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A tribute to Dr Robert Edwards AO: welcome and keynote address

Andrew Sayers, Director, National Museum of Australia and Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum, 22 March 2011

PETER STANLEY: I think we should begin. Good morning, my name is Peter Stanley and it is my privilege to head the Museum’s Centre for Historical Research at the National Museum of Australia. I have to welcome you procedurally to this great event which I think will be an exciting day of reminiscence and reflection. It is my great pleasure to introduce a man who over the last nine months has earned the affection of the staff of the National Museum of Australia - our director Andrew Sayers.

ANDREW SAYERS: Thank you, Peter. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

What a great gathering we have here today. It is fantastic to see so many people here to pay tribute to Dr Robert Edwards AO, Bob Edwards. Why should the National Museum of Australia pay tribute to Bob Edwards? As the speakers that follow me will undoubtedly make very clear, Bob Edwards has played a key role in many of the areas of profound interest to the National Museum. He’s been an ethnographer, an historian, a bibliophile, a museum administrator, a promoter of Australia’s cultural heritage, a negotiator and a key player in bringing some of the world’s great cultural treasures to Australia.

As Peter mentioned, I have been at the National Museum only for nine months, so I’m a relatively newcomer to this scene and in the past few months I have spoken a great deal about a vision for the future of the National Museum. It’s true that at the moment we are engaged in a conversation about the future challenges, but that doesn’t mean that the history of the Museum is not a subject both for acknowledgment and celebration. Today is very much about that. It is also about analysis and remembering.

Although this building is but a decade old, there is a longer, deeper story about the National Museum and it’s a story about decades of thinking and working towards a national museum. Bob Edwards and many of you here today in this room are a part of that story. A colleague of mine here at the Museum, a staff member of many years standing, said last week that the ideas that informed the early thinking about the Museum, the proposals put forward in the 1975 Piggott report, and the subsequent thrashing out of ideas in the forums of interim councils and councils and the staff effort in developing the displays and the collection, these things are all a part of the DNA of today’s National Museum.

I see this tribute today as a tribute to that work and to the intellectual foundation of that work by a generation of anthropologists, historians and museologists, among whom Bob is an exemplary figure. Of course, Bob is unique and I hope he will forgive me for putting him into a generational context. I don’t mean to pigeonhole him, but I see Bob as part of a generation of real cultural builders in Australia. He turned 80 last year. That makes him a bit younger than John Mulvaney and only slighter older than the prince of curators who is here today, Daniel Thomas, who turns 80 in May and the institution builders James Mollison, who turned 80 two days ago, and Betty Churcher also in that wonderful decade. I know there are other names I could include here. This is only a small personal list, a partial octogenarian tribute. The point is we who work in museums and in the diverse fields represented here today owe this generation a huge debt. They have been foundational figures. Each of the people I have mentioned came to institutions with a depth of experience and a diversity of background that has been vital in shaping our institutions.

Like many of you, I have known Bob for many years and have had one particular phase in my career in which he played a specific and particular part. In 1998 Bob was the first chair of the newly constituted board of the National Portrait Gallery. At the first meeting of that board under Bob’s chairmanship two things were resolved: first, to begin an independent collection of portraits, which is now rapidly becoming one of our national treasures; and the second thing that was decided was to appoint a director - that was me. As the first director of that gallery I couldn’t have asked for a better chair than Bob. Bob used his knowledge and his negotiation skills to ensure that the National Portrait Gallery was properly funded to achieve what it needed to do. He laid the solid groundwork of policies that the gallery in many respects still adheres to. But, above all, Bob gave me a certain confidence that came from his own years of fighting bureaucratic silliness, of chipping away at institutional resistance and of working productively with government ministers and officials.

When I first approached Bob with the idea of a day devoted to looking at his career, he was at first uncomfortable. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said. He eventually agreed to it, but I still sense that Bob looked upon today with some understandable trepidation. I can only reassure you, Bob, that you will enjoy this day. We are all your friends here and we all regard you with admiration and love. You can sit back and relax. I think there is no greater testament to your place in our hearts than that people will do a lot for you. There are speakers here today and people who have come to pay tribute to you from across Australia and across the world. Our first speaker today has come all the way around the world to be here at the symposium today.

At Trafalgar Square where he led the National Gallery with such distinction, Neil MacGregor may still be regarded in some unreconstructed corners as having traitorously gone from the side of pure art to the messier world of the museum. But the British Museum could not have been more fortunate than to have secured Neil as its director. If you visit the British Museum, Neil’s stamp is everywhere: his stamp of openness, tolerance, friendliness and impeccable scholarship. If you have listened to any of Neil’s A History of the World in 100 Objects podcasts, you can’t help but be impressed by their inclusiveness, by the acuity of their historical and cultural generalisations, and by Neil’s infectious love of things, people and places.

Neil’s visit to Australia has been funded by Art Exhibitions Australia, AEA, and we thank AEA for making it possible for Neil to open our tribute to Bob Edwards. Ladies and gentlemen, would you please welcome Neil MacGregor. [applause]

NEIL MacGREGOR: Thank you, Andrew; thank you, Bob, for giving us all a reason to be here today; and thank you AEA and Carol in particular for enabling me to join in this tribute to Bob - to the many Bob Edwards that we are going to be talking about during the day. I have to warn Bob that these images are going to circle for the next ten minutes or so. So you can brace yourself or shut your eyes and think of whatever it is that you want to think of.

We are all here to honour our colleague and our friend Bob Edwards and indeed the several Bob Edwards: the hardy, tough scholar and student of Aboriginal cultures and societies that we see here carrying out his field work; the deft museum manager and manipulator, the man who was able to play the politics with flawless fingering and disconcerting skill; and the international negotiator and wheeler dealer who moved elegantly and effectively around the museums of the world and smilingly removed most of their most precious possessions. People from all of those worlds are here today. Bob has not only played leading transforming roles in all of those worlds, but I think it’s fair to say he has changed every one of them. That is something one can say of very few people that we know. He is a man who has transformed the different arenas in which he has worked and he has changed the lives and expectations of everyone in them.

I hope to be able to give some kind of idea of that achievement and of what that man looks like from the other side of the world. I met him first as a museum man, but of course he had begun before that as an anthropologist and archaeologist visiting and investigating Aboriginal societies and Aboriginal art across the whole of the continent, exploring ancient art and studying contemporary culture.

Carol Henry very kindly sent me a biography that outlined the scope of this activity which I hadn’t grasped was quite so extensive. It included the rock art in the Alligator Rivers region of Arnhem Land, the rock engravings at Mt Cameron in western Tasmania, Ingaladdi in the Northern Territory, and field studies in South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria - the whole of Australia except, rather startlingly, Queensland I notice, which I presume is the project for the next decade. What he achieved in that field will be talked about by others better qualified than I am. They will explore the achievements of Bob, the archaeologist, the anthropologist, the scholar of Aboriginal cultures who began very much from the experiences not from academic work, from the contact, from the friendships, and who from that built something remarkable.

But even I as a non-anthropologist know about the impact of that work, especially in his role as founding director of the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, and above all about the great achievements in Papunya. Going to the British Museum from the National Gallery, as Andrew said, was something of a shock, moving from the calm tranquillity of Piero della Francesca to the stormier world of anthropologists and ethnographers, and in particular to a very bitter debate about how one could hope to present the cultures of other societies focusing on material objects.

It was my first exposure to the complexities of the polarity between the material culture of a society and the performative culture, and just how intensively that problem presented itself in particular areas of the globe where the performative culture, the acts, were what carried the meanings and the values rather than the things. In the British Museum this was a debate constantly going on with colleagues working on our African collections, American collections and the Oceanian and Australian collections. But what was made clear to me very quickly was that there was one example that had been unique in the world, and that was the example of Papunya: that there, by extraordinary synthesis and extraordinary act of transformation, it had been possible to turn an expression of societal culture, which was based on acts and a particular place, into objects that could be moved, seen and appreciated by others; that the performative ritual culture could be turned, had been turned in some measure, into a material culture and therefore could be looked at and understood in some measure by the rest of the world.

That achievement of creating a market for the paintings of the aboriginal societies, which certainly for the rest of the world offered the first real opportunity to grasp the subtleties and the sophistication, the complexities and the variety of the aboriginal view of the world, was, I was told by all my colleagues, exemplary and unique. It was something that had changed the debate between European Australians and Aboriginal Australians, an act of interpretation that allowed a new equivalence between the two cultures, each confronting and responding to the same landscape, a shared experience that could be the basis of a new kind of understanding and respect. You will know much better than I what that has meant in Australia but from the other side of the world it looked like the stuff of Nobel prizes and it is very widely admired.

Bob would say, of course, that he didn’t do any of this alone. We all know that that’s true because the main characteristic we all know of Bob is his extraordinary capacity for the patient building of friendships and collaborations; that trademark of Bob’s approach to build the friendship and promote ideas until no-one can remember whose ideas they were but you all want to realise them. He is classically a man of teams. In all his museum work, the teams and the colleagues have pulled together. In AEA an astonishing team has been built of professionalism and organisation, and Carol and her team carry that forward today.

I think all of us know the most important team with which Bob has played is the team of his family. That has always been very clear in what he says to all who know him. It is particularly pleasing what one of his sons, David, is here today. I think we would all know that the key figure in that family team was, if you like, the non-playing captain Kath, who kept the show on the road, kept the man on the rails and enabled so much to happen.

Bob the anthropologist was one thing; Bob the museum man was something else. Again he was working with complex groups: groups in this case in the museum world operating obscure, recondite codes of behaviour almost impenetrable to the outsider, rituals that most of us outside museums never failed to grasp. Bob’s CV in this regard is astonishing and reads breathlessly. He was responsible for the new concept of the Museum of Victoria; he played a central role in redeveloping the Museum of South Australia, the Museum of Western Australia, the Hong Kong Museum of History. He was the founding chairman of the National Museum of Australia and the founding chairman of the National Portrait Gallery. I don’t think there can be in any other country a man who has played so many parts in creating and re-creating museums, and certainly in the UK you would need to go back to Prince Albert – I don’t know whether you are happy to be compared to the Prince Consort – but he is the only worthy comparator. I thought of slipping in a slide of the Prince Consort to make the point. It is an extraordinary achievement which will also be discussed later today in more detail by those who helped it to be realised. Again, it was done by building those alliances and the friendships, persuading and encouraging people to work together.

But in this field there is a skill that I have to say I find completely incomprehensible, magical and verging on the sinister - and that is Bob’s capacity to manipulate politicians. Every one of us in this room, I suspect, who has worked in a museum or a gallery has had at some stage to confront that moment when you go to see the minister and somehow time after time federal ministers, state ministers, state governments, federal governments were persuaded by Bob to fall into line and to come up with the cash. Bob, we all want to know how you do it.

I gather that there are questions about cultural funding in Australia at the moment. They are nothing compared with the ones we are having at the moment in the UK, and we need you on the other side of the world very badly. It’s the part that the public never really grasp. Everyone can see that somebody had to think of the building, of how the collection should be deployed, of how it should be presented and interpreted. Most visitors never think of those endless hours explaining to the politicians and to the civil servants why what we are doing is the most important thing in the life of the nation and simply has to be supported. But you did it, and the landscape of Australian museums was transformed in the process.

And then, having sorted out this continent, you moved overseas and took on the rest of the world. Bob was the founding executive director in 1980 of the International Cultural Corporation of Australia which became AEA, Art Exhibitions Australia, with the simple and modest task to persuade the museums of the world to lend their greatest things to Australia so that the cultures of the world could be seen in the museums of Australia. And straight away he had extraordinary success in China in 1982 with the first showing of the terracotta warriors outside China. It was brought to Australia, entirely thanks to your persuading. It was brought to five venues, seen by 800,000 people, an astonishing percentage of the population of the nation, and requested at the last moment by the Federal Government to make a flying visit to Canberra. It came for nine days at the end of the tour. It was a triumph, which I think was probably as important for the Chinese in realising the impact of those objects, as for everybody else.

The next target was Europe, and this is the context in which I met Bob. For European museums from the eighteenth century, Australia had been the obsession, the fascination, the disruption, the disturbance. The discovery by the Europeans of a totally other fauna and flora and of a totally other way of relating to the land seemed to destroy every system, every taxonomy, that the Europeans had built up. For most of the nineteenth century, the great intellectual task at the British Museum was finding taxonomies into which the extraordinary phenomena of Australia could be organised. Europeans have known and studied Australia for a very long time.

It’s fair to say we have also known and studied Australian colleagues for a very long time. All of us in European museums and galleries know of the great Australians who have come to Europe. In the National Gallery and the V&A’s case, it was [George] Salting came from Sydney to work in London and to enrich extraordinarily the collections of the National Gallery and the V&A. More recently the cultural life in Britain was nearly transformed by Douglas Cooper, the great scholar of Cubism and of Picasso who memorably punched the director of the Tate over his acquisitions policy on the steps of his own gallery, a gesture millions of British people wished they had accomplished but had not had the courage to do. It failed tragically to change the acquisition policy of the Tate and left us without the kind of collection that we might have hoped to have and then went on to transform our understanding of twentieth century French painting. But Salting, Cooper and many others in the British Museum, particularly with the Harold Wright scholarships bringing scholars of prints and drawings to the British Museum every year, everybody knew, loved and respected Australian scholars and colleagues.

What Bob realised was that very few of us knew Australia: the idea of Australia was familiar but not the reality. This is perhaps not so surprising for continental Europeans where there are no direct links. One of the happiest moments when I was thinking about this was looking up the Larousse Encyclopedia of the 20th Century. If you turn to Australie you will find the opening sentence: ‘Australie, a vast continent to the west of French Oceania.’ Growing up in Britain was different and certainly as a Scot in the 1950s we learnt Australian geography in exactly the same way as we learnt Scottish geography. And after we learnt to draw the borders of the Scot counties we moved on to draw the considerably easier borders of the Australian states. Western Australia was always a favourite one to be allowed to draw. It was a very easy boundary to draw. We then, having learnt the principal cities of Scotland, learnt if you please the railway stops on the line from Adelaide to Perth - astonishing. We recited the names of the Australian prime ministers, and in our mental map Sydney and Melbourne were far closer than Naples or Prague. But we didn’t know Australia.

I have to confess that before I met Bob I had never been to Australia and I had never even seen an Anzac biscuit. Bob changed that for everybody in Europe. My first meeting of him was at the house of John and Felicity Mallet - John Mallet, one of the great scholars of European ceramics; and Felicity Mallet, a playwright - both passionate Australiophiles. Their house is in a sense an alternative high commission in London. It’s very much high Bohemia. There is a dining room table but for many decades it’s been impossible to eat at because there are so many books on it that you have to eat at the counter in the kitchen. And that’s where I first met Bob. The beef served by the Mallets - they only ever served beef, very expensive beef which is momentarily put in the oven and then served, the rarest beef in the world, so rare that you’re quite convinced that the rest of the animal is still grazing happily somewhere in Hertfordshire. At that extraordinary table I met Bob as part of his campaign to bring great exhibitions to Australia while I was at the National Gallery. He was travelling with his partner, the great dual act in this campaign of plunder, Betty Churcher. They were the most extraordinary duo. In that corny phrase of the old American movie, ‘they were the most powerful combination since nitro met glycerine’, and together they swept through the museums of Europe like a plague through Egypt: walls were stripped and cellars were emptied. The Rijksmuseum and the Louvre, the Prado and the National Gallery all went down like ninepins to the charm of Bob and the persuasions and blandishments of blockbuster Betty.

But something changed very profoundly because we were persuaded that only in Australia would such a high percentage of the population see the works of art that were sent. The reluctance to lend was not because of any failure to understand the seriousness of Australian scholars or of the Australian institutions, it was the fact that none of us knew the Australian institutions and Bob decided that the only way to bring the pictures was to bring the directors. So one by one we were transported and brought to Australia and beguiled and overwhelmed. It was an extraordinary thing. The result of the loans and the exhibitions has been remarkable. It’s now totally normal for the most important works of European art, and the same is true for American museums, to travel to Australia. To lend to an Australian town is now no more complex or surprising than lending to Edinburgh, except that the weather is better and the food incomparablably better.

But something else had happened as well because where in the Aboriginal work Bob had transformed a performative culture into a material one, he now turned it the other way around and, having secured a material culture, he now decided to turn the directors into a performative culture. Year after year European directors were brought to Australia to perform, notionally to lecture, but in fact to eat and to party our way around the continent and to discover this was a place that we loved. I first came to Canberra 18 years ago and I have been almost every year since. Ron de Leeuw [former director of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] is also an unconditional Australiophile. And the latest in the long line of happy invitees who owe such a lot to Bob is Gary Tinterow [of the Metropolitan museum of Modern Art, New York], who is still reeling from the excesses of his partying, eating and lecturing here.

What you have done, Bob, on that front is to create a new kind of community of museums world wide and a new sense of partnership in what we are all trying to achieve to bring the great things of human culture to the widest possible public all around the world. I don’t think anybody could have done it better than you.

Knowing you has been in many ways an education. Meeting someone from another country is always a fascinating experience because you slowly discover the codes, the distinctions, the classifications - what in England one might call the snobberies - that all societies have. It was with Bob that I first realised that there is a great distinction between being an Australian and being a South Australian and that coming from Adelaide is something else. These are categories or classifications that the outsider needs to grasp and to respect. But you also taught me and I think all of us that, with that sort of gift for friendship, with that willingness to work with all kinds of people for an agreed common good, pretty well everything is possible.

You have been looking at the different images of Bob. You have seen him in the outback and in his suit. You have seen him as the researcher and as the administrator: each man in his time plays many parts. Bob has played all of his to date with distinction, with humour, with flair and with energy, building and bettering whatever he touches. We look forward all of us to many more acts - happy birthday, Bob. [applause]

Date published: 12 May 2011