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Life and art? Relocating Aboriginal art and culture in the museum
Paper presented by Angela Philp, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies/Australian National University
Collecting for a Nation symposium, National Museum of Australia, 21 March 2006
ANGELA PHILP: Rather than being specific about the National Museum of Australia collection, I’m actually going to look at the climate or the context of collecting Indigenous art and I’m particularly interested in the public and institutional attitudes to the collecting of this material. I want to look at both the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum of Australia to indicate the different contexts that this material has been collected in.
As you would expect the National Gallery of Australia and the National Museum both hold extensive collections of Aboriginal art and material culture. Both young institutions - the National Gallery opened in 1982 and the National Museum in 2001 - they reflect contemporary attitudes indicating the value and respect in which the culture of the first Australians is held. Yet this respect was not always so, and it is not universal. Tracking the shifts in the relationships of these museums with Aboriginal art, culture and histories reveals a number of critical tensions, particularly in Australia’s sense of its own cultural identity.
Indigeneity has, over time, become an important symbol of Australian cultural identity and has enabled some museums to open up debate on the moral and ethical issues arising from Indigenous histories and cultures, particularly the National Museum. Yet in this arena it could be said that the art museum led the way; its celebration of Aboriginal art has played a part in fostering the economic independence of some Indigenous communities, and has been a source of substantial self-esteem and pride in communities long denied a valued place in Australian society. Alternatively, however, the aesthetic framework of the art museum could be seen to diminish the political message of much contemporary Aboriginal art. Tensions between aesthetics, history and politics have been critical in the institutional histories of both the National Museum and the National Gallery.
The National Museum collection includes around 15,000 artefacts from the National Ethnographic collection, around 80,000 stone tools and around 1600 bark paintings from all over Australia, and a large selection of contemporary art in new media. The National Gallery similarly holds a very large collection of Aboriginal work in a variety of media, including bark paintings, contemporary acrylics on canvas, ceramics, fibre art, sculpture, photography and prints. Both institutions have permanent displays of Aboriginal art and material culture, but there the similarity ends.
The National Gallery displays Aboriginal art prominently, with the 1988 Aboriginal Memorial taking pride of place in the entry gallery. The Gallery includes moderate amounts of information on the artists’ styles, meaning and backgrounds of the artists themselves on wall text, and in associated catalogues, computer kiosks and on the Gallery website. But the display is essentially organised in the context of a chronological and sometimes thematic art history, with the emphasis on the visitor’s ability to engage with the aesthetic qualities of the work. Special exhibitions regularly focus on individuals or groups of artists, or on thematic concerns in the art. The displays maintain the purity of the art museum space, with few distractions to detract from the works of art.
The National Museum incorporates Aboriginal art in the context of both pre-contact history and the history of contact with settler society. The First Australians gallery uses a multidisciplinary approach to describe the diverse cultures and 60,000-year histories of Australia’s Indigenous peoples, including attachments to land and sea. The history of contact, violent and non-violent, includes mission life, the forced removal of children, the fight for civil rights and land rights, and the movement towards reconciliation with the settler nation. Likewise, the shifts in government policies from isolation of Indigenous people, through assimilation and latterly recognition of a plural society, are charted by giving art, material culture, interactive displays, documentary material and Indigenous peoples’ own voices equal weight - each is in dialogue with the other.
Up to the 1960s in Australia, Aboriginal material culture was almost exclusively the preserve of museums of natural history. It was believed in the art world, particularly by art historians, critics and curators, that Aboriginal people did not have a tradition of art, only a decorative tradition. Similarly, anthropologists working in museums had tended to reject the term ‘art’ because, as Howard Morphy has suggested, the term was believed to impose a western categorisation on Aboriginal culture, one that deprived it of a fuller understanding and interpretation. So it is perhaps a bit surprising that the National Art Gallery Committee of Inquiry, in their draft report in 1965, which included a lot more detail than the slimmer final report, declared that ‘Aboriginal people are part of the nation and their traditional art, in any case so much more distinctive and redolent of the physical environment than that of the newcomers, should be in a national gallery’.
It’s also surprising that the report declared that ‘it goes without saying that the art of latter day Aborigines has a right to be seen as indistinguishable from that of the rest of the population’. The report qualified this inclusiveness, however, by adding that:
Aboriginal art is the material of anthropological, archaeological, and ethnic studies, and that collections have been formed and may be appropriately displayed for some of these purposes elsewhere in Canberra. The treatment of it given by the Gallery therefore may be less extensive and more selective than would otherwise be necessary.
The reference ‘elsewhere in Canberra’ was to the existing National Ethnographic collection, then stored in the Institute of Anatomy, and the possibility of a future national museum. By implication, the responsibilities of the National Gallery in relation to Aboriginal art would remain subsidiary to these primary collectors.
This, perhaps hesitant, recognition clearly came from a sense of the importance of Indigenous cultures for Australia - and remember this was only two years before the 1967 referendum - although the equivocation suggests it was still difficult to see Aboriginal art as being the cultural equivalent of western forms of art. Indeed, the committee expected that museums of Aboriginal and archaeological materials, along with industrial design, a technological museum and professional art training services - in other words, an art school - would have provision made for them in the further development of Canberra, and thus the National Gallery should not seek to duplicate these. Why was Aboriginal art suddenly singled out for special consideration?
Up until this time a few state galleries had held a handful of exhibitions of Aboriginal art, particularly from the late 1950s, and collecting by art museums up until the mid-1950s was fairly limited. It’s interesting that at a 1962 seminar on the architecture of galleries and museums of art held at the Australian National University, the director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Eric Westbrook, declared that one of ‘the requirements of the galleries in the national capital is a Gallery of Australian Aboriginal Art, regarded as Art and not as Anthropology’. Westbrook qualified this need for a Gallery of Australian Aboriginal Art by saying that:
… visitors to the capital, particularly overseas visitors, would like to see this sort of display, if only to be able to correct the impressions they could form of Aboriginal art from the ash trays and other ‘typical Australian souvenirs’.
Aboriginal images and motifs were popularly used by graphic artists in Australia, such as Gert Sellheim and Douglas Annand from the 1930s, and often employed to market Australia as a travel destination. It became especially favoured around the time of the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. This, of course, was a form of appropriation, usually placing Aboriginal motifs in a modernist design and ignoring, or ignorant of, the cultural meanings and traditional uses of Aboriginal art. At the time the art world in Australia rejected most of these practices as part of what it called ‘low’, rather than ‘high’, art. Westbrook, however, did not collect Aboriginal art for the National Gallery of Victoria because he believed that it belonged in the museum, not the gallery, that it was anthropology, not art. Why his views altered for the national capital is perhaps due to Canberra’s role as a symbol of the nation.
So this 1962 proposal for a Gallery of Australian Aboriginal Art reveals on the one hand that the Australian art world was beginning to willingly consider Aboriginal art outside the context of anthropology and to accept its place in the world of art on the basis of some aesthetic and cultural merit; but, on the other hand, the reference to it is also quite dismissive: a facility needed to cater for tourists and to ‘correct’ the impressions left by what were obviously considered to be inauthentic souvenirs.
Aboriginal art, or at least a popularised version of it, exemplified diversely in numerous prints of Albert Namatjira’s paintings and Aboriginal motifs by white designers on articles of domestic craft such as platters and teacups, was extremely fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s. But there seemed to be a wide gap between the popular imagination and the judgements of the art world.
By 1971 when the legislation to formally establish the National Gallery finally began to be drafted there was a persistent belief that ‘primitive’ art represented a past stage of human development, and the National Gallery initially fell into line with this thinking. In the same year, the journal Art in Australia published an article on what the author called ‘The National Collection of Primitive Art’, which at the time was under the aegis of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. In fact, I think this is most likely a reference to the National Ethnographic collection. At the time, the advisory board considered the collection would become the responsibility of a future national museum; but this particular article had the planning of the National Gallery in mind. The author noted that, ‘Australia’s chief collections of primitive art are those in the various state natural history museums’, and outlined the case for its potential future inclusion in the National Gallery in terms that were typical for the time:
The historical reason for this circumstance is that art used to be considered the privilege of civilised man, while the imaginative exercises of his less advanced fellows were held as more properly the responsibility of those curious about man’s pre-civilised and primitive antecedents.
Aboriginal material culture, he did seem to admit, could now be included in the western category ‘art’. However, it was surprising, according to the author, that there should be any move to include ‘primitive’ art in the future national gallery. But certainly the comments clearly indicate that the issue was up for discussion and that the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board’s intentions for the National Ethnographic collection were by no means cut and dried.
The inclusion of Aboriginal art had actually been part of the planning for the National Gallery since the mid-1960s, though it remained both submerged in other priorities and conveniently ignored by director James Mollison, despite urgings by anthropologist Anthony Forge, who was a member of the ‘primitive art’ collection advisory committee. As early as 1965 the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board presented some discussion notes that they had compiled on a national art gallery in Canberra to the National Art Gallery Committee of Inquiry, and here many of the ideas discussed earlier at the 1962 seminar resurfaced. The notes made reference to the title ‘National Gallery of Australian Art’, and stated that, ‘the present buying policy is directed towards acquiring Australian works’, perhaps with consideration for a future gallery. In particular, the suggestion for a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia was maintained, although it appeared that by this stage it was being proposed as an independent institution.
Yet when the Gallery committee presented its final report in March 1966 it confirmed that the national collection should include ‘Australian Aboriginal art, chosen for aesthetic merit’, and ‘art representing the highest cultural achievement of Australia’s neighbours in southern and eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands - a collection of the latter before its disappearance being a matter of urgency’, clearly seeing all these arts as no longer living traditions. The report added that, ‘Aboriginal work is intended to be included in Australian art’, and its acquisition should not be ‘for anthropological reasons’. Following concerns that at first there would not be enough work to fill the building, the committee even recommended borrowing Aboriginal art from the various Commonwealth departments, state galleries and at least one state university who were not yet able to adequately display it.
The first acquisition of Aboriginal art by the National Gallery was in 1972 - a group of 1950s bark paintings from Groote Eylandt, that was followed in 1976 by a collection of 139 barks by Yirawala from West Arnhem Land. Notably these acquisitions were not purchases; they were donations. It wasn’t until 1979-80 that the Gallery started buying carvings and paintings created by living Aboriginal artists, although the collection remained very small at this stage.
Earlier, in 1977, art dealer Clive Evatt, who had represented Aboriginal art in his Sydney Hogarth Galleries since 1972, had reflected on the Committee of Inquiry’s recommendation for the inclusion of Aboriginal art, and noted that, ‘this vital part of Australian art has been minimised apparently in order not to overlap with the collection in the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies’. Certainly no one then employed in the development of the National Gallery collection gave it any priority. Perhaps these new collecting efforts were a response to this criticism, although the gallery certainly was conscious of not treading on the territory of other collecting institutions. The Committee of Inquiry had, in notes provided to the Art Advisory Board in 1965, suggested that state galleries should specialise and not be competitive with each other and that this was also a consideration for the National Gallery. This was hardly an issue in the collecting of Aboriginal art, however; rather, it was unusual for galleries to collect widely in this area at all, still believing it to be the preserve of museums of natural history.
Radical change was, however, taking place. New forms of art, such as the acrylic canvases from Papunya, enabled Aboriginal art to be seen, for the first time, as contemporary art. Aboriginal artists were encouraged to produce work for the market and began to make Aboriginal art more readily available, eventually finding support in public art museums and subsequently a wide range of commercial galleries. Director James Mollison at first believed, like many museum curators, that Aboriginal art belonged in the museum and not the gallery, until he visited Central Australia himself in late 1981 for a meeting of the Australian Gallery Directors Council and made a further visit to Ramingining the following year. While not initially enthusiastic in collecting Aboriginal art, the Gallery did begin to expand on a very small collection. By 1981 it included what were described in the annual report as - and this indicates the sort of attitude to it - ‘several typical and excellent bark paintings by artists living and working in their tribal areas in Arnhem Land’, as well as ‘a set of objects connected with the Morning Star ceremony, decorated with finely-twisted bush string and clusters of the delicate plumage of tropical birds’. The artists were not acknowledged individually and these descriptions were curiously incidental, even in their placement in the report, coming after descriptions of acquisitions of Indonesian and Peruvian textiles, pre-Columbian ceramics, and Nigerian bronzes. Yet Mollison meanwhile was now reportedly a convert, considering Aboriginal art to be one of the great art traditions in the world and describing it, according to curator Wally Caruana, as, ‘akin to living in Florence at the time of the Renaissance’.
At opening, the chronological Australian art display included a few examples of Aboriginal art, although at this stage they were shown more for historical or comparative interest, such as having an Aboriginal work next to a Margaret Preston painting to indicate its influence on her work. Still, this was a unique approach at the time, even if by simply acknowledging, in however minimal a way, the continued existence of Aboriginal cultural expressions in parallel with a survey of ‘white’ Australian art history.
The year 1984 saw the creation of a separate Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Previously it had been called the Department of Primitive Art, and then the Arts of Aboriginal Australia, Oceania, Africa and Pre-Columbian America. So it had gone through quite a shift in emphasis. It was given its own budget for acquisitions and a brief to collect contemporary Aboriginal art, including urban art, and historical work when available. By the 1980s and early 1990s, Indigenous artists were becoming known by name, as individuals rather than as faceless representatives of a generalised culture. National Gallery exhibitions began to focus on regions or areas of interest and to highlight the work of particular individual artists such as George Milpurrurru, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, Yirawala and Rover Thomas. However, the Gallery remained staunchly committed to its aesthetic premise, and little if any additional information was provided to visitors in these early years, though later on, extended labels did offer some of the dreaming stories, clan and geographic information.
As anthropologists George Marcus and Fred Myers have pointed out, art was, and still is, despite post-modern critiques, defined ‘by the creation of aesthetic experience through the disinterested contemplation of objects as art objects removed from instrumental associations’. While art insisted on its own autonomous space and saw itself as the one area which is open to all difference - all the while subsuming it in its own historical and critical discourses - anthropology saw material culture as part of a whole social and cultural system. Recent critiques have enabled a breakdown of these rigid categories and it is now possible for art and anthropology to work together in analysing and understanding Indigenous cultures.
After 1984 the Gallery’s Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art began to expand its collection and solo shows appeared. Aboriginal artists began to achieve career recognition for their individual creativity, and of course it’s significant that by this time the Aboriginal art market was well established and increasingly internationalised. Collectors from Europe and the United States of America were major investors in the market, and national and international exhibitions such as the Dreamings exhibition that was held in New York in 1988 heralded Aboriginal art as the first time art from Australia was accorded the status of a major international force or movement.
By the mid to late 1990s there was a boom in the international market for Aboriginal art, though while collectors, investors and dealers have profited hugely, many of the artists still live in poverty. Art museums inevitably contributed to this boom by their revaluing of Aboriginal art: the market reassured by the certainty of institutional esteem. In the twenty-first century, the collection in the National Gallery is now overseen by an Indigenous curator, Brenda Croft, thus returning a measure of control of the representation of Indigenous culture to Indigenous people. The Gallery’s celebration of Aboriginal art has been influential in embedding its reputation, giving it the imprimatur of a national and respected institution and, by extension, increased the value placed on Indigenous cultures.
I want to briefly turn back to the Aboriginal memorial, an item in the National Gallery collection which was installed in 1988 - of course, a significant year - and was intended as a potent symbol of both the struggles of Aboriginal people over the previous 200 years, and their survival. The Bicentenary, of course, was not a time of celebration for Aboriginal people. The memorial is an installation of 200 hollow log coffins from Central Arnhem Land, one for each year of European occupation since 1788, and it is primarily a war memorial. The visitors’ path follows that of the Glyde River in Arnhem Land and the hollow log coffins are placed in clan territory along the river. It represents a forest of souls, a war cemetery and the funeral rites for all Indigenous Australians who have been denied a proper burial.
The memorial, essentially a National Gallery commission with the full support of James Mollison and initially shown at the Biennale of Sydney, currently stands in Gallery One at the main entrance to the building. So the Gallery is making a political statement. It’s significant to note, however, that its reception at the National Gallery has never been controversial, despite its powerful comment on the tragedy of 200 years of Aboriginal history since white invasion. And it must be said that, because it incorporates traditional techniques and materials, it is still not necessarily perceived as a political statement by many white audiences, especially when the National Gallery contains works that are much more overtly and recognisably political for audiences used to social realism and contemporary media. The meaning of the memorial is articulated thoroughly on the National Gallery website, but in the building itself, despite information being available on extended labels, its presentation tends to seal the work off in an aesthetic prism. The ambience of the space reinforces this.
I would just suggest that, if the Aboriginal memorial were here in the National Museum, it would undoubtedly provoke a very different response, especially in the context of the ‘history wars’, in which interpretations of Australian history in the Museum have been hotly contested. The context of a vast array of historical and anthropological evidence could serve to shift the emphasis of the work, bringing its content, in the sense of its meaning, to centre stage, instead of privileging its undoubtedly powerful aesthetic impact. In the National Gallery it is possible to separate the statement of the individual work of art from any perceived political stand of the institution itself.
In the resurgence of Aboriginal art in the late twentieth century, power is as much political as it is aesthetic. Because so much Aboriginal art is closely linked to country, to Indigenous law and society, to Dreamings, or to their loss, and the removal of people from these connections, every work makes a claim about Aboriginal experience in this country. As art historians Sylvia Kleinert and curator Margo Neale have noted, ‘it is clear that Australia’s Indigenous people have used ‘art’ to reaffirm their autonomous concerns, and they have deliberately sought to engage in dialogue with the colonising society’. However, its impact is very different in the context of a history museum. The political force of Indigenous art has helped to draw attention to the historical record, particularly in the way it’s been incorporated into the National Museum’s First Australians gallery.
As early as the 1960s, and particularly from the 1970s, historians have been investigating the erasure of Aboriginal people from Australian history, recovering material and helping to amend the record of Aboriginal experience and struggle. The National Museum, opening 19 years after the National Gallery, was in a position to acknowledge the changes in Australian society in the intervening years, particularly the influence of the National Gallery in cementing the respect for Aboriginal art in a broader community. Yet it also learned right at the beginning of its development from the earlier practices of art museums elsewhere in the country, their early exhibitions recognised the quality of Aboriginal art but tended to isolate the art from its social and cultural contexts. The National Museum saw that it was necessary to employ interdisciplinary approaches to the interpretation of Indigenous life. So from the beginning of its planning, Indigenous histories and cultures were at the centre of its vision, but they were seen to be both independent from and intertwined with white history and culture.
It’s important not to underestimate the effect of this difference in timing between the two institutions. When the National Gallery opened in 1982 it was the crowning expression of an, until then, largely unquestioned will to modernity - an iconic national tribute to Australian cultural maturity and achievement. The National Gallery has grown and changed over the intervening years, responding to new social critiques and adapting to museological change. Its modern conception, however, has been maintained and its adaptations are essentially around the edges rather than at its core.
In contrast, the National Museum might be said to have had two births, one in 1975 when its establishment was recommended by the Pigott report and followed by formalising in legislation in 1980, and one in 2001 when it actually opened. Conceptually, I would say the National Museum belongs to the 1975 vision, despite having to wait another 26 years. In many ways the Museum kept the faith of both the spirit and the major recommendations of its original brief and, though tempered by alterations in size and location and a newly competitive collecting field, the National Museum has held the philosophical ground of its foundational document. If we look at the 1975 Pigott report which recommended that a museum of Australia be established in Canberra, it also said that one of the main themes of the museum should be ‘Aboriginal man in Australia’. It had commented that, ‘curiously, Aboriginal art had long been displayed impersonally in natural science museums in Australia but only when Aboriginal art was ‘discovered’ by art galleries did the artists become known as people rather than as nameless ciphers’.
It is significant that the early role of art museums in the individualising of Aboriginal art was acknowledged by the committee. It is a reminder that, while museums had been languishing in this period in museological terms, galleries had been becoming more adventurous and exploratory. These were early days for the presentation of Aboriginal art in Australian art museums, yet the Pigott committee was already well aware of a dramatic shift occurring. Observing that there was no major institution in Australia that really focused on history, the authors recognised that the directors of early natural history museums in Australia were mostly biologists and geologists and this was where the emphasis of these museums lay. And these museums were also interested in the development of man, but from an evolutionary perspective, thus depicting Aborigines, according to the Pigott report, as ‘living exemplars of one of the earliest stages in the evolution of mankind ... Aboriginal people were treated as living fossils ... only recently have they been seen by museums as people rather than fauna’. Just as James Mollison had early on believed that Aboriginal art belonged in the natural history museum, these earlier museums were unwilling to see Aboriginal society outside the limits of their natural science disciplines. Not surprisingly the committee of inquiry concluded that, ‘one of the strongest arguments we offer for a new national museum in Australia is the belief that there both the Aboriginal and European histories of Australia can be seen in a wider and fairer perspective’ - effectively a proposal for a more cross-cultural institution.
At the same time as the Pigott committee report was being compiled, a separate planning committee, convened by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, was created to report on establishing a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia. Including Aboriginal representatives and chaired by Professor John Mulvaney, it was to report to the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections, of which Mulvaney was also a member. His report noted, ‘that any national museum established in Canberra would include ethnographic material, and this has been implicit since 1934 when the Australian Government transferred what was termed the National Ethnographic collection, then stored in the basement of the recently completed Australian Institute of Anatomy. It remarked on the requirement to have, ‘the active and sympathetic participation of Aboriginal people in its planning, staffing, control and operation - a recognition of the political need for Aboriginal self-determination’.
The report observed that the standing of such a gallery in Australian national life may come to be seen as an index of its cultural maturity. The report maintained the importance of autonomy for the gallery, though recognising the desirability of cooperation with any co-located and complementary institutions. Integration or a close association with the newly created Aboriginal Arts Board and in particular the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was considered important to ensure productive collaboration without duplication of efforts. The report placed primary importance on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia conveying, ‘the unique spirituality and creativity of Aboriginal society’, and stated that, ‘this was not meant to be seen as a gesture of restitution, repairing a guilty national conscience or as merely having relevance for or to be used by Aborigines only. It was to be far more active and engaged, promoting genuine understanding in the context of ongoing research and dialogue’.
The Pigott and Mulvaney reports, informed by a revisionary anthropology and the new social history were of their time, but that time had passed when the Museum opened. Not only had the politics of the time shifted dramatically to the conservatism of John Howard, but the tenets of the new museology in the interim had pushed the Museum further out of kilter with government and bureaucratic expectations in the early twenty-first century. Envisaging mutual understanding and education, the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia was to respect the dignity of Aboriginal culture and society. Aboriginal people, like Indigenous peoples around the world, had misgivings about the way museums had previously treated their cultures. In particular, concerns were expressed that the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia would not be run by Europeans, nor that it would display items of a secret or sacred nature or bones of the dead. Another concern was that items of material culture should not be hoarded but instead returned to their traditional owners. It was considered important that research should be relevant to Aboriginal needs rather than benefiting white scholars and that the gallery should encourage Aboriginal people as visitors.
So the Pigott report, investigating the National Ethnographic collection and concerned that it was deteriorating, recommended that it be transferred to an appropriate body, and eventually they suggested that the Institute of Anatomy building be used to, ‘implement promptly the proposed national museum though on a very small scale’, and that it could be used as a temporary headquarters up to six or seven years - fairly permanent temporary - during the planning and design phases for a first stage of a museum of national history. While supporting the report of Mulvaney’s planning committee, the Pigott committee expressed reservations about it being governed as a separate statutory authority, doubting that divided management could achieve an integrated museum of national history.
The vision of the Pigott report, although radically truncated in scale for the expression of Aboriginal culture and identity, was faithfully maintained through all the long planning years and finally took form in the First Australians gallery. As we are all aware the First Australians gallery became the focus of heated debate over the nature and uses of history, particularly because it did not resolve the more difficult aspects of Aboriginal history since white settlement. It included, for instance, the oral and written record of massacres, the dispossession of Aboriginal land, practices on Christian missions, life as fringe dwellers, the restriction of Aboriginal people on reserves, and the stories of the stolen generations, including oral testimony. What is evident throughout is a sense of the contemporary vitality of Aboriginal cultures, especially because the historical and oral record is interspersed with Aboriginal works of art that, in this context, become as much political manifestos as cultural and spiritual expressions - radically different from the National Gallery. Arguably, while there are examples of different language groups and clans, First Australians gives an overall impression of pan-Aboriginality, though this itself is a political statement enabling identification of common concerns.
Since the opening of the National Gallery in 1981, the intervening years witnessed a real flowering of contemporary and traditional Aboriginal art in the museum world - gradually championed and celebrated in art museums, especially the National Gallery. Now there are many institutions around the country which do the same, including the Museum of Western Australia, the Museum of Sydney, the Bunjilaka Gallery and the Museum of Melbourne. They all take a much broader view of Indigenous history and culture and include art and material culture in their displays. So the collecting is much more broadly based and cross-cultural. They have welcomed the participation of and partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in the development of their collections, exhibitions and associated activities. These approaches are now considered best practice, especially in light of the general acceptance of Museums Australia’s 1993 guidelines on Indigenous collections, ‘Previous Possessions, New Obligations’, which has recently been updated under the title, ‘Continuous Cultures, Ongoing Responsibilities’.
The National Museum has a strong record of achievement, but its primary challenge now is to maintain its commitment to a reciprocity between both Indigenous people and the Museum, and between Indigenous people and white Australians, particularly at a time when public debate on the moral record of post-colonial Indigenous experience is held up in some circles as divisive or as an attempt to belittle white Australia. So this is a difficult road for the National Museum to travel. Indigenous histories and cultures have been one of the primary sites for public debates about the nature and character of Australia and its people, and museums play a big role in this reflective process through both their collection and their exhibition choices.
There’s been a major shift since the opening of the National Gallery and the opening of the National Museum and a real sort of change in museological practice in relation to the collecting and exhibiting of Indigenous cultures and histories. The early years of planning for the National Gallery, and subsequently the National Museum, indicated a recognition of new roles for Aboriginal art, history and material culture. Art museums led the way in these new approaches, championing Aboriginal art from an aesthetic rather than a purely ethnographic perspective - even though this came with its own problems - and recognising the creativity of individual artists who were no longer seen as just generic representatives of their culture, so by giving Aboriginal art its imprimatur, the National Gallery contributed to the legitimisation of Aboriginal art as a sophisticated expression of Indigenous achievements and aspirations. So the National Museum, well aware of the Indigenous mistrust of museums due to the long western history of mistreatment of Indigenous cultures by museums, has sought new strategies including along with Indigenous art the written and oral record - the importance of personal testimony as part and parcel of the way you exhibit Indigenous art.
If the Museum is doing its job, however, the public debates and the sort of attacks that the National Museum has had to endure because of these connections with these collecting and exhibiting practices can be as transformative as they are frustrating, although the Museum must be able to engage in the debate on equal terms with its interrogators without interference designed to perpetrate seamless stories instead of diverse ones.
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Date published: 13 September 2007