscray Primary School for Essendon Grammar where the school placed him in second grade. Without telling his parents, the following year he enrolled in Maribyrnong High School instead. It was a homecoming. He enjoyed hearing the stories of migrants and workers from his friends. At school, he befriends Age cartoonist Michael Leunig. Years later, Leunig’s father, Bernard, a butcher, would appear in a museum book titled, Footscray’s Lifeblood.

In the old Newmarket Sales Yard in Melbourne’s mid-west.Credit:Peter Hafenden

In his teens, Haffenden was a bit of a rowdy lot with the local children, but also organized dances and youth events through St Andrew’s Church in Footscray. The seeds of a curator – as an organizer of events and theater – have been sewn. His life partner, artist Kerrie Poliness, said growing up in Footscray made him passionate about local stories.

“Footscray is incredibly multicultural, and at Maribyrnong High there were kids from all walks of life,” Poliness said.

“He found that kind of white-Anglo privilege made him nervous and was, ultimately, very boring.”

At the University of Melbourne, Haffenden studied business and immersed himself in college theater life. After three years in college, in the late 1960s, Haffenden joined a “goodwill” tour of Japan. Leaving on a boat from Darwin, he and about 200 other students slept in hammocks and ate nasi goreng. During the trip, he was lucky to survive when a storm nearly swept him and a friend overboard. He snagged on a rail at the last moment and hung on. The trip opened her eyes and her mind.

After college, he joined the corporate ladder at Shell oil company and hated it. He dabbled in small business, factory work, driving taxis and as a court reporter for age. He joined the ABC as a middle-aged reporter in late 1972 where he met journalist Stephen Rice. They clicked. Both realized that wearing a suit and working for the ABC was like a “passport” to everywhere, everyone, and almost any opportunity.

“Peter had a fondness for art and he understood that life was like a theater,” Rice said. “The costume was the costume that you put on that gives you access to places you can never go otherwise – that and the ABC.”

Rice said his friend also learned how to communicate and cajole the powerful while wearing a suit, which came in very handy when lobbying for museum funding. Respectfully, he refused to talk to underlings when he needed decision makers.

Haffenden led a bohemian life, mostly at Carlton in the 1970s and early 1980s. The ten o’clock closing at hotels meant that Haffenden and Rice continued the party at home. They took their first LSD trips together. They became devoted vegetarians, but by the mid-1970s Haffenden had left the ABC and was studying art and later photography.

Haffenden lived with Wendy Lea and her two children and became a father figure to them. During this period, he dabbled in driving taxis and selling mud crabs to restaurants to support his beloved adoptive family.

“It was an amazing thing that he did. He was a very generous and warm person,” Rice said.

International model Janni Goss employed both Wendy and Peter at Café Paradiso, her eclectic cafe on Lygon Street. Rice said the couple met many talented young designers there and made coffee “their own.”

The Living Museum of the West’s first exhibit in 1985 was called Chops and Chimneys and was staged at the Melbourne Showgrounds pavilion. Haffenden, along with fellow photographer Joe Mastroianni, took most of the images. Olwen Ford said Haffenden had the skills for the job and an interest in the subject of the exhibit.

“He was brilliant at designing and creating exhibits,” Ford said.

She said the exhibit focused on the people of Melbourne’s west and Haffenden had championed bringing them “front and center, as storytellers using their own words”.

“Peter had a great rule about text, a 100-word limit to sum up the theme you’re talking about. So it was good discipline,” Ford said.

When Ford retired in 1997, Haffenden took over as director of the museum.

Haffenden was passionate about Aboriginal stories and worked closely with Robert Mate Mate (Gapingaru), a former initiate of the Woorabinda-Birri Gubba in central Queensland, who became the museum’s cultural manager. Later, Taungurrung man Uncle Larry Walsh was hired as a Native liaison, and other First Nations skills were found in Wendy Berwick and Edgar Harris. Haffenden was a strong supporter of the museum-linked Koori gardening team.

Haffenden worked closely with the Vietnamese community, particularly the Quang Minh Buddhist Temple in Braybrook where he helped develop an “industrial-grade worm farm” to manage leftover food from the 500 meals the temple produced each week. .

At the Vietnamese Festival at Footscray Park.

At the Vietnamese Festival at Footscray Park.Credit:Peter Hafenden

Poliness said Haffenden has only admitted to crying three times in his life.

“He cried when he found out the Wurundjeri still existed; when our daughter was born; and when Footscray won the grand final [in 2016]said Poliness. “Not because he loved football, but because he knew so many people, like our next door neighbor and the people he grew up with, who had followed the Bulldogs for so long. He knew what that would mean to them.

Ford said from the outset that Haffenden was instrumental in developing a “museum by product” to attract government funding.

“We were very pressured to offer products all the time,” Ford said. “Whether it’s postcards or cards or exhibitions or books or concerts.”

Often the research was redirected to produce a second or third “product” to attract additional funds.

After retiring in 2007, he and Poliness worked on Volcanic dream a Critically Endangered Victorian Volcanic Plains Biosphere Project. It was placed on permanent display at the Department for Environment, Lands, Water and Planning headquarters in East Melbourne in 2009.

He returns to the management committee of the museum and becomes an active volunteer. Poliness became the museum’s president in 2019.

West suburban historian Maureen Lane said Haffenden supported her first self-published book Pubs, boats and pastures (with Joan Carstairs) in 1988. The book featured Lane’s female ancestors who owned hotels and operated farms and riverboats from Footscray to Keilor.

“He came to our book launch and really spread the word,” Lane said.

The book was sold through the museum and the money raised was used to build a riverside rotunda between the museum and the riverside celebrating the contribution of pioneering women. It was designed by Poliness with the museum. Haffenden arranged for the government to maintain the shelter.

Away from the museum, Haffenden enjoyed camping on a block of Point Lonsdale his parents had purchased, which led him to found the Friends of Buckley Park in 1999, a group dedicated to preserving the coastal dunes between Point Lonsdale and Ocean Grove .

Dying at home allowed friends and family to visit Haffenden and say goodbye, both before and after his death, Poliness said. Venerable Thich Phuoc Tan OAM provided a blessing to guide her spirit, she said.

On the day of Haffenden’s death, Poliness contacted the museum to say that it was to close for the day and that staff were to come and pick up a whiskey to celebrate his life. It was then that she learned that the Maribyrnong River was heading towards the museum and was expected to rise further.

“We have all the audio tapes, the transcripts and the negatives, the photographs, the computer hard drives, the database – those things that are completely irreplaceable – and they put them all in their cars and drove them here,” Poliness said.

Among the items were 20,000 negatives that Haffenden had scanned during the state’s COVID lockdowns.

Donations to the Peter Haffenden Future Project Fund can be made through the museum’s website. He is survived by his partner Kerrie Poliness and their daughter Phoebe.

A celebration of the life of Peter Haffenden will take place on Thursday 3rd November at 4pm at Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West Pipemakers Park, Van Ness Avenue, Maribyrnong.

Deborah Gough is a former Footscray Mail and Age journalist. She is President of Life Stories Australia and is a writer and editor.

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