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Within contemporary Australian society there lies a potent contrast between its modern, colonial foundations and the radical changes of postmodernism. In many ways, this contrast marks the Nurses Walk in the Rocks, the site of Australia's first hospital. As with much of Sydney city, it is historically significant due to its connections with Enlightenment era values of the early nation, imbued with ideas of progress, development and science. Yet, as we move into an era of growing consumerism and cultural symbolism, sites such as the Nurses Walk can be viewed as markedly postmodern, challenging and subverting typified notions of what makes a historical site today.This paper will draw together academic theories and historical events to critically examine these changes in the Nurses Walk, and how they reflect on cultural juxtapositions within Australia.
Much of Sydney's past lies entrenched in colonial and modernist roots; the suburb of The Rocks, in Sydney Cove, is no exception. The 'Nurses Walk' in the Rocks is a small alleyway threading behind several buildings on George Street and is bordered by Globe, George, Harrington and Argyle streets (Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, 2012). As a historical site, it derives much of its significance from Sydney's colonial history, reflective of modernist ideas of social improvement and scientific rationalism. Yet, it exists as part of a broader, postmodern age of consumerism and commodification, challenging typical notions of a historic site. It represents, at its core, a juxtaposition between both its modernist, colonial past, and the ever changing subversions of postmodernity.
Modernism was a movement which became particularly historically prominent during the Enlightenment era of the early 19th century, breaking from feudal, hierarchical society through championing ideas such as universal equality, freedom, progress, individualism and the 'perfectibility' of humanity (Gascoigne, 2002 p. 2). Such progress would rely less on traditional institutions such as the church, but instead rely on empirical knowledge, scientific rationalism and technology (Gascoigne 2002, p. 3). Against the backdrop of American, French and British revolutions and the burgeoning Industrial age, modernism, conceivably, produced an entirely novel social trajectory that inspired contemporary leaders and thinkers to dedicate themselves to these ideas of achievement. Gascoigne describes it as 'the confidence that it was possible to put humanity, at least on the path to perfection' (2002, p. 6).
Colonialism, the process of expansion of one society into another territory, often establishing political dominance or settling people in that territory, and often displacing its original inhabitants, was another key movement. The fundamental idea of Australian colonisation; establishing a new nation in a hitherto 'unknown' and 'undiscovered' land, was modern in its roots (Gascoigne 2002, p.7). For the colonialists, the Australian colony was an opportunity to establish a novel society that remained fundamentally British, yet drew upon their beliefs for an altogether improved, more advanced society. Even the term of Australia of 'terra nullius', 'No Man's Land', suggested a blank canvas upon which the British could strive for progress – agriculturally, economically, socially (Gascoigne 2002, p. 10). It was such ideas that became critical for colonial society, and, as described by Gascoigne, 'the ethic of improvement took deeper and deeper root in a society that became more…attuned to the possibility of progress' (Gascoigne 2002, p. 11).