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Why is the display controversial?

 

Bells Falls Gorge - an interactive investigation

Why is the display controversial?

Here is a comment on the display by a critic:

[T]he centrepiece of the [Contested Frontiers exhibit], a photographic display of the so-called Bells Falls Gorge Massacre near Bathurst in the 1820s gave credibility to a mythological event for which there was no contemporary evidence. Although it is now claimed as part of an ancient Aboriginal tradition, Aboriginal activists only learnt of it from an article about local legends written by a white amateur historian in 1962.

(Keith Windshuttle, 'Social history and Aboriginal legends: A reply to Gary Morgan', Quadrant, April 2002, http://www.sydneyline.com/Reply%20to%20Gary%20Morgan.htm)

How do we analyse a museum display?

You now know that the 1823-1825 Wiradjuri War display is a controversial one. Does it cover the aspects that you think should be covered for a viewer to understand what is being shown, and how they might interpret it?

There are many different types of museum displays, created for different purposes. Three of the main possible purposes are to present a:

  • collection of objects that speak for themselves about what happened, and why
  • selection of objects with text explanation that raises questions, provokes questioning, and stimulates further investigation
  • selection of objects with text explanation that promotes a particular idea or interpretation, that takes a partisan approach to a controversial or contested issue.

You can explore further to see which of these three possible categories the display is closest to. We can do this by looking at a number of elements of a museum display.

View criteria for judging a museum display

What different judgements have been made about this display?

Here are comments on the display by several observers. Look at them to help you decide what your opinion is of the display.

[The Bells Falls Gorge massacre] is a complete fabrication ... The first reports of the event's existence did not appear in print until 1962, that is, 140 years later, when an article in the Bathurst Times by a local amateur historian reported it as one of the oral legends of the district. All the references listed above originate, directly or indirectly, in this one article ... it is appalling that the museum would still go ahead and produce such an elaborate display about such a spurious story.

(Keith Windschuttle, 'How not to run a museum: People's history at the postmodern museum', Quadrant, September 2001, http://www.sydneyline.com/National%20Museum.htm)
[C]asual visitors are likely to leave with the impression that some sort of massacre of Aboriginal women and children took place in the Bathurst region. They will not have been seriously misled about the general truth - that life on the frontier in the 1820s was often violent and that Aborigines were killed by settlers - but they may have been misled into giving more credence to the Bells Falls story than the contemporary evidence supports.

(Graeme Davison, 'Conflict in the museum', in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, page 211)
Is our student [visitor] likely to be challenged, or just confused by these dissonant voices [in the display]? Is it enough for the Museum to say 'we just allow the voices to be heard'? If so, does not the prominence of one label, and near invisibility of the other, subtly tilt judgement in favour of one interpretation rather than the other? Should the Museum have taken a firmer editorial position of its own, even if it was to make clearer that the student was being invited to consider the relationship, in this instance, between documented history and popular memory?

(Graeme Davison, 'Conflict in the museum', in Bain Attwood & SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, page 211)
[T]he National Museum still intends to keep its Frontier Conflict exhibit intact and to perpetuate the Bells Falls legend ... Of course, the school children and tourists who inspect it will not realise that what they are seeing is a piece of mythology. They will assume that, because the museum has the imprimatur [authorisation] of the government, its displays have been based on proper research and must be true. They will be badly misled as long as this charade continues.

(Keith Windschuttle, 'Social history and Aboriginal legends: A reply to Gary Morgan', Quadrant, April 2002, http://www.sydneyline.com/Reply%20to%20Gary%20Morgan.htm)
You should now be able to make your assessment of the Bells Falls Gorge display.