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Singular or plural? Social history and national collections

Paper presented by Ian McShane, Institute of Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006

IAN McSHANE: In this paper I want to look at aspects of what can be loosely called the National Museum of Australia’s social history collection. The earlier papers today demonstrate the worth of this enterprise in its own right as a contribution to the Museum’s history and to our understanding of the public historical sphere in Australia. I also want to provide some context to the Carroll report’s trenchant criticism of the weaknesses of the National Historical Collection. This involves looking beyond the questions of museology to wider questions of public policy.

The first 20 years of the National Historical Collection’s formal life, 1981 to 2000, was a dynamic period of museum making, cultural policy formation and structural economic change. The mingling of these three elements produced a complex institutional ecology which did much to shape the development of the collection. A selective reading of GM Trevelyan’s 1944 work English Social History supplied a working definition of ‘social history’ as, ‘the history of the people with the politics left out’. That brought condemnation from a later generation of radical historians. However, Trevelyan followed this observation to argue that a focus on what he termed, ‘the daily life of the inhabitants of the land’ would inform and enliven the dominant genres of economic and political history.

By the 1960s social history was seen as a sort of total history that both denied the exclusivity of other history genres such as military or economic history and fostered new historical interests. In Australia, the subjects and modes of historical enquiry broadened significantly during the 1970s to include urban history, feminist history, the history of Indigenous and settler relations. Social history looked beyond documentary records to oral and visual sources but rarely to artifactual ones. The first appointment to a curatorship of history in an Australian museum was in 1970 at the Western Australian Museum. Both the Pigott Report, as I’ll refer to it, and a 1982 Museum of Australia conference on history in museums comment on the handful of historians working in curatorial positions.

The reworking of a conventional Australian history of settlement and national development by the Pigott report reinvigorated Australian museums. Although in one sense a radical break from the tradition of Australian museum making, the Pigott report also shows a strong awareness of the doubleness that Curthoys and Docker, in their new book Is History Fiction?, see as a characteristic of Western historical writing. As they say, this is, ‘the concern for history as a field, a discipline and enquiry with associated research protocols, combined with an interest in storytelling.’

By the late twentieth century the influences of post-colonialism, environmentalism and cultural pluralism had thoroughly renovated earlier museum narratives of scientific advancement and national and imperial progress. While the burden of criticism fell on the plural and perhaps diffuse nature of the new stories, the status of the object in these narratives was often unclear. Curatorial debates over whether exhibitions should be ideas or object driven suggested a level of introspection that perhaps inevitably follows paradigm change. The engagement of Australian museums with community histories brought a focus on sources and negotiations outside museum collections. New emphasis on public programs and interactive communication technologies positioned objects as somewhat static, lacking in communicative possibilities and, ironically in the face of the colossal sums spent on museum multimedia, expensive.

Agreement on what constitutes a national historical collection has been problematic. The appropriation of the term by the Museum of Australia Act 1981 framed later debates about the significance and needs of collections in other Australian museums but gave the National Museum statutory protection against sudden policy change. The term ‘National Historical Collection’ does not appear in the Pigott report, which takes a more pluralist position: ‘Any collection of merit which is funded predominantly from public funds, Federal, State or Municipal, should be regarded as a National Collection.’ For its purposes, the report distinguished museum collections in Australia, the majority of which are held at municipal level, from Australian Government collections. Some of the latter group came to form the core of the National Historical Collection. Notwithstanding an element of eclecticism, the National Historical Collection at that time could be described as a collection largely about government and governance.

The 1982 conference on Australian history held by the Museum of Australia initiated discussion of social history as both a collecting methodology and interpretative approach. The conference was opened by the Museum’s portfolio minister, the Hon. Ian Wilson and his opening remarks make interesting reading today:

Naturally, with such a group of professionals gathered to discuss an issue like Australian history and its relation to a national museum of history, there is unlikely to emerge consensus on all, or indeed any, of the issues which you will be covering, and that is how it should be. The museum will be better able to achieve the expectations which have been set for it to the extent that diverging, perhaps even conflicting, views and opinions can be accommodated within the framework of the museum rather than suppressed into a bland artificial consensus.

The minister’s remarks find an echo in Graeme Davison’s recent sketch of three possible institutional models for the National Museum: an authorised version, an internal institutional consensus - ‘bland and boring’, says Davison - or a civic pluralist model. In 1982 at least, the government of the day appeared to support the latter model. The minister’s endorsement of interpretative pluralism and his injunction to, ‘gather the widest possible range of items and objects from our history to fill out the basic themes’, set an expansive tone for the museum’s first collections policy developed in the mid-1980s. The Museum’s interim council, in proposing an opening date of 1990 for the Museum at its Yarramundi site, recommended to government that $25 million in 1982 values be allocated for collection development in the period 1983 to 1990, citing the National Gallery of Australia’s acquisitions budget as a benchmark.

Early acquisitions such as a complete printing works, the Dalton collection, suggests confidence in continued government commitment to the Yarramundi site and the Museum’s recurrent costs to the extent that these were calculated in relation to collections. Such acquisitions also suggest views about the primacy of the object and the use of living history as an interpretative strategy. Early Museum literature suggests the use of trained actors as intermediaries of audience and objects past and present. Rendered unfashionable by digital communication technologies, the dialogic and interactive possibilities of such human focused programs warrant reconsideration.

In the mid-1980s, cold winds of neo-liberalism blowing across Lake Burley Griffin from the Department of Finance reached the shores of Yarramundi. A new rationale for government based on public choice theory, private sector emulation and performance-based management favoured reductions in public sector outlays during a period of rapid museum expansion. In 1986 the federal cabinet established the review of Commonwealth involvement in the development of museums. The review sought to establish expenditure priorities, efficiency targets and total funding outlays for the sector, and it formed part of the 1989 federal budget deliberations. For the National Museum it meant a decision deferring construction for five years and, significantly for our purposes here, instructed that: ‘arrangements are to be put in place to exhibit elements of the national collection through existing institutions, including state museums’. A climate favouring dispersal rather than acquisition left the Museum in a weak position to press for the return of significant items in the National Historical Collection for use in reopening exhibitions. Picking up a theme in the Carroll report, the museum’s treatment of Captain Cook may have been enhanced by return of the Endeavour anchor from the Cooktown Historical Museum, where it’s been built into a new room especially constructed for its display; and the use of one of the ship’s cannons from the Australian National Maritime Museum. However, their use pre-supposes structural and design treatments favourable to the display of large objects throughout the building. The contribution of the Ashton Raggatt McDougall design to Canberra’s symbolic economy is evident. Its capacities as a collection-focused museum structure are, in my mind at least, yet to be proven.

One established collecting program to survive the 1989 cabinet decision was the migrant heritage collecting program undertaken by consultants Professor Jerzy Zubryzcki and Dr Frank Kunz. Their work resulted in a significant collection documenting the arrival and experiences of displaced persons and refugees after the Second World War, as well as assisted migrants from central and northern Europe. Some material relating to the Greek, Italian and Polish presence in Australia in the first part of the twentieth century was also collected. Migration and cultural diversity became a core theme of museum-based social history in Australia. In some ways, social history was conflated into this subject. This occurred in other migrant recipient countries as well during this period.

Australian museums largely followed the contours of government multicultural policy. Multicultural policy and programs have been subjected to a spectrum of criticism, from Ghassan Hage’s analysis of the hegemony of white multiculturalism through to advocates of the national community based on shared experience rather than difference. However, it was not so much the governmentalised nature of this area but the validation of the experiences of a passing generation that focused collection and exhibition outputs on post Second World War immigration. Temporal and conceptual extension of this topic opens up a register of collecting and programming possibilities for a national museum.

One of the consequences of the 1989 cabinet decision was a renewed search for institutional difference in a convergent museum industry. The search for difference underpinned by federalist cultural policy repositioned the National Museum’s social history program from the theme ‘Australians Since 1788’ proposed in the Pigott report through a generic ‘Australian social history’ in the 1980s to the twentieth century focus of ‘Australian society and history’ in the 1990s. I can offer an incomplete account of how this shift occurred. The Department of Finance report What Price Heritage? discussed earlier appears to be a key document though. The report’s half page summary of the history of museums in Australia made the interesting claim that, ‘a social history museum had been established in each colony by 1861’. Perhaps not too much should be read into this comment in the context of the report, but it had become orthodoxy when consultants prepared a strategic plan for the National Museum in 1992.

Museum industry sensitivities to national museum collecting had been highlighted earlier when the president of Museums Association of Australia wrote to the chair of the National Museum protesting at a lack of National Museum cooperation with state colleagues. Developing interest in the concept of the distributed national collection, evoking the Pigott report’s view on national moveable heritage, further suggested a conspectus style approach to museum collecting. This was an attractive proposition in a recessionary economic climate, but the assumption that nineteenth century history was well represented in state museum collections was wrong. To cite but one example, Linda Young’s research on the holdings of convict issue clothing in Australian public institutions revealed only 35 such items, a finding that places the Carroll report’s criticism of the National Museum’s slight holdings in this field in a different light.

While the wider rationalist mood effectively limited the National Museum’s collecting program, it also threatened to unbalance it by increasing the demand on the Museum as a broker of collections held by other Commonwealth Government agencies. In the early 1990s agencies faced with deregulation or privatisation regularly contacted the Museum proposing that curating historical collections was the Museum’s business rather than theirs. Telstra, the Civil Aviation Authority, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories and Australia Post, for example, had impressive collections evidencing their corporate history, working lives of their employees, technical achievement and contribution to Australian public administration. This provided opportunities for the National Museum, but the loss of historical sensibility of Australian Government institutions over the past two decades is a subject that awaits important critical analysis.

In 1990 the National Museum opened its campus in Old Parliament House with a brief to collect and interpret the history of national politics and government. This provided momentum for collecting and heralded a busy exhibition and public program schedule, but it also suggested the degree to which Commonwealth portfolio arrangements supplied the Museum’s logic for a time. The Museum was at that stage part of the Department of the Arts and Administrative Services, the latter element being the government’s property manager until privatised.

Old Parliament House was full of stories providing connection between public office and private lives that revealed a particular character of Australian national governance in the twentieth century. For example, William Yeats’ period as a Liberal backbencher from 1976 to 1980 is represented by a bee smoker in the National Historical Collection. Yeats kept bees in the Parliamentary gardens and once gave a jar of honey to Gough Whitlam with a note saying, ‘This should sweeten you up’. Sir Roland Wilson, chairman of the Reserve Bank and secretary of the Department of Treasury - one of the so-called ‘seven dwarves’, a group of short-statured departmental secretaries in the post Second World War Commonwealth Public Service - was an inventor and skilled craftsman who in his leisure hours developed a patented series of wheeled toys and built a fine stereogram which are currently on display. But these collections have a particular and idiosyncratic Canberra dimension as well. The lack of acquisition funds and absence of a Canberra city museum meant that, for a number of years, the National Museum’s social history collecting program had something of a Canberra bias. A strong National Historic Collection requires the support of a strong museum network. There are museological and resource benefits to taking a spatial as well as an institutional view of a National Historical Collection. The recently established Collections Council of Australia could usefully explore new collection partnerships and management models in this light.

During the 1980s the flow of museum industry resources shifted from back-of-house documentation tasks to front-of-house public programs, from collections to communication. Museums were no longer seen as repositories of objects but of information made accessible through the new global architecture of electronic technologies. Switching on the museum was also designed to cultivate a new type of visitor, one seeking a high-quality leisure experience as well as demanding a higher level of visitor comfort. These shifts in perception chimed with the prevailing climate of public sector management. George MacDonald, a major influence on Australian museum development both in his posts in Canada and at the Museum of Victoria, portrayed the effect in graphic terms:

Collections have suddenly become something of a burden to museums. Most museum directors now feel like directors of geriatric hospitals whose budgets are devastated by patients whose survival for another day depends on expensive, high technology support systems.

This opinion echoed around the world. Museum natural scientists, emblematic of the old museum, countered by pointing to the value of taxonomy and systematics for research on environmental change and agricultural economics and, more recently, countering threats posed by biological terrorism. However, the suggestion that museums should be liberated from their collections created a discursive space in which a new relationship between museums and technology could be articulated.

The cultural policy statement Creative Nation, released in 1994 by the Keating Labor government, enthused over the strengthening connections between culture and the information economy. ‘Openness, diversity, pluralism and accessibility’, were the policy’s key words. Former Keating advisor Don Watson’s account of the Keating government’s plans for the National Museum provides an insight into how radically this new convergence of collections, access and technology might shape museum forms. You may be familiar with the quotes from his book on the Keating years which goes like this:

There would be no mausoleum or any other kind of public building. We would build half of it in cyberspace and put the rest on permanent tour, a virtual museum linked to every community in the country, every school and public meeting place. It would have found favour with new information industries and old intelligentsia. It was an investment in technology as much as heritage. It combined the national with the regional, fostered a sense of national unity and greater understanding of Australia’s history. It was post-modern in the best way possible, and in all of this it was a perfect fit with government policy.

During the 1990s policymakers turned to emergent web technologies to enhance access to collections, to unite the regionally and institutionally diverse museum sector into a single professional community and to respond to earlier arguments for more equal distribution of cultural goods. The development of multimedia has contributed significantly to a convergence of interests of the memory institutions over the past 10 or 15 years, questioning conventional perceptions of industry demarcation. The establishment of museums devoted solely to media raises further questions about institutional typology and the status of the object.

It is ironic perhaps that Australian libraries have led a renewed focus on object-centred exhibitions, and with considerable success. The treasure theme has been pursued by two major library exhibitions in Australia in recent years and, in different forms by the National Museum of Victoria in 2004 and by the National Museum of Australia with Captivating and Curious. In ecological terms outlined earlier, this trend should not be understood solely as a desire to go back to a museum future seemingly beyond controversy. As Curthoys and Docker remind us, ‘Arguments about historical truth, narrative conventions and the focus of historical enquiry are present in the founding texts of Western historical writing’.

Survey exhibitions may give much-needed momentum to collection building, encourage research into material culture and release pressure on museum staff to defend exhibition practices. While a more exclusive focus on collections may require a sharpening of arguments about the selection, significance and use of social history collections, new attention to collections suggests a new confidence on behalf of museums to trade on their strength, and augurs well for the National Historical Collection’s next couple of decades. Thank you.

Date published: 13 September 2007