National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > In the national interest: the National Museum of Australia > transcript

In the national interest: the National Museum of Australia

Andrew Sayers, Director, National Museum of Australia, 16 March 2011

In the National Museum there is a brass locket and when you open it there’s a tuft of hair and a small photograph. The grinning face in the photograph belongs to Les Darcy, the champion boxer from East Maitland who left Australia during the First World War amid accusations of cowardice, to pursue his sport in the United States. Darcy died in Memphis in May 1917. His girlfriend, Winnie O’Sullivan, was at his deathbed. She kept the locket with her for the rest of her life and now it belongs in the National Museum.

Les Darcy became a folk hero; his story is one of the many hundreds told in the National Museum of Australia.

It is a story in which you feel for the simple sportsman, fronting the thrilled crowds and the indignant politicians.

It is a story played out against a big historical event - the war that seems to grow disproportionately bigger in the public imagination the further we get away from it.

It is a story compressed into an object no bigger than a few centimetres.

Winnie O’Sullivan’s locket is like so many objects in the Museum’s collection - the cinecamera that belonged to Menzies, the unsurpassed collection of bark paintings from Australia’s north, the first Holden car prototype, the heart of Phar Lap. All these objects carry our important stories - Australian stories - through time.

And this is the purpose of our National Museum; to tell our stories, to be human, to look at all the complexities and ambiguities of our shared humanity, to declare the importance of understanding our history and lead Australians to embrace or repudiate our past and in so doing, to shape the present.

This is an ideal moment in which to ask the question: How has the National Museum of Australia fared in this work that museums do?

The National Museum’s building on Acton Peninsula in Canberra was opened just over ten years ago - on 11 March 2001.

I would like this tenth anniversary to acknowledge the work of all the people who worked to make the dream a reality - not only Dawn Casey and Craddock Morton, the staff and successive Councils, but the many friends of the Museum who worked towards its realisation.

For many people the dream of the Museum has been realised only partially. Many people see the Museum’s short history only as a story of public controversy over frontier conflict. For many commentators the Museum’s building is the butt of architectural critique.

The building has its enthusiasts and its detractors, but before the Museum had a building it had legislation - the National Museum of Australia Act. It was framed in 1980. If you read the Act, or any of the early planning documents about the Museum, you will see that the focus was less on building an edifice than on building a collection.

The Act requires the Museum to ‘make the most advantageous use of the national collection in the national interest.’

Ten years after opening the question facing the National Museum is still; how can it best work in the national interest?

A fundamental part of this is for the Museum to make sense of some of the enduring stories that have contributed to our uniqueness and distinctiveness as a nation.

In Australia the most powerful stories are stories of arriving and the acts of creation released by arrival in a new place.

At Yalangbara, a white beach in eastern Arnhem Land, the Djang’kawu sisters and their brother came out of the sea at dawn, their faces flecked with sea-foam. From their landfall began a westerly journey. As they travelled they made the places inhabited by their descendants, the Rirratjingu, who today continue to enact the story of the Djang’kawu and to illustrate it in their paintings and sculpture.

At Sydney Cove the arrival of settlers and the precariousness of the convict colony have long cast an imaginative spell. It is a moment that continues to compel historians to strip away the accretions of two centuries and recover the culture clash when both the settlers and the Aboriginal inhabitants tried to make sense of each other.

My own personal narrative has a moment when Sydney Cove first comes into my consciousness. I remember the vividness of the scene in May 1964 when, as a child, I arrived with my English migrant family. The great white ship sailed into Sydney Harbour at day break and our new life in this country began.

My family’s story is a story of migrant success – arriving and becoming a part of Australian society. It is a version of one of the stories that is replicated millions of times in various forms – stories about people coming to this country.

The imaginative power of these stories of arriving and creating explains why asylum seekers and refugees have been and continue to be such prominent themes in our national politics, such sources of fear and desire.

In 1978, the Hong Hai, a fishing boat arrived in Darwin carrying 38 Vietnamese refugees. It was among the first objects to be collected by the National Museum. Regrettably it’s has been in storage since it was acquired. When we install a display of the Museum’s major objects in the Main Hall – a project which will be undertaken over the next 18 months - the Hong Hai will be a prominent inclusion.

That narrow hulled boat, topped with a fragile wheelhouse painted spearmint green, with the name in large red letters, the Hong Hai will stand as an embodiment of multiculturalism and as a symbol of arrival, not just of the 95,000 Vietnamese refugees accepted into Australia between 1975 and 1983, but of all boat people.

Symbols are not discovered – they are created. All objects displayed in museums are, to a greater or lesser extent, symbols. They have to stand for something. Society needs such symbols and museums have a unique capacity to invite audiences to discover or project symbolic weight onto their objects.

This is particularly the case in a national museum – and our National Museum is still at the beginning of the long-range task of bringing together a collection of objects that carry some national symbolism.

It has been argued that national museums are anachronistic institutions in a globalised culture. Everywhere across the globe, museums that used to be considered national museums are recasting themselves as world museums. They see themselves as acting as repositories of global knowledge to be shared with world citizens.

Paradoxically, the more we are citizens of the world the more we are locals. The more we are citizens of the world the more eager we are to connect with people who rarely travel far from their own village, family or traditions.

It is deeply human to be attached to a place.

If there is a national narrative in Australia it is about place. All of our national stories will in some way express themselves in relation to specific places – tracts of country, rivers, localities, villages or cities.

Bennelong Point, Oyster Bay, Myall Creek, Cooper Creek, Ballarat, Bowen Hills. – I here weave together but a tiny corner of a fabric of an infinite number of threads. The recitation of these place names evokes our stories and grounds our history in the facts of place.

In June this year the National Museum will reveal the latest development in its permanent display – a gallery called Landmarks: People and places across Australia. The idea of the gallery is that stories come from specific places – it is organised around a chronological unfolding across many places across Australia from Parramatta to the Recherche Archipelago.

Landmarks is the last in a series of enhancements to the Museum’s displays that came out of the Carroll review of the Museum in 2003. It has a great organising idea and an easily grasped thematic framework. I think it points the way forward to the redevelopment of all our displays, in need of renewal after ten years.

More than any other part of the National Museum, Landmarks will be a reminder of the importance of regional Australia. The agricultural history of Australia is one large theme explored in Landmarks. There is a pyramid built of wheat samples from Wagga Wagga, the simple furnishings of everyday life in Carnamah in Western Australia and a massive ship’s chain used to flatten mallee scrub around Keith in South Australia. The display brings out the role of the nineteenth-century Selection Acts, the success and failure of soldier settlement schemes and finally the impact of the introduction of large-scale technology on a fragile landscape. And that is just a small part of the interwoven stories presented there.

As regional Australia faces challenges to its fabric, our Museum will play an increasingly important role in reminding the community at large and especially the urbanised majority, of the tremendous importance of rural Australia to our economy and way of life.

This goes to the purpose of our National Museum. In looking at the complex gulfs of understanding in Australia – not just historical ones, but cultural divides such as those forged by different experiences in different geographies we can recognise that difference, not sameness, is fundamental to our social make-up.

The locality inhabited by the National Museum, like anywhere else in Australia, has its own qualities. Ngunnawal country, Canberra, the nation’s capital.

Canberra has come to be defined by the national cultural institutions. This has been one of the most significant shifts of perception over the past two decades. I have lived here for 25 years and you get used to casual insults directed at the place, but I sense that Canberra is no longer defined by Parliament House or its climate, but by culture – culture experienced in public settings – the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial, the National Museum, the Canberra Glassworks.

What accounts for this change in attitude? Firstly, it may be that our cultural institutions carry on a discourse that is more optimistic, more complex, more historically aware and more life-affirming than the political discourse, so often crudely polarised, that is carried on in the national capital.

Canberra as a place of cultural riches – that idea is the outcome of a certain critical mass. And time. It takes new institutions decades to have a lasting effect.

If we want to have such national institutions and believe they are important to our society it follows that there needs to be a sustainable level of public funding. All of Canberra’s cultural institutions have been successful in building infrastructure and adding great things to the national collections but all face real challenges in balancing operational budgets.

So it is a challenging environment in which to propose a bold vision for the National Museum. But we must continue to do so and to work towards that vision.

We want to make the Museum a place where the issues facing our nation in the future can be debated and confronted. All of the ideas that we adhere to in the present have a history. The Museum has a unique part to play in linking those two dimensions – the past and the present.

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ - a famous line from William Faulkner. That could be the motto for museums and their place in contemporary society.

We want to make a visit to the Museum an event. This part of the vision for the National Museum goes to addressing one of its perceived difficulties – its building. I happen to think the National Museum building is fine. But it needs to look more like a museum on the inside and from the outside. I’ve mentioned the planned display of our large objects in the Main Hall – not only a boat, but cars, carts and large-scale Indigenous artworks. That is just for a start.

As a physical entity, the National Museum’s best asset is its location. What museum around the world wouldn’t crave such a location - a peninsula surrounded by placid water? We want to activate the entire peninsula, to deal with long-standing issues such as car-parking and most importantly to bring the Museum’s collection from the inaccessible storage warehouses in remote industrial suburbs of Canberra to the peninsula.

Then the experience will begin to approach what should be expected of an institution called the National Museum of Australia.

Museums are increasingly popular. We are just one of over a thousand museums in Australia that between them see some 14 million visitors annually. Places for communal experiences are increasingly important in Australia - from the restaurant table to the outdoor concert.

We want to make sure the National Museum is a place of national congregation.

We want to make the Museum an essential part of the experience of every Australian school child. The program of government subsidy to encourage visitation to Canberra has had great success but we have reached the point of real capacity constraint in this area. At the National Museum our education programs are running full-tilt year-round.

Two current government initiatives give us new opportunities – the National Broadband Network and the introduction of a national curriculum in history.

The campaign to sell the concept of the NBN asked us to imagine a world in which a school classroom in Australia could be connected to a museum overseas. But our own museums have the stories and the ideas to develop Australian content that could be delivered in a massive number of engaging ways. The NBN will enable us to interact with people across Australia in real time and allow us to present still and moving images from our collections in hitherto unattainable detail and depth.

Indeed, the National Museum has already demonstrated itself as a pioneer in this area in the Talkback Classroom that ran from 2001 until it ceased in 2008.

In this area of our activity the most important part of our name – National Museum of Australia is the – of Australia part. Our business is to tell the Australian story and the implementation of a national curriculum in history gives the Museum a huge opportunity to be a generator of content. The National Museum has already been involved in the development of the curriculum for history and I believe it gives a solid basis for understanding Australian and world history. Helping teachers Australia-wide to bring the curriculum to life will be our role into the future.

And we have a particular responsibility in educating Australians and visitors to this country about Indigenous culture.

In its recently released Barometer research, Reconciliation Australia investigated the level of understanding about Indigenous history and culture in Australia. Not surprisingly it found that 89% of Indigenous Australians knew a lot about Indigenous culture compared with only 39% in the wider community – too low a level. Significantly, the research discovered that around 4 out of 5 Australians believe it is important to know about Indigenous history and culture and are therefore open to learning more.

Our exhibition Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route which closed at the end of January this year was the Museum’s most successful temporary exhibition in the ten years since the building opened. 122,000 people saw the exhibition - a 42% increase on the Museum’s previously most successful exhibition mounted in the opening year.

The desire to learn more about Indigenous history and culture was undoubtedly a factor in bringing visitors to the exhibition but that alone cannot explain its success.

A human dimension was much in the foreground of the presentation of the exhibition. At first glance it looked like an exhibition of art but, deep down, it was about people - their relationships to each other, their relationships to the stories depicted and the places they live or revisited.

Yet there was another fascinating dimension of the Canning Stock Route exhibition. It was a blackfella interpretation of a whitefella story. It dealt with the original surveying and construction of the stock route by Alfred Canning and his party. It highlighted Canning’s brutality and complete lack of comprehension – and therefore disregard – for the culture of his Aboriginal guides. This was all documented in evidence recorded during the Royal Commission into Canning’s treatment of Aborigines in 1908.

Only one uncomprehending critic dusted off the old accusation that this was bias. The overwhelming majority of our visitors recognised that in an exhibition such as this, which genuinely told a story from an Indigenous perspective, a pioneer who went into the land with neck chains and handcuffs would not be presented in a heroic light.

I sense a new attitude in Australia toward our history, a broadly-based willingness to accept the unequal basis of Australia’s colonialism. Perhaps the National Museum has played a part in this – and will certainly continue to play a part – in telling the story of inhumanity in this country.

This is the museum fulfilling its purpose. We examine our history from new perspectives to lead to a more complex understanding of our history and to lead Australians to embrace or repudiate that past.

In 2013 we will be mounting an exhibition looking at Australia in 1913. In the early thinking about this exhibition I am struck as much by the continuities in our national stories as the discontinuities. In 1913 those stories that made news were about the procurement of naval vessels – ships and submarines; about wireless communications; about Federal policy relating to the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory; about Canberra as the new capital.

1913 was an El Niño year; much of the country was in the middle of a four year drought but three tropical cyclones crossed into Queensland.

1913 was also an election year in which Joseph Cook led his Commonwealth Liberal Party to a single seat majority in the House of Representatives while Labor retained a majority in the Senate – a recipe for administrative deadlock. It was only broken when Cook brought on Australia’s first double-dissolution election the following year.

It would be ridiculous, of course, to suggest that Australia today is the same Australia of a century ago. In 1912 Andrew Fisher’s government introduced the first baby bonus. That sounds like a modern idea except that it was available only to mothers of European descent – it was in actuality, a policy deliberately designed to entrench the continued exclusion of Indigenous, Asian and Islander Australians.

In the last century many attitudes have changed for the better, even if we acknowledge, as we must, that there is still much work to do in the area of social inclusion.

We have an important role here. But I would be the first to acknowledge that our museum, in fact, museums in general have barely begun to address social inclusion adequately. There are a huge number of Australians who for reasons of distance, or lack of access to communications infrastructure, or language, or educational disadvantage or disability, are prevented from accessing the Museum. Over the next ten years we must seriously address this inequality.

Looking back at 1913 we notice that a century ago Australians were more forelock-tugging towards the British monarchy than today. Or were they? It seems it’s a continuing national trait.

When I started at the National Museum I was intrigued as to why the Museum had concentrated so much energy collecting royal paraphernalia. One of our curators told me that when the Museum began collecting in earnest in the 1990s there was a strong sense that the material culture of our affection for the monarchy would become, for want of a better description, ‘museum pieces’ come the republic.

Museums like to think that they can help us see the future but that was one prediction that did not come to pass.

In his recent book on the history of the transportation of rebels and activists to Australia Tony Moore concludes that one difficulty for the cause of a republic in Australia is the lack of a case that goes beyond the minimalist model and that presents a narrative as compelling and as full of visible symbolism as the monarchy. He invites us to look at the libertarianism and belief in truly representative democracy that the likes of the Scottish radical Thomas Muir and the Irish gentleman rebel William Smith O’Brien brought with them to Australia in the nineteenth century as models from within our own historical tradition.

Certainly these are stories we tell at the National Museum. The exhibition we open this evening Not Just Ned: a true history of the Irish in Australia celebrates this vein in our national polity – one that has given us remarkable episodes such as the Eureka uprising, the passionate oratory of Dan Deniehy and, besides, our best gaol-break saga, the Catalpa Rescue and our best anti-authoritarian rant, the Jerilderie Letter. It has given us the Kelly armour, and trophies like the elaborate gold cup given to William Smith O’Brien and the simpler gold probe used to fish out the bullet lodged in the back of the Duke of Edinburgh by Henry James O’Farrell in Sydney in 1868.

In 1980, when that phrase about using the national collection in the national interest was written into our Act, the tourist-driven economies of major museums and galleries was not a part of the thinking. Unfortunately the big, bought-in touring exhibition, the blockbuster for want of a more accurate name, has become the expectation of many of our cultural institutions.

I think it is time to go back to an earlier sense of what the Museum is about. There have been some marvellous exhibitions brought to Australia from overseas and it is important that this continue. But surely it is better to put the resource we have into telling some of the literally thousands of big Australian stories – stories such as the country traversed by the Canning Stock Route and the Irish in Australia – rather than treating the Museum as an exhibiting venue for exhibitions that tell us nothing about ourselves.

During a recent visit to Australia the American academic Didier Maleuvre mused on the different attitudes museums have when they treat their audiences as consumers on the one hand and as citizens on the other. I was struck by this distinction and it certainly changes the way we would go about our work ‘in the national interest’.

To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this talk: how can we best serve the national interest? If our museum is to be truly in the national interest then our sights must be very firmly on the citizen. Citizens have rights and we have duties towards them. It sounds old-fashioned but it goes to the heart of my subject today. It is our role as the National Museum to make our stories as coherent and accessible as possible, to make the past speak in all its complexity, to try to see what is needed today and to do our part in creating a future of which we can be proud.

Date published: 18 March 2011