The performing arts are an ephemeral thing. As we discovered during lockdown, though livestreams and recordings are fabulous things, nothing – nothing – compares to being in a room with a performer, breathing the same air, feeling the vibrations from their bodies, their voices, their instruments.

But when you can’t take that feeling home with you, what remains as a souvenir? Photos, posters, costumes, cultural artefacts and talismans that forever retain a shadow of the thing they commemorate.

It is these artefacts that form the bedrock of a new exhibition at the National Library of Australia, entitled On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts. Drawn exclusively from the Library’s collections, it includes items related to the likes of Sir Robert Helpmann, Dame Nellie Melba, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Tim Minchin, among many others.

The exhibition also marks the first time a number of items have been on public display, including a theatre playbill dated 30 July, 1796, the earliest surviving document printed in Australia.

Hugh Robertson spoke to Dr Susannah Helman, the exhibition curator and Library’s curator of Rare Books and Music, about the inspiration for the exhibition, her favourite items, and what these artefacts can tell us about audiences of the past.