How not to run a museum
People's history at the postmodern museum
One of the exhibits at the new National Museum of Australia is called "Snapshots of Australian History". It is a long display containing objects and documents about 25 significant historical events from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 to the defeat of the republican referendum in 1999. The event it commemorates in 1967 is the referendum that permitted the Commonwealth Government to legislate on behalf of Aborigines. The caption calls it "A Vote for Aboriginal Rights" and the display above is entirely taken up by a photograph of Gough Whitlam in a full-page newspaper advertisement for the Australian Labor Party urging people to vote "yes". I don't know if Gough has seen this yet or whether he approves or not, but I hope he would be embarrassed by a display that portrays him as the liberator of the Aborigines at this time. None of the school children filing past this exhibit when I was there, nor many of their teachers for that matter, would have realized that Gough was only Opposition Leader in 1967 and that the Aboriginal referendum was actually an initiative of Harold Holt's Liberal-Country Party government.
There has already been much discussion in the press about the National Museum, especially its architecture. Designed by Howard Raggatt, and built at a cost of $155 million, it borrows its central structure -- shaped as a lightning bolt striking the land -- from the Jewish Museum in Berlin, signifying that the Aborigines suffered the equivalent of the Holocaust. The director of the museum, Dawn Casey, has claimed in the press that she and her council were not aware of this symbolism when they approved the plan. "We endorsed the plans as a whole for their imaginative and creative solution to the task at hand. Hindsight is a fine thing and, had we known, we may well have asked for that particular reference not to be included." However, one of the council's own publications explaining the signs and symbols of its construction, Building History: The National Museum of Australia, praises this very connection: "The most dramatic of the architectural references is in the form of the First Australians gallery, with a zigzag footprint, or outline, which closely resembles the recently completed Jewish Museum Berlin designed by Daniel Libeskind." As the Melbourne architectural critic, Conrad Hamann, has written (approvingly), the building is "clearly one in the eye for the Howard government, who have been bashing away at Aboriginal council groups for some time."
The content of the museum's displays has attracted less public discussion but has been the source of considerable acrimony within its governing council. Late last year, one of the Howard Government's appointees to the council, author David Barnett, wrote a memo protesting about the political bias of the exhibits. He objected to the museum's "reworking of Australian history into political correctness". He said it glamorized people such as the Lenin Peace Prize winner William Morrow, the bushranger Captain Moonlite and the anti-nuclear activist Benny Zable. He complained that while the museum glorified the trade unionists who vandalized Parliament House during a riot in 1996, it trivialized the death of Harold Holt by repeating the urban myth that he was a Chinese spy who had not drowned off Portsea but deserted Australia aboard a Chinese submarine.
Chairman of the museum council, Tony Staley, referred Barnett's complaint to Graeme Davison, Professor of History at Monash University, asking him to review the displays and their captions and to advise whether they were, in fact, politically biased. Davison reported back that the objections were unfounded. The overwhelming majority of labels were historically correct and based on sound scholarship, he said. Instead, he observed, it was Barnett who was driven by politics. "The thrust of David Barnett's interventions was, in a sense, ideological," Davison told Staley. He went on:
An underlying theme in David's remarks is a concern that the commentary in the labels expresses a kind of systematic bias in the interpretation of Australian history. My view is that while individual items may express interpretations that David might regard as PC, they are not preponderant. David gives the impression -- which I am sure he does not really hold -- that the museum should follow the historical views of the government of the day. I am sure that this is not your view, or that of the council. The objective must be to ensure that whatever historical interpretations are expressed by the museum can survive changes of government and councils.
Davison argued that there was balance across the whole museum, but not necessarily at the level of every label or exhibit. "If every label had to be acceptable to every visitor," he said, 'then the result will be a very bland museum." Davison told Staley that it was not the role of the council to intervene in the detailed execution of policy.
"I hold the view that a museum can be simultaneously provocative and scholarly and in a certain sense impartial," Davison said, "not in a sense that it won't register strongly partisan viewpoints but that the role of the council is to make sure there's a variety of viewpoints expressed in the institution."
The intellectual architecture of the museum
Despite his professed concerns about impartiality, balance and the expression of a variety of viewpoints, Davison's comments were hardly those of an independent observer. For some time, he has been one of the intellectual architects of the museum. He not only drafted the statement of aims of the institution but in 1999 wrote a paper which laid out the interpretation of history that has been closely followed by the director and curatorial staff ever since.
Davison's paper was given at a conference in Canberra in July 1999, organized for the museum by the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research at the Australian National University and the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy at Griffith University, two institutions that pride themselves on being vanguards of academic theory in postmodernism and postcolonialism. The conference had an international lineup of speakers on history, museology and the relation between the two, including contributors from South Africa, Germany, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Entitled National Museums: Negotiating Histories, the conference's proceedings have since been published by the National Museum as both an explanation of its intellectual foundations and a justification for the approach it has taken.
Before examining Davison's own contribution, let me summarise the overview of all the conference papers provided by the editors of the volume, Darryl McIntyre and Kirsten Wehner. They argue that the National Museum should respond to the emergence of the "postcolonial nation" and the "new museology" of the late twentieth century. Museums were products of the nineteenth century and were originally tied to the imagined certainties of the old national state, they claim. However, today this "mimetic relationship" between museum and nation has come unstuck. The former cultural homogeneities of postcolonial countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia are now divided by "fracture lines". There is no longer one national story for a museum to tell. Instead, the role of such a museum should be to "negotiate cultural differences" between all the different interest groups.
Although their rhetoric celebrates a new, cultural diversity, when it comes to defining which particular cultures the museum should pay attention to, McIntyre and Wehner present a very familiar offering. They are advocates of nothing more original than the ideological triumvirate of the 1970s: gender, race and class:
In the museums of these postcolonial nations, the challenges posed by acknowledgement of social diversity prompted the emergence during the 1970s and 1980s of a 'new museology' that gave primacy to issues of representation and access. It called for museums to ensure that their practice gave equitable representation to all sectors of society, particularly those who by virtue of gender, race or class had been traditionally excluded
A recognition of 'diversity' was understood essentially to refer to the inclusion, within existing museum practices, of traditionally excluded social or cultural groups, such as 'ethnic communities', 'women', the 'working class' or 'Indigenous people'.
This goal of recognizing diversity, however, has its limits. There are some social groups whose views must be excluded. Given the now-familiar political scenario outlined above, there are no prizes for guessing who these might be. They are the category of dead white males, especially those who once occupied positions of authority, who had previously imagined they had contributed something to making the nation what it was. McIntyre and Wehner observe that many of the relics these men once bequeathed to national museums have now become an embarrassment for curators of the new museology:
Histories of colonialism and imperialism led to the formation of many national museum collections and the discourses of racial and social hierarchy and exclusion through which these were displayed. An increasing awareness of these discourses has meant that many museums often find their own collections something of a problem
Many museums are now concerned with the reinterpretation of colonial pasts, seeking to educate visitors about the complex and often unjust social relations which are part of their national history.
As a result, curators are using techniques of postmodern irony to turn their traditional collections against themselves. McIntyre and Wehner recognize that this often arouses the ire of traditionalists like David Barnett but they dismiss him and his kind as simply out of date:
For some powerful stakeholders, museums remain imagined as the medium for disseminating particular visions of national history. The impact of postmodernism, however, has meant that integrative and sometimes triumphalist stories of national progress are no longer intellectually tenable. Many museum practitioners now see their work as a critical practice, committed to drawing out the ways in which constructions of race, class and gender (and sometimes sexuality and age) have shaped national histories.
Graeme Davison's paper is called "National Museums in a Global Age". It reviews the international history of museums and discusses examples of both old and new museology in Portugal, England and the United States. Its thesis is that museums have reflected the values of the societies that established them. The first museums, or "cabinets of curiosities", were created by aristocratic collectors to display the trophies of conquest on the battlefield, or souvenirs of travel on the Grand Tour. "They symbolized the military valour, artistic taste and classical learning which were then the hallmarks of aristocratic power." They also reflected the colonial ambitions of the European monarchies. "The national self was defined through the encounter with the other," Davison claims, "especially the non-European other."
In the democratic era of the nineteenth century, Davison says, the museum became "a new kind of people's palace". Museum-going became a secular ritual and one of the central acts of democratic citizenship. To instill civic virtue among their supporters, democratic leaders modelled museums on the architecture of the homes of princes and filled them with the trophies of national conquest. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington was an example of this kind. So, too, was the Australian Museum founded in Sydney in 1824 and the National Museum of Victoria of 1854. Both were established as "an important step along the path to nationhood".
Davison contrasts two approaches to museology in his accounts of the National Maritime Museum in Lisbon and a number of institutions in London. He portrays the Portuguese museum as an institution stuck in the past. It has a statue of Vasco da Gama and busts of other heroic navigators of the fifteenth century. It has a huge map of the world with coloured lights marking key events in Portuguese discovery. Apart from an Orient Room with a miscellaneous and uncaptioned collection of Chinese porcelain, Japanese furniture and Indian pottery, the peoples who were the subjects of Portuguese conquest, and whose descendants crowd the streets of present-day Lisbon, are conspicuous by their absence. "Is it financial stringency that prevents a more contemporary and critical reading of the Portuguese imperial past," Davison asks rhetorically. "Or was the imperial past too glorious for the poorest nation in western Europe to relinquish?"
By contrast, thanks to a major redevelopment program funded by the national lottery, England is showing how museology should now be done. London museums were once nostalgic celebrants of the national heritage, which was defined in both rural and imperialist terms. In the 1990s, however, all that changed in favour of a more explicitly pluralist and multicultural reading of the national past.
'Cool Britannia' often mocks or ironically invokes the symbols of 'Rule Britannia'. In the National Portrait Gallery, for example, Andy Warhol's pop images of Queen Elizabeth share wall space with action shots of black athletes. Upstairs, in a consciously postcolonial gesture, portraits of colonial administrators and adventurers are ironically juxtaposed with Thomas Barker's tableau of Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to a kneeling African potentate. In Holland Park the Commonwealth Institute, the successor to the old Imperial Institute, has cleared out the old exhibits of Australia wool and Bangladeshi handicrafts, to make way for a modest display sponsored by the Commission for Racial Equality, Roots of the Future: Ethnic Diversity in the Making of Britain. Down in the City, the Museum of London presents an exhibition, The Peopling of London, highlighting the theme of ethnic diversity.
Even the Imperial War Museum, founded in the aftermath of World War I, has sought a postcolonial role for itself and instead of being confined to military heroes now regards its brief as anything even vaguely related to warfare, "civilian housewives or farm and factory workers or conscientious objectors as much as generals and soldiers, sailors and airmen". Davison commends its most recent exhibition, From the Bomb to the Beatles, which covers the period 1945 to 1965 and highlights the Ban the Bomb marches and the anti-nuclear protest movement. Clearly, if Davison's vision prevails, the National War Memorial in Canberra cannot be far behind
Davison's paper endorses all the sentiments expressed earlier by McIntyre and Wehner and panders to the same currently fashionable interest groups of women, ethnics and indigenes. He says the new museology has five principles.
The first is to challenge the standard narrative of national history, especially its imperialist and racist components. Museums should be concerned "to confront, and perhaps exorcise, the dark side of the national past". He says the primacy once given to Europeans as explorers, navigators, missionaries and warriors is being replaced by a new stress on the vitality and endurance of the indigenous cultures they once subdued. "Old heroic narratives are explicitly questioned, as are the motives and achievements of the imperial heroes themselves.
Second, collections reflect new priorities, especially to acquire materials that illustrate the survival of minority cultures. In older museums, traditional objects are now rearranged to ironically reflect on the past connection between the museum and the imperialist project.
Third, museums now see their main obligations are to a different clientele than in the past. Whereas once they were patronized by the educated middle class and the aspiring white working class, today they are "deeply conscious of their responsibility to those traditionally excluded from the political nation, such as Indigenous peoples and immigrants, especially black immigrants from former colonies." Davison says this is despite the fact that very few black immigrants ever visit museums.
Fourth, museums are experimenting with display techniques. They want to acknowledge cultural traditions beyond that of the educated middle class and appeal to more popular audiences. To break down the old formality and intellectuality, they are introducing elements of theatre and carnival and borrowing techniques from popular entertainments such as the waxworks and the peepshow.
Fifth, all these tendencies will only increase in the future because there is now an international culture of museology, linked through conferences, journals, exchanges of objects and personnel. Davison calls this culture "a pluralist, international perspective" but what he is plainly saying is that if a museum wants to be regarded as up to international scratch, it has to adopt the prevailing worldwide deference to what others of us would call political correctness.
Given advice of this kind, there was little doubt that the executive staff of the National Museum would fall into line. The director obviously thinks her institution has fulfilled enough of these aims to rank her with her international peers. She now uses the term "world class" in almost every article she writes in its defence.
The museum and Australian culture
Davison's advice about using popular culture to break down formality does not come from an understanding of the actual popular culture of today but from academic theories about popular culture. The current favourite among postmodern theorists is the late Russian literary critic, Mikhail Bakhtin. It was Bakhtin who argued that popular cultural expressions such as carnival, traveling theatre, Punch and Judy Shows and the like, served as oppositional forms to the established hierarchy. However, it is a long time since the art forms he praised, and which Davison recommends, have represented the lower orders. Live theatre is now largely the province of the tertiary educated middle class, peepshows are confined to pornography, and the Rabelaisian carnivals Bakhtin had in mind no longer exist except as tourist attractions staged in Italy and Spain for the American college student market.
It remains to be seen how ordinary Australians will respond to a theorized version of their own culture. It is hard to understand what would be popular about much of the non-indigenous exhibition space. Many of the displays mock the suburban values by which most Australians live. There are Hills Hoists hanging upside down from the ceiling, as well as Victa lawn mowers and a caravan on display. The intelligentsia might find it witty to see the familiar objects of suburbia housed in a museum, but not those who still keep these things in their back yards. It is telling them they are so out of date they have become objects of curiosity. Like visitors to a contemporary art exhibition, most of the people I saw at these items simply shrugged, unsmiling, and moved on.
When the museum opened in March, some of the popular press reaction was very hostile. "A nation trivialized" ran the headline of the Daily Telegraph, Sydney. The most trenchant critic was journalist Miranda Devine who said the underlying message of the museum "is one of sneering ridicule for white Australia. It is as if all non-Aboriginal culture is a joke":
The entire Anzac tradition is summed up by a bleached-out statue of a Digger, displayed as just another piece of drollery. "Australia has more First World War monuments per capita than any other country," reads the plaque. How funny! Imagine! Every Australian country town has one of these quaint things.
There is a clear division in the museum between white and indigenous culture. This is both a spatial distinction, with the gallery of "First Australians" on its own separate territory, as well as a distinction in attitude. While many of the exhibits of white culture are presented in terms of mockery and irony, the treatment of indigenous culture ranges from respect to reverence. There is one display of Aboriginal spearheads that have been chipped into shape from pieces of moulded glass left over from the construction of the outback overland telegraph line. The display marvels at the ingenuity of indigenous people who could so readily adapt new materials into their traditional culture. But there is no marveling at the ingenuity of the culture that manufactured the glass itself and used it to provide a transcontinental communication system. Instead, European culture in Australia is largely portrayed as a series of disasters, especially for the environment.
The arrival of the First Fleet is described as a "biological invasion". "People were not the only colonists in Port Jackson in 1788. Rats and weeds came along too. Europeans wanted to remake a land that seemed raw and unformed." One wall contains a large electronic map of Australia that displays, in sequence, the various pests introduced by the colonists: the European rabbit, prickly pear, water buffalo, cattle tick, Eurasian carp, red fox and the common starling. Red lights track the spread of each pest across the continent throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is no mention, however, of the ingenuity and adaptability of the European science that discovered safe, biological means, such as the myxomatosis virus and the cactoblastis caterpillar, to control these pests.
Despite the publicity that the museum has lots of the latest electronic wizardry, the map of imported pests is about as sophisticated as it gets. Some displays have panels where you can push a button to read additional captions, but this is hardly interactive. Multimedia is confined to a few wall-high video screens that recycle the same images all day. There is a Circle Theatre that shows a 12-minute sequence of audio-visual displays. The seating revolves so that the audience is moved around to look at different screens. This minor innovation, however, does little to improve the quality of the theatre. It advertises its themes as land, nation and people but it turns out to be yet another exercise in gender, race and class. An Aboriginal man tells the audience his people deserve "sovereignty". A primary school girl's voice says she agrees with Germaine Greer that women need a better deal. Most tasteless of all is the middle-aged Aboriginal man who boasts to the audience that he doesn't need Viagra. What criterion of selection did this comment fulfill? No one at my session found it witty or amusing.
Director Dawn Casey has responded to criticism of this kind by noting there seems to be an impression the museum has no heroes. On the contrary, she argues in one newspaper article, pointing to two displays about individuals whose story "is also Australia's story". One is a grandmother of Chinese descent named Mary Lee whose survived both the bombing of Darwin in 1942 and Cyclone Tracey in 1974. The other is Ron Muncaster who designs dresses for the Gay Mardi Gras in Sydney and who has now won 14 best costume awards. Even though neither were bronzed diggers, Casey said, they deserved their place in the museum. "Heroism is in the eye of the beholder," she added. "Our visitors seem to be enjoying identifying the unsung heroes alongside the great names. How boring the museum would be if it just categorized all the people you are taught about at school."
A social history museum
The trouble is that the museum is very boring because it does deal in exactly the kind of people you are taught about at school today. The museum defines itself as "a social history museum" and social history has been prominent in the education system for the past twenty years. In many cases, social history based on interest groups politics has pushed out more traditional approaches. In the high school syllabus, gender, race and ethnicity are now ubiquitous categories that students are forced to apply to most topics in the humanities. In the New South Wales Higher School Certificate course in history, for instance, it is still possible to study the political and military causes of the First World War, but this is an elective. It is compulsory to study the effect of the war on women at home, such as how shortages made it difficult to go shopping and how the war expanded female job opportunities.
At the university level in Australia, history is in a serious decline. Student numbers have plummeted and since the 1980s most departments have lost more than half their staff. The remaining academics blame the materialism and vocationalism of the post-Thatcher/Reagan era but the real answer is not hard to find. History has become both politicized and trivialized. Gender, race and class dominate the curriculum. Postgraduate theses in history at the University of Sydney in recent years have been on such burning issues as American rap music and women's radio serials. The proliferation of courses in feminism, of course, immediately excludes half the potential student audience, but even much of the female half also visibly roll their eyes today before such predictable fare. Moreover, despite Dawn Casey's enthusiasm, your average male undergraduate is not turned on by a history that commemorates the number of awards some bloke has won for his frocks at the Gay Mardi Gras.
The underlying reason why social history is so boring is that it has degenerated into antiquarianism. When it became established in academia in the 1960s, its two most celebrated practitioners were the British historians, E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Both were Marxists who believed the central dynamic of history -- the force that determines historical development -- was the class struggle. If you accepted this framework, studying the working class made sense because it was a central component of the great causal factor of history. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the academic left expanded its constituency to include feminists, ethnics, indigines and gays. The working class lost its position as the motor of history and became just another victimized interest group, on equal terms with the others. Despite the best efforts of their theorists, however, none of these interest groups have ever been able to mount an argument that their members represent the vanguard of history in the way Marxism did for the working class. This leaves a gaping hole in current leftist ideology: it has no theory of historical causation.
This has implications for attempts by the left to write the history of the nation or to mount a national social history museum. In one of her replies to critics, Dawn Casey said the real challenge for her institution was how to deal with the big questions: "Who has the right to tell the national story? What is proper to include in that story? And what is better excluded?" Her own answers have been that a democratic, egalitarian society should be applauding the roles of women, blacks, working people, migrants and other groups relatively powerless in the formal political sense. History books once left them out, but they should now be included in.
There are very good reasons, however, why history once paid only a small degree of attention to many of these worthy groups, and why it focused so much attention on Anglo-Celts of the male sex. Until the last thirty years, most history was written in the form of a narrative of causes. Most people who read history books did so because they wanted to know why their society took the form it did and how it responded to its major challenges. Historians usually answered this demand in terms of how authority had been determined and deployed, and they invoked causes of a political, military and legal nature. The "common folk" and most of the now familiar sexual and ethnic identity groups played only intermittent roles in this account. This was because for most of the time most of the people were not causally effective: they were the objects rather than the agents of history; they were on the receiving end of major historic events, not their instigators
None of this is meant to argue that you cannot write acceptable histories of women and ethnic groups or devote specialist museums to them. It is perfectly legitimate to write an account of the history of the domestic activities of women in the First World War, even though women had little impact on the outcome of the conflict. Similarly, ethnic museums that preserve relics and symbols of the home culture are obviously important to members of those ethnic groups. The demand for stories and symbols directly relevant to their audiences is one of the reasons for the emergence of social history itself, and there is nothing inherently unscholarly about producing them. However, for a national history or a national museum obliged to tell a national story, this approach has serious drawbacks.
For a start, histories of this kind are never, in themselves, sufficient to provide a complete explanation of the circumstances of the lives of the people discussed. Identity groups do not live in cocoons of their own making. Their lives are governed by the great structures of Australian society: its political, legal, economic and cultural systems. Any attempt to tell a national history, in either a book or a museum, is obliged to explain these major influences on the lives of all the nation's members. This means focusing on the major structures of the society and its culture, and the key decision-makers who brought them into being or changed their direction.
Another problem for social history -- and this is the one from which the National Museum suffers most -- is lack of coherence. By abandoning the traditional approach to history based on a narrative of major events and their causes, in favour of equal time for every identifiable sexual and ethnic group, history loses its explanatory power and degenerates into a tasteless blancmange of worthy sentiment. There is no integrated story that links political, legal, cultural, economic, military and technological events into an intelligible framework. Social history is itself predicated on the absence of just such a framework. As Geoffrey Bolton remarked in a paper to the 1999 Canberra conference where he supported the social history approach: "it is necessary to repudiate the view that one grand narrative should predominate". But without an overarching narrative of some kind, a national history quickly becomes incoherent, unintelligible, indeed, unhistorical. It is just one thing after another.
In this context, it is worth observing that social history is perhaps not the best term for this movement. It would be more accurate to call it "people's history". Indeed, there are some leftist historians who have already recognised this, such as Verity Burgmann and her colleagues who used the title, A People's History of Australia since 1788, for their book for the 1988 Bi-centenary. "People's history" resembles real history as much as the now-defunct "people's democracies" of the Communist bloc resembled real democracies. This term has the virtue of being frank with readers about what to expect.
The closest the National Museum comes to a national narrative is in the panels that contain the "snapshots of Australian history". Here the curator ignores Bolton and presents a very familiar grand narrative. This is the traditional Melbourne view of Australian history in which the political and industrial wings of the labour movement, with their radical, nationalist Anglophobe culture, have been the vanguard of progress while squatters, capitalists, and Liberal and Country Party politicians, with their British Empire and monarchist loyalties, have been the "parties of resistance". This interpretation emerged among historians from the 1930s to the 1950s but in subsequent decades was subject to scrutiny by a number of academic historians who rejected it for the caricature it was. In a paper in 1956 called 'Re-writing Australian History', even Manning Clark was one of its most severe critics, though in old age he recanted and reintroduced the distinction in the final volumes of his grand narrative. Today, the one intelligible message school children will take home from a visit to the National Museum is the radical tradition.
Here is a sample from the 25 snapshots: 1838, violence against the Aborigines; 1890, the maritime strike and the formation of the Australian Labor Party (no other political party gets a Guernsey in the snapshots); 1901, White Australia and the expulsion of the Pacific Islander labourers; 1916, the 'No" vote wins the conscription referendum (the only event recorded about World War One); 1930s, hard times in the Depression; 1949, the Snowy Mountains Scheme (focused on the skills of the migrants); 1967, a vote for Aboriginal rights (with the picture of Gough Whitlam); 1970, the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations; 1975; the Dismissal of Whitlam (illustrated by ABC-TV puppets of Kerr as a drunk and Fraser holding his coat tails); 1983, environmentalists save the Franklin River; 1992, the High Court's Mabo judgement; 1998, strife on the waterfront (illustrated by an "MUA, here to stay" T-shirt).
Apart from the completely disingenuous display that gives Whitlam credit for the 1967 Aboriginal referendum, none of the above are, in themselves, incorrect. But in the selection of the events to compose a narrative history, the story they tell is the old radical tradition writ large. Melbourne historians like Graeme Davison, who cannot see any political bias in this, must imagine that theirs is the only possible version of Australian history.
The historical purposes of museums
Davison's idea of Australian history, however, is a model of erudition compared to the history of museums he provides in his 1999 paper. He was attempting to provide a sociological account of the development of the modern museum. He argued that aristocratic societies produced museums of aristocratic taste, imperialists produced museums of imperial trophies, and the new nationalism of the nineteenth century used museums for nation building. Hence, the multicultural egalitarianism of the present era should have a museum that reflects its own values, too. While there might be a few examples here and there, like the Lisbon Maritime Museum, that conform to the thesis, most museum development over the past two hundred years has had other objectives entirely.
The early private collections had little to do with displays of artistic taste, military valour or souvenirs of the Grand Tour. They had scientific objectives. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before universities took up scientific research, gentlemanly scholars amassed collections of insects, plants, birds, animals and minerals. That aristocratic gentleman, Joseph Banks, gathered one of the finest exotic collections during his Pacific tour with Captain James Cook. Rather than a display of aristocratic power, however, Banks's collection gave him the reputation that helped him become president of the Royal Society and to spend the next forty years as Britain's leading scientific figure.
Before Darwin, collections of this kind, arranged in taxonomies from species to phyla, were hoped to reveal clues about the meaning of nature and the origin of life. One of the best examples is actually still held in Australia: the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney. Before he took the job as colonial secretary to Governor Darling of New South Wales in 1825, Alexander Macleay had for 27 years been the London secretary of the pre-eminent natural history research organisation, the Linnean Society. Macleay had put together the most important insect collection in the world, which he brought with him to Sydney. His son William subsequently used this collection to develop his own pre-Darwinian theories of natural history, for which he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
When the Australian Museum and the National Museum of Victoria were subsequently founded, their aims were not to foster nationalism but to further the goal of collecting and exhibiting for scientific research. They employed scientists, funded research projects and displayed their taxonomies of objects primarily for scientific education. Generations of school children who filed past their cabinets were greatly enriched by the experience. However, these students learnt little about national history, which was beyond the scope of these institutions. Some curators did make a handful of unscientific departures from the script -- such as displaying the stuffed body of the racehorse Phar Lap in Melbourne -- but these were minor concessions to popular demand.
It is only in the last twenty five years, under the influence of the very theories that Davison advocates, that some Australian curators have rewritten their objectives to turn their institutions into expensive public entertainments. Others, most notably the curators of the Australian Museum in Sydney, Michael Archer, and the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, Tim Flannery, still see their principal brief is to engage in scientific research and scientific education. To their credit, both have recently made public repudiations of the entertainment formula.
The story has been the same in the United States. It is very surprising that Davison invokes the Smithsonian in Washington as support, for it completely contradicts his thesis. It was founded in 1829 with money from the scientist James Smithson to foster the "increase and diffusion of knowledge" and has focused on the goals of scientific research and education for most of its existence. It is one of America's great scientific research institutes as well as the repository of its most precious historical documents. Again, it is only in recent decades that it has employed curators to attract popular audiences to its sixteen different museums and galleries, and has succumbed to contemporary video culture and interest group politics -- to its great detriment, as some of its recent critics have persuasively argued.
It is true there are elements of the British Museum that could be interpreted as trophies of imperialism, and that some of its collection derives from war loot. However, for most of its life this institution has functioned primarily as a scientific collection too, as well as a repository of precious objects from all human cultures. Davison might interpret the latter policy as imperialist triumphalism but it could be equally argued that the British Museum houses the world's greatest single collection of objects celebrating human cultural diversity -- that is, it was multicultural long before the academic left ever thought of the term.
In other words, in the history of museums, attempts to stage the kind of grand political narratives Davison wants to now leave behind have been in a small minority. He has created a straw man in order to shore up the argument for the particular vision that he and the current generation of postmodern curators want to impose. Unfortunately, the council of the National Museum was completely taken in by his thesis. It could have created a museum dedicated to the traditional goals recommended by Smithson for the increase and diffusion of knowledge, with perhaps some Disneyesque attractions on the side as marketing ploys. Instead, it went for something quite different. It bought what it thought was the latest international formula, not realizing it was nothing but a hackneyed old recipe from the politics of the post-Vietnam War era.
The indigenous galleries
The only collections of any value are the indigenous galleries, which together take up about one-third of the whole building. They are by far the best part of the museum and the only good reason to visit it. Indeed, the Torres Strait Islanders gallery is a great success and the best introduction to the culture of these largely ignored people that I have yet seen. It is carefully designed, spacious and well repays a long leisurely visit. It is a pity that the same cannot be said about everything in what is called the "First Australians" gallery.
To look at the authentic exhibits and relics of the great variety of indigenous peoples who pre-dated British colonisation, you have to run a gauntlet of cultural propaganda. This ranges from the soft variety -- an entire hall of ceiling-high video screens showing a modern Aboriginal dance troupe performing MTV choreography -- to the harder kind, such as the monitors that endlessly replay videos of various Aboriginal protests and demonstrations. The sound of chants and speeches made by the activists at these rallies booms across the room, making it difficult to concentrate on reading the captions of other displays nearby. If you overlook several other exhibits dedicated to the politics of the current ATSIC hierarchy, the Aboriginal gallery rescues the museum from its theorists. It houses an invaluable ethnographic collection that alone justifies the institution's existence.
The museum does make some attempt to provide a balanced history of Aboriginal-British relations after 1788, including recognition that Governor Arthur Phillip's instructions were to cultivate good relations with the Aborigines. However, all this is contradicted by the section dealing with frontier warfare. Here, visitors are told the colonists were engaged in "wars of conquest" and the Aborigines responded with "wars of resistance". The lights on the floor of this exhibition space illustrate both its attitude and its credibility. They spell out the words "Slaughterhouse Creek", "Massacre Bay", "Battle Mountain", "Attack Spring" and "Poison Waterhole Creek", names drawn not from real places but invented for this display.
These fictitious addresses are accompanied by an equally fictitious account of frontier relations. Visitors are told, for instance, about cattle killing by Kimberley Aborigines in Western Australia in the 1890s. "Men who were caught were imprisoned, transported to Rottnest Island in the south or executed." No names or dates of those executed or any other evidence for this statement are provided. This is not surprising. Cattle killing was never a capital crime in Western Australia and no Aborigine was ever executed for such a minor offence. Moreover, historians can now access the full list of those sent to the Rottnest Island Aboriginal prison and it shows that the vast majority were guilty not of cattle spearing but of serious felonies, often against other Aborigines. The National Museum has defamed the Western Australian judicial system, without bothering to do proper research.
It also records the 1926 Forrrest River Massacre in the Kimberley. The museum claims a police patrol killed "numerous" men, women and children there, despite the fact that a recent book, Massacre Myth by Rod Moran, has shown this is untrue. When the members of this police patrol came before the court, it found there was no prima facie evidence that even a single individual had been killed. The museum, however, chooses to omit this part of the story from its captions.
An equally objectionable section of the "frontier warfare" display is its account of the Bells Falls Gorge Massacre, which was supposed to have occurred near Bathurst in the 1820s during conflict with the Wiradjuri people. The museum can claim some literary support for its display since this event is now discussed in two books by white authors, Blood on the Wattle, by the journalist Bruce Elder, and Six Australian Battlefields, by Al Grassby. Mary Coe's school textbook Windradyne: A Wiradjuri Koori, published by the Aboriginal Studies Press, claims the story as part of ancient Aboriginal tradition. The NSW Department of School Education has made a film re-enacting the events. The story claims that Red Coat soldiers surprised a party of Wiradjuri, mainly women and children. The Aborigines retreated to the edge of the Bells Falls, where the women halted, clutching their children. The troops opened fire, forcing the Aborigines to jump to their deaths over the cliffs of the gorge. The National Museum has an exhibit on the massacre, including a large photographic reproduction of the waterfall and gorge. Its caption says it was white settlers rather than soldiers who did the deed, but otherwise agrees with the other accounts. "This is a place of great sadness," the museum records. "Our people still hear the echoes of the women and children who died here."
This story, however, is a complete fabrication. Its invention was subject to a detailed analysis in the principal Australian academic history journal, Australian Historical Studies, as recently as October 1995. David Roberts of the Department of History, University of Newcastle, started out to write an honours thesis about the massacre. However, he found there was no contemporary evidence for it. 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. Given the thoroughness with which Roberts marshalled his evidence, and given that his findings were published in a scholarly, refereed journal, it is appalling that the museum would still go ahead and produce such an elaborate display about such a spurious story.
The building and its visitors
Judging by the hails of approval in their journals, much of the Australian art and architecture community is thrilled by the building. The editor of Australia Art Monthly, Philippa Kelly, calls the entrance hall "one of the most exhilarating spaces in any public building in Australia". The academic architectural historian, Conrad Hamann, calls it "a building of great power and humanity" and says he loves its laconic humour and suburban references.
From the visiting public's point of view, however, this is hard to accept. The building simply doesn't work for the public. The experience of the visitor is both baffling and unnerving. You walk through the building from the entrance to the end, and then back again, but you gain no real sense of direction. You wander from exhibit to exhibit and room to room, without any purpose or sense of going anywhere. Part of this is the fault of the meaningless nature of the exhibitions themselves but the building itself is also to blame. Indeed, the almost entirely enclosed architectural space, which allows you to look onto the outside world at only a few places of the architect's choosing, is daunting and oppressive. On two long visits, I found the building unworkable. It is full of cryptic symbols for the conference-going architectural cognoscenti, but is a very uncomfortable enclosure for the typical visitor, the poor mug taxpayer who has funded it all.
The museum doesn't charge an entry fee and has no way of accurately counting its visitors, so we have to take the word of the director about attendance. In the short term, she may well have a good story to tell. The museum will probably attract busloads of captive audiences, such as school children and Japanese tourists, until the novelty wears off. But most people who visit once will find it a turn-off and will tell their friends not to bother.
It will most likely end up like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, which derives from the same intellectual formula. Despite having the best location in the heart of the tourist district of Australia's most touristy city, the MCA could not attract audiences and was threatened with closure until it was rescued recently by a big injection of state government funding. It is not hard to see that before long the National Museum will face a similar predicament. Its only enthusiastic visitors will be academics and students in architectural theory and cultural studies coming to write theses to celebrate their capture of yet another public institution.
The National Museum is a profound intellectual mistake as well as a great waste of public money. Indeed, the museum is already a museum piece itself -- an expensive relic of postmodern theory. Apart from a few of the indigenous displays, it is not a real museum at all. It is a repository of nothing more than the intellectual poverty of the tertiary-educated middle class of the post-Vietnam War era. It is not only one in the eye for the Howard government but also for the nation itself.