Layers of significance – Reconciliation Place and the Acton Peninsula, Canberra
Leanne Dempsey, Mandy Doherty, Anne Faris, Professor Amareswar Galla, Paul House, Andrew Smith and Benita Tunks, 28 August 2009
LEANNE DEMPSEY: Welcome to our third session that is called ‘Layers of significance: local sites’. I would like to introduce you to Margo Neale. Margo is Principal Advisor to the Director on Indigenous Affairs here at the National Museum of Australia. She’s also a senior research fellow at our Centre for Historical Research and a senior curator here at the Museum. She’s also an adjunct professor at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at The Australian National University. Thank you very much, Margo. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: This session is called ‘Layers of significance: local sites.’ This next session is a variegated and textured terrain throughout this next session up until 4.30. We start off with a conversation between three people, plus a convener who is Amareswar Galla. I don’t need to introduce Amar again – for those who are here today as he gave the keynote.
But in brief Professor Amareswar Galla is from the University of Queensland and is an expert in museums, sustainable development and poverty alleviation through culture. He’ll be convening this conversation we have here today.
The other speakers are all sort of connected through NCA, the National Capital Authority, and Reconciliation Place. They all overlap in those areas; they still have their own little moments beyond that - and some quite considerable.
I will start with Mandy. Mandy Doherty has an arts law background and has worked in Indigenous affairs since 2001. She now works with FaHCSIA [Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs] and I love FaHCSIA. They gave me the biggest mob of money for another big symposium coming up, which Peter [Stanley] will tell you about later, so she is rightfully in the first seat. She has connections with the other mob at NCA and all of that business.
Next is Andrew Smith. Andrew Smith is a registered architect, planner and urban designer. He has worked in both public and private sectors and he is a survivor. He’s been at the NCA through the razor cuts and the guillotining and so on and he is still there, so obviously he has a lot to contribute and to offer. His work includes Reconciliation Place, the National Police Memorial and Australians of the Year Walk, and probably other things as well.
Next is Amar who we have already introduced. Then we have Benita Tunks who worked for me for a while and who is an artist. Benita Tunks is a director of Liquid Creative Projects, which is a small Canberra-based company that specialises in design and project management of exhibitions and cultural institutions. She is currently at the Museum in public programs. I will now hand over to Amar who will get this mob stimulated and keep the dialogue going.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Thanks, Margo. Have people got this little booklet? There are some copies here. When the National Museum organised this symposium, nobody knew that I had a little past with this. Years ago, a long, long, time ago, the National Capital Authority commissioned me to write a concept for Reconciliation Place, working with Indigenous people, with the Tent Embassy and all the different families. But then a man half my size became the Prime Minister of Australia, and I disappeared into the distance. This is the first time since then that I am actually looking forward to learning what has happened.
What has happened is the original concept – you still have the same title Reconciliation Place, but it has changed into something different. So that’s great. And Andrew has survived indeed because I knew Andrew – a young man then but he’s still looking young while I’m aging. He was there when I was working on it and he was there when John Howard was the Prime Minister and he is there still.
Given all the changes that have taken place, how does Reconciliation Place get used today?
ANDREW SMITH: Can I just ask: how many people understand or know what Reconciliation Place is? You understand the spatial construct and how it all works? All right. [brief introduction to Reconciliation Place] In short, Reconciliation Place was an idea that was floating around, as Amar has said, and then in parallel with the authority [National Capital Authority] had done some work on how the Parliamentary Zone might be re-developed or to provide a strategic plan for its ongoing development. That work was done in the late 1990s and led to a report being produced in March 2000.
In that document there were four key initiatives, which the authority committed to deliver over the coming years. Almost in parallel with that, the former Prime Minister advised us that there would be something what he called the Reconciliation Square and asked us to provide advice on how that might be manifested in the Parliamentary Zone.
We took one of the ideas from that master planning process, which Amar was involved in, which was at that stage called the East-West Promenade and we put forward the idea that Reconciliation Place could actually be used to connect the eastern and western sides of the Parliamentary Zone. The reason being that at that stage we had identified that it was such a large area that people found it very disconnected, and we needed something to bring particularly the cultural institutions together.
That idea was supported. We held an international design competition, and the scheme for Reconciliation Place was selected as the winner. Its simple components are a pathway, as we had envisioned. Along that pathway artworks or slivers, as they were initially described, and in the centre and on the land access is a mound essentially.
The concept here was that Reconciliation Place in itself reflected the journey of reconciliation. Each of these artworks told a story about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians and as people moved through the artworks they would have an individual experience of reconciliation.
The idea of the mound was to basically provide a spot to stop and pause. In fact, it is high enough so you can look down on the artworks – the idea being that you can look back at the journey you have undertaken and look forward to the journey you are about to undertake.
It was intended that it not be developed at once but to be developed over time. In 2002, I think it was, the first four slivers or artworks were unveiled, and then I suppose nearly every second year since then one or two additional artworks have been developed and installed in Reconciliation Place. Today we have 17 pieces, all of which have a different interpretation, tell a different story of the reconciliation process or talk about Indigenous people. There is no great curatorial overlay here; the stories are told as they become relevant.
Today Reconciliation Place tends to be used as an unstructured and informal way of informing visitors to the national capital about Indigenous Australians. There are groups of Indigenous Australians who come and visit it occasionally, but that’s often associated with any particular artwork that relates to their own personal experience. Most commonly it’s used by school groups who in quite a public place get told a story about Indigenous Australia.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Thanks, Andrew. Tell me, is it still 2042 – the commissioners said that you plan until 2042?
ANDREW SMITH: No, there’s no real timeline on it.
AMARESWAR GALLA: There’s no timeline now. That’s good. It’s timeless now.
ANDREW SMITH: I think the point is when people stop seeing the value of it we have probably reached the point of reconciliation. While people want to tell their stories, it’s still there for the stories to be told.
AMARESWAR GALLA: How do you select the themes, the stories?
ANDREW SMITH: Essentially, it’s a cross-government initiative. We work very closely with FaHCSIA. We get to points where we’ll just say we’ve got expertise in design, we’ve got expertise in construction, and we’ve got expertise in procurement and artwork. What the NCA doesn’t have expertise in is working with Indigenous people or identifying themes and issues that are important to them. In a lot of ways we develop solutions that respond to issues that are raised by FaHCSIA.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Maybe that’s where Mandy, you might want to take over here.
MANDY DOHERTY: Thank you. Can I just acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which are meeting today and pay my respects to their elders both past and present. I work in FaHCSIA, and we have the responsibility for reconciliation and for the erection and development of Reconciliation Place. It’s supposed to represent, from our point of view, a shared journey of reconciliation like Andrew has mentioned. It’s a prominent location linking the heart of Canberra’s Parliamentary Zone, which places it physically and symbolically at the heart of Australia’s democratic life. Andrew has been through the course of development of Reconciliation Place as it is, with the 17 works that have been installed. It’s a work in progress and intentionally so.
I’d like to put a bit more context around Reconciliation Place as far as the government is concerned. Following on from the apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples in February 2008 and in working towards closing the gap in Indigenous disadvantage, the current government is looking to forge new relationships with Indigenous people based on mutual respect and responsibility. The government recognises that an important part of resetting that relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and in achieving successful outcomes is involving them in the decisions that affect them.
To this end, the government is engaging with a broad range of stakeholders on a variety of issues, not just Reconciliation Place. Its commitment to a new national Indigenous representative body is an example of this new approach. In the same way, Indigenous communities are a part of the development of Reconciliation Place. The involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists, communities and cultural advisors in the development of Reconciliation Place and its artworks has been integral since its inception.
The original proposal for Reconciliation Place required that all design entry teams had to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In addition, the steering committee and the competition jury also included Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members. The process has always involved working closely with the families and communities of the artists and Indigenous leaders whose images, words or stories were chosen for the projects.
Many of the materials were carefully sourced in accordance with respecting the protocols and interests of Indigenous communities. For example, the five stones that form the base of the artworks which celebrate the resilience and achievements of eminent Indigenous Australians were sourced from Wilcannia, New South Wales. The traditional owners asked that payment for the stones be made in the form of a donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. A smoking ceremony took place before the stones were installed, and during the unveiling in Canberra a sixth carved stone was also unveiled in Wilcannia as a further testament to the power of reconciliation. The Wilcannia stone was carved by a local artist Badger Bates and is a source of immense pride for the region.
For the Torres Strait Islander artwork – Methalu Tharri by Vic McGrath as well as fire and water by Judy Watson and Kwi’ith, Man and Woman Yam by Thanakupi – eminent Indigenous artists and advisors were sought from all over Australia to create designs that would resonate with many different audiences. The most recent artwork, a pavement artwork featuring a mural mosaic designed by the Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Corporation of Yuendemu, was unveiled in November of last year. The pavement artwork was developed in partnership between the government, the Canberra Medical Society and the Yuendemu artists. As part of its care for its members, Warlukurlangu organised for artists to receive specialised medical care otherwise not available in remote central Australia through the generous assistance of the Canberra Medical Society. With the agreement of the Canberra Medical Society, the artist’s fees for the paving artwork, rather than paying for the medical care, went back to the Yuendemu community and towards a community swimming pool, which was a top priority for the community. The Yuendemu community worked together to get the swimming pool in partnership with government and the private sector, developing positive relationships which benefit the whole community.
So we see Reconciliation Place as an example of that in action, working with Indigenous communities to achieve the outcomes.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Thanks, Mandy, that’s great. Before I hand over to the project manager and one of the artists involved, I wanted to say that we’re talking about a very strong bicultural Indigenous/non-Indigenous collaboration here, yet you’re looking at four people none of whom are Indigenous Australians. Before you ask that question, I just want to say that I feel very comfortable being the convener with a situation like this. We’ve got an Indigenous Australian with very colourful shoes welcoming us and introducing us, so she’s empowered us in some ways. But the most important thing that I’ve always felt – I’ve worked on probably one of the biggest research projects with the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation – that Aboriginal people have nothing to reconcile with us; it’s all of us that have to reconcile. So in that spirit I feel very comfortable with this situation. I just want you to know that we are conscious of this, but in every sense of the word it’s great what’s happening and there’ll be time for questions.
BENITA TUNKS: I do want to mention that three Indigenous artists that were involved in the project were invited, but they were busy so they couldn’t attend this. So there was interest. My role was as an artist working on the project, and when I was first approached I actually said no. I was worried about how it was going to evolve and, yes, the lack of Indigenous people represented on the project did concern me.
Sharon Payne, one of the members of the winning group of people that was selected for the project, came and had a discussion with me and shared with me that, if we didn’t start to create a place for Indigenous Australians to tell their story and to share with non-Indigenous Australians, then it would never begin and we needed to make that process start. One of the things that I was very conscious of was the consultation process that was put in place and also ensuring its authenticity.
What I wanted to share with you today was my privileged opportunity to interact with the families, hear their stories, and work with them directly to realise some of the designs or drawings or images or texts that they wanted to integrate into the structures. When I first was on board with the project, they were known as slivers in the early days and I understood why they were slivers. But I always thought they were a bit cold and clinical and for a story that is very much based in country and connection to land, I was really keen to see some really earthy things happening out there. When I was approached on the third stage – so I was involved in the first three stages – I was pleased as punch that I could go and find stones that actually told the stories and were able to represent the stories in a more organic, earthier way.
Then what’s been really nice for me as a local living here, as well as someone who’s been involved in the project, is watching the way Reconciliation Place has evolved over time. The artworks are becoming quite diverse. The structures that we first established in that first stage are pretty much not used any more, which is fantastic. As I said to Andrew the other day I’d like to see them removed one day but, as he said, it’s a representation of the stages of Reconciliation Place.
I just wanted to share with you that, from my perspective, working on the project and interacting with the families and being able to get close to the communities and spending time in the communities, that’s what informed my work and the marks that were made on these structures. I look forward to watching all the different artworks evolve there over time.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Thanks, Benita. Rather than the place itself, the place is a powerful symbol and the way Mandy also explained the connections to the communities from the place. I’m very conscious that a lot of you will have not just questions but some comments to make too.
QUESTION: Hi, my name’s Beth and I’m from ACT [Australian Capital Territory] Historic Places. I’m a bit concerned about vandalism. I know it is in the Parliamentary Triangle, but are there any special steps you’ve taken to protect the artworks?
ANDREW SMITH: In short, no. We’re quite fortunate. Most of the memorial commemorative works and artworks that we have are not really subject to much vandalism at all. There have only been one or two breakages of the glass, and in that case it was just because a truck reversed into it. [laughter] But no, we’re not concerned about that at all. It’s not an issue for us.
QUESTION: It’s Faye Powell from the Australian War Memorial. Can you give me an idea of the meaning that this has for Aboriginal people? Is this Reconciliation Place more meaningful than, say, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy site?
MANDY DOHERTY: That’s a difficult one to answer. I hear differing views from Aboriginal people about reconciliation itself, so I presume they would have the same views towards Reconciliation Place. Some Aboriginal people think that reconciliation is white man’s business – we’ve got to get our act together in order to engage with them – and others are quite willing to accept it. It’s a two-way street. There’s probably a range of views, and I wouldn’t dare to suggest there’s one particular view on that.
BENITA TUNKS: Just over the first three stages that I was involved in, at the first opening, as soon as it was opened, everyone dispersed. At the second opening, everyone hung around and we had to cancel lunch, and we actually stayed on the site. A lot of the Indigenous families and communities that flew in were really chaffed that this place was there. And on the third one we didn’t even make a lunch appointment off-site, we actually had lunch on the site because people just sat and talked. I really noticed over the four or five years that I was involved in it, that the people who were associated with the making of the stories and the artworks really were claiming it as their own site. That was just an observation that I made.
AMARESWAR GALLA: I think it’s a very important question. Given that I do exist somewhere in the archaeological layer of that place, I might add two things that were fairly critical. First, I think there is only Professor Mulvaney and Julie who are aware of a one-day symposium that was held when the government made the decision to move the National Museum from Yarramundi to the Parliamentary Triangle. Of course it couldn’t happen. The whole question of symbolism and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander committee of the National Museum made a very strong representation to put us at the foot of Old Parliament House, which has been responsible for so much disadvantage and so many policies – it’s not acceptable. I remember Bob McMullan when he was a senator chaired it and Margaret Reynolds took the recommendation. So there was a very strong feeling. It’s because of that symposium that I convened where we had Roger Pergram, Professor Mulvaney, Peter Piggott, Dick Smith, Lawrence Nield and people like that actually speaking, and then Brennan, the CEO of NCPA as it was called then.
When I was asked, I said, ‘Let me ask the Aboriginal people.’ There were four different families who were involved with the Tent Embassy. So I went there and I spent a bit of time talking to different people. ‘What do you think about this? The National Capital Authority is thinking about something very powerful here.’ I also talked to all the national institutions, because they were all inward looking. Everything happened inside the national institutions but not outside. The National Gallery has the sculpture garden on one side which was just evolving. So we consulted everybody. But the first point was the sausage sizzle at the Tent Embassy. There was very strong support for it as long as Aboriginal people are involved in the whole participatory process that has been clearly explained by our speakers – that’s fine. I don’t know if between all of us we have answered your question?
QUESTION (by Faye Powell): [inaudible] I just read Peter Stanley’s discussion that the actual spot was more important to the family. I don’t know, but I would have the actual spot that would be more meaningful to Aboriginal people would have been the Tent Embassy because of what flowed from that time. Rather than this which is beautiful, but I just wondered whether it does have that memory, and you’re saying that it does.
AMARESWAR GALLA: There were several things that could be done there. The first things was: what happens? Does it mean that we have to remove the Tent Embassy? I said, ‘No, I don’t think anybody is saying that.’ Indigenous Australia/non-Indigenous Australia is very culturally diverse. There is room for many forms of cultural expressions and many forms of protest, if you like, through art. Art is a very powerful tool for protest and resistance. There was that broad consensus with all the Aboriginal people who were first consulted that there’s room for more creativity there.
BENITA TUNKS: Also this space is a very new space, and we won’t know for a long time how people interact with it. It’s for all Australians. As someone mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of non-Indigenous Australians who don’t know a lot of the stories. So if they’re visiting the site and they’re engaging with the stories and the information that’s there, then that’s one group of people that are participating. What other groups do with that site over time, it’s yet to be seen.
QUESTION: I’m Anne from the National Museum. I went there [to Reconciliation Place] not so long ago with my mum and the way that I got there was going through the new National Portrait Gallery, coming out of the coffee shop, and then heading over to the National Library. I just wonder if you can comment on how those institutions impact on the way the traffic flow, I guess, more than anything else but whether you have other mechanisms for encouraging people to follow that pathway.
ANDREW SMITH: I guess that’s a question for me. It was always the intention that the Reconciliation Place pathway would be flanked by large institutional buildings, but those projects don’t come along very often. You mentioned the National Portrait Gallery. The preceding new building in the Parliamentary Zone [PZ] was actually Questacon and that was finished in 1988. So we’re looking at every 20 or so years someone’s brave enough to do a new building there.
Our experience is there are no issues associated with the juxtaposition of those building. The entries to the buildings, and particularly the case with the National Portrait Gallery, are sited in a way that people can access Reconciliation Place. I mentioned at the beginning that the siting was in part set by a broader urban design objective to link, in the case, the entrance to the National Gallery and the National Library. So, to use shopping centre sort of parlance, they’re the anchor tenants of the Parliamentary Zone. The intention was there to make Reconciliation Place the area you’ve got to walk through to actually experience the cultural institutions of the PZ.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Just to add to that: it was anticipated that there would be more engagements between all the institutions. What people have to remember is this concept, the whole thing started only a year or two after National Capital Attractions was established. Before that every institution was marketing themselves separately. The kind of collaboration that was coming together between all the national institutions is not all that long ago. We thought this is great, this is another way all these institutions could interact and engage, and Reconciliation Place becomes the stomping ground, if you like.
MARGO NEALE: Would it be correct to say that Reconciliation Place is in fact a government initiative? It’s correct to say that, isn’t it? Yes, obviously responding to needs from the non-Indigenous and the Indigenous and probably the Reconciliation Council would have had some push there too, I imagine. The point I’m making in context of the layers of meaning and the siting here is that someone mentioned the Tent Embassy. On the one hand we’ve got the Tent Embassy, which is a black people’s initiative on Aboriginal country reclaimed, I have to say, again. And over on this side here we’ve got an under layer of Indigenous country. It’s Indigenous country and then there’s a European layer. So the two sides have a very interesting conversation in terms of one is seen on the surface at least – without going to blows as I just did – you have this Indigenous kind of people power initiative and then you have the government initiative on the other end, and then you’ve got all this layering in the conversations in between. But that’s probably a paper I should do one day.
AMARESWAR GALLA: And thrown into all of this – you said European Indigenous – is a ‘bloody Indian’ sort of involved.
QUESTION by Paul House: My family through my mother Matilda has been involved with the reconciliation so I’ve seen first hand what’s happened there. Personally, I think it’s good to see what’s going on. And I think it’s a long journey. It’s a start in a long journey into the future in terms of reconciliation in Australia. It’s very symbolic, but I think it’s deeper than that as well. It’s also relationship building, personal relationships between individuals and government structures.
But the question I want to ask is that I hope it doesn’t take away potentially a future act of acknowledgement in terms of the Indigenous wars in Australia. One of the things I see missing probably in the ACT is a memorial on Anzac Parade to acknowledge the Indigenous wars in Australia. There’s a bit of acknowledgement behind the National Museum but a lot of people say it’s out of sight, out of mind. I’d like to see something along Anzac Parade, but hopefully this won’t be used as an excuse not to do something like that in the future.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Thanks, Paul.
QUESTION: Maria Nugent from the National Museum. I’m just trying to understand. It’s a series of local stories, is that right? So people know. You said it’s not curated in a sense of like a national historical perspective, so it’s not a story about white Australia’s relationship to Aboriginal people but instead a kind of portrayal of history as a series of regional or local stories. Is that right to say or not?
MANDY DOHERTY: I’ll just make a brief comment, because I think the others would probably add a lot more. I think it is a series – almost a grab-bag of historical incidents, eminent people and events that want to be remembered. There’s variation in it. The Torres Strait Islander art is promoting art and culture. So it is a range of things, but underneath I think there’s a definite attempt to try to get specific events, like the Stolen Generations and things like that, remembered there. Probably a bit of both, but I could be wrong.
ANDREW SMITH: I think that’s right. Benita made the point that it’s a very young place. My observation of working through the last few years is that initially there were those sorts of touchstone issues about the relationship that had to be addressed, and the most contentious was to do with the separation of children from their families. In fact, that took two works to actually even begin to tell that story, and you’ll probably find many people who wouldn’t even say it has been done adequately at this stage. So at the moment we’ve got to remember that it is young, and it’s the bigger issues, the headline issues, that are being addressed. But each one universally does have a reconciliation theme and will work towards a shared journey.
BENITA TUNKS: That was one of my concerns when I first was part of the project was who selected the stories. And that was a question I asked Andrew at lunch today, because where do we go from here? I think some of the key stories have been told and, as I said, I’d like to see a kids’ story, a group of children talking about how it’s impacted on them.
I think it’s now at a stage where OIPC [Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination] and NCA need to sit down and say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ But I do know that on each project there’s a curatorial or a cultural advisor. They consult quite widely as to who are the women who should be telling these stories and who are the elders that should be representing Reconciliation Place. I do know that they do a lot of talking to a whole lot of different areas. But I think it’s now got to a stage where you hand it over to communities and people. It’s which communities, which people, and how far do you go. So I think that’s where they’re at right now.
QUESTION: This is Heather again. Who’s deciding the aesthetic in the sense of which piece goes near something else? What I’m seeing on the loop behind you [slideshow being shown] as you’re all talking is that sometimes things sit in a disjunctive fashion, sometimes there’s a visual statement and therefore a statement of certain other politics underneath that as to where things are placed. Who’s deciding that?
ANDREW SMITH: The general structure of the process of designing and siting each of these works is guided by a steering committee or reference committee which FaHCSIA oversee and look after. The general approach is that we’ll be asked to develop a work around a theme. Given the theme, the NCA or its sub-consultants will develop a proposal and site it in accordance with maybe urban design objectives, co-location with similar themes, relationships particularly to Parliament House. The Neville Bonner sliver is a classic example of that where we’ve made sure you could look at the image of Bonner and look at Parliament House at the same time. There’s a combination of issues and thoughts in regarding to the siting and the character of each of the works.
QUESTION: I’m thinking in relationship to the materiality of the works – so metal against stone, glass against angular structure, more organic structure. Where they are placed in relationship to one another, that visual statement adds other layers of meaning.
BENITA TUNKS: As I said, at the first stage the design team was two teams. There was the architectural team that won the competition and then my company was brought on board to actually – originally it was described that there were billboards and they were going to have words and text. But they didn’t know me well enough, and I wanted to carve things out and put things in and wanted to use stone and glass and a whole lot of things. The elements were there. The architect had actually defined stainless steel and glass, but I jumped up and down about stone, so he inserted some stone. But that’s why I say those first five – even though I do love them – the other works that followed have got more life; they’ve got more energy; they’ve got more soul.
I think what was evident early on, and Andrew can probably speak about this as well, is rather than have a really strict set of criteria about what the structure should be, was to let the story shape that. That’s why I was really excited about the stones because by working with the five families, going and finding the stones and letting the whole process be more organic – they used to be called slivers; they’re now called artworks. So it shows the transition of that short period of time that now they are artworks telling stories and they actually have a life about them whereas the first structures, which were billboards, are a little bit more clinical and cold.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Thank you. I think that we might have to stop there. But I hope that – right at the beginning Andrew said, ‘How many of you have heard about the Reconciliation Place?’ – more people are aware of Reconciliation Place. It is beginning to get a bit sunny in cold Canberra. It’s a good time to go for a walk in Reconciliation Place. I strongly recommend that.
First I’d like to ask you to thank the panelists: Mandy, Andrew and Benita. [applause] I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Margo for introducing us, a great mate in these things who really takes on challenges, and also thank Leanne because I didn’t thank her this morning. Leanne, you did a great job bringing people together today. Would you all join me in thanking Leanne. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: Thank you, Amar. It was a great discussion. It’s actually too big to do justice to it in a panel like this. It’s very complex. I was actually on the Indigenous Advisory Committee at one time. What was really interesting about the fact that I was never called upon is a measure of success, because they were talking to the people whose stories were actually being put into the Reconciliation Place. That’s one measure of success in terms of consultation. And we do know that it’s a start, and there are a lot of stories that would not be known if they weren’t in a public place.
National Living Treasures: a perspective on the history of the Ngambri, and their story of survival by Paul House
MARGO NEALE: It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Paul House. Paul House is a descendent of the Ngambri-Ngurmal man Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams. Paul – I’m not going through all his bio because you can read it all at leisure – born here in the old Canberra Hospital in 1969. Paul is quite a remarkable young man – I can call him a young man because I’m significantly older – in that he has a lot of cultural and community responsibilities and commitments, and they’re listed here. He’s also had a variegated public service career, a very solid career through a number of organizations, starting at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. He is currently employed with the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change as the manager – it’s a very long title – so he’s involved in the whole cultural and heritage division.
Being a local Indigenous man he’s connected strongly to his country. So his talk is about connection to country, to culture, to ancestors. What is going to be useful particularly for a lot of people – it may not necessarily be you mob but probably is – is that he will give an Aboriginal face to Canberra in an historic context of people and names, which others may not have heard of, such as Onyong and Noolup and even Black Harry for a lot of people.
But not to stop there, Paul headed off and armed himself with a couple of degrees. He’s just completed a bachelor degree in community management from Macquarie University in 2007 and a diploma in government management in 2002. That all puts pay to the Australian perception that black fellows can be lazy and don’t get on with stuff. I went to a reconciliation lecture given recently by Mick Dodson, and the statistics are alarming about what non-Indigenous Australians as a body think – the stereotype they have of Indigenous people.
It’s now my honour to introduce Paul, who will be talking about ‘National Living Treasures: a perspective on the history of the Ngambri, and their story of survival’. Welcome, Paul. [applause]
PAUL HOUSE: Thank you, Margo. Firstly, I’d like to thank the National Museum of Australia for the invitation to come down here today: Leanne, Barbara and the National Museum staff who have given me the opportunity and acknowledgement to be here today. I put together this presentation a few years ago and I probably need to update it but I’d love to share it with you. I titled it ‘National Living Treasures’ after our ancestors and after our people today – both in past and present – to honour our ancestors and our people today. It’s a perspective on the history of our mob and our story of survival.
This presentation, I could talk for a couple of hours on it, so I’m going to have to fast-track it a bit. You can see there the different subjects that I’m going to quickly talk about today.
? Welcome to country
Firstly I would like to acknowledge the ancestors for laying such a strong foundation for the younger generation to move forward. The name ‘Canberra’ is derived from the name of our ancestral group and was gazetted in 1832 as Canberry Station right here by JJ Moore. JJ Moore was a property owner here. Here you can see the different renditions [slide shown]. So what we see today ‘Canberra’ is the Romanised, Anglicised version of the word ‘Ngambri’. This photo image comes from CMAG [Canberra Museum and Art Gallery], a local museum here in the ACT [Australian Capital Territory].
You’re probably wondering: where is country? This is an image of our connection back to country. We are heavily involved in reviving our language and our cultural practices. I’ve got the younger generation there performing with the older generation [photo shown]. So where is Ngambri country? This map is produced by a local historian Ann Jackson-Nakano, an English-born author [image shown]. The map basically is a linguistic map. It shows country based on linguistics. And Kamberri country – the different renditions of the same word Ngambri. Our ancestors, our people, are Walgalu-speaking people.
Why we know so much about all this is because the ethno-historical records, are powerful, they’re compelling, and they clearly demonstrate our connection to country. Ann Jackson drove along to Sydney one day, and she only got as far as Weereewaa, which is Lake George. As she sat there and contemplated her future and life, she thought: I wonder who the local mob are? A probably big mistake, she didn’t get to Sydney, she turned back and researched the Ngambri for the next 15 years of her life. The evidence once again is very powerful. Unfortunately, local government ignore that evidence at the moment.
So we’re looking at country here [image shown]. You can see country stretches from Weereewaa, Lake George over to the right there, along the Yass River, coming up to the junction of the Yass and Murrumbidgee down near Burrinjuck, the south Yass Plains, south of the Yass River, all the way down to north of Cooma along the Murrumbidgee River into including all of modern-day ACT, Queanbeyan and west out to the Gundawarras, also known as the Brindabellas.
We had a brother sister clan called the Gurmal who are also Walgalu speaking people, and they occupied the high country. This map is based on where our ancestors were living, working and passed away when Europeans first arrived on the horizon back in the 1820s in the local area. I won’t go into too much of the politics, maybe later, but the name Wallabolloa people – I have multiple Aboriginal ancestries. My great, great grandfather, Henry Williams, you’ll get to see him in a minute, was essentially a multilingual Walgalu speaker, and he was born in the upper Murrumbidgee River. But the term ‘Ngunnawal’ is a linguistic term which describes the Wallabolloa people north of the Yass River. Unfortunately, and we’ll talk about it a bit more as we go on, there’s a lot of controversy at the moment about country, who writes the country, who can speak for country. My grandmother was a Wallabolloa-Pajong lady, and she was a Ngunnawal speaker from north of the Yass River, so I acknowledge all of my ancestries.
So we talk about country here: the country expanded and contracted over many thousands of years, pre- and post-contact period. And Aboriginal people had rights: rights to country, individual rights, group rights to country in traditional times and also in contemporary times today. So what we find is a lot of ancestors were named after country – where they were born, they were given a name from that area of country. For example, one of our leaders when the Europeans arrived on the horizon was an Aboriginal man called Onyong. His real name is Allianoyonyiga, and he was born in a creek near Weereewaa near Lake George.
This is an early map of Canberra, one of the first known maps of Canberra by surveyor Dixon [image shown]. You can see – we call it the Ngambri River but now it’s named the Molonglo River, and now it’s called Lake Burley Griffin. The Ngambri River flowed up to near Queanbeyan up into what we call the Jeligung. We can see country there – you can see Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie up in the top there and Pialligo.
Quickly going back to invasions of Ngambri country, when the Europeans did first arrive or invaded Ngambri country, our ancestors had never seen a European person before. There are stories in the family of the ancestors running up the tops of trees trying to escape and running into the mountains out in the Gundawarras to escape from the Europeans. So at first we know that Europeans slowly arrived as individuals and in small groups, so the ancestors were able to repel smaller groups. But after a time with the tide of people coming in the country, there was no competition.
This photo is of the Lowe family [image shown]. The gentleman on the far right is a gentleman named Dick Lowe, known as ‘Black Dick’. He was born in Kiandra. He is a Walgalu speaking man from country here, a Ngurmal man. And that’s his wife, Sarah McCartney Duncan, sitting down with the hat on with a young daughter on her lap. Sarah McCartney Duncan is the daughter of a lady named Nanny. And Nanny, also known as Junamingo, was a Ngambri lady from the area who apparently had a relationship with James Ainslie.
That’s the children of Dick Lowe and Sarah McCartney Duncan there. Unfortunately, ten of their children never made it to adulthood. They died from influenza and measles. This photo was taken out at Cuppacumbalong on the Murrumbidgee. The lady on the right with the mirigan, the dog, is Nellie Hamilton. Nellie was a Ngambri woman, a Molonglo woman and a Ngarigo speaker as well. She’s a local identity from the Queanbeyan area. There’s a lot of evidence in records about all people here, including Nellie. That was her third husband to the right there, King Billy, Bobbie Duomonga from the south coast.
This is my great-great-grandfather [photo shown], Henry Williams, known as Black Harry Williams. Him and Dick Lowe were great mates, great friends. Why we know so much about him because the De Salis family wrote in their diaries for over 40 years out at Cuppacumbalong about Henry and Dick Lowe. He was a black tracker; he was a farmer; he was an athlete; he was a clever man; and he looked after country. He was born at the Upper Murrumbidgee River in 1838. This photo is taken at Uriarra where he worked as a labourer, as a stockman. He could turn his hand to anything. I only found this photo about four or five years ago when I went out to a property called Fairlight Station just on the border here in the ACT, which used to be a property of Uriarra Station, and the Webb family kindly shared this image with the family.
Henry’s mother was a Ngambri woman who died at a young age, and he was orphaned. He was raised by our tribal grandfathers Allianoyonyiga and Noolup, also known as Jimmy the Rover. He [Henry Williams] was about 65 years old in this photo. Onyong and Noolup taught him the tribal secrets of country, and he easily disappeared into the mountains where he would practice law custom with the Ngurmal, the Walgalu speaking mob.
[Photo shown] This is an image of Henry’s son, my great-grandfather ‘Lightning Williams’, and my grandmother Cissie Freeman, who was a Wallabolloa-Wirradjiri woman over at the Aboriginal reserve in Yass called Hollywood. This is my grandfather Doug [photo shown]. There were many other ancestors as well. There was ‘Kangaroo’ Tommy, Bobby Hamilton, Nanny and Nellie, and we know a lot about our ancestors. Because of the time I’ll skip through some of these photos. This is my mother Matilda with her great-auntie Violet over at Yass in Hollywood.
So what happened to the Ngambri? By the mid-1880s, the first generation of Ngambri who experienced whitefeller invasion had passed away. We’re talking about people like Onyong, Noolup and Kangaroo Tommy. We’re talking about multi-lingual ancestors who looked after country and held ceremony on country here. Eventually a lot of our ancestors did die, pass away, and a lot of our mob did move on from country and were forcibly removed outside of country onto places like Edgerton Aboriginal Reserve near Yass, Hollywood at Oak Hill in Yass, Brungle Aboriginal reserve and further on to Rambi Mission in Cowra. A lot of the Ngambri people were slowly moved out of country, forced out of country, but some of our ancestors did remain on country here and looked after country. My great-uncle Roderick Williams was a labourer and worked on the building of Old Parliament House and he worked as a labourer at Yarralumla Station just down here as well, which is now the Governor-General’s residence.
This is an image of an acknowledgement of Onyong [slide shown]. Onyong developed a strong relationship with a man called Garrett Cotter. Garrett Cotter was an Irishman who was exiled over to the west of the Murrumbidgee River for allegedly stealing a horse and was later exonerated, but during that time he forged a strong relationship with Onyong, Black Harry’s tribal grandfather, a Ngambri man, who helped Cotter survive in country. He showed him food and water in country, and unbeknown at the time he opened the country up to the Europeans. But there was a strong partnership and relationship, and that is reflected in the Cotter family acknowledging Onyong through a monument on their property out at Top Naas out near Cuppacumbalong out at Naas Forest.
During this time our ancestors were still living – in 1913 when the name Canberra was given as the national capital, Black Harry Williams was still living and camping with Dick Lowe out at Yankee Hat our at Namadgi and Gudgenby. We know that and we’ve got stories in the family – Yankee Hat and Nalanbang and Gurenbang – basically living and working on country. Why we know that is because of the ethno historical records. Once again they clearly demonstrate our provenance and connection to country.
So we’re talking about holding on to country. The research, the records, clearly indicate there were two main families that held on to country here in the ACT, in Canberra. They include the descendants of Henry Williams and also the descendants of Dick Lowe, Richard Lowe, who was in that photo with Sarah McCartney Duncan. I might just go back to those images so you can see our ancestors [image shown]. So we did exist. I grew up as a product of the ACT public education system and I was told that there were no Aboriginal people from the Canberra region, and we didn’t really have a name. We didn’t exist.
Over time things did slowly change. We’ve done the research, we’ve done our homework, and we connected ourselves back to country. It’s important that governments allow Aboriginal people to reconnect back to country and do it on their terms and do it in their way, not be dictated by government about who you are, where you come from and who has rights to country. It’s up to Aboriginal people to do that, to determine that, and not be interfered with by government. So holding onto country is very important.
When did we reclaim country? As we see, over time the ancestors were slowly moved out of country because of those policies of the time. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they were herded onto missions like cattle, and by that time most of our ancestors were at Hollywood Reserve in Yass – you can see in the land of our former enemies, the Wallabolloa, the Ngunnawal speakers.
This book [The Kamberri: a history of Aboriginal families in the ACT and surrounds by Ann Jackson-Nakano] is no longer in publication. You could probably find in a bookshop. There is a lot of information in there based on historical truths, based on historical records, and for me it’s compelling. We talk about whether we have this connection to country, whether it’s documentation or evidence or whether it’s the land itself, for me it’s both. I’d like to combine the two, and for me it’s powerful. For me, it clearly demonstrates my connection and provenance in the ACT in Canberra.
When I grew up at school we were told we never existed, we had no connection. Over time we were able to produce Tales from Ngambri history, the primary school readers [Book 1, Onyong and Noolup; book 2, Ngoobra the Ngambri cleverman; and book 3, Ngoobra and the hairy man at Yankee Hat]. The ACT government actually funded these publications, and they were disseminated throughout all the public schools in the ACT. They’re based on historical truth, on Onyong and Noolup. Onyong was the leader of the Ngambri and Noolup was the leader of the Ngurmal people, and he [Noolup] was also known as ‘Jimmy the Rover’. Onyong’s real name was Allianoyonyiga. They were both powerful leaders when Europeans first arrived here in the ACT region. They were young leaders in their mid-20s leading large groups, their families. My grandfather Henry Williams, his Aboriginal name was Ngoobra, talking about Nalanbang and Yankee Hat. You have to throw in a love story as well – Kiwon and Gunji, about the police when they come to country here.
Here’s an image of country out at Cuppacumbalong on the Murrumbidgee River [image shown]. I’ve got lots of images and I have to update the PowerPoint, but the point I want to make is the fact of the matter is that Aboriginal people all over Australia, all over the world, are fighting over country competing for their claim to land, and the ACT is no different. The ACT was once a backwater and my family – there was no competition in terms of country in the 1960s with my mother Matilda here. There were not many Aboriginal people here until the early 1970s with the pan-Aboriginal movement, the establishment of the Tent Embassy, and also the establishment of federal departments, a lot of Indigenous people saw an opportunity to move to Canberra and undertake work here. And slowly over time there were many different Indigenous Australians living here in Canberra. Yes, ACT was a backwater, now it’s prestigious. The ACT is prestigious. A lot of Aboriginal people now are claiming country and want a piece of country here. That’s fine. We don’t exclude anyone from the table; everyone’s entitled to sit at the table.
But for me it’s important to show your evidence, show the connection to country. Sure, some people are at different levels of understanding and access to information, but government shouldn’t deny Aboriginal people that right to research and do their homework and put the evidence on the table. I’m all about sharing information. The Ngambri are about sharing information with other people who think they have a claim to country. And a little bit more into that – it’s a bit more complex than that. Native title came in. The Native Title Act created a lot of division amongst Aboriginal people in Australia. Native title and some kind of economic benefit out of native title or from some other means of interaction with government.
How do we intend to settle disputes? That’s very complex as well. This question could be asked right about the country, not just here in the ACT. But for me, I’ll give you an example of what’s happening. Unfortunately, the local ACT government have come out and said who the traditional owners are. For me, government doesn’t have a right to determine who traditional owners are. It’s the people. You can’t exclude people from the table or from country by creating legislation or creating policy or protocols that exclude people who have strong connection to country, who have the evidence. To me, that’s discrimination. It violates my human rights. What I don’t want to see is government institutions like the National Museum of Australia or any government institution fall into that trap of dictating to the Aboriginal people who they are and where they come from.
Leave it up to the Aboriginal people, leave it up to the mob to decide that, and try to find the common ground between the groups and try to resolve that. For me, the big mistake that government made, especially the ACT government, is stepping in and trying to say they’re resolving an issue when they’re actually making the matter worse. They are basically throwing petrol onto the fire in terms of acknowledging people when really they don’t have that right to do that.
So today – that is my son Reuben a few years ago out on the Gundawarra River or the Cotter River [photo shown]. There is a lot of concern about the lack of formal acknowledgement and recognition. I would like to see my children grow up in a society that honours, respects and acknowledges Indigenous people of this country, but the government has to be careful how they do that.
Indigenous Australians, we’re entitled to a greater share in the wealth and prosperity of this country. And for the Ngambri, the Walgalu speakers from Canberra, we don’t own or control any land, we don’t hold any senior positions in federal government or local government. We feel that our voice is not being heard and that our rights to our country are being trampled over. So it’s a feeling of powerlessness, but you can’t take away our connection to country.
We talk about the evidence and we talk about the land itself – it’s still here. So it’s powerful for us, and we keep fighting. We’ve got to get it right for my children, our future children, all the Ngambri children, all the Aboriginal children of Australia – we need to get it right. I could keep talking about it a bit more but I am about to be wound up. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: Thank you very much, Paul. This is an emotionally engaging subject for Paul. He’s not here talking about other mobs; he’s here talking about himself and his mob. I acknowledge your courage and commitment to doing that. Yes, I always recall, I think it was Gary Foley, who said – he said many things but he did say ‘Native title is another form of cultural genocide, because it is run through governments, and it is the most divisive thing. I don’t know what the alternative is and I don’t have any answers, but I know it is extremely divisive. And also it’s another form of assimilation, according to Gary Foley and Richard Bell, who have a lot of profound things to say though radical. I hope out of that you were able to get a glimpse into the layers of Aboriginal history that exist in this region, and of course the borders were not the political borders that we now see as the ACT borders.
Medical superintendent’s house: layers of memory from pre-European times by Anne Faris
MARGO NEALE: Next we have – we keep zoning in and in, out from the Indigenous Ngambri country down into this peninsula. I think all of us have an historic connection to this peninsula, either through birthing, death or sickness or a whole range of things. We have Anne Faris who’s going to take the lens even finer right down to the medical superintendent’s house which she and other members of the National Centre for Historical Research inhabit. I’m in the right cottage, aren’t I? She’ll be looking at making sense of people’s memories through this project which is centred on the medical superintendent’s house and looking at the layers of memory from pre-European times. I welcome Anne Faris, who works at the centre, and has been there for just over two years now.
ANNE FARIS: I’d like to tell you about this place on the Acton Peninsula, a site layered with memories, personal and public, intimate and institutional. I spend my working life on this peninsula in a two-storey cream brick house behind a hedge. You would have passed it as you approached the Museum earlier today. It’s very different from the high-rise city tower where I used to work. Being in the house prompted me to think about the previous occupants and their experiences. Being surrounded by researchers who thought and published, motivate me to write.
The house was built as a residence for the medical superintendent of the Canberra Hospital which was opened on this site in 1943. My research project involves finding people who lived in the house and speaking to them about their memories of that time in that place: what it meant to them, how they lived their lives, and how significant the place was in the lives of their family. I hoped to develop an argument that the people who lived in the house contributed in some meaningful and disproportionate way to the Canberra community.
It has been hard to draw a boundary around the edge of my work. The house was part of the hospital, and the inhabitants very much so. The hospital was a critical part of the Canberra community. People were born and died there. Fundamental parts of people’s lives and that of their family happened here in this very place. As time has gone on, I’ve realised the undervalued and unrecognised importance of this whole peninsula in terms of the Indigenous connection and contribution to Canberra’s early history.
Prior to European settlement in about 1824, Indigenous people used the area as an important ceremonial ground. People would gather annually from many areas around to celebrate and discuss differences. It was an area rich in food sources, including fish from the Molonglo River, sheltered from westerly winds, with areas suitable for camping and defending.
Europeans were attracted to the area for its source of water and rich farming areas. Slab huts were built after land grants were made, and the land was farmed mainly by tenant farmers. As Paul has referred to, the name of the property Kamberri evolved from the name of the Indigenous Ngambri owners. This in turn became Canberra, the name of the national capital.
Acton Peninsula was the site of the first formal acquisition of land by the federal Capital Commission. After being resumed in 1911, it became the administrative centre for the new territory and was the location for a courthouse, a nursery, bank, school, trades hall, and post office. It was also the site of a race course, golf course, hockey ground, and tourist and camping ground. There were streets of workers cottages housing young families.
The Canberra Community Hospital started here in 1943, and expanded and changed as the population of Canberra grew. Generations of young women left their families and gained independence by living in the nurses home while completing their hospital training. Originally, the hospital was set on the bend of the river and then, when Lake Burley Griffin was filled, its setting changed to be on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by a beautiful and long anticipated lake.
In 1991, the hospital was closed after a very long and emotional campaign to save it. In 1997, the main buildings were imploded. A temporary hospice was located here between 1999 and 2000. The National Museum of Australia was built here, and opened in 2001, and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in the same year.
Here’s a photo taken in 1961 [image shown], and I will point out a few of the things I’ve mentioned to you. There’s the string of workers cottages. This is the hospital here and the buildings which are still in existence are there. This little thing in between the trees here is the superintendent’s house, which you saw in that earlier slide. So the lake sort of makes a line around here. Then Lennox Crossing – if you read some of the accounts of early Canberra, Lennox Crossing was quite a feature in the way people lived their lives. You can see there’s a lot of land around there. There’s the hockey fields, the race course and the golf club all around that area there.
This is another slide [image shown] that is actually around the other way from the previously one. And again, this is just before the lake – it’s the forming of the lake. So around here is where the lake is going to be, the lake edges. You can see the river along here. You’ve got Commonwealth Avenue bridge, and the Hyatt will be in there. And again, there’s the house.
And that’s the peninsula as it is today [image shown] and there’s the house there. I’ve lived in Canberra since 1999. So when I began my research, I asked my neighbour, who was a nurse, who trained at the Canberra Hospital and who is a long-term Canberra resident, whether she knew who had lived in the Hospital House. We talked more broadly about the hospital, and it didn’t take me long to realise that, although it was over 15 years since the hospital closed, her memories were still sore. She told me about where she was when the hospital imploded and let me know that neither she nor he family had visited the Museum. This response wasn’t isolated, and the more I talked to people the more tip-toeing I felt I had to do.
A book was written to collect the memories of nurses and other staff who worked at the hospital. It concludes with a feeling of loss and grief and was probably written on that basis. My question: is the book a tangible keeper of memories now that the buildings are gone? Do we need something to hold or to see to validate what we have experienced and what we remember?
Peter Read in his book Return to Nothing notes: ‘The greater the emotional investment in a site, generally, the more painful is the return.’ I met another lady who got me thinking on this line. She’s a long-term resident of this area. She told me that the hospital her children were born in was knocked down. The house they lived in isn’t there any more, and the school her children went to is now used for something else – again, a sense of loss and displacement.
By now I had reached the stage of contacting people who lived in the house. I was very reticent about writing on Museum letterhead; I much preferred to put my home details down. I spoke with a retired doctor who lived in the newly completed house in 1943 with his father, the medical superintendent, his mother and two sisters as a 12-year-old. I asked him about his memories of living there. We walked around the house, and he recalled cleaning ashes from the fireplace, and his mother planting bulbs in the garden.
He told me about the dinners that his mother used to host for the American doctors. The United States Army Medical Corps were based in Canberra for a short period before relocating to Queensland to be nearer their patients. One of his memories was particularly striking. An American colonel in full dress uniform sat down to dine with the boy’s family. The colonel, who smoked a cigar and chewed gum at the same time, stubbed out the cigar on one fork and placed the gum on another before starting his meal. I could imagine a scene like that sticking in the mind of a 12-year-old boy.
I had done some reading about the occupation of the hospital by the Americans, and when I checked the dates, it didn’t look like the family was in the house when the Americans were in town. This got me thinking. I believe the event really happened. It was so vivid in his memory 65 years or so after the event. Did it happen in another house? Did the colonel come back later for a visit? This was my introduction to the complex relationship between memory and fact.
I spoke to other people who had lived in the house as children. One woman in particular had delightful memories of the house, the garden and the surrounding areas. Her mother preserved fruit from the garden and made jams. She and her siblings swam, sailed and canoed on and in the lake, going to the island nearby. They did this at night too, and she recalled following the track of the moon along the water in her boat. They had a special tree in the garden, which they called their dreaming tree. They had parties for the hospital staff in the summer under the tree. This beautiful oak tree is still there.
It reminds me of the children’s book My Place, written by Nadia Wheatley and illustrated by Donna Rawlins, where a particular tree is the centre of focus for memory of generations of children before European settlement until 1988. The landscape and environment change over time, but the tree remains.
Older Canberra women have memories of the pregnant pine, a pine tree with a bulge on the side – again a tree which remains on the site. It was located, quite appropriately, outside the maternity ward.
Recently, the ACT National Trust commissioned a survey of the social value of Lake Burley Griffin and its surrounds. The latest Heritage and Trust report identifies special memories as an important reason for people aged 12 to 24 born in the ACT visiting the lake. It notes: ‘These results suggest that an attachment to place is only just starting to form in the ACT, given the importance of memory in creating a sense of place.’
Unveiling a commemorative site on Acton Peninsula in 2006, 15 years after the closure of the hospital, our Chief Minister Jon Stanhope said: ‘It was rare to find a Canberra family that did not harbour some abiding memories of the Royal Canberra Hospital, including the birth of babies and the loss of loved ones.’
An elderly gentleman came here each year to remember the passing of his wife. He brought a chair, some champagne and two glasses, and sat in a space that he shared with his wife before she died. This is one way he remembers her.
There are other formal memories on this site if you look hard enough. The Bogong moth, the Goree sculptures, help us acknowledge and remember the ownership and use of this land by Indigenous people [image shown].
This black granite monument brings to mind the people who lived and worked here between 1911 and 1964. The commemorative site at the end of the peninsula, Hospital Point, recalls the people who contributed a variety of skills and services and part of their life to the Royal Canberra Hospital. It is made up of stones from the first house on the site. These stones had also been used in a fountain outside the entrance to the hospital and the foundation stone of the hospital. This monument reads: ‘On this site, Lieutenant JJ Moore, the first settler in this district, built his residence.’
Now the Museum is located on the site. The Museum sets out to reveal the stories of ordinary and extraordinary Australians, to facilitate an exploration of knowledge and ideas, and to provide a forum for discussion and reflection. I’ve seen visitors in the galleries looking at objects, heard them recalling parts of their own past, and sharing that with their families. Daily, families, school children and adults come here, recalling memories and creating memories.
A woman who completed an internship in mid-2008 at the Museum had a previous career as a nurse on this site. During her internship, she worked in a space where she had once cradled premature babies. Being on the site in the space re-immersed her in a wave of memories and emotions. Unprompted, she made the connection between her work as a nurse, bringing children into the world and caring for the sick and dying, as a search for meaning. She found it particularly apt that the Museum is on a site full of meaning.
And Paul House whom we have heard from reflects this too. He writes: ‘It seems to have come full circle, that Acton was once the site of peoples gathering to celebrate, express and share cultures, and through the Museum it is again a site which brings together nations of people to do the same thing.’ Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: Thank you, Anne. That was quite a great combo, Paul House’s and Anne’s of a black and white sort of Indigenous history, even though each refer to the other.
An inspirited museum and its ‘permanent residents’ by Leanne Dempsey
MARGO NEALE: Now we’re going to have a few words from Leanne Dempsey, who we all know because she’s put together this fantastic forum, which has kept to time all day and everyone’s been very well behaved, lots of questions have been asked, and there’ll be more time to do so at the end. Peter Stanley then has half an hour to close, so I hope he has a few tricks up his sleeve.
Leanne currently works in Audience Development and Public Programs here at the Museum. She is obviously into cultural heritage and management as she has a bachelor’s degree and a masters of sustainable heritage, so she’s a really serious heritage girl. She’s currently doing a PhD in Museum Studies at the University of Queensland. What I found interesting about what she’s looking at is what she calls ‘live exhibits’ in non-live inspirited places. The thing that grabbed my attention was the inhabitation of spirits, ancestors or ghosts as an intangible form of culture, intangible heritage. And of course the Museum is definitely a multi-layered site for the various forms of life that exist in things that are supposedly not live. And particularly in the Indigenous area for me at least, I certainly know the spirits, dimensions and experiences of others are embodied in so-called inanimate objects. She can do a much better job of this than I can, so I’d like to hand over to Leanne Dempsey to talk about the National Museum’s permanent residents and tales within. Thank you, Leanne. [applause]
LEANNE DEMPSEY: Hello yet again. This is the part of the day where I hope everyone’s not too exhausted and is prepared to hear a few stories. So if you are a skeptic, just try to suspend that sense of disbelief for a short time. Paul [House] has reminded us that we are here on Indigenous land now, so I’d like to start by acknowledging with great respect the spirits and the ancestors who occupy this place and the people who belong to this place. I’d also like to acknowledge the people who have been born and died on this place, one of whom, my husband, was actually born in the Royal Canberra Hospital. So this is a place of significance to him and to me by extension.
What is an inspirited site? What am I talking about? Inspirited places are places basically that are believed by people to actually be occupied by personages of the spiritual persuasion, so ancestors, what we might call ghosts, spirits of place or what my parents might call fairies. They exist all over the place; they exist all over Australia; they exist all over the world; they very much exist inside of us; and I believe that they’re an important part of this nation’s intangible heritage.
What do I mean by that? Think about that feeling that you get when you into a place like our Australian War Memorial, into the Hall of Memories with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Lots of people are very, very moved in a place like that. My father once went to a place called Culloden – a battle had taken place a very long time before – and my father, who is of the skeptical persuasion, was very moved by that place as well and hasn’t let me forget it.
For persons of Australian background here. you might have heard of the story of Fisher’s Ghost. It’s a fairly early post-invasion story from Campbelltown in New South Wales. There’s now a Campbelltown Festival that goes by the same name, Fisher’s Ghost Festival, where people get together to celebrate this story, which if you think about has a bit of everything that you could possibly want – morality, mateship, murder, courtroom drama and, of course, a ghost.
And I occasionally refer to the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania where I’m actually going on holidays fairly soon. When many people think about the Port Arthur Historic Site they also think about the well-known ghost tours there.
Whether or not you are actually a believer – and I’m not going to ask you that question; it’s entirely up to you – it’s very difficult to deny the volume of the heritage that exists in Australia and around the world. It’s also not really possible to deny the value that those stories have to many, many of us. An inspirited site is a site that takes the concept of memory just that one step further. Nothing can remind you of the nature, the function, the history and the memories of a place more than encountering it as it floats through the wall towards you. Even being aware of these stories when you actually walk into a place or feel that indefinable sense of otherness that can come in some places, that can be enough to focus in your mind the intangible heritage of the place you’re walking into.
This place we’re sitting in right now is an inspirited site. Many museums and galleries in the world are, for some reason. Perhaps because they house collections and objects that are emotional, spiritual or very evocative; maybe because they’re quite often built in places of significance; and maybe it’s simply because they’re the sort of places where people will slow down and have a think about themselves, about the place they’re in, and take the time to acknowledge the fact they’re walking through a place of memory or a place of history.
I’m going to tell you about a few of our ‘permanent residents’ who remind us that there is more to a museum than its exhibitions. But to begin with, I was thrilled that in the last couple of weeks some of the silly news sites that I like to troll online came up with a story such as this one that’s up on the screen at the moment [slide showing article entitled ‘Eerie occurrences at naval museum attract ghost hunters’ in the Ledger Enquirer]. I’ve got two recent stories that have been published in newspapers for you to enjoy. This is one from the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus in Alabama in the US. It’s having a bit of trouble with flying books in its gift shop. I’m happy to say that if we get out of here in time and you want to go to our gift shop, that’s unlikely to happen to you here. This article doesn’t say much about the building’s history, and it doesn’t say much about why staff or visitors speculate that the books might be getting moved. I went and had a look at the website of the place itself, and very little was said about the history of the building. The article here and the website both mention, however, that the museum’s response to this happening was to get in a team of ghost hunters with various forms of electronic equipment to find out whatever it is that they can find out.
I have actually done a bit of ghost-hunting myself. It’s tremendous fun for about the first hour. I haven’t actually seen anything much more than a fair amount of Milo. But I don’t mean to be very unpleasant and skeptical about it; it can be a very enjoyable thing to do. However, I must say in terms of understanding the deeper meaning of why these books are leaping off the shelf and attacking innocent shoppers, I can’t imagine what they’ll contribute. So this is a mystery that doesn’t look as though it’s likely to be solved any time soon.
Here’s a little example closer to home [slide showing article entitled ‘Ghosts roaming NSW Parliament’ from the Daily Telegraph]. Isn’t that great? The New South Wales Parliament has its own permanent residents. They’re a bit less assertive than the ones in Alabama and, in fact, they’re much more like our own in their character. This is an article from the Daily Telegraph. It reveals that New South Wales Parliament House and Government House both have permanent residents that remind staff about the histories and the memories of the buildings that they work in. They have vague unexpected noises and shadowy figures.
I’ve done a bit of research – these are alarmingly common symptoms, but they do help to tell part of the story of the site. And these are stories – think about it – that might otherwise be forgotten in the business of government. When one is busy doing one’s work, one isn’t always thinking about things that may have happened in the same place before one, and sometimes I think that can be a valuable thing.
So the response here, rather than open the buildings to ghost hunters with electronic equipment to measure EMF, is to produce an educational bulletin which will interpret the site for visitors. I’m actually looking forward to that. It hasn’t been written yet. I went and had a look. So there is two stories.
Now I’d like to tell you one of my own. [Slide shown] On your left is a page from our staff newsletter The Loop from May 2006 telling the story that relates to this beautiful blue dress, which used to be on display in our old Horizons Gallery and is now back in storage as far as I know. One of our security guards who works here – we have lovely security guards here – hadn’t been to the Horizons Gallery for a while, came back and reported to the security control room that he liked the new dress on show in Horizons and that it looked particularly good on the life-like blonde mannequin. As you can see from the photos here, this is how the dress was actually displayed, which sent the guard scurrying up with a torch to take a second look. I know that the guard left the Museum shortly afterwards but I don’t actually know if that has anything to do with this experience.
Another story – this is my story – relating to this dress. I have worked here in the past as a host interpreting the building and collections for visitors. One afternoon a few years ago I was in the Horizons Gallery trying fruitlessly to interest a class of teenaged children in the Springfield collection of objects that was on display. Now this dress is from the Springfield Collection. It was a collection belonging to a family from New South Wales over quite a period of time. The teenagers – I don’t know if anyone here has teenage kids – were very tired. They’d been at it all day; they were quite fed up. They didn’t really want to be there; they’d actually been herded there by their teacher who said, ‘Go and learn something,’ and the poor things were just quite keen to leave and go home.
So in desperation I suggested to a couple of the kids that they might like to hear a little bit more about the haunted dress. Immediately, I was surrounded by a mob of avid teenagers, all keen to hear the adventures of the security guard. After I told the story, they all started firing questions at me. At first they were all about the dress, and the spirit who apparently came for a visit. Then the questions became broader. The students wanted to know about the family involved, how the dress was made, who it might have been worn by, was it expensive, where did it come from, how did it end up on display at the Museum. They were fascinated by whatever emotional link was so strong that it apparently attracted a spirit to actually make a visit to an object standing in a glass display case in the Museum. The next thing I knew they were all asking questions about the social history of the family who lived in Springfield from 1888 onwards, and that was really spooky.
I am going to tell you a few more stories now, because it is towards the end of the day and I am sure we are all tired. This is for you to enjoy as you walk through the galleries afterwards. This is the story of our ‘celebrity spirit’, for want of a better term. This corridor here [slide shown], we refer to as Upper Nation, and it stretches between the children’s cubby house area and the entrance to the Gallery of First Australians. It features a series of glass cases in which we have objects on display that illustrate snapshots from Australian history.
It is also one part of the Museum where staff, and occasionally visitors, have reported seeing a nursing sister. We call her ‘nursing sister’ because she has been seen by one or two people clearly enough that they have had a bit of a look at what she seems to be wearing. So she seems to be related to the former Royal Canberra Hospital, although I should note that she walks the corridors that are the Museum’s corridors and not the old routes that she probably did tread in the old building, which I find very interesting.
Along this corridor and in another couple of parts of the building, she has been seen as a reflection in the glass display cases here, so only in reflection. When the viewer turned around there was nobody there, which is traditional in these cases, I believe. At other times she has been seen with the naked eye, in the corridor that is in this picture and in other parts of the building. In fact, I know there are some staff members in the audience who may or may not be interested in the fact that she has been seen in the admin wing where many of us work.
Our nursing sister has been blamed for occasional misdemeanours – I don’t know whether this is fair – such as invisibly grabbing at people’s clothes and touching people’s faces and hands. She has genuinely frightened a couple of people that I have spoken to, including visitors who once came and asked me, when I was a host, if there was a costume thing on, because they had seen her and weren’t entirely sure whether she seemed quite right, which was very interesting for me because up until that stage I was not sure if I really believed in her, which is a terrible thing to say.
We don’t have a name yet for her, but at this stage I want to make it clear that I am aware we are talking about potentially a real person who lived and worked on this site. She may have been someone’s mum, or grand-mum. She undoubtedly had friends and family who may be with us today and may even be among us in the audience. So she deserves our respect for this reason alone. However, she is evidently quite a sensitive spirit. If people don’t speak well of her, she has been known to object by causing sudden extremely loud noises and giving people a terrible fright. I myself am sure that she was a wonderful person and completely beyond reproach.
A lot of wonderful people were born and passed away in this place, and I am glad, personally, that we have this occasional reminder of this one time in our site’s history when these facts of life were an everyday occurrence. It helps to cement in my mind why it is that I work here. Personally, I would very much like to meet our nursing sister some time, although I don’t know whether I personally have that ability. That is something I wonder about.
This lovely dark and spooky place is called Open Collections [slide shown]. It is on the lower floor of our Gallery of First Australians. It is a combined storage and display room for a large number of extremely beautiful Indigenous objects from all over Australia. Many of the objects are light sensitive, so it is only open for 15 minutes on the hour between 10 am and 4 pm daily. So you have to come back another day to have a look. It is worth it. A lot of people are very much overwhelmed by the beauty of the objects and other people who enter the room are overwhelmed by something else. Again staff and visitors alike who I have spoken to have reacted very strongly to this room, which is admittedly dark and quiet. Their reactions are very emotional. Some people find it unpleasant and threatening and won’t go in. Other people find it peaceful and welcoming. I know of at least one staff member who can be very difficult to extract from the room when he is in there. He really finds it very welcoming.
Many people report a sense of being observed, although I am not sure how notable that is in a building that is bristling with security cameras. I personally have seen people refuse to step into the room, and people who have burst into tears when they walk into the room although, as I have said, the emotional impact of such a large number of beautiful and varied objects is hard to go past. I have spoken to people about the reasons for their reactions, and these theories vary. In all honesty, we don’t know whether this is something that comes from the collections themselves, the room itself or memories that are associated with the room that may or may not actually be accurate memories. Somebody once suggested to me that there might have been a hospital morgue in the vicinity. I am not too convinced about that one; I haven’t seen any evidence of it. There is actually an ex-morgue somewhere on this site, and we store books and manuscripts in it.
The emotional punch that is packed by this room does turn people’s minds to something important. When I ask people why they react strongly to this room, a lot of people have speculated that perhaps it is because the objects in the room are so imbued with spirit. This isn’t always said by Indigenous people which implies that that connection between spirit and object that is so prevalent in Indigenous society is beginning to be recognised elsewhere.
[Slide shown] Why am I showing you a picture here of some rather smudgy elevator doors? It is actually the inside and outside of the same elevator. Certain of our security guards, lovely people, are not too keen on this particular lift. Outside of opening hours, and not necessarily within opening hours, it seems to be the focus of some child-like pranks played by permanent residents on staff. Specifically, the ringing of the alarm and the unexpected stopping of the lift between floors, trapping our security guards therein, and accompanied by the sound of childish laughter from outside is very alarming at 3 am, although I am sure all of our security staff are experts in jujitsu and not easily frightened.
I am charging through, but I think we are getting close to the end of this. This is a small selection of stories, and I won’t tell you too many more, but we do have other stories. I myself have had an experience in the Annex, which is another older building on this site. When I was working outside of hours I felt a very distinct tap on the shoulder. Assuming it was a friendly security guard letting me know that they were aware of my presence there after hours, I turned around, and of course there was nobody there. Speaking to other people who work in that building, this is not an isolated incident. Again, I was very surprised. I waited to feel frightened but couldn’t. It felt too much like a friendly tap on the shoulder to be alarming.
Some stories that I could tell you, and won’t, relate clearly to objects in the collections such as the Springfield dress, that blue dress that I showed you. Some relate to previous layers in the site’s history such as our nursing sister, and one or two others. Others, such as open collections or our mysterious elevator pranksters are open to interpretation; we don’t know what is behind them. They range from outright frightening; some are very scary stories that I have been told, and won’t share here, because they are a bit sad; some are sweet and comforting, such as my tap on the shoulder; and some are frankly baffling.
I couldn’t resist sticking this photo in [slide shown]. What do you see when you allow yourself to perceive the veil that separates the everyday National Museum of Australia from the spirits that exist here either in legend or in reality? Does the veil between us and the spirit world obfuscate that view? Do the stories and experiences surrounding these spirits distract us from our purpose of exploring land, nation and people of Australia in this building; or does it actually let a little bit more information come through?
I often ask myself when I speak to somebody who summarily dismisses a tale of spirits, ancestors or ghosts whether they might be the ones who are missing a valuable point. Our permanent residents can be either perceived or very real reminders of memories that could otherwise be lost: histories that might be forgotten; connections with people in the past and in the present; connections with this locality and this site that we love so much; and a connection with the wider community. I’m going to leave it here and pass it back over to Margo. If you’ve ever had any experiences here that you’re willing to share, please let me know because I’m always willing to listen. Thank you. [applause]
MARGO NEALE: That’s before mind-altering substances, that is. From an Indigenous perspective, of course, the spirit world is perfectly as real as the so-called historical world that I have to say does not often take into account enough of that other form of experience. Your example of how to get rowdy teenagers involved in objects is something I think the Museum could learn from. They get far too intense about the historic reality, historic proof, so we can probably lighten up a little on that one.
What we’re going to do is ask Leanne, Paul and Anne if they wouldn’t mind occupying these seats that are not already occupied by those other beings that we’re talking about. I was told I could go over to save Peter having too much time on his hands. Obviously it’s the same rigmarole as normal. You’ve heard three very stimulating, very different but complementary presentations on the sites of significance and the layering of sites. It’s now open to you for your challenging questions and comments.
QUESTION: My question is to you, Paul. I know that in that process of reconnecting to country it’s important to collect stories from the old people. Have you been able to do that?
PAUL HOUSE: Absolutely. A lot of the evidence I talk about is written evidence, but there’s also the oral stories that come through the family. Talking to my mother and my grandparents and my great-grandparents, uncles and aunties, that’s where a lot of the stories come from. It’s very important that oral history.
QUESTION: They weren’t difficult for you to get then?
PAUL HOUSE: There’s a lot of stories out there. The story about the Doolaga agubra and the hairy man at Yankee Hat. Australians know the hairy man as the yowie, but we call him the Doolaga. He’s the hairy man that lives out in the mountains in country. There was a story in the Queanbeyan Age about how my great-great-grandfather witnessed some of his elders burying a hairy man. It’s actually recorded in the Queanbeyan Age. We based one of those stories in the Tales from Ngambri History on those ethno-historical records. We bring them together also with those oral stories passed through the family.
QUESTION: My name is Barbara Paulson, and I’m here at the Museum. My question is to Paul and it is regarding the controversial statement made a couple of weeks ago, and how that statement impacted you on how you express your identity. One of the things in terms of sites of memory – we were talking earlier about how important memory and nationalism was and how that impacts upon how we express ourselves as people, as individuals and as a collective. How does the statement that was made by the ACT government affect you personally and in your family when they talk about Ngunnawal and Ngambri?
PAUL HOUSE: Good question. This is stuff that concerns the family, it concerns a lot of our people and non-Aboriginal people in the ACT and around the country. I’m not quite sure whether you’re familiar with the politics in the ACT. Unfortunately, the ACT government has come out and made a decision on who the traditional owners are, and for us they don’t have a right to do that. It’s a process of exclusion, and unfortunately they’ve developed protocols and a piece of legislation that excludes one group in terms of their connection to the country.
All the evidence that I shared with you today, that evidence is powerful, compelling and based on the historical truth. Unfortunately, the ACT government ignored all that. They simply just put it aside and say, ‘We don’t exist,’ and ‘We don’t acknowledge you.’ That’s pretty disappointing for me, because in a way it’s a form of modern-day genocide through stealth policy and legislation. It’s both covert and overt. It’s very disappointing, and to me it’s un-Australian. I just think it’s setting a dangerous precedent around the country, around the world, in terms of how government relate with Indigenous people, with all people. I think we’re all entitled to be acknowledged – everyone not just the Aboriginal people. But when you have the evidence that connects you and demonstrates your provenance to country, it’s disappointing.
I hope the federal government doesn’t think that now they’ve got a right to do this kind of thing around the country, otherwise I think you’re going to see turmoil out there in the communities. There is already enough turmoil without government making these kinds of discussions, and dividing Aboriginal people further apart between each other, and apart from non-Indigenous people. They call it democracy; I spoke about that earlier on. I don’t think it’s fair. The practical side of it is that I actually can’t go into a public school where my children go to and provide a welcome to country on the land I was born, because I don’t conform with the ACT government’s policy that I’m not a Ngunnawal person.
Unfortunately, Jon [Stanhope] doesn’t understand that the work ‘Ngunnawal’ is a linguistic term that describes the Wallabolloa people. He ignores history; he ignores the evidence. I don’t know why. He may feel threatened by Indigenous people with demonstrated bona fides as their country connection. I’m not quite sure. I don’t know what his motive is. I don’t think it’s a consensus within the ACT government in terms of why he made that decision. Surely the opposition, the Greens and other members of the Labor Party would not support what he’s doing. And I think it’s an outrage. It’s discriminatory.
Unfortunately, yesterday the Social Justice Commissioner for Indigenous Australia, Tom Calma, actually went and acknowledged the ACT government’s protocols and disallowed my mother to do a welcome to country at the Press Club yesterday – and he’s the Social Justice Commissioner in this country. This is the kind of thing that’s happening here and right now in front of our faces. I think it’s disgusting. But we have got to keep fighting for country, sharing our stories. It’s disappointing. I was born here. I can demonstrate my connection to country right back to Europeans arriving on the horizon and I’m told I don’t come from here. What am I missing? I’m not quite sure.
I acknowledge the National Museum of Australia; they’ve got a tough challenge. All government departments have got a tough challenge. I’ve spoken to many federal ministers about what the ACT government have done, and a lot of the ministers agree and support me and just can’t believe what’s happening. But they need to back it up a bit more as well. A lot of good people out there, we have their support, which is good. It’s not about excluding anyone; everyone is entitled to lay a claim to country; but let’s do it with mutual respect. Let’s do it in partnership. Let’s do it in a way where we can find common ground and try to move forward. But at the moment it’s might over right: the might of government, the power of government, over the right of Aboriginal people and their connection to country. It’s not easy, but we’ve got to keep fighting.
That’s why the story is about survival, the struggle for survival in this country. It’s good to share the story. I’ve been around a little bit of time and I’ve met a lot of people. Everywhere I go it’s all about sharing the historical truth with everyone. With Anne’s story, when JJ Moore first arrived here in the early 1820s he asked our ancestors ‘What do you call this place?’ And they didn’t say ‘the barbeque area.’ They said, ‘Ngambri, Kamberri,’ many different renditions. Then it was Romanised, Anglicised and we have Canberra today. Unfortunately, the ACT government ignore that evidence and don’t seem to be proud and take that into their policy or legislation – or just into their procedures. Unfortunately we’re excluded, and it’s a national shame. And unfortunately we don’t see any recognition here really at all in the National Museum in terms of the country of ancestors. I think it’s unhealthy. I think we’ve all got to sit down and seriously put our heads together and move forward on this unfinished business. I could talk more about it, but I’ll share that.
MARGO NEALE: Will you be around a little bit after 4.30? If Paul is still around, then I’m sure others would like to have a chat. I appreciate you acknowledging how difficult it is for places like the National Museum of Australia who, as you referred to earlier, is not the policeman of who is and who is not traditional owners of this place. I appreciate the fact that you said that because I think a lot of people in the community don’t realise that a lot of mainstream institutions want to do the right thing all the time, and they get very confused by the politics. And as Paul also suggested, the resolution of those politics reside within the community where they’ve arisen. But there’s lots of other things that go with it.
QUESTION: Anne, that was a superb presentation. You showed how memories have been revived and places have been reclaimed through different means. There was a piece of black granite; there where monuments in the ground; there was a forum for sharing stories. You showed photographs of the peninsula at three intervals. The first two were quite fascinating, and then the third one was an absolute transformation. So I recalled what Paul had to say about ‘the land is still here.’ I’ve lived here all my life for 70 years. But a lot of Canberra for me is at risk, because up on the hill, for example, Old Canberra House is transformed, yet if only the walls could speak of Old Canberra House. Incidentally, I’m chair of the Walter Burley Griffin Society. When Walter Burley Griffin arrived in Canberra in the limestone plains for the first visit he stayed there at Old Canberra House. And many were the discussions he had when he was a guest of the commissioner, and they differed on practically everything. They would have been very interesting discussions given the different personalities.
The question arises – although, Anne, you pointed out very well how you can revive, reclaim and remember, you do have to keep buildings – and Old Canberra House is a classic example. To have lost Old Canberra House is a grievous – I guess after Old Parliament House there’s more of our Canberra European heritage, let’s say, in that site, the landscape as well as the building, but the hubris of a university wanting to make its impact as a graduate university – I’m all in favour of the university doing precisely that – it underlines the importance of values, of social assessments, of oral histories and other evidence which can support the listing of heritage, and indeed the preservation of buildings of the importance of Old Canberra House. This is just a commentary of the present state of play in this town.
ANNE FARIS: That’s right, and I think it relates back to a bit of what Peter said about if you understand it, then it becomes special and then you treasure it. I suppose from my variety of views – being new to Canberra and being new to this area of research – the more people understand and value things, the better it’s going to be. The things that worry me are about beautiful buildings, for example, that aren’t being used at the moment. It’s kind of like the path they’ve had, there’s a gap, and what happens then.
I wonder about the Albert Hall, for example. From stories that I’ve read are again that it was a really big part of a lot of people’s early history. They met their partners, and all these wonderful things happened there. But people who are coming into Canberra now just sort of see it as an old building that holds – I was going to say fur sales but not fur sales – leather sales, and I think that’s really sad. There’s a whole load of conflicts there.
And that’s not the only one. There are other heritage issues that are coming up now with the bus depot and the bus driver’s house in Ainslie, which I sort of pricked my ears up to find out about then. A lot of these buildings have had really interesting things happen in them, but we need to be able to understand that to appreciate it and to value it. Personally, I think Canberra undervalues its history. A lot of it focuses on the establishment of the national capital, but what happened before that and what happens after it has kind of faded. I don’t think that’s good enough really.
MARGO NEALE: I will just intervene quickly there. While you were talking about how people are grieving the loss of a house or a school or something, I have to say as an Indigenous person the thing I found most grief-stricken in your images, in the name of progress, was the whole ravaging of the land. I just couldn’t believe; it is such a western thing to do is to totally rearrange the geography for some current contemporary purpose, because people are doing it only in their lifetime, and I was horrified. I’ve seen pictures but not quite like that. I thought it was extraordinary. That’s just my grief in looking at that, and I’m not even from here like this mob. So I imagine how that is.
QUESTION: Just a question for Leanne: thank you for your talk, it was really enjoyable. How do you feel about Tim the Yowie Man that does ghost tours of Canberra? Is he aware of the things that are happening here? Have you been on those tours? Do you see that as a hook to get people interested in history just like you got those very tired teenage students interested in the dress?
LEANNE DEMPSEY: From my own perspective I’m a ghost tour addict and yes, I’ve certainly been on Tim’s tour. I must say I’ve been on quite a few in Australia and overseas and come to the conclusion that there are basically two kinds of ghost tours. There’s the type that Tim actually does do very well, which is to link the social history of a site and sometimes the less-known history of a site to those stories as a form of hot interpretation. While you’re having quite an entertaining time and getting a few chills, you’re also learning quite a lot, absorbing quite a lot, and remembering a lot.
Then there’s the type where there seems to be more focus on entertainment. While I will enjoy those kind of tours very much, obviously I’m coming from a heritage perspective so I don’t see as much value in them. But yes, Tim does know a little bit about this site. He’s actually been onto this site. We’ve gone through it together, and he’s actually told me a few stories that he has heard from other people. Tim’s quite a good social historian. He does a lot of his own background research as well. So I think when it’s in good hands like that, it can be a really valuable opportunity for interpretation.
Bearing in mind that we’re quite often talking about sensitive issues – I mean we’re talking about ancestors or spirits of place, things that are important to people. So there’s always the caveat that the spirits probably are worthy of respect. I like a little bit of humour myself – don’t we all? – that’s always the underlying thing that we’re talking about people’s ancestors and we’re talking about spirits that represent a place, so we must never forget that.
QUESTION by Barbara Paulson: This question goes to Anne. This morning Peter was talking about the value of memory and placing it on to a site, and then you talked before about the memory that went into a book, so therefore you transferred or implied transferring of that memory and importance held to a site that was then demolished, moved on to something else, and all the emotions that went with that site went into that book. So the importance of that memory is associated with that book. Can you expand a bit more on how it was – because when we talk about memory we are talking about people and people’s experience and the way they feel emotionally about their history – so the translation or the transference from site to a book, a moveable object?
ANNE FARIS: As I say, these are the questions that I’m raising, and the book that I’m talking about is called The Canberra Hospital: an anecdotal history of nursing. My understanding of how the book was written was that, when they knew the hospital was going to be demolished, two women who were nurses got together and spoke to as many people as they could about their experiences of working and living here. They put it together as a book, and so that was published.
I wouldn’t say that the emotions from that were transferred from the site to the book, because obviously the people that I’ve come across who have contributed to the book still very firmly have connections to this place – so strongly that they will not come here. So it’s not just like a direct transfer – like taking it out of here and putting it in the book. But I just wonder whether that book, which would sit on the shelves of people who had lived and worked and nursed here, gives them a sense of resolution, a sense of it was just horrible but this is my book and this is part of my story, and it is valid even if the building that I worked in and spent my life in is no longer there.
QUESTION: This isn’t exactly a question but, if there’s an implicit question, it would be addressed to Anne, I think. We talk now about preserving buildings say 60 to 70 years old. Is consideration ever given to the situation that, when those buildings were built, they were a violation of somebody else’s memories? How does that fit in?
ANNE FARIS: I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you that I was reading a newspaper report on the opening of the building by the architect Leighton Irwin – he designed a lot of hospitals around particularly country New South Wales – and he said, ‘This hospital is designed to last for 40 years,’ and if you add the years up, when it went it was close to when he had anticipated it to go.
QUESTION: That wasn’t quite what my question. My question is: when those buildings were built, they were also violations; and why are we now sort of pressing for their retention when they were violations of somebody else’s memories – say Paul’s family’s memories?
ANNE FARIS: That’s right. The other example of that on this site, which I didn’t talk about, was when Acton House was pulled down. That was one of the early settlers’ houses, and there was no fuss when that was pulled down. But you’re right, that was on top of Indigenous land; the hospital was on top of that; and the Museum was on top of that. I can’t answer.
MARGO NEALE: It’s called archaeology. You just take a big core right through all the buildings and put in the Museum. If there’s one more pressing question or comment, we will have it, and then that’s it. Amar, I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking below the snowline.
AMARESWAR GALLA: Just two comments. The book you’re talking about was launched at Albert Hall, which is where the nurses used to go dancing, and at the launch we discussed about the whole relationships that were there in Canberra, the social life. I think it’s more than the building; it’s about the whole relationships and the place-making.
The second thing is, and I can say this with historical authority, I was the chair after self-government that was asked by Rosemary Follett and Bill Wood, with the assistance of Lynette Crocker, an Aboriginal woman, to bring old Aboriginal families with a stake in the casino premium money of $3 million that was allocated to discuss how to come together and deal with it. So with 28 Indigenous people we spent a whole day at O’Connell Educational Centre. I was facilitating, Lynette Crocker was assisting me, Matilda House was there – everybody was there, all the people. What was agreed was that what is called the ACT is a construct. It’s an administrative construct, a construct that Canberrans didn’t want and it was dumped on them. But it was inappropriate and it would be silly for Indigenous people to disagree with each other.
Everybody came to our conferences. Like Paul said, there’s enough room for everyone. Colonialism has done a good job of diminishing the numbers so much that there was such small numbers there was enough room for everyone. And everybody agreed, let’s all work together and not tread on each other’s toes. Don’t let the government divide us and rule. That was the agreement, and that was the agreement that I took to the chief minister? But what I found amazing was at that time in the ACT government, there was one bureaucrat, Lisa Foreman, one-third for Indigenous affairs, one-third for multicultural affairs and one-third for disability services. This is how we started in ACT self-government. They have not been able to deal with it; I can say that. Paul, I think you were a student at that stage.
There were four different groups that had differences of opinion, but they all agreed to work together because they believed that in an artificial construct that’s very much imposed – in fact, the word that they used was neo-colonial – that Aboriginal people should not argue with each other when their own boundaries were seamless or porous in the way relationships were articulated. I am absolutely disappointed that that consensus that was reached and people have been trying to work with. I’m now an alien here; I have moved out of Canberra; but it’s really heartbreaking to hear.
We pay a lot of lip service nationally to Indigenous people all the time, but when Indigenous people actually come together to move forward, we don’t know how to cope with it. Our governments don’t know how to cope with that. I still remember Pat Dodson saying to some of the members of the group, ‘Our history is so fragmented because of displacement and colonialism’ – this is the Indigenous people he was talking about – ‘that we have to learn to bear with each other our differences and try to work together.’ He was very eloquent, the way he shows that. ‘Otherwise the way colonialism has fragmented us, we let that divide and rule mentality continue in this country.’ And that was the spirit with which everybody agreed to work together. I’m so sorry.
This morning people were talking about amnesia, and you were talking about distortion of memory. It’s not all that long ago. Why can’t governments remember?
MARGO NEALE: That’s an appropriate place to stop. Thank you, Amar. Thank you very much to the panel [applause]. My parting sentence will be memory is predicated on forgetting.
Close by Dr Peter Stanley
PETER STANLEY: Thank you for your attention and participation today. While papers have been delivered, I have been sitting there making some notes – hence the laptop. Leanne, this has been a very cleverly constructed program and much more sophisticated than I first assumed. We saw many connections between papers through the day. It certainly reinforced my conviction that conferences like this are worth while but that we always need more time to confer. So we’ll learn from that lesson, I hope.
Let me summarise some reflections on today, where it’s led and where it might lead us.
First of all, we opened with Amar Galla’s insights, based on a very extensive professional relationship with memory and engagement with heritage over many years in which he talked about relationship between personal and collective memories. I think that’s been the first of the many themes that has run through the day. Amar introduced us to the idea of residual memories and suggested it was our job to sift through those layers of cultural memory. His last contribution a couple of minutes ago pointed to the enduring significance of those residual memories. He talked aggrieved nurses who had seen their hospital knocked down and Indigenous people who had seen their claim to country denied in the context of this administrative construct that we live in – the ACT.
Thinking back to his address this morning it gave us a very useful reminder of the need to consider the tangible and the intangible. That’s one reason why Leanne’s conference is here and not somewhere else, because museums are at the centre of that division of memory. Our curators, of course, understand both. They deal with both the intangible and the tangible often when they complete an acquisitions proposal and try to understand the stuff that they work with.
Amar gave us some pertinent case studies, especially the Darjeeling Railway and Halong Bay, in which older people’s memories are used. Again, that’s one of the points that I think needs to be teased out. It’s crucial but it’s also complex. What’s the relationship between the older person with the relevant memory and the professional’s job who interpret it? We had several examples through the day. Principally, Claire Smith’s paper where she dealt with not just old people’s memories but old memories of old people and used those memories to understand the country they lived in and their relationship to that land. Again, there were themes that emerged from papers.
Judith Slee alerted us to the complexities of memory, taking a cognitive scientific approach and really reminding all of us – and with me made me feel rather guilty that I cheerfully talk about memory all day long but I don’t really know how it works as an electrical process in the brain. I’m the only one making that admission, but I think we all share that deficiency. We are grateful to her for giving us more.
Mike Pickering – in that analytical way Mike has – challenged us to think more clearly and to analyse more closely the relationships between landscapes. Indeed, he gave us words that we often don’t use about landscapes. He distinguished between landscapes, sites and locales, and he drew us diagrams which gave us ways to imagine those relationships. It’s that kind of stimulus that makes days like that worth while for us, because it makes us see things in different ways. It was at that point in the day’s proceedings that I thought, ‘I wish we had organised this two years before,’ because it would have given me a great deal more food for thought in my own work.
Then another Pickering came along, Paul Pickering, talking about memory and political power – and that became a theme of the day too, didn’t it? – in which he overturned simple-minded memories and talked about the construction of historical memories in political settings, looking at the 7/7 bombings, Guy Fawkes and Eureka. The theme of political power and memories cropped up from time to time through the day.
We’ll skip my paper because you heard enough from me. I hoped to show how fragile memory can be. The heat had almost gone from those memories by the effluxion of time, and perhaps I will have warmed it up a bit but we don’t need to hear more.
Claire Smith – what a profound knowledge of one group’s relationship to the land Claire brought to us. A great range in complexity of memories about places in a relatively small area, from the traditional secret and sacred to informal new ways of remembering the past – not just formal but informal ways. I was struck by the motorbike lying around and I would have regarded it as junk, but clearly it had a meaning to those who were enabled to understand.
After lunch we had the panel on Reconciliation Place, which I think bore out the contention that this was a very successful collaboration between communities and government in a creative partnership. The most impressive thing was the evidence in which all of those responsible, and most of them are sitting at the table, grappled with those complex ethical and cultural issues. And as Margo said, the fact that she wasn’t brought in to advise suggests that perhaps they got it right.
Then we had a very different situation. Paul House gave us a very clear demonstration of the significance of place in the continuing identity of Paul’s people over a very long span of time – and again a link to Amar’s point about the importance of memories. Paul gave us explicit connections to people in his families, his people’s past, who bore those memories and about whom he holds memories. To be honest, I still don’t understand the problem but I can recognise the profound sense of hurt that Paul bears. And again we saw Paul Pickering’s point about the political importance of memory. These aren’t just things that make us feel good and are of interest and who give us some light reading, these are matters of profound importance for a people’s identity and health.
What a contrast that was to Anne Faris’ paper, which showed the beginning of a sense of place in a site in a very young city from the point of view of the people who occupied the medical superintendent’s building [MSB]. Anne’s study looked like a microscopic study. It was only of one building, it seemed, but again and again she showed the connections between the small story of MSB and the wider context of both the hospital, the territory, the city and the people who come to Canberra. That it seems to me is the essential task of those of us who seek to understand why memory is so important and why it is such a vital and compelling pursuit for people like us and why Leanne had the genius to work out that this is something we needed to talk about, which brings me to Leanne, who talked about inspirited sites – or surely allegedly inspirited sites.
To be honest, the spirits are not worthy of respect. But what we need to take seriously is not the spirits but the fact that people believe stories about the spirits or at least pass these stories on. We may be skeptics, but it is interesting that people continue to share stories like this and even though we – I – may be skeptical; clearly it is a subject of legitimate interest. What we can all agree on is that memory and sites are clearly intimately connected and that relationship between place, mind and memory is of great interest; and we can agree that this discussion is good fun and it ought to continue and I am sure it will.
Before I wrap up, I have a special announcement to make. Even though Margo has been so rude, I’m going to mention her conference Barks, Birds and Billabongs which is happening here at the National Museum from 16-20 November. It is a really extraordinary program that Margo has put together. Its ostensible subject is the 1948 Australian-American scientific expedition to Arnhem Land. It looks at that scientific venture from a whole range of perspectives. Margo has found international experts who are willing to come, usually on somebody else’s money, to consider the anthropological, the ethnographic, the scientific and not least the cultural dimensions of that encounter in Arnhem Land 60-odd years ago – and not least the Indigenous experience and memory of that encounter between European, Australian and American scientists and the people of Arnhem Land. I can only say that it’s going to be about five of the most interesting days we have had in the course of this year.
It falls to me to mention some thank yous. First of all, again to Leanne whose inspiration this conference has been, to our colleagues in public programs, in media operations and in the Centre for Historical Research and no doubt many other bits of the Museum who have made it happen. Secondly, to all speakers and especially those who have come from a distance, Claire and Amar, and thank you too to the chair people, Anne and Margo. Most of all, thank you very much to yourselves who have come to participate. Conferences, as I never tire of saying, are for conferring and I thank you for doing so. Good afternoon.
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Date published: 23 February 2010