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Presentation to the Music Council of Australia

Address by Andrew Sayers AM, Director, National Museum of Australia

Delivered at the ANU School of Music, Canberra, 11 September 2011

I thought a good place to start would be to talk about some common ground. The common ground shared between you – as members of a body representing various sectors and institutions in the music world – and us, in the museum world.

Some of this common ground is in the territory of ideas. And some of it is in the area of shared interest in the practical questions of our day. For example, we are all deeply interested in the shape of the National Cultural Policy.

The words 'music' and 'museum' share the same root – they derive from association with the Greek muses, those ancient sources of inspiration. As Greek mythology became codified, there came to be nine muses with nine associated areas of culture. But before this standardisation there were three – the Boeotian muses – whose spheres of influence were more complementary. Aoide was the muse of song; Melete, the muse of thought; and Mneme, the muse of memory. The spheres of influence of these three represent three interrelated dimensions of practice. Indeed their interrelatedness was confirmed in that their identities were given to the three chords on the ancient Greek lyre.

When I think about what we do in museums, these three spheres of activity – song (or storytelling), thought and memory – are all parts of the way we perform in the world. Of these memory is perhaps the most important in defining our relationship to the past, to history.

The name 'museum' comes, not from these early Boeotian times, but from a later period in Greek history when philosophers and poets began to conceive of the idea of a shrine to the muses. Eventually such a shrine to the muses – the mousiaon – became the museum, a place where knowledge and art in all forms came together for public display.

The modern museum is a long way from this ancient notion of mousiaon, but some of the original sense of the idea remains even in our present day museums. We want our museums, first and foremost, to be places of inspiration. Virtually everything we do in museums comes from our desire to inspire visitors – to inspire them with beauty, knowledge, discovery, passionate engagement with ideas and with stories that are both affirming and challenging. When a visitor comes to the National Museum of Australia and has a direct personal experience of, say, a bark painting by a great master such as Narratjin Maymuru; or when the visitor becomes deeply involved in the story of the first Holden car in its historical context – then we can say that the museum has been an inspiring place.

When museums first emerged, their areas of interest were as wide and encompassing as the areas of human endeavour represented by the nine muses – here was art, here was history, here was science – all laid out in a kind of melange in which the curious could discover all sorts of things about the human and natural worlds. The National Museum of Australia is a specialist museum, devoted to three themes – Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; the engagement of humans with the land and unique geography of Australia, and the history of Australia since European settlement in 1788.

It's a big and widely encompassing brief and it is sometimes hard to work out what falls outside this brief, let alone to define areas within it on which we should focus.

But let's be specific for a moment and ask 'What is the role of music in the National Museum of Australia?'

There are at least three answers to this question. Firstly, there are parts of our collection that relate specifically to music and musicians. The Museum has a small collection of musical instruments. As with most objects in the Museum the criterion in collecting musical instruments is to establish a link between the instrument and an important story, rather than to create a collection of instruments for their own intrinsic musical or craft qualities.

The Museum's most important collection is the quartet of instruments made by the celebrated Australian violin-maker, AE Smith. As with its collection of historical motor cars (which are kept in running order) the Museum regards the AE Smith collection as one in which preservation and use are balanced – so the AE Smith instruments are regularly played in concerts.

The Museum has a small collection of pianos, notably the Blüthner upright that was played by Sir Robert Garran. In the recent exhibition devoted to the history of the Irish in Australia we included a Beale piano as a tribute to the piano factory established by nineteenth-century Irish emigrant Octavius Charles Beale that, at its height, was hailed as the largest piano factory in the British Empire.

And there are some even more unusual instruments such as the dàn tre – a 23-string bamboo instrument with an olive oil can resonator made by Vietnamese refugee Minh Tam Nguyen. It was made in a refugee camp in the Philippines and accompanied its maker on his journey to Australia as a refugee in 1982. The dàn tre is currently displayed in our Australian Journeys gallery, which is devoted to stories of movement and migration.

The second interaction of music with the National Museum relates to the stories we tell. In the Museum context, singing our song means telling Australian stories. For the centenary of Canberra we are mounting an exhibition about Australia in the year 1913. It is going to be a slice through Australian life in that year in all its complexity – in culture, politics, domestic life and the arts. 1913 was a significant year in so many facets of Australian life, not least because it was the year in which the Ring Cycle had its first complete performance in Australia. The Irish impresario Thomas Quinlan brought his opera company to Australia and not only did they perform The Ring, but also Parsifal and the Australian premiere of the Mastersingers. Apart from telling this story in the exhibition we want to capture some of the evocative qualities of music as it was made in 1913 – piano playing, recorded music and brass bands.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a strong dimension of performance in the National Museum and music plays a big part in it. The Museum is not only defined by its collections, but through the activities and programs that bring cultural life and context to the collections. The presentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island cultures is unthinkable without the music and performance that form a continuum with the manifestations of material culture that we display.

A recent example – at the opening of our exhibition devoted to the Djang'kawu sisters story, members of the Marika family from Yirrkala attended the opening and in addition to the 'white' convention of opening speeches they danced and sang through the crowded gallery engaging – dancing and singing – with the objects in the exhibition, the physical embodiments of their ancestors.

Earlier this year, in association with the exhibition celebrating the Irish contribution to Australia there was a great deal of music. The exhibition included a series of movies recording performance at The Quiet Man, an Irish pub in Flemington. We hosted the concert in the Canberra International Music Festival devoted to the music of Frederick Septimus Kelly, including a performance of the lost Gallipoli Sonata. And we have participated in the festival on numerous other memorable occasions, even, on one occasion, commissioning a composition. In 2009 the Museum commissioned the Garden of Dreams, a work for orchestra and didjeridu from the composer Elena Kats-Chernin. The 20-minute work was inspired by the National Museum's collection, themes and architecture and was intended to be used as part of the National Museum's functions, exhibitions and website.

At the time, my predecessor, Craddock Morton said that 'Music has always been an integral part of the experience of living in Australia and the National Museum reflects that in our collection featuring music and musicians ... We commissioned The Garden of Dreams to include the music of the Aboriginal didjeridu in concert with a European orchestra'.

All of these occasions remind us again that museums are not just about collections but are social spaces. And, one might add, places of imagined reconciliation.

Related links

AE Smith instruments collection highlight

Dàn tre musical instrument collection highlight

Elena Kats-Chernin's 2009 composition Garden of Dreams (audio)

The Craic live at The Quiet Man (video)