Home > Our Heritage > Modernity


Modernity is a slippery term but in one sense it is about being modern. Much concerning civil aviation relates to modernity. Airports, like skyscrapers, are icons of modernity. They are places that are characterised by acute rationalisation, communication and temporal awareness.

 Airports, too, constantly remind all who pass through or work in them of relentless change which is another feature of modern existence. This is what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were referring to when they wrote of the modern world that: ‘All that is solid melts into air’.[i] At different times, runways were extended to accommodate larger, faster aircraft, transport arrangements are reconfigured, interiors redesigned, routines modified and new technologies installed.

 The modern airport – and indeed the civil aviation industry as a whole – is also about ‘order, regularity, system and control’.[ii] It is an evolving complex of systems and networks which continually solve difficult problems; an information knowledge management system which processes enormous quantities of data. Accompanying this development has been the growth of various professions involved in the aviation industry, professionalization being another feature of modern times.

Some of the larger airports have become ‘glocal’ – globally homogenized with local inflections[iii] – sites for modern consumption. In-transit passengers and others can experience the modern in designer shops. Various photographers were also commissioned at times to capture modernity on film and, more recently, digitally.

In 1962, John Mulligan photographed Sydney’s Mascot airport. One image showed off the ‘New TAA control room’, another the international check-in counters. Both spoke reams about ‘order, regularity, system and control’. Progress – the great myth of modernity – was at work in these critical gateways.


New TAA control room, Mascot Airport, Sydney, 1 August, 1962 John Mulligan(National Library of Australia)

A little earlier, Russell Smith had photographed a Qantas Boeing 707-138 jetliner at Avalon airport in Victoria in 1959. It points to civil aviation’s role in globalizing modernity. Here, mobility is an agent of modernity – in this case, in the modernisation of Australia, as its citizens began to travel in growing numbers to other parts of the developed world.


Qantas Boeing 707-138 jetliner at Avalon airport in Victoria in 1959 (photograph Russell Smith) NLA

In the 1920s and 1930s, young women in Australia including Helen Blackburn, Millicent Bryant, Irene Dean, Joan Taubman, Freda Thompson and Nancy Bird Walton:

 took to the skies wearing clothes designed for both comfort and the extremes of temperatures, and stories and images of them in daily newspapers and women’s magazines portrayed them as female exemplars of early twentieth century Australian modernism.[iv]

 For these women and others who followed them, the sky was the limit. And they pioneered a cosmopolitan modernism and the formation of an international image of the modern woman.

Architecturally, airports conformed to the modernist ideals of purity and vitality of form. Technological efficiency was turned into an aesthetic. This is evident in John Mulligan’s image of Sydney International airport’s waiting room taken in 1970. Like some of the surrounding airport hotels, much of the airport is a ‘machine for viewing’.[v] These are liminal spaces that connect places. In a way the waiting room became for a while a new frontier. The frontier disappeared from the 1980s with the rise of globalisation and free markets. Marc Auge has suggested that towards the end of the twentieth century large airports have become one of the new transit ‘non-places’, like shopping malls – part of what he has termed ‘supermodernity’ – that are characterised by an overabundance of space and information.[vi] Canberra Airport is currently considering setting up an ‘aeropolis’, an airport city.


Sydney Air Traffic Control (National Library of Australia)


Heritage Sources 

Aviation technology and related facilities like airports have been showplaces for modernity, in terms of being the latest in industrial design, having the latest systems, and offering the greatest level of comfort and service to users. The technology therefore incorporates both the pursuit of the latest style, and the latest technology, to achieve the exacting standards that aviation demands.

Statutory authorities such as Airservices Australia, hold significant technical and construction information on Australia’s airport installations and other systems important to safe national aviation operations. These records include planning material, construction documentation (including blueprints), and details of progressive developments.

The pursuit of the corporate appearance of modernity can be examined by looking at collections of flight crew wear such as those found at QANTAS, the TAA Museum, the Powerhouse and the NMA. Other important material remains in private hands, such as the material held by Phil Buckley[viii] and Darren Carroll[viiii] in Australia and even Cliff Muskiet[x] in the Netherlands. All three maintain active websites.

The modernity theme is only addressed in a minor way through existing collections, although there are undoubtedly large archival resources. The significant development of a digital portal spanning the national collection would allow the public to gain a better idea of how aviation expresses concepts of modernity.

Museums, Collections & Archives

National Film and Sound Archive Australia, ACT

A large collection audio visual material that includes advertisements and film clips from various airlines such as Qantas and TAA.

The Ansett Australia collection which has around 100 titles that chronicle the changes in the company's history and Australian air travel.

National Library of Australia, ACT

Documents, photographs and other ephemera that charts the modernisation of aviation and air travel in Australia through changes in stewardess uniforms and advertising.

National Museum of Australia, ACT

Jan Phillips Collection contains items from the East West Airlines, a regional airline that serviced regional centres and major cities. This collection contains uniforms, photographs and East – West magazines.

Qantas Heritage Collection, NSW

A large collection of memorabilia from Qantas which includes examples of uniforms of air crew, advertising ephemera and other objects used by Qantas.

State Library of NSW

The Concorde epitomises the modernisation of aviation and air travel, as new and faster way of travel. The State Library of NSW has a collection of photographs that document the excitement Concorde generated in the 1970s to the 1990s.

Airways Museum, VIC

Airways Museum's technology based collection and documentary ephemera have examples of modernisation in terms of the changes to technology and design equipment used in civil aviation.

TAA Museum, VIC

The Trans-Australia Airlines was one of the major airlines in Australia up till the 90s. The TAA Museum has material associated with TAA such as uniforms, advertisement and other memorabilia.


Qantas House (No. 1 Chifley Square) 68-96 Hunter Street, Sydney, NSW

Former headquarters of the Qantas Empire Airways, it was designed in the 1930s post-modernist style with the latest technology in building techniques and material.

Sydney Airport Air Traffic Control Tower General Holmes Dr, Sydney Airport, NSW    


A landmark of the Sydney cityscape, the air traffic control tower is a unique in terms of architectural design and aesthetic value. It was also installed with innovative consoles that used the latest technology at the time and includes thoughtful placement of the console to allow for uninterrupted views.

People & Organisations

Cliff Muskiet (Netherlands)                                   

An international collector from the Netherlands, his collection contains a section on Australian civil aviation.

Darren Carroll

A private collector of a significant collection of civil aviation uniforms from various domestic airlines such as East- West Airlines, Hazelton and Skywest.

Phil Buckley

Based in Sydney, Phil Buckley is a collector of aviation flight gear mainly concentrating on military gear.


One of the oldest continuing airlines in Australia which started out as a regional air mail carrier to become an international airline, helping to connect isolated communities. Qantas material can be found in numerous places such as the National Museum of Australia, the National Library of Australia and the Qantas Founders outback Museum. Qantas is also associated with several sites that deal with the isolation such as the Qantas hut in the Cocos Keeling Island.

Trans-Australian Airlines

Museum focusing on the Trans-Australia Airlines and Australian Airlines. It has uniforms, advertisement and historical documents relating to TAA and other Australian airlines. Material regarding TAA can be found in most major collecting institutes and also the TAA Museum, a museum dedicated to TAA and its history.


[i] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, International Book Shop Pty Ltd, Melbourne, nd, p18.

[ii] Thomas J. Misa, ‘The Compelling Tangle of Modernity and Technology’, Thomas J. Misa, Philip Bray and Andrew Feenberg (eds), Modernity and Technology, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2003, p5.

[iii] Roland Robertson, ‘Glocalization: time-space and homogeneity-heterogeneity’, in Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash and Roland Robertson (eds), Global Modernities, Sage, London, 1995, pp25-44.

[iv] Prudence Black, ‘Fashion Takes Flight: Amy Johnson, Schiaparelli and Australian Modernism’, Heacte, vol 35, iss 1-2, p57.

[v] Annabel Jane Wharton, Building the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001, p5.

[vi] Marc Auge, non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso, London and New York, 1995.

[vii] Department of the Environment, 2009, Australian Heritage Database: Sydney Airport Air Traffic Control Tower, accessed 28th June 2014, <http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/ahdb/search.pl?mode=place_detail;search=keyword%3Dairport%3Bkeyword_PD%3Don%3Bkeyword_SS%3Don%3Bkeyword_PH%3Don%3Blatitude_1dir%3DS%3Blongitude_1dir%3DE%3Blongitude_2dir%3DE%3Blatitude_2dir%3DS%3Bin_region%3Dpart;place_id=106116 >

[viii] See “Heritage Flightgear Displays”, accessed 13th July 2014, ¸ http://heritageflightgeardisplays.wordpress.com/ >

[ix] See : "Australian Airline Uniform and Nostalgia”, accessed 20th June 2014, < http://www.ausairuniforms.com/ >

[x] See : Cliff Muskiet’s Stewardess / Flight Attendant Uniform Collection”, accessed 20th June 2014, < http://www.uniformfreak.com/ >