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Contributions from friends and colleagues

John Bannon, Michael Treloar, Howard Morphy, Bob Edwards and Peter Stanley, 22 March 2011

PETER STANLEY: One of the key notes of today’s proceedings has been that people have shared their feelings about Bob, and we wanted to open the last session to people who haven’t taken part of formalities so far but who wanted to offer an appreciation to Bob. As we noticed earlier, there is a secret conspiracy here of South Australians and Scots. I was brought up in South Australia and I am married to a Scot. Accordingly, the first comment I will read comes from somebody who is an honorary South Australian, because he lives there now, and then the next three will be people who are definitely South Australians. The rest of you will just have to put up with that and then it will open up to you.

First of all can I read a brief message from Craddock Morton, who is sorry he can’t be here today. He has provided a long message, which I won’t read out completely. I will give a copy to Bob and will also give a copy to Polly to put onto the website. Craddock quotes a seventeeth-century Japanese haiku in which you are compared to a frog. I won’t read that out. He then explains why he is comparing you to a frog.

He says, amongst other things, he wants to pay tribute to the support, encouragement and mentoring of a whole generation of students of Indigenous history, anthropology and the arts that Bob has provided. There is no-one who is more respected by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. That explains why the Museum is so committed to this event.

Finally, to embarrass Bob further, he says: Bob Edwards is one of the kindest, generous and self-effacing people I know. I am very sad that I cannot be there with you today to celebrate his achievements in a way that he so richly deserves.

Message from Craddock Morton:

How hard it is to summarise Bob’s achievements in a few lines. Let me try by using a haiku, probably his most famous one, by Matsuo Basho, the seventeenth century Japanese poet:

Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond
A frog jumped into water
A deep resonance

Now before anyone complains about comparing Bob to a frog, I should point out that frogs are propitious creatures. I’m told that, as long as they’re around, the world is doing okay. Likewise having Bob around, and indeed the distinguished panellists and audience today around as supporters of museums and what they do, is a very good thing.

There is not a more ancient pond in Australia than the Indigenous one, and Bob has always been a key player about breaking the silence about Indigenous culture, either through his own work, which has been prodigious, or through the support, encouragement and mentoring of a whole generation of students of Indigenous history, anthropology and the arts. There is no-one who is more respected by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike.

I shall never forget, when we had the Papunya exhibition at the Museum, Bob meeting up with Long Jack Phillipus Tjakamarra, for the first time in a number of years, and them sitting down together to watch footage of themselves as much younger men, when Bob visited Papunya in his capacity as Director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council to collect the paintings which were the focus of the exhibition so many years later.

What I have said about Bob also applies to his work in Australian history more generally, in the arts and in development of collecting institutions, not of course to forget his pioneering role in sourcing and touring major international exhibitions to Australia. I’m sure you’ve heard far more eloquent tributes to these aspects of Bob’s career already today, so I won’t go on about them, save to note that I believe that Bob will be remembered as a key player in what we will come to regard as a golden age in Australian cultural development. That is why I say with confidence that Bob has had a ‘deep resonance’.

Basho was primarily a ‘nature’ poet who believed that, if we came to see nature as it really is, we would truly see ourselves. The reflection in the undisturbed pond, as it were. To me this analogy can be extended to museums and what they do, and it is an approach that Bob has always exemplified. We need to present our history honestly and accurately, with the biases removed or clearly identified, and, by doing this, we enable visitors to see themselves as they were, as they are and as they might be. I am grateful always to Bob for bringing this home to me.

Bob Edwards is one of the kindest, generous and self-effacing people I know. I am very sad that I cannot be there with you today to celebrate his achievements in a way that he so richly deserves. I take some comfort, though, from the knowledge that you are all there to do so, and that I will see him soon, when we can explore the time honoured question: Shall we start with a sparkling?’

With kindest regards
Craddock Morton

PETER STANLEY: Can I call upon three notable, indeed distinguished, South Australians: first of all Dr John Bannon. John is a former Premier of South Australia and was closely associated with Bob in that capacity.

JOHN BANNON: Thank you. It’s great to have an opportunity to speak. I will come down – how can a politician address an audience with his back to it. I will be brief. The focus of my remarks about Bob relate to a very intense, exciting, dynamic period in 1979-80 when he embarked on what became the Edwards report, which has been referred to approvingly and with justification as one of the very significant things that have been done for museology in Australia because it led to so many other things not just in South Australia. I thought I would give a quick background to that. In the 1970s under Don Dunstan, South Australia began to develop its great artistic and cultural representation, which was fantastic, a real contrast perhaps to the dour days of Tom Playford. They were exciting, dynamic, inspiring times for many of us. In his work in the arts and his promotion of arts and culture, Don focused very much on the performing arts. This was the era of the State Theatre Company, the State Opera, the Film Corporation, the Dance Theatre. Most of these things were copied, like the Adelaide Festival of Arts, by other states and cities over the ensuing years but they all started there.

The thing about this that is worth remembering, and what I am going to say about Dunstan is the same as one could say about Neville Wran in New South Wales who also took the portfolio of the arts and did some great things there, is that Dunstan was very lonely in terms of support from cabinet and commitment from his caucus to these sorts of initiatives. Government was seen very much as the hospitals, the schools, the roads, the houses and things like that - the nuts and bolts of government. This was a peripheral activity. Don’s advantage was that his was Premier for one and Treasurer secondly. In my ten years there I held both those portfolios myself as well as the arts. But as I say he was a lonely voice around the cabinet table. In fact, a number of his colleagues used to say, in pointing to the expenditure on the arts, ‘Well of course that’s Don’s indulgence. We have to look after him because he will be more kind on the hospitals vote or something like that as Treasurer if we are prepared to concede something here.’ It’s forgotten now where cultural support of the arts is something that is seen as fundamental and important to governments at least in terms of presentation. It wasn’t so and it was always hard to argue a case. That’s why a number of institutions in South Australia had languished fearfully, as we have already heard.

This was the scene at which in 1978 I became a young, fresh-faced minister in the Dunstan government in a new portfolio of community development. But what Dunstan put into that portfolio was the arts responsibility. He gathered up the various institutions: the Art Gallery, the Museum, the Library, the whole concept of the constitutional museum as it was, and the Botanic Gardens were even included and taken out of the environment department as the great cultural conserving institutions of the state. His brief to me was: ‘I will relinquish the arts portfolio. I do this with some regret but I have to concentrate on other things and at least there is another voice now in cabinet that can vote for some of the things we want to get done. But focus on those institutions.’

That’s how the idea of doing a major report or study into the museum firstly but it was broadened later into the interlocking institutions, largely because that’s how Bob conceived the job, came about. It was very significant because there was a promise of some resources and a program behind it. What were we looking for in this scene? We have already heard the deplorable state of the museum. In fact, one of the first things I did was take a special submission to cabinet based on the deterioration and a report saying ‘this needs to be addressed urgently because some of the filmic and other visual material in the museum was in an appalling state unconserved, uncatalogued.’ In aid of that partly, I came across a marvellous reference in Sir Kenneth Clark’s autobiography. He came to Adelaide in 1947, I think, and he describes visiting the institutions and the pleasant city of churches and so on, and he went to the museum. He said, ‘Extremely impressive collection.’ I am doing this from memory; I don’t have the quote in front of me because I couldn’t track down the book. He said, ‘I was really impressed with the Indigenous Australian ethnographic collection, extraordinary. There was heaps and heaps of it, and when I say ‘heaps’ I mean heaps literally, lying about all over the place in a deplorable state.’ That’s 1947.

Despite urgent curation, particularly under Bob’s tutelage, things were still pretty desperate. That’s why this report became a central thing. Who do you get to do something like this? This was the issue that me and a couple of others - Bruce Gerrin was an important part of this - were discussing. We wanted someone visionary but we didn’t want one of these grand reports. We had real practical issues of deterioration and urgent remediation needed within the context of a vision. So you needed someone practical, someone who could get to the nitty-gritty of a project and actually finish and make practical suggestions and someone who understood the exigencies of budget and the fact you couldn’t just build a castle in the air, somebody with perseverance, persistence and knowledge. I am saying an individual incidentally because that was the other conclusion: we couldn’t get this done by a committee, a board or a group; we wanted somebody to do it, to examine it and to lead it. A pretty special sort of individual was needed. Local knowledge was important. But we didn’t want somebody either who was so entrenched in the local scene or entrenched in academia and the research of academia. So one began to build a picture, and of course emerging out of this picture came inevitably Bob Edwards, then just reaching into his third stage of prime, I suppose it’s fair to say, from the orchard to Aboriginal curation into this area. He was clearly the man for the job.

Just to conclude in this little exercise, because I am not going to tell you the whole story, I happened to pull out from my book shelf before coming over here – I thought I have a couple of things Edwards wrote, and sure enough there were two or three of them, and I found of them. This was published by Rigby in 1970 Arnhem Land in colour and there is a marvellously glamorous sort of matinee idol picture of Bob and a little bio below it. This is a book he co-authored with Bruce Gerrin. Interestingly, it talks about his experience, background, his photographs, and the fact he is curator of anthropology. It says, ‘Born in 1930, married with four children, and his home has always been in Adelaide.’ There’s the man.

Incidentally the second book I pulled down was Aboriginal bark canoes in the Murray Valley, a splendid publication, two years later published again by Rigby in 1972. It has exactly the same biography, exactly the same matinee idol photograph but, surprisingly, ‘his home has always been in Adelaide’ is missing from the blurb. Perhaps this indicated Bob was already on the move, his sights were moving beyond the perennial and outside. It’s just as well because if he hadn’t been outside Adelaide, if he hadn’t extracted himself, he couldn’t have come back and done the job he did among all the jealousies, institutional rivalries and terrible history that he had to deal with. He came, he saw, he conquered, he was superb. It was a visionary and marvellous report that still, as Suzanne Miller says, has carriage to this very day.

The exercise got bigger but the practical aspects of it didn’t. For instance, the art lab, the conservation centre, the combined conservation was one of the things that came out of that very quickly. The creation of the History Trust and various other things followed. In saying that, and I have told you about the role I played in appointing Bob, just a few days before Don Dunstan resigned and our hearts fell, because we thought Des Corcoran, his successor - the kind of yang to Don’s ying – who had been his loyal deputy for many years and had become premier, wasn’t terribly interested in the arts, culture or those things; he was a public works man. In fact, the opera theatre was due to open a few days after Don’s unexpected and tragic resignation, and the Premier was due to open it. Des Corcoran said to me, ‘You go and do that, lad. You are the arts minister, you know about this artie-farty stuff.’ I said, ‘Des, it’s important that at the beginning of your premiership you show yourself at least a little committed and they’re expecting you.’ So finally he agreed to come, only on condition that he could come on stage, open the theatre and then leave - he didn’t have to sit through the bloody opera all night. He did. An ironical footnote to this: if you go to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide, which was opened in February 1979, and look at the plaque, it says ‘Opened by Premier the Hon. Don Dunstan’. They didn’t bother to change the plaque. That’s another story. It was in that environment at that time that Bob came to do this marvellous job, but the government fell six months later. We’d already got a few things agreed and in the pipeline. To its great credit, the government of David Tonkin and Murray Hill picked up the report, picked up a lot of the initiatives, and steered it on and through. When we returned to office in 1982, by then as Minister for the Arts and I was also Treasurer which was quite handy, we were able to get many of the museums and other things accomplished and developed.

PETER STANLEY: And there the story ends.

JOHN BANNON: And there the story ends because nobody but Bob could have transcended all the difficulties he had in Adelaide at that time and the politics and the change of government. What an extraordinary character! [applause]

PETER STANLEY: The next speaker and the last before we hear from someone else is Michael Treloar, a well-known Adelaide antiquarian bookseller with whom Bob has a very long and expensive relationship.

MICHAEL TRELOAR: Thank you very much for the invitation. I am not given to envy, least of all of politicians, but the ability to speak on one’s feet and off the cuff is something that I know I will never master. But one thing about a written account is you know I will be finished in about four and a half minutes - starting now.

I was born in South Australia and for many years I have been a self-employed antiquarian bookseller in Adelaide with my main shop on North Terrace. I don’t mind if any conspiracy theorists read a lot more into these facts than there actually is. My short tribute is Bob seen more through the microscope than the telescope, and accordingly it will be more personal. I apologise in advance, especially to Bob.

Bob’s interest in books - more than that he’s interest in book collecting, indeed in collection building - extends beyond the 60 years I have been alive, let alone the mere 35 years I have been in business. His major collecting areas include not only Australian Aboriginal history, about which you all know, but also the theory and practice of colonisation as exemplified by the experiments in South Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere; also South Australiana stemming from his pioneering background. But clearly his range of interests is much broader and includes photography, the many subjects relating to the major exhibitions he has been involved with, and family history and genealogy, his current passions.

As you learnt this morning, his superb Aboriginal history book collection and archive is now in the hands of the National Museum. It is worthy of both his name and this institution on the three primary criteria of any collection: content, form and condition. I have confirmed through the immediate past librarian that access is readily available to this fine collection through the NMA Library.

To my mind, books are fundamentally different to other items of commerce, and the bookseller is probably unique in the relationship that he can develop with his clientele. When one thinks of judges, lawyers, policemen, doctors, nurses, orderlies, market gardeners, plumbers, waiters, pilots, public servants, even teachers and students, one’s colleagues may well be friends but one’s customers, clients, patients, pupils rarely - not so with bookselling. In fact, the competitive nature of the game ensures that one keeps one’s colleagues at arm’s length, but buying a book is often a very personal matter and the quotidian shop keeper-customer role can, over time, involve into something much more meaningful and occasionally into friendship - such is the case with Bob.

Although he’s been on my mailing list for well over 25 years and we would occasionally meet at intestate book fairs, it is his recently relinquished position on the board of the South Australian Museum that I have much to be thankful for. Prior to most of his regular visits from his Sydney home to Adelaide, Bob would ring me and arrange a mutually convenient time to visit my shop. Occasionally, I would get a call with little or no notice saying, ‘The round of meetings have finished earlier than expected. Are you free?’ Happily for me, and I think for Bob too, it was rare that we could not get together on these visits. Usually I would be busy when he arrived so he would have some welcome free time in which to browse unhindered. He often purchased titles of which he had already given away multiple copies. I can assure Nic Peterson, I think it was this morning, who mentioned those five copies of Plomley. I know Bob has a copy. He bought one from me only a few years ago.

Then I would show Bob some special item, sometimes in one of his collecting areas but, because his collections were so well formed by the time I really got to know him, it was more often than not in one of those show’n tell scenes - a harmless pursuit so enjoyed by boys of all ages. I am not sure if women are so inclined. If you are not, you are missing out on something.

Sometimes I would share the news of a forthcoming project or purchase. Bob was so interested, encouraging and enthusiastic. He made it very easy to respond to these generous characteristic traits. This is something that has come out time and time again today. I can only reinforce it on a one-to-one basis from my own experience.

We would then generally retreat to a nearby coffee shop, sometimes a restaurant, and enjoy each other’s company and conversation. This would often quickly leave the world of books behind and become more private and personal. Much of those conversations will remain so. But over the years I have learnt of Kath’s gradual decline and of Bob’s loving care and attention for her. But I also was delighted to learn much about his early childhood and school days and of his grandfather and the glory days of the family vineyard in what is now an anonymous Adelaide suburb. The life and times alluded to by Dick Richards is something that I heard from Bob’s own mouth. I would reciprocate with anecdotes drawn from my own life and experiences. I think the act of sharing these sorts of stories is surely at the heart of friendship which is the essence of a full and fulfilling life. I have been privileged to know Bob at this level. I am honoured to be invited to share these few recollections with all of you today. Thank you [applause].

PETER STANLEY: Thanks very much, Michael. You will see on the screen it says, ‘short contributions from John, Michael and audience’, and the audience will be represented today by Alan Smith who will speak very briefly. The reason he is because, as we have come to the end of the afternoon, you will notice that the contributions and the offerings are becoming more and more personal. Michael has a personal relationship with Bob and Alan has going back some years. But you still only have one minute.

ALAN SMITH: We’ve had the great joy today of hearing of so many different facets of Bob’s life but there has been one facet that’s only been very lightly touched on, and that’s is his role as mentor. Bob has been my deeply-loved mentor for more than three decades now and has helped me enormously through all my career. But I have one very strong memory of very early on in my career where I faced the most enormous difficulties. I was only an historian at the time, the lowest of the low, and I discovered that some of my staff were systematically stealing from the collection. I took it to my then boss and nothing appeared to happen, and then I realised my boss was the biggest rogue of them all - except one does have to admire the ingenuity of someone who managed to put the private lease of a Porsche on the office taxi voucher account. When you are faced with that situation, who do you go to? You go to your mentor, and my mentor was Bob. In a one-hour meeting he gave me all the advice I needed, and in that very rare occasion in the arts, in that case the good triumphed and the wicked went to jail. Thank you.

PETER STANLEY: Thanks, Alan, a cautionary tale. You will see it says ‘contributions from audience’, the member of the audience that we will have up to the podium next is, in fact, Bob himself. We thought Bob might not want to speak so we didn’t put it on the program, but in the course of the day Bob has changed his mind. Ladies and gentlemen, Bob Edwards, and he can speak for as long as he likes. [applause]

BOB EDWARDS: Ladies and gentlemen, I thought that by now you would be completely exhausted and have had enough speeches so I didn’t expect to speak. But I felt in my mind there were a few things I did want to say. Well, I have found it a very touching day for me. There certainly could be no more enjoyable an occasion than coming together and looking back on many years of shared experiences. It brought back fond memories of the intense activity in which so many of us were involved, as changes came to Aboriginal Australia, to the arts, to our museums and to our galleries. Although the focus has been mainly on my life, it has been more about the achievements of the many colleagues with whom I have collaborated on so many projects over a number of decades.

It is only in recent years that I have looked back and contemplated the past. What stands out is my good fortune in having been given so many opportunities to contribute to matters in which I had a keen and ongoing interest and concern. I realised at the time that opportunities come with high expectations, the need for firm commitments and a determination to succeed, because I found to be otherwise would be to disappoint the trust of those I had held in very high regard.

The first of many opportunities came as a complete surprise when I was offered the position of curator of anthropology at the South Australian Museum. This was on the retirement of its first curator, Norman Tindale. I could not believe my good fortune as my lifelong dream of working in a museum had suddenly become a reality. The year was 1965, I was 35, had a lovely wife, four sons, a secure position in the fruit market industry and a fascinating hobby studying ancient rock art, stone tool making, exploring the richness and diversity of the Aboriginal heritage as well as a passion for collecting Australiana, which you have heard about.

My next opportunity followed quickly when John Mulvaney and several colleagues decided - quite correctly, I might say - that I needed considerably more field experience before taking up the position six months later and following very large footsteps of such an experienced curator as Norman Tindale. The six months passed with over 12,000 kilometres of travel in Arnhem Land and Central Australia in the closing months of a terrible ten-year drought. I was indeed very much wiser and more than ever determined to become a good curator. On taking up my new position at the museum, I prepared a summary report on the survey of rock art sites and catalogued my photographs. But from that day on I became very busy as opportunities arose with ever increasing frequency.

Forty-five years were to pass before I had time to read the copious notes penned under the glow of the camp fire late each night on what could only be called by initiation trip. I read my first impressions of the beauty and vastness of the landscape and the generosity of the people I encountered. My admiration for the Aboriginal elders who taught me so much by sharing a little of their profound knowledge, their wisdom, dignity, good humour and beliefs. I had noted my concerns about the breakdown of a rich, ancient heritage under the then prevailing policies of assimilation. I was shocked by the appalling living conditions of a proud people.

My time in the field also reinforced by the belief in the role of museums as the great repositories of knowledge and ideas, the conservators, the protectors and the researchers of rich, diverse cultures and the very great storytellers and disseminators of knowledge – all traditions that had flowed down from the days of the Enlightenment when the great British Museum was established and set an example to the world. As I was reading through my notes, I began to realise that the observations made on my first outback journey had subconsciously set the agenda for many years ahead. My first contacts with this other Australia had so affected me that I attempted in my own way to make a difference wherever it was possible.

Among my later opportunities came an offer from the then federal Minister for the Arts, Bob Ellicott, to assist him in setting up an effective management organisation to bring international exhibitions to Australia in collaboration with national and state collecting institutions. Today, Art Exhibitions Australia continues to contribute to the enrichment of the cultural life of the community.

Having been the beneficiary of so many exciting opportunities extended by others, I have in turn given high priority to creating opportunities for those who wish to pursue common goals. The outcome is, as you have seen today, a network of wonderful friends who continue to share in the desire to make a difference in the preservation of Aboriginal heritage and to provide opportunities for us all to appreciate the diversity and richness of world art.

Today has been about sharing the challenges and the satisfaction of having aspired to make a difference. It has also provided me with a welcome opportunity to express appreciation to so many of my friends who have shared the journey and who continue to do so today. Thank you all for joining us today, and special thanks to Philip, Carol, Andrew, Peter and the speakers and organisers who have made the day such a very great success. What a great pleasure it was to have Neil MacGregor join us. Thank you very much. [applause]

ANDREW SAYERS: Bob, thank you very much. It’s been the most marvellous day and I want to thank some people: I thank firstly all of you who today have come here to share in this tribute of Bob’s life and career, to share a friendship with him and to honour him. I want to thank particularly all the speakers who have spoken today and I want to thank Philip Jones, our 2010-11 director’s fellow, who has developed the program for today. Without that assistance the tribute would not have been the great success it has been, so thank you, Philip.

I want to thank Art Exhibitions Australia, especially Carol Henry and Carol Sweeney who have supported the tribute financially and in many other ways. There are many staff at the Museum I would like to thank: Peter Stanley, from our public programs Rachael Coglan, Heidi Pritchard, Leanne Dempsey, and especially Anne Faris from the Centre for Historical Research who has put such a great effort in, and Polly Templeton who has assisted in recording the proceedings.

There are many people who are unable to be here today who sent messages and who particularly wanted to send their expressions of regard: Philip Adams, Piers Akerman, Laurie Benson, Peter Brokenshire, Ray Choate, Jim Cousins, Janet Holmes à Court, Dave Epstein from the United States, Sir James Gobbo, Colin Hope, Kate Kahn, Patrick McCaughey, John McPhee, Christopher Menz, Harold Mitchell, Koji Miura, Bails Myer, Rupert Myer and Sarah Myer, Timothy Potts from the UK, Hans-Ewald Schneider, Tom Stannage, Mahrukh Tarapor, Gerard Vaughan and Anthony Wallis. They have all been with us here in spirit today. So thank you very much and thank you very much, Bob Edwards. [applause]

Date published: 12 May 2011