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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Margaret Anderson is the Director of the History Trust of South Australia. More on Margaret Anderson

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Museums, history and the creation of memory: 1970–2008
by Margaret Anderson

The first decade of this century has been a turbulent time for history in museums. Exhibitions have been scrutinised by press, parliament and public in an unprecedented dissection of public culture, as the ‘history wars’,[1] let loose by John Howard’s Liberal government, engulfed museums. The stories museums told about the past, and the way they told them, suddenly mattered profoundly. Our ‘national identity’ was at stake. I have wondered from time to time what the authors of the Pigott Report would have made of this new-found political fascination with the nation’s past? Would they have been delighted or dismayed? Ironically, at least one of the members of that committee of inquiry, historian Geoffrey Blainey, was also a protagonist in this new debate – on the conservative side. It was not always so.

Within museums the Pigott inquiry has been associated for so long with advocacy for a Museums Commission and the preservation of collections that it is easy to forget that one of its primary terms of reference concerned the place of history in museums. It was charged both to advise on ‘the functions of an Australian Institute to develop, co-ordinate, and foster collections, research and displays of historical, cultural and scientific material of national significance’, and to ‘institute new developments and institutions, with particular reference to the establishment of a national museum of history in Canberra’. [2] Committee members projected a clear view of the kind of new museums they envisaged – not mere storehouses of ‘ancient objects’, but

vital places of education, entertainment and research where facets of the daily life of past generations of Australians can be seen and where our heritage of old trades, crafts and skills can be displayed and practised. [3]

The preoccupations that later bore fruit in Blainey’s engaging study of some of the ‘lost’ aspects of daily life [4] are already evident in the concepts underpinning the Pigott inquiry. In its final report the committee argued strongly that the major museums in Australia had failed to satisfy what they identified as the ‘quickening public interest in Australia’s recent history’. ‘It is fair to say’, they concluded, ‘that so far no museum in Australia has attempted, even on a modest scale, to depict the history of Australia since the coming of the British’. [5]

This was not strictly true. By the mid-1970s a number of what we now call public historians had formed tentative beachheads amidst the battalions of natural scientists in the major state museums. Both the Western Australian Museum and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery had appointed curators of history (Western Australia in 1970, the Tasmanian Museum in 1973) and in 1975, as the Pigott inquiry collected its evidence, the Western Australians were already embarked on their second major display program. The first broadly interpretive history exhibitions opened in the Fremantle branch of the Western Australian Museum in 1970, and indeed these exhibitions attracted some praise in the Pigott Report, although more for their bold use of large photographic images [6] than for their interpretive content, it must be said. A second series of exhibitions opened in the Perth Museum in early 1976. Although inaugural Curator of History David Hutchison was appointed too late to influence the Fremantle displays to any extent (these were prepared by the museum’s design department on the then common premise that history was an amateur pastime), he oversaw the redevelopment of the Old Gaol in Perth and conceived its extensive series of exhibitions. Hutchison was an admirable inaugural curator, who brought a unique combination of skills and experience to his pioneering position. His first degree was in engineering, his second in history, and he had taught for many years in a prominent boys’ school in Perth. He was therefore able to bridge the gap with the scientists rather more successfully than most, and he had a genuine affinity with the extensive technology collection already accumulated in the museum. Moreover he understood the importance of communication through exhibitions and taught all of us who were fortunate enough to work with him about the discipline of constructing exhibition labels. Hutchison also conceived and developed the first classification system for use in cataloguing history collections, a system which in its variously modified forms still informs collection management today. [7]

The collections Hutchison and others (including the author from 1976) had to work with at that time had not been collected by systematic fieldwork in the manner of the science collections, or in the way that the Pigott Report recommended. Most of the major museums had accumulated collections of history and technology almost incidentally, although the museums of applied science in Sydney and Melbourne had initially sought technological innovation quite specifically. [8] These technology collections were leavened by items of domestic life, often associated with prominent families who claimed ‘pioneer’ associations. There were small collections reflecting the various states’ war histories, but little else associated with broader social or political movements of the twentieth century, as the Pigott Report rightly observed. Perhaps unconsciously, this tendency was reflected in Western Australia in the division of the history collection, for cataloguing purposes, into two halves – technology and ‘colonial history’. It was a notional division: in the later 1970s and early 1980s collecting priorities certainly expanded well beyond the colonial period, but it did reflect the ‘first principles’ from which the collection grew.

In many respects the vision for history reflected in the Pigott Report was refreshingly original. Although the gendered language now jars, the concept of exhibitions reflecting on ‘European man’ in the Australian environment – and even more radically for museums at that time, the history of ‘Aboriginal man’ [9] – suggested a very different approach to museum history. In 1975 no museum in Australia, or elsewhere for that matter, had attempted to present environmental history, not surprisingly, since there was no secondary literature to speak of at that point. Aboriginal history was also a novel concept. Throughout the 1970s a fairly rigid apartheid system was maintained in museum collections and displays. Historians researched and exhibited white history: Indigenous culture was the preserve of anthropologists and archaeologists. This was still (mostly) the case 16 years later when Gaye Sculthorpe, the first Indigenous curator in any Australian museum (at the then Museum of Victoria), advocated an interdisciplinary approach to Indigenous history and culture. [10] In the meantime, with one notable exception, exhibitions about Indigenous society and culture studiously ignored contact history.

The fate of the Pigott Report is well known. Tabled on 11 November 1975, just as the Whitlam government fell, its principal recommendations languished. An embryonic Museum of Australia was certainly established, but without proper facilities it could realise little of the Pigott vision for museum history. Elsewhere however museum history flourished. In South Australia three new history museums were established within seven years [11] – an unprecedented investment in that normally parsimonious state – and a new historical organisation, the History Trust of South Australia, was created to manage them. The History Trust remains unique in Australia, with a brief to research, interpret and exhibit the state’s history. Its closest cousin is the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, now a far larger organisation, but with a focus more aligned with heritage conservation and site interpretation than the general history of the state. However, both organisations probably grew out of the increasing public interest in history observed by the Pigott committee. By the mid to late 1980s departments of history had also been created in most of the major state museums. [12]

These newcomers were not always welcomed. Scientists in some of the older state museums resented what they saw as a diversion of scant resources to new research and collecting areas, and were openly sceptical about the research credentials and research methodology of these interlopers from the humanities. There was probably a gendered dimension to this response too, especially in the 1970s: from the beginning the vast majority of the new history curators were women – and young women at that. Moreover they showed a distinct predilection for presenting exhibitions, rather than a ‘proper’ focus on research. All in all there was a sense that history represented the thin end of the museum wedge!

There was probably more than a grain of truth in this assumption, because arguably it was the history exhibitions that ushered in many of the new trends in museums that are now common practice. Most of these new curators were graduates of history programs that had been heavily influenced by what was known in the 1970s as the ‘new social history’. Also known as ‘history from below’, it followed the lead of the group who founded the History Workshop in Britain [13] – to shift the focus of historical enquiry from the ‘great men and events’ approach of the past, to the texture of everyday life and the lives of ordinary people. It was in every sense an approach in tune with the political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and indeed drew some of its energy and passion from them. Although Geoffrey Blainey was never overtly associated with this approach, elements of ‘history from below’ inform the Pigott vision, along with support for studies of material life, probably inspired by the exciting work of historians of the Annales school in France at that time. [14]

But in the final event it was to be museums in Adelaide, Hobart and Sydney, rather than Canberra, that first tried to present ‘new’ social history exhibitions. In Sydney the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) opened its first displays in the newly restored Hyde Park Barracks. [15] Curator Margaret Betteridge oversaw the development of a series of evocative displays about the convict system and conditions for convicts that have stood the test of time. Amongst early temporary exhibitions shown in the Barracks was a splendid exhibition of trade union banners, curated by Ann Stephen and Andrew Reeves. It was the first attempt to document these extraordinary expressions of labour iconography; the resulting catalogue is still the only study of union banners in Australia. [16] Reeves, in association with Maryanne McCubbin, later presented several labour history exhibitions at the Museum of Victoria and instigated an active collecting policy in the area in both Canberra and Melbourne. [17] Some years later, Ann Delroy at the Western Australian Museum directed an extensive collection, documentation and oral history program as one iconic business in the West, the Arnott, Mills and Ware Cake and Biscuit Factory, closed its doors in Fremantle after a century of operation. An evocative exhibition about life on the factory floor followed in the Fremantle branch of the museum. [18]

At about the same time – the late 1980s – historians formed a special interest group of the Museums Association to promote discussion and research in new approaches to history collecting and exhibiting. [19] It promoted much lively discussion at conferences and continues to this day. The Historians’ SIG, as it was abbreviated, did much to promote new social history approaches to museum history and instigated some of the first discussions about the research potential of material culture. This impact of new social history approaches to museums in Australia was noted by Tony Bennett in his 1988 study of global trends in museums. [20]

An attempt at a new form of historical museum – or perhaps exhibition centre is a more appropriate term – opened in the historic Legislative Council building on Adelaide’s North Terrace in 1979. Burdened with the name ‘Constitutional Museum’ for the first years of its life, before sense prevailed and it was re-named Old Parliament House, this museum eschewed collections, to base its displays on an immersive, audiovisual ‘experience’ presenting highlights of the state’s political history. It was immensely successful for some years, before the program palled (it was quite long) and visitors began to prefer to avoid the expense of a ticket to the main show in favour of free entry to the temporary exhibitions the museum began to offer. Perhaps to counter this delinquent visitor behaviour, Old Parliament House introduced an overall entry fee in 1987. It was a disastrous decision. In the following year visitor numbers plummeted from 89,000 to 39,000, where they remained, making it much easier for the state Liberal government to justify resuming the building for use by Parliament in 1995. This marked the end of a bold experiment. Despite considerable political furore and many passionate speeches on both sides of the House at the time, neither side of politics has shown any interest in relinquishing the building since then. [21]

However, the Constitutional Museum introduced another novelty that has stood the test of time, to be adopted with considerable success by other museums – a community access exhibition space called ‘Speakers’ Corner’. Inspired by the informal forum in Hyde Park in London, Speakers’ Corner provided a small space for political groups to present their own temporary displays about topical issues. The museum imposed few rules, insisting only that exhibitors be bona fide political groups and that they observe the laws of libel and obscenity. Speakers’ Corner also carried a prominent statement disassociating the museum from the views expressed by any group, for what this was worth. It did work well for some time: Speakers’ Corner was a very successful experiment in direct community engagement with the museum, until one fateful exhibition tested the limits of community tolerance too far.

In April 1983 the museum allowed the extreme right-wing political group, the Australian League of Rights, to exhibit in Speakers’ Corner. If not openly fascist, the League of Rights certainly shared elements of fascist ideology with other neo-Nazi organisations, including denial of the Holocaust. Although the Holocaust was not the primary focus of the exhibition, display texts included reference to the classic neo-Nazi proposition that the Holocaust was a vastly exaggerated historical invention of worldwide Jewry. There was immediate outrage and almost universal condemnation of the museum. Jewish organisations picketed the museum and demanded that the government intervene, while protestors jammed North Terrace outside. This was one occasion on which the museum’s position, cheek by jowl with the current Parliament, was a decided disadvantage. In vain the director of the History Trust, Peter Cahalan, a former director of the Constitutional Museum, tried to argue that the League of Rights, as a legal political organisation, was entitled to present its views in the museum like any other political group. The intellectual niceties of the argument were lost entirely in the general outrage and media frenzy. The museum was roundly condemned, including by its previous supporters in the academies, who deserted their former colleague in droves. [22] An offer to allow Jewish organisations to present an exhibition in rebuttal immediately afterwards did not restore its tarnished reputation.

The League of Rights exhibition presents an interesting early case study of the degrees of political tolerance that museums can assume when they test the limits of public debate. It was not the first controversial exhibition presented in Speakers’ Corner. A display presented by a gay rights group in July 1982 had similarly outraged some more conservative elements in the community, who had also demanded government intervention to direct exhibition content. In terms uncannily similar to those employed in the ‘history wars’ 20 years later, critics condemned the capture of a public facility by a so-called ‘vocal minority’ at the expense of ‘the decent majority’. [23] But on this occasion the museum’s liberal supporters defended it strongly, insisting that the expression of pluralist views was an important component of modern democracy. These same supporters were amongst the most vocal of opponents of the museum’s decision to allow access to the League of Rights. The result for the Constitutional Museum, and for a time for the History Trust, was a far more cautious approach to Speakers’ Corner [24] and to exhibitions in general. Peter Cahalan watched the early development of the Migration Museum with some trepidation, scrutiny that I found irksome at the time, but have come to understand rather better since. To his credit, he did not intervene directly in the construction of texts that presented, by the standard of the time, a fairly radical reassessment of the South Australian settler narrative.

Controversies like this underline the fact that historians in museums take risks that those in the academies seldom face, or at least, seldom faced. The legacy of the Howard years probably prompts revision of that first observation. And while commentators reflecting on the bitter controversy over content at the National Museum of Australia in the years after its much-delayed opening in 2001 tend to assume that national museums bear a particular burden in constructing public memory, [25] there were many other examples of exhibitions exciting public controversy even before the determined neo-conservative campaign of the recent past. Julia Clark courted public censure in Hobart on many occasions during her highly creative period at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in the 1980s and, but for timely political support, might well have shared the fate of those at the National Museum. Clark was the first to present Aboriginal history in any Australian museum. An archaeologist by training, she showed a unique interest in presenting accounts of the more recent past in exhibitions and was the first both to use the term ‘invasion’ to describe the advent of Europeans in an exhibition, and to refer to frontier conflict as a ‘war’ of invasion that provoked systematic ‘resistance’. [26]

Some years later she curated a photographic exhibition presented by the Corporation of the City of Hobart as its bicentennial gift to the people of Hobart. The exhibition set out deliberately to challenge the generally celebratory approach of many bicentennial events, emphasising the hitherto ‘hidden’ history of Hobart through images that revealed the divisions in Hobart’s social, economic and political life. Clark admitted candidly:

We may have overstated the case in our determination to act as an emetic to the genteel antiquarianism of the ‘Georgian splendour’ school of history. We probably did, but the public loved it anyway. Or most of them did. [27]

The exhibition provoked passionate debate and widely diverging responses, from those who dismissed it as ‘socialist muck’, to others who welcomed the chance to see ‘the truth at last.’ Of course the adherents of the ‘socialist muck’ school wielded far more public influence than ‘the truth at last’ faction and, but for the steadfast support of the mayor, the exhibition would have been removed summarily from the Town Hall. As it was, the sheer weight of visitor numbers determined that it was exhibited on three more occasions, while the resulting book was the third best selling title in Tasmania that year. [28] A sequel followed some years later. Strategic political support was the key here, just as the lack of it was the nemesis of the National Museum just over a decade later. The Pigott Report may well have recommended that the ‘museum, where appropriate, should display controversial issues’. ‘In our view’, the committee observed, ‘too many museums concentrate on certainty and dogma, thereby forsaking the function of stimulating legitimate doubt and thoughtful discussion’. [29] But when is it ‘appropriate’ to explore controversial issues and what constitutes ‘legitimate doubt and thoughtful discussion’? These have proven to be highly volatile concepts over the years.

Progressive as some of the Pigott committee’s recommendations were in 1975, the report contained no hint of other new directions in scholarship that were beginning to influence historians in museums and prompt them to review their approaches to collecting and exhibiting. The first was awareness of cultural diversity, often more narrowly interpreted to mean ethnicity, but capable of a far more expansive definition, as Viv Szekeres suggests. The second was gender. Nineteen seventy-five was a pivotal year in many respects in Australia, not least because it saw the publication of the first of many texts that were to redefine approaches to history making over the next few decades. [30] These first avowedly feminist history texts inspired a generation to question the gendered hierarchies of representation in all aspects of Australian cultural life, including museums. Once again this new approach to history drew its initial impetus from the wider feminist and women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. [31] In museums it fell on fertile soil, since the vast majority of history curators were women and many, perhaps most, were also feminists.

A steady stream of exhibitions designed to redress the balance of existing history displays followed. They included both ‘permanent’ and temporary exhibitions [32] and represented an important attempt to document, and exhibit, women’s lives in the past. In Adelaide both the Constitutional Museum and the Migration Museum included an identifiable thread of women’s history through displays. One of the first temporary exhibitions in the Constitutional Museum celebrated the women’s suffrage movement and South Australia’s pioneering (in Australia) extension of the suffrage to women in 1894. At the Migration Museum we were committed to incorporating women’s history in all displays, but were certainly assisted by the fact that the museum was housed in the former women’s section of a Destitute Asylum. The temporary exhibition galleries were once wards in a lying-in hospital. This was a perfect setting for displays exploring gendered economic and political structures, as well as the rigours of nineteenth-century motherhood. Julia Clark in Tasmania included significant sections of women’s history in two long-term galleries – those on Aboriginal Tasmanians and the convict system [33] – while in Sydney the newly opened Powerhouse Museum included an extensive exhibition on women’s work in the home in its opening galleries. Entitled Never Done, it drew extensively on that museum’s large collection of ‘domestic technology’. Another attempt to document aspects of women’s working lives through the material culture of domesticity was undertaken by Liza Dale at the Museum of Victoria,[34] while in Queensland Judith McKay presented a series of exhibitions during the 1980s and 1990s. [35] Also in Queensland, Brian Crozier curated a major temporary exhibition on the Women of the West in the late 1990s; these are only a few of the projects undertaken. An indication of the extent of the work underway in 1990 is found in the first issue of the new Museums Australia Journal. Entitled Out of the Box, it was described as a ‘special issue on women in museums’. [36]

Women working in museums also drew together to discuss issues of representation and to mentor each other. A women’s ‘special interest group’ of the museum professional association formed in the late 1980s, with Julia Clark as its first convener. There was considerable cross-over in membership with the historians’ group, and both groups promoted some very lively discussions at conferences. More controversial was the decision to hold a women’s only dinner at the annual museum conference. This excited some resentment amongst male members of the profession (including an attempt to gatecrash it on one occasion), but the dinner was gradually accepted, and then, just as abruptly, ceased. Perhaps by this time women working in museums did not feel the same need for support from other women. The validity of women’s history was also more securely established, while the numbers of women in senior management positions in museums steadily increased. There are now six women directing major museums in Australia and those appointments no longer excite comment. [37]

Exhibitions exploring environmental history took much longer to appear, partly because there was initially little secondary literature to underpin them, and partly because the complexity of working in multidisciplinary teams that combined the humanities and natural sciences was an enormous challenge. It is also fair to suggest that, had the National Museum proceeded earlier, such exhibitions would have appeared sooner. As it was, one of the earliest attempts at a broadly based survey of environmental change in Australia was presented by the natural historians of the Australian Museum. From Dawn to Dust presented a graphic overview of what we would now probably call ‘climate change’ from deep time to the present, and drew stark conclusions about the impact of Europeans on the fragile Australian environment. It had no sequels until the Western Australian Museum opened its interdisciplinary gallery Western Australia – Land and People and the National Museum simultaneously opened Australia – Land and People in 2001. Western Australia – Land and People was a complex project, managed by historians Ann Delroy and Sue Graham-Taylor, with a team drawn from most of the specialist areas of the museum. It was probably the first exhibition that brought together curators from the humanities, social and natural sciences in a single project.

Although some elements of these new environmental history exhibitions induced disquiet amongst conservative commentators, it was the new approaches to exhibiting Indigenous history that eventually provoked the most heated public debate. The National Museum endured intense political pressure to recast its displays, both before and after opening, while at Museum Victoria elements of the tabloid press conducted a ‘trial by media’ of the new Indigenous gallery, Bunjilaka. Once again, the political context of the time was critical. Initially however, exhibitions exploring Indigenous issues seemed to enjoy public support. At the Museum of Victoria Gaye Sculthorpe presented several very successful temporary exhibitions, at least two of which documented aspects of women’s Indigenous history to great effect. [38] The Australian War Memorial highlighted the role of Indigenous soldiers in the Great War in Too Dark for the Light Horse, an exhibition that finally acknowledged the extent of postwar discrimination against Aboriginal returned servicemen. [39] It was, however, a touring exhibition presented by the Australian Archives that perhaps excited the greatest emotional response. Displayed before the inquiry into Indigenous child removal had presented its report, Rowena MacDonald’s Between Two Worlds: The Commonwealth Government and the Removal of Aboriginal Children of Part Descent in the Northern Territory [40] engaged and shocked visitors wherever it was shown. It was a powerful exhibition, linking documentary evidence with oral testimony to great effect, and it moved many visitors to tears.

One year later the Howard government was elected and almost immediately announced that it would build the long-delayed National Museum of Australia. In the following year the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s report on child removal practices was published and all Australians learned about the ‘Stolen Generations’. [41] For some, the knowledge was unwelcome. It was the National Museum of Australia’s profound misfortune that its eventual debut coincided with the most concerted attempt since the 1950s to shift political and cultural debate significantly to the right. The contours of this debate have been explored extensively in recent publications and I will not rehash them here. [42] Suffice to say that one of the most public casualties of the ‘history wars’ was the interpretation of Indigenous history – both Indigenous history in general [43] and Indigenous history in museums. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects of this episode will be.

The exhibitions that provoked this furore had been a long time coming. Arguably, the Pigott Report first laid the groundwork for the research-based, multidisciplinary exhibitions finally presented in partnership with Indigenous communities around the turn of the new century. In the three years between 1999 and 2001 four Australian museums opened major long-term galleries interpreting Indigenous culture and history. Those in Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Canberra,[44] opened in that order, shared much in common. All documented Indigenous dispossession, all explored the issue of frontier violence and all presented something of the history of the ‘Stolen Generations’, despite the challenges involved in presenting these emotional and difficult histories in a museum context. [45] There is little material evidence for much of this history, and yet its significance to all Australians demands that it be told in museums. I well remember the insistence of Aboriginal Advisory Committee members in Perth that we reserve a section of the new gallery for the stories of child removals in that state, despite the fact that the collection base was sparse. Although there had been issues in the past between Indigenous communities and the museum,[46] the committee recognised the institution’s public authority and sought a place for their history within its walls. Working with this committee was one of the great privileges of my professional life.

Visitors to these galleries almost always emerged profoundly moved by them. And yet there was a minority – it is impossible to say how sizeable it was – who found these histories unpalatable. The established settler narrative in Australia posited peaceful settlement, not violent invasion, and found imputations of genocide, argued particularly in the context of the stolen children, insulting to their forebears. As prime minister, John Howard famously refused to apologise for the wrongs of past generations, despite the fact that most state premiers had already done so, and this accorded political legitimacy to those who opposed the new historiography. From the mid-1990s those alienated by the new histories found a political voice in the trans-Pacific, neo-conservative backlash against ‘postmodernism’ and ‘political correctness’ that consumed sections of the media in Australia and the United States [47] for more than a decade. Ironically, if there was any truly postmodern museum in Australia at this time, it was probably the Museum of Sydney. This museum had also attracted its critics over the years, but nothing on the scale of the concerted media and political campaign that greeted the new Indigenous galleries.

I have argued elsewhere that most of us in museums were unprepared for the ferocity and determination of this assault on our scholarship, and on our commitment to presenting pluralist views in exhibitions. [48] Although John Howard had made no secret of his views,[49] we were slow in museums to realise the extent of his determination. We clung to the fiction of intellectual independence as its very foundations were being bulldozed beneath us. In a paper presented to the Museums Australia conference in 1997 I expressed concern about the Howard view of history and about what it might mean for the future of history exhibitions, but still concluded optimistically that the new historical knowledge would prevail over conservative ideology. [50] I was wrong. First in Melbourne in response to Gaye Sculthorpe and others’ exhibition, Bunjilaka, and then in Canberra, neo-conservative critics led a chorus of complaint, citing left-wing bias, ‘political correctness’, inadequate scholarship and tarnished sources – the latter a particular attempt to discredit research based on oral sources. In Canberra this followed concerted attempts – over the several years before the National Museum opened – by conservative members of the Museum’s council, who sought to direct interpretation in accordance with their views. Eventually Director Dawn Casey was forced to refer all texts for review by independent historian Graeme Davison, selected on the recommendation of Geoffrey Blainey (who apparently thought it unwise to attempt it himself). Both Casey and Davison have written accounts of this period and they make salient reading. [51] Ultimately, the government appointed a formal review panel, headed by conservative sociologist John Carroll, who recommended a range of changes to some of the exhibitions but stopped short of suggesting wholesale revision of the Indigenous exhibitions. [52]

Assessing the direct impact of this uncomfortable period on the histories presented in other museums is not easy. Few curators were prepared to reflect publicly on their interpretive decision making, although in private conversations many were more open, acknowledging a new climate of timidity and self-censorship in exhibition planning. Curators at the Smithsonian have identified a similar response in that institution. [53] As I argued earlier, both community and official tolerance of controversial exhibition content has varied in the past 30 years, reflecting the landscape of specific local memories and the balance of local politics, but the concerted ferocity of the Howard-led assault on pluralist interpretation was without precedent. It exposed the fragility of Australians’ commitment to intellectual freedom of inquiry and expression and profoundly undermined widely held assumptions about the independent authority of museum scholarship. It remains to be seen whether museums can reclaim a central role in both critiquing and celebrating the nation’s memory. To do this well will require courage from both directors and curators. Not to do so courts irrelevance.


1 Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne University Press, 2003.

2 Commonwealth Government, Museums in Australia 1975. Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections (Pigott Report), Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra, 1975, para. 1.2. My emphasis.

3 Pigott Report, para. 1.2.

4 Geoffrey Blainey, Black Kettle and Full moon: Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, Penguin, Melbourne, 2003.

5 Pigott Report, para. 12.9.

6 Pigott Report, para. 12.16

7 It was further developed and eventually published by Patricia Summerfield. It is generally known as the Summerfield classification system.

8 In Sydney the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (although it had various names over the years) and in Melbourne the Science Museum. See Graeme Davison and Kimberley Webber (eds), Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Powerhouse Museum and its Precursors 1880–2005, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2005, for the Sydney story.

9 Pigott Report, recommendation 2.11 and paras 12.2–12.

10 In an article published in the (short lived) Museums Australia Journal in 1992. Gaye Sculthorpe, ‘Interpreting Aboriginal History in a Museum Context’, Museums Australia Journal, vols 2–3, 1991–2, pp. 49–56. The other exception was Julia Clark.

11 They were, in order, the Constitutional Museum (later Old Parliament House, 1979–1995), the Migration Museum (1986) and the South Australian Maritime Museum (1986). A Motor Museum (later the National Motor Museum) was acquired by the South Australian government from its private operators and added to the History Trust stable in 1981.

12 The exceptions were the South Australian Museum (the History Trust was created to fill this gap) and the Australian Museum. In Sydney the Powerhouse also embraced history.

13 Exemplified by the pioneering work of Raphael Samuel, EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and others in Britain. The group created the History Workshop Journal, published continuously from 1979.

14 Following in particular Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400–1800, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1973.

15 Now in the stable of the Historic Houses Trust but at that point managed by the MAAS.

16 Andrew Reeves and Ann Stephen, Badges of Labour, Banners of Pride: Aspects of Working Class Celebration, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences with George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1985.

17 Andrew Reeves, Another Day Another Dollar: Working Lives in Australian History, Carlton, McCulloch, 1988.

18 The exhibition opened in 1996.

19 I first initiated an informal discussion group which grew into the Special Interest Group.

20 Tony Bennett, ‘Museums and “the people”’, in Robert Lumley (ed.), The Museum Time-Machine: Putting Cultures on Display, Routledge, London, 1988.

21 The visitor figures are recorded on History Trust file CR/1999/0039, document 2008/00809.

22 See for example ‘How to Abuse Free Speech’, Sunday Mail, 3 April 1983, p. 6.

23 See History Trust file CR/2000/0001, vol. 1, note dated 2 June 1982.

24 The terms of reference for Speakers’ Corner were reviewed, but the intention to reflect broad political debate was retained. History Trust of South Australia, Minutes of the Board, 26 July 1983.

25 Graeme Davison has presented this argument on several occasions. See ‘Conflict in the Museum’, in Bain Attwood and SG Foster (eds), Frontier Conflict: The Australian Experience, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 2003, pp. 201–14, and ‘What Should a National Museum Do? Learning from the World’, in Marilyn Lake (ed.), Memory, Monuments and Museums: the past in the present, Melbourne University Press, 2006, pp. 91–2.

26 The exhibition was Aboriginal People of Tasmania and it opened in 1982.

27 Julia Clark, ‘”Socialist Muck or the Truth at Last”: The Bicentennial Exhibition of the Corporation of the City of Hobart’, Museums Australia Journal, vols. 2–3, 1991–2, p. 108.

28 Julia Clark, This Southern Outpost: Hobart 1846–1914, Corporation of the City of Hobart, 1989.

29 Pigott Report, para. 12.16.

30 Miriam Dixson, The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia 1788–1975, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975; Beverley Kingston, My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary Ann: Women and Work in Australia, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne, 1975; Anne Summers, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Penguin, Ringwood, 1975.

31 For an overview of these movements in Australia see Barbara Caine (ed.), Australian Feminism: A Companion, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998.

32 There is not space to discuss these exhibitions in any detail here, but I did review some of them in a number of articles in the 1990s. See for example Margaret Anderson, ‘Engendering public culture: women and museums in Australia’, Images of Women Conference Papers, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 1994, pp. 116–133. See also Margaret Anderson, Julia Clark and Andrew Reeves, When Australia was a Woman: Images of a Nation, Western Australian Museum, Perth, 1997.

33 The convict exhibition opened in 1992.

34 See the published catalogue, Liza Dale, Work in the Home, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989.

35 One example was her wonderful exhibition of the flower paintings of Ellis Rowan, with its accompanying catalogue. Judith McKay, Ellis Rowan: A Flower-Hunter in Queensland, Queensland Museum, Brisbane, 1990.

36 Volume 1, 1990. The volume included a useful select bibliography of published work on women in museums.

37 That said, around the table of the Council of Australasian Museum Directors there were only six women amongst 21 members in 2008.

38 They were Daughters of a Dreaming, an exhibition based on Koori family photographs (c. 1990–91) and Keeping Culture Strong: Aboriginal Women and Work (1992).

39It was presented in c. 1988 and toured nationally.

40 There was an accompanying catalogue: Rowena MacDonald, Between Two Worlds: The Commonwealth Government and the Removal of Aboriginal Children of Part Descent in the Northern Territory, IAD Press, Alice Springs, 1995.

41 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Sydney, 1997.

42 Notably in Macintyre and Clark, The History Wars.

43 For an overview of this debate see Henry Reynolds, Why Weren’t We Told?: a personal search for the truth about our history, Viking, Melbourne, 1999, and Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 2005.

44 The galleries were: Indigenous Australians (Australian Museum), Katta Djinoong (WA Museum), Bunjilaka (Melbourne Museum, Museum Victoria) and Gallery of Aboriginal Australia (National Museum).

45 A fifth gallery, opened at the South Australian Museum, preferred a more traditional ethnographic approach and is not discussed here.

46 One of the most difficult episodes had concerned the Museum approving, under fierce ministerial pressure, mining on sacred land at Noonkanbah in the 1970s. This was still remembered with pain by many Aboriginal people in Western Australia in the 1990s.

47There is an extensive literature on this phenomenon in the US, but for a sense of its impact on museums see Roger D Launius, ‘American Memory, Culture Wars and the Challenge of Presenting Science and Technology in a National Museum’, The Public Historian, Vol. 29, No. 1, Winter 2007, pp. 13–30; James B Gardner, ‘Contested Terrain: History, Museums and the Public’, The Public Historian, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall 2004, pp. 11–21.

48 Margaret Anderson, ‘Contested memory and history museums in Australia’, in Marie-Paule Jungblut and Rosmarie Beier-De-Haan (eds), Museums and Universal Heritage: History in the Area of Conflict between Interpretation and Manipulation, International Committee for Museums of archaeology and History, Luxembourg, 2008, pp. 70–79.

49 He indicated his determination both to make Australian history a political issue in opposition to what he called the left-wing revisionism of the academies in league with the Keating Labor government, and to direct the re-writing of history along the lines he preferred. See, for example, Hon John Howard, MP, The Liberal Tradition: The Beliefs and Values Which Guide the Federal Government, Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, 1996.

50 Margaret Anderson, ‘The Changing Museum – Rhetoric or Reality? Exhibiting History in a Post-Politically Correct World’, Unlocking Museums, Museums Australia, Darwin, 1997.

51 Davison, ‘Conflict in the Museum’; Dawn Casey, ‘Reflections of a National Museum Director’, in Lake, Memory, Monuments and Museums, pp. 110–23.

52 John Carroll, Richard Longes, Philip Jones and Patricia Rich, ‘Review of the National Museum of Australia, its exhibitions and public programs: a report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia’, Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Canberra, 2003.

53 See Gardiner and Launius above.

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Cite as: Margaret Anderson, 2011, 'Museums, history and the creation of memory: 1970-2008', in Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6
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