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Dr Kirsten Wehner, National Museum of Australia, and Robyn Archer, Creative Director, Centenary of Canberra, 25 August 2013

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Welcome to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Kirsten Wehner, and I am the head curator of the People and the Environment program here at the Museum. It’s my pleasure today to welcome you to Critical Undercurrents, which is a symposium forming part of the Centenary of Canberra One River Project. I will apologise in advance for the quality of my voice and a slight bit of sniffling and snuffling that might go on. Part of the environment is exerting rather more agency in my life at the moment than I’d like to, so apologies for that.

I’d like to begin our gathering today by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we’re meeting today. I’d like to pay my respect to Ngunnawal and Ngambri elders, past and present, and also to extend to that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples joining us today.

A few quick housekeeping notices, before we get on to the main proceedings. First, can I ask you to check that you’ve have turned your mobile phones off or on silent. I also need to let you know that the Museum is recording today’s symposium, including audience questions and discussions. You being here and speaking up constitutes a tacit consent for us to do that. We will be recording and then transcribing the proceedings, and putting them up them on our website. So if you’re not meant to be here, maybe just don’t ask any questions.

The bad news is that we won’t be having morning tea, we’re going all the way through until 12:30. But the good news is that at 12:30 lunch will be available for everybody down in the Museum’s Main Hall. There are a lot of events through the day and including at afternoon tea where we have a special birthday surprise. So if at any point you feel your energy lagging, just think about the cake to come.

To begin our discussions today, it’s my pleasure now to introduce Robyn Archer to say a few words about the One River Project and his aims and achievements over the past year. Robyn is the Creative Director for the Centenary of Canberra, a program incorporating a range of diverse and ambitious projects and events, including many reaching well beyond the borders of our national capital. If you’re anything like me, you’re astonished to see the list of events coming up in the paper every week.

Robyn conceived One River as a means to recognise and explore Canberra’s status as the largest city in the Murray-Darling Basin, a place connected physically and metaphorically into Australia’s greatest river system. Please join me in welcoming Robyn to tell us a bit more about the project. [applause]

ROBYN ARCHER: Thanks very much, Kirsten. I too would like to first of all acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land that we’re meeting on, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and also respects to any other first peoples who are here this morning.

I’d like to know how many of you were at the events yesterday. Quite a number, maybe half or two-thirds. I don’t want to bore you again, but it’s worth repeating for those people who weren’t there yesterday to talk very briefly about the genesis of this project.

I didn’t realise that Canberra was the largest city in the Murray-Darling Basin until I came here to be the Creative Director of the Centenary of Canberra. It’s something I’ve learned. The minute I found out, this gave me the opportunity, because the Centenary of Canberra was always going to be local, national, and international to some degree — but very much a national story — to try to re-imagine the role of the capital, where the capital is and what the capital does, trying to go beyond simply Canberra as the host of federal government and maybe the knowledge in the public’s mind of a couple of the great institutions like the National Gallery, the War Memorial, the Museum, et cetera. We always wanted it to cross states and, suddenly, with Canberra the largest city in the Murray-Darling Basin we were able to connect four states and a territory in Australia just through the river system.

When you’re thinking of a program that you have the great privilege to devise, what pops into your mind depends on your own experience, I suppose, so my eye goes to Indigenous Australia and all the riches that there are there. That naturally occurs to me. Naturally occurring are other kinds of equities around diverse communities in the way Australia really is, and the fact that women are half of that. All of those senses of needs of equality just through my experience are able to pop up.

My experience about the Murray, as a number of you now know, is a very personal one in that my mother was born literally on its banks. She lived in a tin shed on the banks. You walked out the back door and into knee-deep white sand, and then into the river. That was because my mum’s father ran the punt between Cadell and Morgan. Since birth, my experience has been one of very consciousness of the Murray, going up there, driving the 100 miles, as it was then, from Adelaide up to Morgan and Cadell to reunite with family. We would drive up the 100 miles, have the day and drive back again happened very regularly during my lifetime.

As I’ve talked to people on the One River project, they’ve said similar things. A couple of our team at the Centenary of Canberra have direct relationships with the river. The minute you mention this, you get that sense that people are very aware, and it stays, it sticks — the water sticks in your boots for some reason if you have that very personal connection.

It occurred to me that, if that was the case with Canberra, then we could try to do something that went away from the clichéd debates around the Murray-Darling. That is, the things that always make the headlines are the allocation of water, from the silting at Goolwa all up to rice farming and cotton farming, and who takes the water and who doesn’t. It sits in that parameter without us ever being able to go beyond it.

It goes beyond it at the local level because river communities from the Indigenous communities originally right through to the present day, as you all know, have fantastic stories to tell, but they tend to be told at the local level. There’s immense energy around the things that go on in river communities, and in some senses up until now maybe they haven’t so much been able to share that. I know there have been projects that have linked parts of the Murray and parts of the Darling, but this is probably the first time when we’ve had an opportunity to get the voices all along the way.

While the project has been based mainly in these great artist commissions that we saw evidence of yesterday. For those of you who weren’t there yesterday, please go to the website and dig into what these artist commissions did One River website. But what the artist commissions did was also bring up so many of the concerns and the stories, the very human aspect of the history of the river in all its guises. This is a very rich story. It’s a great narrative for Australia. What we’ll be able to do now with the project so expertly handled by Lindy Allen leading the team, Donna Jackson, and Malcolm McKinnon whom you’ll see today and who’s created wonderful, very moving films that tell these stories as well. With this bulk of work together, we’ll be able to set that up to others as saying, ‘Here are the other stories that you can tell about the Murray-Darling.’ In a sense, the whole business of physically what happens to the river, this comes very deeply from speeches that Major Sumner and Adrian Brown made yesterday about keeping the land healthy, keeping the water and the river systems healthy and, if they are healthy, we are healthy both philosophically, spiritually and quite literally.

We’re able to say to people, ‘If you’re going to have a discussion about water allocation, don’t have it in an ether of facts, figures, percentages, this and that, have it in the context of a human story, the people that live and breathe these things every day. The consequences of the actions that come in future will affect the lives of these people who have wonderful stories of today to tell, wonderful bonding, and wonderful histories.’

What I was so delighted about yesterday was hearing so many of the stories of the artists as they gave talks next to their sort of symbolic installations of what the project had been on site throughout the river. People saying for instance in Augathella that it had connected them to huge numbers of people. There are only 500 people in the city itself, but it had connected them to many more wide-ranging people, people who live an hour and a half’s drive up a dirt road. There are things going on with these projects that are now swelling out and having extra effects. Even in the local regions it is going beyond just the projects they did.

What I see is the ability to draw on this archive, if you like, the website where you get all dimensions of the project. We’re able to draw on that for another five years now, because the National Library of Australia has agreed to archive it for that time. In that five years we can draw on all this activity the length and breadth, and point people to it and say, ‘This is the reality of the river. This is what people are doing on the river. Never forget that when you’re making future decisions. It has been possible to connect and it should always be possible to make those connections.’

Today it was always planned to have a symposium that would be able to dig possibly deeper into many of the issues that have been brought up through the range of artistic projects. And also, as you’ll see on the website, it’s been a fantastic pulling together, largely by Lindy’s good orders, a calendar of so many things that are going on independently along the river.

When you look at all the cultural projects — the arts projects, the gatherings, the talks — it in itself is this amazing stream of human activity, of interactivity, of knowledge, of science, of traditional knowledge, et cetera — and traditional knowledge not just from the Indigenous but also from the whitefellas whose families have been around there for a long time as well. This is an important asset that we now have.

Today we’ll add to that asset by being able to dig in a little bit deeper into all those things that have flowed. Many questions, none of them probably able to be solved through a project through this, but the important thing is to actually be in a position to be able to ask the right questions and invite answers from so many people who have this amazing shared experience.

The central image of these women in bathing costumes on the top of men’s shoulders in the river, which I know relates to Malcolm’s own family. I think it’s his father and mother or something.

MALCOLM McKINNON: It’s my grandmother.

ROBYN ARCHER: Your grandmother sitting atop there in the river. Look at some of the images last night and you saw the beautiful film from Albury where people into their 80s are still gathering at the park by the river to have their social contacts and then going swimming in the river.

I know from my mother’s aspect we went onto the flood’s website once and I showed it to her. As the home page came up, there was a picture of my mother and her little brother — I guess Mum would have been 12 or 13 — sitting in a kayak on the front page, the home page, of the floods of the Murray. She got so excited about that. You keep getting these shared stories of people actually in the river, images of people. That’s the point at which you understand that’s something that people from Goolwa to Augathella on the river share, and that’s really what this project has been about.

I’m very grateful to the National Museum of Australia for being able to host the symposium and the other activities today. I really hope it’s fruitful. I would encourage all of you to listen up, speak up and join in the conversation. I know that we’ve got terrific panellists. Alas it’s a busy weekend for me and I can’t stay for it. I went straight from four hours at Belconnen yesterday to hear the great Joan Baez sing. Tomorrow at 6:30 I’m on a plane to South America and I haven’t packed one pair of knickers yet. There’s a few documents to write before I leave as well. I’m sorry I can’t join you in the conversation, but it’s already been recorded. The great facility of the website is that pretty much everything that’s gone on — all the riches, all the content is there — is available to us to be able to look at for another five years. What an absolute gift!

I pay tribute to everybody that’s been involved to create this great new entity that we can all draw on and can be drawn upon by all Australians. Have a terrific day. Thank you. [applause]

KIRSTEN WEHNER: Many thanks, Robyn. We know how busy you are, so thank you for coming along to talk a little bit about your vision for the project, which is strangely going to have many synergies — not strangely, intentionally going to have many synergies with what I’m going to talk about now.

I wanted to take a few minutes to talk through some of the ways in which the National Museum of Australia has engaged with the Murray-Darling Basin and to play out a little bit why it made so much sense when we started talking with the One River team about why today’s event should be held at the Museum.

I called my talk today ‘One River flowing through the National Museum’, which I realised last night that I have to clarify — it should be understood metaphorically because obviously if the river actually flowed through the Museum that would be extremely bad. We would have to activate our collection disaster plan, which is no fun, I can tell you.

My own experiences of the Murray-Darling River system really started right here in Canberra. I was born in the hospital that used to stand here where the Museum now stands. Much of my childhood was spent in and around the lake, swimming at the Cotter River and walking and riding my pony along the Molonglo River.

One afternoon in particular sticks in my mind, an afternoon spent using my plastic lunch box to try and rescue some small fish from a puddle stranded on the edge of the river to return them to the main stream, which I suspect sticks in my brain because I later discovered that they were carp, which is probably not great. When I look back at this, I realise that my early sense of the Murray-Darling River system was very much about my own little piece of it that I knew extremely well through many, many days of engaging with it, of getting wet in the river, of rescuing carp and of fighting blackberries — all those kinds of things that are characteristic of parts of the Molonglo near Canberra.

It was only later that I began to comprehend and to think about how my place, my little bit of the river, was connected into a marvellous, enormous web of land and waterways. I think for many Australians it’s extremely difficult to get your mind around the Murray-Darling Basin; it sometimes seems so huge.

I’m sure many of you are probably more familiar than me with the statistics that get habitually used to try to describe this region. If you think about the fact that it’s over a million square kilometres, almost 14 percent of the Australian continent, containing Australia’s three largest rivers, covers the territory of around 30 Aboriginal language groups. It’s home to more than two million people and is arguably Australia’s most important agricultural area. The fact that it’s home, something I’m particularly interested in, to hundreds of species of native and introduced plants and animals, though of course we have to remember not as many native species of animals as when Europeans first arrived in Australia.

So I think it’s perhaps not surprising that Australians have struggled to find a way to understand and engage with this massive and complex productive system in a coherent way. Yet I think that most of you would agree with me that finding a way to engage, interrelate and manage the many interests bearing on the Basin and the many lives within it is one of our greatest and most imperative national challenges.

The National Museum began engaging with the Murray-Darling Basin from very early in its history when it really came into being as a distinct institution in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Since we’re a museum, our primary path into this work has been to build, understand and interpret collections of objects illuminating the Basin’s diverse peoples, environments, histories and communities. Some of these objects do relate to aspects of the Basin’s history that have already a high profile in our national history and about which we think we often already know a lot. Yet even within those dominant strands, there are lots of stories to be newly discovered or rediscovered, and there are also stories that trickle quietly beneath and form eddies in our dominant narratives. Drawing on today’s symposium’s name, perhaps these are undercurrents.

I thought I’ll take a bit of time to talk you through some small portion of the Museum’s collections relating to the Murray-Darling Basin. Starting up in the area close to here that I know pretty well, [image shown] this is a group of objects from the Snowy Mountains and particularly the hydroelectric scheme, one of the great technical and social engineering achievements of the post-war period but also one with whose consequences we struggle today. To give you a bit of a taste, up on the left-hand side is an interpretive light box which was developed to explain the scheme to a public who grew increasingly astounded during its construction at the cost of it. [Collection highlight of the Snowy scheme collection]

There is a pair of workers’ boots testament to the role of labour in building this scheme and a chap called Bill Fegan’s ‘pelican’ digging tool, which was given to him and actually brought to Australia by Norwegian miners and became an important and symbolic motif of the kind of cultural hybridity that arose during the scheme.

In the top right-hand corner is Snowcom, the ground-breaking new computer developed for the Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme by the University of Sydney’s Department of Electrical Engineering. It was used to calculate dam designs, excavation volumes, transmission line efficiency, changes to river flows, and to analyse wind and rainfall patterns. It’s a machine that ruled the lives of over 50 programmers, who basically worked in three shifts to run the machine 24 hours a day.

At the bottom of the page, in contrast to this emblem of energy, is a cooking pot which was recovered by businessman Cole Sinclair from Lake Eucumbene quite recently. It is a poignant reminder of the town of Old Adaminaby which was sunk in the rising waters of this scheme and then of course reappeared, at least in part, as Lake Eucumbene has shrunk during drought periods.

[image shown] Other collections from downstream also records Australian’s effort to control and harness the Basin’s water. Up in the top left-hand corner is a 1913 10-shilling note, which is not only about wealth but also about the way that Australians in the immediate post-Federation period saw irrigation as the symbol of prosperity. In the centre of the note is an image of Goulburn Weir, Australia’s oldest irrigation diversion structure which was built between 1887 and 1891 to divert water from the Goulburn for agriculture and domestic use.

The small image right at the top of the page shows part of the lifting gears and superstructure of the original weir, which currently looks rather forlorn sitting in a paddock next to the river at Nagambie, but not for long as next Wednesday we’re actually picking it up to bring it to the Museum to add it to the collection. Nice challenge of transporting about 25 tonnes of steel, I can tell you.

Agriculture is, of course, one of the most dominant narratives of the Basin, and the Museum holds a wide range of material relating to this history. I won’t talk about all these objects but just draw your attention to the Sunshine stripper harvester on the left, which rolled off the factory floor in 1911 and was used on a farm near Cootamundra until the 1950s. It records expansion of grain cropping through the Riverina, the character of life on family farms in that area, and the role of basic agriculture as an arena for invention and technological innovation. I think it also illuminates the way in which what happens in the Basin is intimately linked to what happens outside it.

As agriculture expanded throughout the Basin in the late 19th century, HV McKay’s Sunshine Harvester Works in Melbourne, which produced this particular machine, grew quickly into one of Australia’s largest factories. Indeed, it was so prominent that in 1907 Justice Higgins of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court used the factory as a test case in what become known as the Harvester Judgment, the groundbreaking occasion in which the justice set the first national minimum wage.

I won’t talk about all these objects. [image shown] On the bottom is a tuberculin syringe used in testing of the myxoma virus just near Lake Urana in New South Wales. On the right is a collection of wheat samples put together by a farmer called James Hately from near Cootamundra. He travelled around to the local agriculture shows and picked up samples of wheat that were growing particularly well and had won prizes at the show. He put them into this fabulous oak stand, which the family then kept in their lounge room for many years.

Of course, the Basin has also been profoundly shaped by diverse environmental challenges and by the efforts of people in the Basin to respond to them. This slide shows some of the ways the Museum has recorded these histories to date, including seeds collected for re-vegetation projects in Narrandera and a tree planter used on his property by Downside farmer Max Chamberlain. The work in the centre is by Binalong farmer Diana Boyer, part of her efforts to record and imagine the impacts of climate change on her life in the property. On the right, you can see a rather unusual object in use, an Indian water pot that was used by school students involved in the My River Project during 2004. They are participating in a ceremony held at the mouth of the Murray during which they poured through their hands water collected from the Murrumbidgee, Darling and Murray rivers seeking, as they put it, to symbolically reconnect river flow memory lines.

I want to pause here and acknowledge my colleague George Main, who is talking this afternoon, who has been instrumental over many years in bringing many of these collections into the Museum.

The Museum aims to record the histories of all Australians developing Basin collections that encompass hydrological engineers, irrigation technicians, farmers, scientists, environmental activists, artists, school children and also very much Indigenous Australians, who may also of course be some of the engineers, technicians, farmers, scientists, activists, artists and children. [image shown] These three works by Aboriginal artists Ian Abdulla, Howard Butler and Rose Kirby  to bring diverse engagements and understandings of the river system, recording traditional knowledge of its waters, plants and animals, and the continuous reinventions of cultural and material forms that enable and encode human-river relationships.

Why are all these collections important? In my opinion, it’s because each of them embodies and engages us in a story about life along the river system. They connect us in very intimate, particular, and embodied ways to the lived experiences of diverse peoples across the Basin and to the experiences of the other than human species, landscapes and waterways with which we share the region. I think these objects enable us to make sense of those other lives, to grasp our own points of connection, imagination and interrelationship with them, and to understand the river system not as a set of water flow statistics or policy objectives but as a complex of land and waterscapes with diverse, intertwined, ecological, cultural and emotional dimensions. Do I sound a lot like Robyn Archer? I hope so. [laughs]

[image shown] To look at this hand-drawn chart of the Darling River for example is, I would argue, to engage immediately with an experience and an understanding of the river as a pathway, a place of serpentine passage marked by hazards that could impede progress and promising little harbours for rest. This elegant coil basket made by Ngarrindjeri woman Yvonne Koolmatrie invites us to consider what it is to know a stretch of the Murray River so well, to know it in a way that means you are sure which of the grasses growing there will fold obediently in your hands into the desired shapes.

These placards demand that we recognise an understanding of the river as a battleground not only the words but the aggressive images, hard lines and harsh colours loudly proclaiming a community’s intent to defend its lands. We are going to hear much more about both Yvonne’s basket and these placards collected by the Griffith Business Council this afternoon, because Barbara Paulson and George Main will be talking about them some more in the artist panels that they’re leading.

This morning what I want to do is just make the point that these objects and the stories they tell help shift our conversations about the Basin from abstract discourses to the realms of lived experience. They encourage us to focus on those things that are most immediate to the people, that are ingrained in their very being, and that are consequently of most importance to them; that is, the frames of reference of culture, of what you do every day, of what defines you as who you are, those frames that determine how particular people relate to the river and consequently respond to things such as policy initiatives.

It seems to me that it is precisely the stories that these objects evoke and the ecological, cultural and emotional dimensions of life in the Basin that they communicate that have very often been ignored in our national conversation about the region and our care and use of its water resources. This is not to argue that there is no room for the more abstract and systemic discourses of policy, economics or science. Of course there is. I do believe, however, that these perspectives can only reach their full potential and make their best contribution when they’re seen as elements of a broader, shared understanding of the Basin’s lived and embodied meanings.

The Museum acquires, preserved, and interprets these objects — it costs the taxpayer a lot of money — because we understand them as embodying and telling important stories about the people and places of the Murray-Darling Basin. Moreover, we acquire these objects because we believe it’s important to not only preserve these items but also bring them into relationship with each other through our collections, exhibitions and other programs.

After all, most of the time the Museum’s Murray-Darling Basin objects are here together in Canberra removed quite a long way from the places that they were originally made and used. It is important for people throughout the Basin to engage with collections that emerged from and enable them to tell their own stories about their own particular places. It is equally important, I would argue, for Australians to engage with the stories of others.

Australians from across the Basin and indeed across the continent need not only to tell their own stories and make sense of their own lives but also to engage with other stories of living, relying on, loving, and feeling ownership of the river.

To my mind, Australians need to develop a capacity to understand how and why different perspectives on the Basin have emerged and how they have profound meaning for people. I believe that this a foundational step to finding a way beyond the current reiteration of conflicting policy positions.

The Museum can — and I hope does, at least sometimes — play an important role in creating spaces that bring diverse objects and stories and consequently diverse peoples and the nation into conversation. The Museum sits largely outside the highly charged day-to-day debate of policy and planning. This sometimes frustrates people, indeed people within the Museum, but I believe it’s actually a strength because I think that it means that the Museum can be a place for calmer, safer, and more accommodating for what might be called slow consideration of different ideas and positions — how these have evolved and how they interconnect with each other. It is a place where people can afford to engage with each other’s differences.

In bringing together objects from across the Basin, telling their stories, their people’s stories and revealing the different frameworks they express, the Museum aims to build a stronger shared national understanding of the Basin. This does not mean the creation of a singular national perspective but rather a shared understanding that is complex rather than simplistic; inclusive rather than about who yells the loudest; respectful of difference and understanding of passion, while also encouraging connection across difference; and also one that is oriented towards the long trajectories of change. In my opinion, if we can develop this kind of shared conversation, a shared investment in the Basin among the Australian public, then we are laying the foundations for a positive future.

[image shown] I want to very quickly leave you with one last object, an object that for me serves as a wonderful metaphor for the possibilities that I see for the Museum and I think in the longer term for projects like One River. The paddle steamer Enterprise was built of river red gums on the banks of the Murray at Echuca between 1876 and 1878. She spent 40 years carrying goods up and down the river system, 25 years as the Fisher families’ home and 30 years as a weekend houseboat, then ten years as a racing and display vessel. And from 1984 it has been a working exhibit here at the Museum.

For me the boat collapses past and present, near and far, enabling us to imagine not only a long history of diverse encounters and engagements with people and places along the Murray-Darling river system but also reminding us of how these places and peoples are connected together through time and space, part of the one river. The One River project and today’s event is an exemplary contribution to building this kind of shared national conversation that the Museum is aiming for.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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