National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > Sites of Memory symposium > What is a memory? > transcript

What is a memory?

Dr Judith Slee, Dr Mike Pickering, Professor Paul Pickering and Dr Peter Stanley, 28 August 2009

PETER STANLEY: My name is Peter Stanley, and I run the Centre for Historical Research here at the National Museum of Australia. Amar, to paraphrase Jane Austen, you have delighted us for too long, and I’m sure your students get a great deal of practice in listening. This means we’re going to have to change our program slightly. I have asked Judith and I’ll have to ask the two Pickerings to speak for slightly less time so that we keep to program. But that was a terrific kick-off. Thank you very much.

We’re talking about memory. There are many dimensions of what memory means. In a place like this, we can see what those dimensions are: from the human, the grandest scale, the national communal family, and the individual memories – and all of those dimensions impinge upon what happens outside of those doors in the National Museum of Australia.

Memory illusions by Dr Judith Slee

This first session is devoted to trying to understand what this thing memory is. Our first session ‘What is a Memory’ will be introduced by Dr Judith Slee. Judith gives us a very valuable perspective, because hers is that of a cognitive scientist, a person with a great deal of experience working at the department of psychology at The Australian National University. She’ll draw on the insights of experimental and cognitive psychology to give us an understanding of the phenomenon of memory. Thanks, Judith. [applause]

JUDITH SLEE: Thank you, Peter, and good morning, everyone. I’m stronger on memory than I am on sites, so mine will be rather academic and not terribly related to sites, except that I think that you will get from it some idea of what it is that people are trying to reinstate in sites. I’ve titled my talk ‘Memory illusions’ because when we talk about reinstating memories in landscapes, the temptation is to think that what is being reinstated is something that’s really veridical; it’s something that really happened.

Memory can be accurate. The idea that it’s always accurate stems from at least the implicit notion that what you do when you make a memory is you take a mental snapshot, you file it away in the old filing cabinet back there, and then at the appropriate time, you open up the old filing cabinet and take it out again – not so. Memory is a construction – it’s a reconstruction of what’s happened before. And as a reconstruction it can be a correct one or it can be incorrect in terms of actual fact. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Even if your memory isn’t veridical, it being your memory, it’s your reality.

I’m going to talk today about illusions of memory just to show that internal realities might not correspond with objective external realities. And then I want you to ask yourselves perhaps: when we’re trying to reinstate memory in landscape, what is it we’re reinstating? Is it an actual veridical thing or is it, as Louise Douglas said, memory refracted through various things?

I’m going to talk about three very common sources of memory illusion or memory distortion. But before I do, I’d like to engage you, if I may, in a mini experiment. I’m going to read you a list of words at a rate of about one per second and I want you to try and remember them. Don’t write them down; that’s cheating. Just keep them in your head, and later on I’ll see how well you remember them. Here are the words: family, female, Mary, pregnant, birth, loving, lady, daughter, son, caring, gentle, woman, baby. I’ll give you a minute to go over those.

Now my three sources of memory illusion. There are many, many sources of mistakes in memory – I won’t call them memory illusions any more – and the three I’m going to talk about today are three of many. And why I’ve chosen these three is because they are the things that have been particularly selected out by cognitive psychologists to study, so I have more to say about them than I have to say about anything else.

The sources of memory distortion that I want to talk about, I’m going to divide into two classes. In one class of memory distortion you experience the ‘to-be-remembered’ event. After you experience it, somebody comes along and describes it to you and describes it in slightly different terms from what actually occurred. Now that sort of distortion that comes after you’ve experienced the event is called by cognitive psychologists – excuse the jargon – retroactive interference. It comes after you’ve seen it. That’s a fairly obvious source of memory distortion.

A not so obvious source of memory distortion is the circumstances that existed before you came across the event you want to remember, and that is called proactive interference, and in this symposium it is probably more relevant than retroactive interference. But let’s talk about retroactive interference first. I’m going to talk about two types of retroactive interference and one type of proactive interference.

The first type of retroactive interference I want to talk about is called the misinformation effect – you’ll just have to put up with jargon; psychologists are full of it. It was an effect discovered by a woman that you often see on television called Elizabeth Loftus. Now what Elizabeth Loftus did was subject people to a visual experience: it might have been a real experience; it might have been a videotape; it might have been slides. Then she would give them some sort of distractor task like writing an essay or something like that, and after ten minutes or so of that, she’d come back and she’d give them some false information. Some people would have false information. Other people would not have the false information. Let’s take an example. The original might have been a blue car going through a stop sign, and the false information might have said the car was green. Later on people are asked to choose between whether it was a blue car or a green car. Those who’d been fed the false information, which is green, at a much higher level said it was a green car than people who hadn’t had the false information. Now you might have thought that maybe there’s a difference in time. The people who weren’t given the false information were given a filler task so that the same time elapsed between seeing the original slide and the actual test phase.

Now it’s not that everyone is fooled by that, but many people can get fooled. Even more worrying from a forensic point of view are loaded questions. In one of their experiments Elizabeth Loftus had two cars coming together and then she asked five groups of people various things. [slide shown] She would say to people, ‘How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other,’ down to ‘How fast were the cars going when they collided with each other?’ or ‘bumped into each other,’ ‘hit each other,’ or ‘contacted each other’? These are Americans so these are miles per hour, so it’s a lot worse than it seems. To us 40 kilometres per hour is nothing, whereas 40 miles per hour exceeds the speed limit in America by ten miles per hour. And depending on the verb they used in that questioning, you got different estimates of how many miles per hour the cars were going. So if you said ‘smashed,’ you are exceeding the speed limit by quite a bit at 40 miles per hour. If you say ‘contacted,’ you were just going a tiny bit over the speed limit, at just over 30 miles an hour. In a legal context that’s quite worrying. You can imagine a clever barrister doing things like that with loaded questions and getting different answers. So that’s the misinformation effect. It is a retroactive interference to memory and it occurs after the ‘to-be-remembered’ event.

Another kind of retroactive interference is not interference by someone else, it’s interference by yourself. Mostly when you see something you want to remember, a verbal description is very, very helpful. So you see you a robbery, you see the getaway car and you say ‘red car,’ and that’s helpful later. But there is a class of things where a verbal description afterwards not only doesn’t help memory, it actually hinders it. That is called verbal overshadowing, and that was discovered only in the 1990s by a man called Jonathan Schooler. He said there are some classes of things where a verbal description will actually impair the memory rather than enhance the memory. And those things are things like faces, is the one that’s being done most but there are other things and I’ll mention them at the end.

Faces are things that we’re perceptually very good at. Recognition memory for faces is brilliant, until you get to my age – it’s not so brilliant then. But our verbal ability to describe a face in a way that allows you to distinguish it from some other face is very poor. Where verbalisation impairs memory is where there’s a big discrepancy between perceptual ability – great – and verbal ability – lousy.

What Schooler did to test out this idea that, if there was a big discrepancy between perceptual ability and verbal ability, maybe a verbal description, instead of helping like it does in most cases, hinders – what he did was he gave people a face to look at. Then he divided the groups into two groups, an experimental group and a control group. And after a distractor task he then asked the experimental group to write a verbal description of the face they had seen before. And the control group spent the same time – you have got to have the same time elapsing between the original presentation and the test – doing totally unrelated tasks to do, add ups or something like that. Then he asked them, after a suitable interval, to choose the face they had seen before – it was a recognition test – from eight alternative faces.

And this is what he found. This is just the accuracy. The verbalisation group only had 38 per cent choosing the right face, and it’s a hard task because the face has to be similar whereas the control group had a 64 per cent correct rate. That is statistically significant. But what interests me more than anything else – and this again is from a forensic point of view – is how confident people were. The verbalisation group got some right. But when they got them right they were less confident than the control group that they were right. The control group obviously got some wrong, and the interesting thing is that when they were incorrect the verbalisation group were more confident in their incorrect decisions than the control group. I think that’s very interesting, because when a barrister has you on a stand he’s attacking your confidence more than anything else.

They are two retroactive interference examples – as I say, I’ve been highly selective today – I want to use today. One is the misinformation effect; that is, someone else gives you the wrong information. The second one is verbal overshadowing where you yourself do the fooling by verbally describing something that isn’t very verbally describable.

Now there aren’t many things like that but there may be some in a cultural context, I don’t know. But other examples are wine – I’d like to be in this experiment. Give someone a wine to taste, get half to write a verbal description and half not to, and then get them to taste five or six other wines to see which wine they have tasted before. The verbalisation group does much worse, unless they happen to be experts in wine and they do have a verbal descriptive ability.

Another example is colour, and I don’t mean red versus green, I mean various shades of one hue like various blues or various greens, being able to distinguish between those is impaired by doing a verbal description of what you have seen. Some voices, not male versus female but different male voices – and not tenor versus baritone either – similar sorts of male voices, your ability to recognise those is impaired by a verbal description. There aren’t many, but there are quite a few. And faces, it seems to me, in the cultural context to be the most important one.

Now let’s move on to proactive interference. And will you indulge me for a minute, please, by writing down as many of those words I said before and asked you to remember. I did kind of warn you that we were going to have a little test. I’ll give you half a minute. OK, that will do.

How many people had female? How many people had pregnant? How many people had family? How many people had mother? It wasn’t on the list. [laughs] That’s an example of proactive interference. It’s not everyone who gets it wrong, especially if they are told they are going to be tested on it, which doesn’t happen in real life, of course, but enough people do to make it a bit of a worry. What happens there is before you actually heard the list, you have a family schema, you have got nodes in your head and all the family is here – mother, father… Probably if I said ‘father’, some people would have put up their hands too. It wasn’t on the list either. The point is you have a family node and, as soon as the family context comes up, it activates all the things that belong to that family node. Now that’s called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott [DRM] effect. But there’s another type that for cultural reasons is probably more interesting to you. The Deese-Roediger one is an intra-cultural effect, and I want to talk about cross-cultural effect.

I would like to read you a story, which some of you may have heard before. This is taken from a book in 1932 by a very clever experimenter called Bartlett. What Bartlett did – amongst other things, he wrote a whole book on it – was give people a story to remember that came from a culture that was not their culture. Now our stories have timelines and have a logical sequence, et cetera. North American Indian stories don’t have that sequence, as you’ll hear when I read this story. And then I’ll tell you what he found.

One night, two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals, and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war cries and they thought, ‘Maybe this is a war party.’ They escaped to the shore and hid behind a log.

Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles and one canoe came up to them. There were five men in the canoe and they said, ‘What do you think?’

Is this making any sense? No.

‘We wish to take you along. We’re going up the river to make war on the people.’

One of the young men said, ‘I have no arrows.’ ‘Arrows are in the canoe,’ they said. ‘I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. ‘But you,’ he said, turning to the other, ‘you may go with them.’

Brave, wasn’t he?

So one of the young men went, but the other returned home. And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water, they began to fight and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say, ‘Quick, let us go home. That Indian has been hit.’ Now he thought, ‘Oh, they are ghosts.’

Making any more sense? Not really.

He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot and made a fire. And he told everybody and said, ‘Behold, I accompanied the ghosts who went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said, ‘I was hit and I didn’t feel sick.’

We’ve got not ‘but I didn’t feel sick,’ but ‘and I didn’t feel sick.’

He told it all, and then he became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried. He was dead.

What Bartlett, who was English, did was he gave that story to an English university population and after a suitable interval he tested them. They had absolutely no conceptual framework for dealing with that sort of a story that has no logical sequence and has strange ideas and strange names. I can remember it because I’ve read it many times – Egulac – but you probably couldn’t remember it. I can’t even remember the other one – Kalama [laughs]. What he did was he tested people, and what they did was they turned it into a nice logical sequence. Egulac became something like Jonestown, and the black thing coming out of his mouth became his soul leaving his body, et cetera.

But, even more importantly in this context, he got the method of repeated repetitions. Now Indigenous people often don’t have a written history; it’s an oral history. And in the method of repeated repetitions, you’re getting not only the proactive interference but also the retroactive interference. So if somebody gives their version of the story to the next person who gives it to the next person, by the time it gets down ten people, the story is totally unrecognisable from what it originally was. In this context, repeated repetition in cultures that have an oral tradition is something to be asked when you see what people are reinstating in the landscape.

I was fortunate enough recently to have a trip to the Kimberley, and I saw this illustrated in two ways. How you impose your cultural ideas on another culture’s work. We saw Bradshaw art and we saw Wandjina art – and I can’t remember whether it was the Bradshaw art or the Wandjina art but we saw an animal depicted – it’s all representational art, not allegorical art. It’s representational. We saw this picture, and it had this little hint of a stripe on it. And of course white people with their knowledge of zoology say, ‘That proves the thylacines were on the mainland,’ and of course it doesn’t prove any such thing. We don’t know what was in the mind of the artist. It might mean thylacines were on the mainland, it might not. The other way around was definitely Wandjina art and it was on Bigge Island. The man that found the island, they call him ‘Big’, but they call the island Bigge Island.

Anyway, there are only three clans in Western Australia that believe that Wandjinas are the creators rather than the rainbow serpent or the olive python or whatever, and Wandjinas are human-type creatures but they have no mouths. What we saw in Bigge Island was a representation, which was probably of white people, because they had pipes coming out of their mouths – I’m sorry, coming out of where their mouths would have been is what I should have said because they don’t have mouths. But out of that part of their face a big pipe came out. Not only that they had big square things on their feet that could have been clogs. But the interesting thing was, because it’s Wandjina art, these people have interpreted it within their framework. They made these what were fairly obviously – although again it’s interpretation – white people into Wandjinas, because they thought they were new gods. The Wandjinas have halos around their heads and each of these white people, with the pipe and these big things on their feet, had a Wandjina halo.

That is how people put their own interpretation. They’re both examples of proactive. because we have an idea in our head as to what a thylacine looked like. This had a little bit of a stripe, it might have been a mis-formed dingo, it might have been a bad artist – who knows.

So what I’ve said today is that it’s not practical archaeology, it’s not practical anthropology, but I hope I’ve caused you to ask: is what is being represented in these landscapes something that really happened, something that’s really veridical, or is it something – to use Louise’s term – as refracted through experience either before the event that’s being represented or after the event?

I wouldn’t want you to think that they were the only sources of memory illusion. They aren’t. It doesn’t have to be retroactive; it doesn’t have to be proactive; it can be happening contemporaneously with the event you’re experiencing. There’s a wonderful story about a psychologist in Australia who became the Father of Forensic Psychology in Australia. He became the Father of Forensic Psychology in Australia because he not only had a PhD and post-doc experience in America in psychology, he also was a barrister. He was on television one night and a woman was watching him, and she was raped while she was watching him. Later on she identified him as the rapist. Now that happened contemporaneously. Something happened at the same time it’s the only face she saw. Luckily he was able to say he had a perfect alibi – he was in a television studio and lots of people were watching him. That’s another source of memory illusion. But the sources don’t matter so much, the point is: memory might be accurate but it’s just as likely not to be. Thank you. [applause]

Sites of memory or memory of sites? by Dr Mike Pickering

PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Judith, that was a splendid introduction to the substance of today’s papers, and a very good lead into Mike Pickering’s paper. You can read Mike’s bio notes in the program. He’s vastly experienced in dealing with the realities and the practical and often legal consequences of people and group’s memories in relation to land. He’s here at the National Museum of Australia heading the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program. It’s about Indigenous memory that he’s talking to us, looking at the relationship between individual and group memories.

MIKE PICKERING: Actually, I’m doing nothing of the sort; I’m not talking about Indigenous memories. Although the whole project and what I am doing does stem from my studies with Indigenous people, I’ve just taken the theory. This is a true confession: this paper is a shameless reworking of the theoretical section from my long-forgotten doctorate. In that research I was looking at hunter gatherer settlement patterns at various scales and what information might be contained at those various scales. I was particularly interested in distinguishing the short term from the long term, individual from population, local from regional, and range of behaviour from patterns in behaviour – there’s a distinction which I will hit you with now. How we’re sitting in this room reflects the range of people sitting. The fact that we’re all sitting in this room reflects the pattern of behaviour. So you get variability and then you get this sort of coherent network. As I go through there are probably German words in anthropology to describe what I’m talking about but I don’t know what they are. I have even reworked my old illustrations – see if you can pick my cunning amendments.

When thinking about presenting at this symposium, I was reminded that settlement patterns are all defined by economic, religious, historical, intellectual and emotional affiliations to place by people – both individuals, families and populations – perhaps those theoretical considerations that apply to a physical position in the landscape also apply equally to the landscape of memories of place.

The methodological and theoretical dimensions of this talk will therefore address the distinction between micro-scale and macro-scale phenomena. How is this relevant to the work of a museum? In my opinion many museum collections, if you look at them individually and closely, are dysfunctional. While most people discard the bulk of the physical bric-a-brac of their lives and the lives of their parents and grandparents – keeping the memory but certainly moving on by clearing stuff out of the house – there are groups who obsessively collect or retain the physical reminders of their past. Is this passion for collecting, is this passion for reliving the past, truly a reflection of those events relevant to a nation’s history? How can a museum understand and classify the memories and histories that it presents without reference to the scale of the attributes associated with its collections? Are there attributes applicable to understanding individual histories that may not be applicable to understanding corporate histories?

Memories of place – this little illustration is the Korean War memorial [image shown]. My children laid the flowers on the foot of the war memorial on the day that my father died – he was in Melbourne and I was in Melbourne as well. Again, it is a memory of place to many, and it is a memory of place to my family.

I’ll proceed through an examination of the concept of landscape, and then of the theories of location and scale. This fascinating theoretical consideration will be balanced by totally irrelevant images of my travels. These are places of which I have memories and, occasionally, places of which other people here in the audience may also have memories. When do our memories, probably separated in space and time, converge to define a more corporate memory of place?

What is a landscape? What is place? How small are they? How big is it?

The terms ‘landscape’ and ‘environment’ are often treated as synonymous. But they’re not. They actually reflect different phenomena. The concept of ‘landscape’ emphasises the human cultural processes that both materially and symbolically shape landscapes. Landscapes are, first and foremost, products of human action and perception; they are cultural. Not only do humans interact physically with the environment, they also perceive and interpret environments through the medium of culture. Landscapes thus have a symbolic component which is not always visible in the spatial and temporal arrangement of objects in the landscape itself. Every landscape has to be interpreted. Take away the mechanism of interpretation, basically leave, and it ceases to be a landscape – landscape requires culture to interpret it. We have a roomscape here. The roomscape I see will vary if I go over there. It suddenly becomes a different roomscape, and I choose which one I prefer to address you through.

What is the definition of ‘place’? ‘Place’ at its most basic is simply ‘a fixed position where an object, structure or tissue is placed or where something occurs’. That’s an official definition. The defining characteristics of a site will depend on the scale of resolution applied in the definition. For example, at the micro-scale, a site may be a place where someone sat for an hour; whereas at the macro-scale it may be a permanent community, a city.

It’s important to distinguish between a place as a specific site or as a locale. A site can be the location of a specific event; whereas a locale is the location of contiguous events. The relationship between place as a site, locale, or combination of both site and locale, can be seen in this illustration [images shown]. Hopefully you can see that all right. You get resolution at the various scales. If we get up really close, here’s a standing pool. Here are places around the side of the pool. There are ten places there. They’re sites, that’s where something’s happened. Someone has sat down, they have had a picnic, someone has played a game of football or whatever. If you move away and increase the scale – here it is in 1:100 scale – everything starts to coalesce and you start to form this locale. It’s that whole pool, whole lake, whole geographic feature that becomes the place of discussion until you get to this level where you are again pulling back and looking at its location again. So it depends very much on the scale.

Think of it as visiting the Museum where tracking you at the level of the individual would show great variation in movements and time spent at various exhibits, whereas treating you all simply as visitors to the Museum had you all in exactly the same place at exactly the same time. So the number of sites within a given area will vary according to the size of that locale. Despite local variability in the location of the sites, the locale remains a consistent point of experience.

Next we get to pattern versus range, as I touched on earlier. One attribute of the practice of history is the difficulty in corresponding micro-episodes or micro-events, with macro-episodes or macro-events. Individual experiences are not directly multipliable to reflect the experiences of a population, and vice versa. There’s always the risk that minor events or experiences may be disproportionately represented.

The emphasis in many studies has been on expanding the range of episodes, even when they are rare and unusual, rather than looking for patterns or uniformity in events. As one author has commented, ‘Much of the so-called popular anthropology’ – this is the far-away-places-with-strange-sounding-names school – emphasises the range of the human condition, often with a profound neglect of central tendencies. There’s often a pressure to present new and unusual information rather than information that may be repetitive but still lead to the identification of representative patterns in experience.

The processes of structuring phenomena at the levels of the short term, the local and the individual are not necessarily identical to the processes that structure phenomena at the long term, regional or population level. Different processes operate at different scales and simple multiplication or reduction of processes and phenomena observed at one scale to explain phenomena observed at an opposite scale is inadequate and misleading.

The major problem associated with the resolution and comparison of phenomena, within and between dimensions and scales, is whether identification of the processes and phenomena that dominate at the micro-scale reflects the processes and phenomena that dominate at the macro-scale. It cannot be assumed that the actions or attributes of the individual – say, what I might find as a significant event or what a donor may find to be a significant event – are representative of the actions or attributes of the group or of the population – what the nation chooses to remember.

Individuals have experiences that are not experienced by all members of the population at the same time. Documenting the experiences of individuals over the short term will tend to identify the range of experiences of that individual rather than describe the long-term patterns in the experiences of the population. As one author has suggested:

The basic question is: What is the appropriate scale for analysing human activities – individual, small group, large group, or state? These are not discrete entities, rather they are specific scales along a continuum of possibilities.

The three dimensions considered particularly relevant here are the spatial, temporal and demographic. The spatial dimension refers to a geographic area covered by the inquiry. The temporal dimension refers to the duration overall within which phenomena and influencing variables are manifest. The demographic dimension refers to the size of the human group performing or participating in particular phenomena. These three dimensions operate and interact dynamically within the cultural system.

Each of these dimensions extends in scale from the micro to the macro. The micro-scale provide ‘fine-grained’ resolution, while the macro-scale provide ‘coarse-grained’. The micro-scale is research at the level of the short term – the individual or small group – and the macro scale is research at the level of the long term, the aggregate group or the population and the processes which influence group actions. While the distinction between macro and micro has been recognised, there’s been little development of method or theory that articulates the two extremes. They therefore represent the two extremes of a cline. At each scale particular phenomena are likely to dominate in terms of resolution and frequency. Each level of scale has the potential to address different problems and to complement and expand on information discernible at the other scales.

Studies of the use of space at the micro-scale – this is one of the theories – is a cultural geography with co-location over space and time. You can imagine this as one example [image shown]. This area is space and here is time. This is an individual – this might be me and this might be you. I walk along and come to this conference. I sit in this chair at this time. You come along and come to this conference, and sit in that chair at this time. Morning tea comes, and we both go off in our different directions. So we co-locate in time, not necessarily in space, because we’re sitting in different seats. I won’t use that when I’m talking about co-location in space because it would have us sitting on each others’ laps. Co-location in space but not in time. Here we are again [image shown]. This is one particular chair in this room, for example. We’ll start with you: you come in, you sit in this chair, you get up and you leave. I come in and I sit in that chair later. So we’re co-located in space but not in time.

And here we have co-location in time and in space, which is both of us decide we want to fight over who gets to sit in this chair during this seminar. But in the nature of memories, we can think about this as we co-locate in space. Here we have a shared memory – or theoretically there is a shared memory of that place at the same point in time. Whereas in the others, we can see here we have our own memories developing about the same place at different points in time. This is all very much at the level of the individual and the short term.

Here are a few more pretty pictures of place [image shown]. Now, there’s a place. This is where the tooth fairy came to get my daughter’s tooth some years ago. We used to lay these little traps. There’s the $2 for the tooth fairy under the glass. Here you’ll see the footprints of the tooth fairy as the tooth fairy went from sugar to biscuit to a drink of water, and then the little footprints over here to eventually take the tooth and leave the $2. [laughter] We got away with that with two kids for so long. So there’s a little model of place, but again it gives me fond memories. That’s why it’s there. And clouds – people looking at a salt lake [image shown].

The articulation of the dimensions of space, time and demographic unit occurs as people move through space and time. Places reflect people occupying points in space over time. Some places are regularly visited, others rarely. Places with repeated visitation will generally represent major places in long-term macro-geographic patterns of visitation and experience. Uluru is an example that has become a major site of national and international significance. The orange tree in my back yard is not a place of great international interest because it’s not visited as regularly by as many people. Nonetheless, within the full suite or range of potential places certain localities will always be visited more frequently, for longer and by a larger number of people, reflecting trends or a pattern of visitation.

The articulation of the dimensions of space, time and demographic unit is shown through the application of the principles of ‘return in space’, ‘co-location’ and ‘reunion’ which I have just mentioned. There’s co-location in space and time [image shown]. That’s tourist buses at Uluru at sunset. When I started drawing these illustrations [image shown], there was no such thing as computer programs. When I finished them, everyone was doing their graphics on computers. I eventually published them in an article and one of the critics said, ‘Well the article was pretty crap, but the computer generated illustrations were fantastic.’ I felt so proud. [laughter] I’m not sure how the scale is showing up there but hopefully you will get the gist of it [image shown].

You get this variability in place over space and time. This charts movements over space and time of several individuals – it could be several individuals; It could be several communities, it’s model based. Over space you find there’re all these different locations which are occupied over the long term. All these different places become significant over the long term through repeated visitation, whereas some of them have very low levels of visitation. So something that might happen in the short term at the level of an individual over a year, you might have some of this sort of pattern of emerging, and similarly two years later this sort of pattern. Everything suggests that this is not a popular place; this is not a place of great memory. But if we look at it over the long term, we find it does become a place of frequent occupation of large visitation and correspondingly of people’s memories and experiences.

Further on, variability at the marker scale becomes patterning at the macro scale, which is probably in effect very much a summary [Image shown]. This is again the individuals moving frequently over space and time as we go to the shops, as we go to the pictures – we all do it individually. Sometimes we travel together; sometimes we don’t. You can see the scale here is large. It doesn’t need a definition by metres. This is the diversity which is indicated at our individual activity levels. But if you reduce the scale, that activity starts to compress into a more regular pattern. This is what Canberra people are doing today. They are getting up and they are going to work. And here we are: let’s pretend this little section here [image shown] is all of us here in this conference at a time and space we have all co-located. This is us at the small scale spread around this room, but nonetheless we are all here in this hall. And this is what happens over time [image shown]. This is probably not even particularly relevant but it does show this is where the patterns emerge. There is a central core of central tendencies with a hinterland, an outer area where there is some diversity but still concentrating on that central core.

I’ll race ahead to wrap it up. I think that you’ve got the general gist that you have patterns and you have range – which ones are important, which ones are significant? Especially as a historian or someone working in a museum what story do you try and tell? What does all this information suggest? Spatial and temporal scales and phenomena will have direct bearing on the theoretical approaches applied in their examination. This tells us that all stories, all memories have their place – no pun intended. They all give insights into that rich tapestry that is our lives and also the lives of the wider society. It also reminds us that collective individual experiences do not inherently make the big picture story. Having 100 narratives does not necessarily lead us to the grand national story, nor however does the big picture story necessarily reflect the lives, experiences and passions of its actors.

I’ll just close with some anecdotes. In the late 1980s I was working on a land claim in the Northern Territory – the Roper River claim which included large tracts of the lands of Elsey station, which is of course the station in We of the Never Never. The senior informant, a wonderful old man in his 80s, told stories of Elsey station having sheep. Younger men, those in their 60s, laughed this off saying that he was addled, he was just too old and didn’t know what he was talking about. It turned out that there was a brief experiment in raising sheep on Elsey station but, because it was outside the memories of the majority of people there, it was a myth of the individual rather than a historical reality.

More recently, in late 2005, the National Museum bought a painting called the Mistake Creek Massacre, painted in 1997 by Queenie McKenzie, a prominent Aboriginal artist. The painting told the story of an incident in 1915, the massacre of eight Aboriginal men, women, and children at Mistake Creek in the east Kimberley of north Western Australia. The painting depicts Aboriginal and Europeans with guns directing Aboriginal people to build the funeral pyre before they are killed. A boab tree and the plaque erected by the Sisters of St Joseph are also depicted in the painting. [image shown] This is from an article in the Bulletin. Debate surrounds the historical accuracy of the event depicted in the painting. While the fact that the killings did occur is not contested, the question is whether the killers included Europeans, as is the Aboriginal belief, or whether it was a purely Aboriginal party in an internecine fight, as is the conservative non-Indigenous belief. So we have the Indigenous story which has a telegraph linesman coming up with Aboriginal assistants and killing people; and then we have police records which say that only the Aboriginal people took guns.

The proposal for acquisition made it clear that both accounts had aspects that could be supported by the evidence. But the real significance of the painting and the story was in their capacity to address issues of how histories are formed – they didn’t just agree with each other. The Museum acquired the work after internal scholarly debate as to the relevance and application of the work.

The process for collection acquisition is one structured peer review of object and argument. In due course it was referred to the Museum Council. Its inclusion in the National Historical collection was refused, however, because a single Museum Council member Mr David Barnett – I am quoting from an article in the Bulletin – ‘is understood to strongly hold the view that the massacre never happened at Mistake Creek and that the painting should not be admitted to the National Historical collection because it is a lie.’ In short, one person was sufficiently empowered to contradict and override the advice of a group of professional historians and Indigenous informants on the basis of personal opinion. What does this mean? It means there is much more to understanding memories of place and the places of memory than mere historical accuracy. Thank you. [applause]

Contested sites: cultural amnesia and the politics of memory by Paul Pickering

PETER STANLEY: Thank you very much, Mike. And from one Pickering to another. We can already see themes and commonalities emerging in this conference, which is very cleverly structured. We move on to a paper by Professor Paul Pickering who’s the convener of graduate studies at the Research School of Humanities at The Australian National University. He’s a distinguished scholar of the political implications of historical memory and especially in nineteenth-century Britain, a period of great fecundity and diversity in generating, celebrating and arguing about historical memory. Paul is also a great friend of the National Museum and it’s a pleasure to welcome you here today.

PAUL PICKERING: Thanks very much. If Judith is correct, then there’s absolutely no chance that you’ll remember or distinguish between Mike and I. So you’ll be asking me about space and him about terrorism. I’m hoping that perhaps some of my slides will be graphic enough that you will associate them with me and remember it.

Today we are meeting in what might be properly termed the ambivalent legacy of John Howard: The national museum that we had to have, the place that he built with our dollars, came to symbolise for most people on the right of politics in Australia a bastian of political correctness and black armband history, a dissolute child of conservatism. The so-called ‘history wars’ initiated as they were by prime ministerial acolytes and ideological gatekeepers produced a lot of hot air, considerable column inches in the Australian newspaper and Quadrant Magazine and an important book by Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark [The History Wars].

We sometimes forget, however, that the National Museum of Australia [NMA] was only one front in the history wars. There was also the attempt to rewrite the national history curriculum to include facts, facts, facts; to use a Dickensian turn of phrase, to devote more class time to Don Bradman than to frontier conflict.

Second, there was the brazen attempt to distort public memory through the allocation of research funding. The big winner during the Howard years was military history. Marilyn Lake has shown how government bankrolling of the production of historical knowledge can very quickly and fundamentally shape national history.

There was also the attempt to shape our sense of national identity by requiring all schools to display a list of national values against a motif of Simpson and his donkey [image shown]. The poster was controversial for a range of reasons not least of which because it seemed to suggest a broader agenda. The then Minister for Education, Dr Nelson, indicated as much when he highlighted of the importance of these values and that they should be taught in Islamic schools, and he suggested that they should be linked to citizenship. ‘If people don’t want to accept and embrace those values, then they ought to clear off. I don’t care where they’re from.’ Of course, this impulse would later reach maturity in the citizenship knowledge test.

Other commentators, however, hinted that it was worth looking more closely at the man at the centre of attention. As many of you will know, John Simpson Kirkpatrick became famous for his work as a stretcher bearer and as the man with the donkey at Gallipoli and he saved a number of people under heavy fire in that context. Nevertheless, there were other reasons that Kirkpatrick was an unlikely choice for a poster issued by the Howard government in 2006. Kirkpatrick was born in England. He was an active trade unionist and a socialist. According to some sources, he was indolent and a sloppy dresser. He came to Australia in 1910 as part of the merchant navy and he jumped ship. After he deserted, he tramped around Australia and worked in a variety of jobs. He enlisted in the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] under a false name expecting that this would give him a chance to get back to England, but he ended up at Gallipoli. If Simpson were to jump ship in Australia today as he did in 1910, he would be deported or sent to a detention centre as an illegal immigrant. Now I’m not trying to detract from Simpson’s heroism and sacrifice. Far from it. My purpose is to suggest that history is always more complicated than it appears at first glance and almost invariably contested and shrouded in a mist of cultural amnesia.

In a sense, these are soft targets with which I have begun. The facts of Simpson’s life are well known – if not to Brendan Nelson and John Howard – and politicians, even education ministers, are not necessarily well schooled in history. After all, wasn’t it Julie Bishop who confused the date of Cook’s landing with the date of the Federation?

In my paper today I want to focus on two more intractable and painful public myths that can be teased apart if we are willing to take the risk – and I will explain the risk a bit later. I will offer one example from Australia and one from Britain. I do so to make the point that cultural amnesia and the politics of memory are not peculiar to Australia. On the contrary, as Stuart Macintyre has pointed out, many countries have played out their own version of the history wars.

And lest I am accused of political bias, I will choose one case of political amnesia from the left and one from the right. Let me start in London. On 7 July 2005 at 8.30 am, four men arrived at King’s Cross station in London. They had earlier driven from Leeds in Yorkshire, in the industrial north of England, to Luton railway station where they had caught the train into central London. There is CCTV footage of them arriving and entering the station at 7.21 am.

Anyone who is familiar with rush hour in London will know the scene that greeted the men that morning. Three of them descended into King’s Cross underground station. At the confluence of all the major underground stations King’s Cross in the morning is chaotic, with waves of commuters battling against endless queues that snake around the central ticket hall. No matter which train you are waiting for, it will be full when it arrives. And for the first-time visitor, it’s miraculous how many people still manage to squash into the densely packed carriages and then open a newspaper or a book and casually start to read.

One of the four men, Mohammad Khan, boarded a westbound train on the circle line headed for Edgware Road. A second man, Shehzad Tanweer, caught an eastbound train on the central line headed for Liverpool Street and Aldgate. A third man, Germaine Lindsay, caught a train on the Piccadilly line headed to Russell Square. Outside Kings Cross station a number 30 London bus passed on its way to Hackney Wick. At some point on its route the fourth member of the group, Hasib Hussain, got on to the bus and took a seat upstairs.

At 8.50am, the three young men on the underground trains detonated bombs that they had been carrying in rucksacks. At 9.47, the fourth man detonated his bomb on the bus as it passed through Tavistock Square. The bombs killed 52 commuters and the four bombers and injured 700 people, many of them seriously.

The response of the British Government, the press and the general public to the events was swift and predictable. A week later, at a Labour Party conference, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the attacks firmly in an international context:

What we are confronting here is an evil ideology.

It is not a clash of civilisations – all civilised people, Muslim or other, feel revulsion at it. But it is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts and minds, both within Islam and outside it.

The implication was clear: what had occurred was not British. In the popular press the perpetrators were condemned as ‘Al-Qaeda bastards’. Again the clear imputation is that terrorism and terrorists are foreign – other, un-Christian, not British. In fact, if you look up ‘terrorism’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, you will see that the lexicographers have no doubt that the word and the concept are not British. The word is derived from the French, specifically from the Jacobin terror of 1793.

Public memory and popular understanding on the question of terrorism has therefore been carefully managed from the corridors of power and learning to the Grub Street press.

Who were the men who attacked innocent civilians on 7 July 2005? Mohammad Khan was born in Leeds and lived in Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. He attended South Leeds High School before going on to Leeds Metropolitan University. After graduation he worked at a local school as an integration officer, helping immigrant families. He was married with a young daughter at the time of his death. He was 30 years old.

Germaine Lindsay was born in Jamaica but he moved to England with his parents when he was five months old. He grew up in Huddersfield in Yorkshire where he worked as a carpet layer. He was married with a young child, and his wife was seven months pregnant with their second child in July 2005. He was 20 years old when he died.

Shehzad Tanweer was born in Bradford, before moving to Leeds when he was seven. He attended high school where he excelled at sports. He went on to study sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University. He worked part time at his father’s shop at the time of his death. He was 23 years old.

The youngest man was Hasib Hussain. He was 18 years old in 2005. He had been born in Leeds and attended school there, excelling in football and cricket. On the morning of the attack, his family contacted the police as they were worried that he might have been hurt.

Why am I telling you about these men? My aim is to make the point that, whatever else they were, they were British, they were British bastards. I want to make the point that until very recently the use of violence was normative in British politics and, indeed, that there is a striking parallel for anyone familiar with British history. When it became clear that the bombers were actually English, I kept hearing in my head a nursery rhyme that I had learnt as a child growing up in North London:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

The fact is that many people in Britain, including Tony Blair, have forgotten. In November 1605, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators placed a large amount of gunpowder in the Houses of Parliament. Their aim was to kill James I. They harboured a politico-religious grievance. The men were all English, Catholics, seeking toleration. Guy Fawkes himself was even born in Yorkshire. He was a British bastard. Despite this, he too was ‘othered’ by the state. When he was tortured by the authorities following his capture, he was forced to sign his confession Guido Fawkes to make it appear as though he was from Catholic Spain.

At 3am on Sunday, 3 December 1854, a party of 276 police and military personnel approached the roughly constructed wooden stockade erected by protesting miners in Ballarat on the Victorian goldfields. There is no agreement as to which side fired first, but the battle that ensued was fierce and one-sided. At least 27 miners were killed as well as six soldiers. The place of the Eureka Stockade in public memory is overwhelmingly conditioned by the image of the Southern Cross flag, the Eureka flag. Politicians of all stripes accept the dominant image. During the 150th anniversary celebrations, John Howard predictably banned the flying of the flag at Parliament House. The ACT Labor Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, defied him and flew dozens of flags along Northbourne Avenue.

Let me remind you of some of those incidents. [shows slides] There is Guy Fawkes – notice that it says ‘Guido Fawkes’ and a later poster . [laughter] I will come back to that. Notice the dominant motif in all these images about Eureka [slides shown]: the Southern Cross flag, the Interpretation Centre in Ballarat, an article headed ‘flag still stirs rebellion’, another headed ‘Descendants remember Eureka’, the cover of a Royal Auto magazine, a photo of Northbourne Avenue with the flags, and an article headed ‘PM says ‘no’ to flag’.

For historians and commentators of the left, Eureka has understandably been, in the words of HG Turner, ‘our own little rebellion’. In 1942, a future parliamentary leader of the parliamentary Labor Party, HV Evatt, saw it as ‘a turning point in Victorian and Australian affairs,’ a sentiment that was echoed by one of his successors, Gough Whitlam, who argued that ‘Australian democracy was born at Eureka’. The simple equation of Eureka with republican democracy is, however, another example of cultural amnesia.

I first became aware of the problem when reading Raffaello Carboni’s famous account of the stockade. At one point in that book, The Eureka Stockade, Carboni complained that the others in the stockade were keeping him awake with their singing. What were they singing? Was it Erin Go Bragh, the song of the revolutionary Irishman or La Marseillaise, the song of the French Revolution or the Star Spangled Banner? It was Rule Britannia, Britons shall never be slaves. When I turned my attention to the contemporary newspapers I discovered an even more astonishing fact that the stockaders had flown not one flag but two: the Southern Cross and the Union Jack. Why? As I have argued elsewhere, the rebellion at Eureka is best understood in large part as a British rebellion – or at least it was an action that was sustained by a popular interpretation of the British constitution. The demand of the miners was ‘no taxation without representation’ – a fundamental British right extending back to ‘Magna Carta. In other words, they demanded their rights as Britons. Britons shall never be slaves. This is, as I said, a startling example of cultural amnesia, because the British dimension of Eureka has been totally forgotten. Imagine if John Howard had known about the Union Jack. How different might it have been? How discordant might it have been had he chosen to fly the Southern Cross and the Union Jack at Parliament House in December 2004?

Since I published an article on this a couple of years ago I’ve been asked when we forgot about this, and at that stage I speculated that it was probably during the radical nationalist 1890s, and certainly by the First World War. But my speculation then was wrong. As I’ve since discovered, as late as the 1960s a school textbook from New South Wales clearly showed what the newspapers had reported at the time. There it is [image shown].

The critical factor in all these episodes, it seems to me, is time. Guy Fawkes have been normalised by the passage of time. His treasonous and rebellious agenda has been simplified or forgotten, although Britons annually burn a Guy in effigy and set off fireworks as part of a ritual re-enactment of the episode. Not only has Guy been forgiven he’s also become popular. In a recent BBC national poll to establish the greatest Briton, Guy came in 30th just behind William Wilberforce and David Bowie, but ahead of Francis Drake, John Wesley and Florence Nightingale. I wonder how long it will be before Tanweer, Hussain, Lindsay and Khan are considered great Britons.

Picking at the threads of memory is, as I mentioned before, a risky and thankless business. When I had the temerity to publish an article pointing out that violence had a long history in Britain and that the London bombers were in fact British bastards, I became embroiled in my own mini history war. For a couple of days my sins were discussed in the pages of the Australian and in Quadrant, a journal with which I’m sure you’re all familiar, I was branded ‘a left wing, post-modernist, terrorist lover’. I also received hate mail and threats posted on vaguely disturbing paramilitary patriotic websites. My attempt to explode the Republican myth of Eureka has had an altogether milder response although, apparently, the actor Jack Thompson described my claim as ‘bullshit’.

In closing let me give you a couple of other examples when time has altered perception and political salience of an episode and the politics of memory is at play. Ned Kelly was the subject of the world’s first feature length motion picture that was released in 1906. The film toured extensively throughout south-eastern Australia to packed houses. Significantly, however, the popularity of the film produced a sharp response from the state and was banned in some areas, leading ultimately to the inclusion of a specific clause in the Commonwealth Censorship Act.

Subsequent films about Kelly, and there were a number, were either heavily censored or banned outright. As recently as 1956, a play about Ned Kelly by Douglas Stewart was banned during the Olympics because it was felt that it would depict Australia in a bad light for international visitors. How ironic is it that in 2000 at the Olympic opening ceremony there were hundreds of armed Neds in the parade! Ironic, too, that Ned has become a cash cow for the state that persecuted and executed him. Several studies have emphasised his benefit to the tourist industry. According to the Heritage Council of Victoria, Old Melbourne Gaol enjoys 140,000 visitors annually, generating over $1.1 million in revenue. Significantly, it is the only one of the National Trust’s 50 properties that makes a profit, an outcome that is attributed with its close association with Kelly.

Kelly has now being commodified into abstraction, and any hint of his criminality or his political aspirations, such as they were, are long since lost in the fog of cultural amnesia. I could show you any number of examples of this, but here are my favourites [images shown]: this is Ned Kelly Bargains in Bateman’s Bay and just notice what’s next door to it – Locksmith – alarms and safes. [laughter] The Reductio ad absurdum is undoubtedly Ned Kelly sausages, and here I’m speechless.

I have a final example where the political agenda has mutated and the public memory has been completely subsumed by a recent representation. I’m referring here to William Wallace, a Scottish knight and landowner who opposed Edward I at the end of the thirteenth century and ultimately was executed in a rather brutal way – hung, drawn and quartered for treason. Drawing a metaphor from football, a famous Scottish historian has written that the first international contest between England and Scotland was a ‘lying match’ and Scotland won 2–1. The history I won’t go into, but Wallace’s ancient agenda has recently become a touchstone for Scottish nationalism. But the image which is now lodged in public memory is entirely fictional. There are no contemporary portraits of Wallace. These are the earliest, which actually date from much later [image shown]. There’s Wallace in the middle there in the sort of toga-looking thing. Here’s an eighteenth-century representation of Wallace looking somewhat like a Viking. This is a picture of the recently completed Wallace monument at Stirling Castle in Scotland, a major tourist attraction. Who does that look like? Mel Gibson. The past is a foreign country. Thank you very much. [applause]

PETER STANLEY: Thank you, Paul. If I can ask Judy and Mike to come and sit down at the table. Thank you very much, Paul. Talking about the vagaries of memory, while you were speaking, the other Pickering in the room handed me a note that reminded me that the name Pickering comes from the town of Pickering in Yorkshire, so that makes you a Yorkshire bastard. Anyway, thank you to Judy and the two Pickerings for allowing us time for questions and discussion arising from three different but connected and fascinating papers. Who’s going to be first?

I’m comfortable with silence at conferences so I’m happy to stand here for ten minutes. Paul, I remember your stuff on Eureka. There’s a new book out on the Eureka Stockade, which I think is being reviewed in the Canberra Times this coming weekend, which looks at it as a purely military operation and sets the politics aside largely and has a completely different take on Eureka. So we are reminded that it’s not just a matter of memory; it’s a matter, as Mike suggested, of interpretation. Eureka will look differently and we will remember it differently because people say new things about it. It reminds us of the slipperiness of memory. Come on, somebody must have thought of something.

PAUL PICKERING: There is also another new book coming out by Claire Wright at La Trobe University which focuses on the women at Eureka, and that will tell us another story as well.

PETER STANLEY: Yes, very much overlooked.

QUESTION (by Alison Wishart from the National Museum of Australia): I was reflecting on your three papers and thinking about our curatorial practice. One of the key principles I’ve been taught in curatorial practice is that we engage people and their memories or that people bring their memories and their personal experiences to any exhibition or any interpretation, whether it’s a cultural site or an exhibition. Having listened to your three papers today, it quite scares me because of the distortion that obviously occurs in people’s memories. As curators, we know that people bring a diverse range of experiences, memories and myths to their own personal interpretive experiences of an exhibition or a place or a site, and I just wondered if any of you had any reflections on that concept of people bringing their memories to an exhibition or a site. I know as curators we ask people to remember or to reflect on things that are relevant to that experience as well.

JUDITH SLEE: I think it depends on what the curators are trying to show. If they’re trying to show people’s experience and it is a distorted memory, then that’s their memory. That’s what they are living with; you are showing their experience. But if you’re trying to show historical reality, then that’s a different matter. You have to go into and see if there is a possibility of distortion. I think it depends on what you’re trying to show. Does that answer your question? Not really.

MIKE PICKERING: My own personal view – as a curator it’s the Museum’s view now, remembering that I came into museums quite late – is that every one of our visitors comes in with an opinion based on their own experiences. You’ll see people stand in front of something and they’ll say: ‘That’s BS. That’s not true. That didn’t happen,’ and usually it’s the basis of ‘the trains always run on time,’ and someone will say, ‘No, I got on a train once and it didn’t,’ and that negates the entire story.

It’s particularly a problem with Indigenous studies of course, because people have strong views on what Indigenous culture is all about and tolerance is a problem. So, when I do an exhibition or if I’m participating in something, I don’t care if people say that’s right or wrong; I just hope they go out saying, ‘Well, I didn’t know that.’ I’m not trying to make people into converts and I’m not trying to change their experiences. With any luck we can broaden the way they might look at something, but I don’t think we can actually expect to hammer them over the head and change their minds. If we can just influence the way they might look as something on leaving we’ve done our job.

QUESTION: Hello, I’m Heather and I’m a visitor services host at the National Museum of Australia. I also am a practising artist, so this conference sits quite firmly within both parts of my life. The previous comments are really interesting and I’m just asking the question: what is the business of a museum? Is there such a thing as real historic truth, and where does that sit?

Having said that, the business of Eureka, I’m a person who is a descendant of someone who was within the stockade and one of the women of Eureka. She was the wife of Cornish miner. They came from hard circumstances. But she is revered by the Anarchist Society of Australia because she hid three miners under her skirts, and I wonder what her motives were for doing so: Does that make her a terrorist? Does that make her an anarchist? I actually love that memory and, because she is revered by the Anarchist Society of Australia, I think it’s a complete hoot. But one of the male members of my family thinks that it’s absolutely terrible because he believes that she would not have actually wanted that.

Where does the context of her desires or what that original history was – how she is seen through the infrastructure of memories such as history, societies, museums, et cetera warps her identity as a person and what does that mean to us? So there we fall back into that notion of how the story is interpreted through all those structures. Where does a museum sit in relation to that?

MIKE PICKERING: Two comments: first of all, I’m fascinated that there is such a thing called the Anarchist Society of Australia! Presumably they have a president, a treasurer and an executive board and they hold regular meetings with minutes! The other one is: are there truths? Well, I think there are, despite we sit in circles and drink strange things and eat strange things and say there is no such as truth. I think there are events that are truth. I think what part of my paper was trying to get out is that we have all the individual variability but, taken as a collective, the truths do get mapped. They’re broad stories, they’re big pictures. Eureka happened. People’s recollections of what happened there may vary, but if you line up enough people there will be enough correspondence with certain parts of their narratives to identify consistent themes.

So I’m not afraid to say there are historic truths. Part of the fun is I think the historic truth is our Christmas tree and we might just take some decoration on it, but at the core of it is still that solid value.

PAUL PICKERING: The point I tried to make is that history is always complex and that museums, because of the nature of the way that they present information, can’t be complex. I think your point is a really interesting one that what is relevant and acceptable changes over time.

Think about the convict past of Australia. For many, many years it was referred to as ‘the stain,’ and people endeavoured to hide the fact that they had convict origins, and now having a convict in your past is something to be celebrated. It’s got an enormous cachet. So the relevance of the past changes over time and in a sense always reflects the need of the present. It strikes me that museums are in a very difficult position. Do they challenge the needs of the present or do they pander to them?

PETER STANLEY: I would love to take that on, but I think we’ll have to make this the last question.

QUESTION (by Claire Smith): I’m Claire Smith from Finders University in South Australia, and my question leads on from your comment, Mike, and that’s your point about the complexity of history and truth. Is the National Museum thinking about how a digital environment might be used to kind of pull in the different kinds of complexities that actually exist? Are we thinking that way at all?

MIKE PICKERING: A digital environment – is that what you said?

QUESTION (by Claire Smith): Yes – so they can tell lots of different stories in that way and have trails. I’m just wondering what the thoughts are there.

MIKE PICKERING: If we’re talking say multimedia and web delivery and systems within the Museum, we always have great plans for more multimedia and more ways of broadcasting information to give people much more information than is available from the labels. Any museum exhibit is just a tiny tip of the pyramid of information. Nobody enters a museum to read the equivalent of a PhD thesis in a couple of hours, which is what you often ask people to do. If you went through a museum and saw how many words there are, would other forms of delivery allow people to engage more deeply in particular – ‘This has taken my interest. I’m going to hook into my iPhone and see what the longer story is,’ or ‘I’m going to go home and do it on the web.’ We would like to do that of course. All museums are really looking forward to embracing that sort of technology. The big problem, of course, is the money. So, yes, the spirit is there, the theory, the philosophy – everything is there except the budget.

PETER STANLEY: Thank you very much. The technology we’re about to embrace is that of the tea cup. Thank you to all three speakers and thank you for your participation, and we’ll see you back at ten to 11am. [applause]

Date published: 19 January 2010