by Craddock Morton
This is a slightly abridged version of a speech presented at the Great Conversation Dinner at Manning Clark House, Canberra, on 12 August 2008.My remarks tonight bear no resemblance to an academic paper. The views are my own and not a statement of an official, or indeed unofficial, Museum position. They are also sometimes based on my prejudices, feelings and suspicions rather than on the harder evidence that would be required in a more formal paper. They are also based — I hope — on a not misplaced optimism about the National Museum of Australia's future. So at times what I say may seem to diverge from the official record. Well, the official record is just that: what those who wrote it wanted to be remembered as the outcome. The official record may sometimes not bear much resemblance to what actually happened. But I didn't really need to tell you that, did I? I believe that what I am going to say is a fair summation of what is now more than 20 years' experience as a public servant in the portfolio departments which housed the Museum, as a ministerial and prime ministerial adviser, as the person charged with the construction of the Museum and, for the past five years, as its director. Feel free to put your own views up in response and certainly don't take what I say as gospel. Most things about the Museum are open to contest, and this is as it should be.
I should preface my remarks by adding that what I say tonight is not intended to be a slight to or adverse personal reflection on any individual or group. There are legitimate differences of opinion over what constitutes a great museum and what the National Museum of Australia needs to do in order to make it one, and people over the years have had very different views on this. These views have been to some extent time-dependent, or rather dependent on the fashion of the times. But I do not know of anyone who has ever been connected to the Museum who did not want to see the National Museum of Australia as one of the world's great museums and who did not work hard to make it so.
The second thing I should say is that most recent discussion of museums, and certainly the National Museum of Australia, has been centred on the notion of a place under siege in the so-called 'history wars'. This has not been my experience, and I will not be referring to the history wars tonight. I am not being mealy-mouthed here. I find it extraordinary that anyone would think, given our limited physical space in the Museum, that there would not be competition over which aspects of Australian environmental and human history we should choose to focus on. Or that governments, or museum councils, which are of government's creation and therefore presumably share their views, would not have preferences about which successes and failures of their own or their predecessors we address. This issue has been around as long as museums have been publicly funded and is one of the main reasons why so much care has been put into delineating the separate roles of museum management and staff on the one hand and their councils or boards on the other. Our Act of Parliament sets this out. And at the National Museum of Australia we also have a specific written policy on this matter. You can find it on our National Museum of Australia website. Of course there are always bullyboys around who want you to tell lies or distort the information you provide. We treat them with the disdain they deserve. But I have never been asked by a government minister or a council member of any persuasion to do so. They do ask, quite correctly, that the information that we present is accurate and closely checked and, when there are differing points of view, that reference is made to them, but this is a different matter.
So, when the National Museum opened in 2001, did we get the museum we deserved? If by 'we' we mean the Australian people, I think the answer is 'no'. On the other hand, if 'we' is taken to mean the Australian Government, then, on the basis of the preceding 20 years, I would be tempted to say 'yes'. If I could broadly categorise the respective party positions, I would say that the approach of the Australian Labor Party could be summarised as a broad indifference to the Museum's development, and that of the Liberal–National Coalition parties as a confusion about what sort of a national museum they were getting — though, to be fair, a confusion largely not of their own making.
I worked for the Labor government during the production of its two major cultural statements of the Keating years: 'Distinctly Australian' and 'Creative Nation'. In both statements, the National Museum was mentioned. (It could hardly not have been, having been created in legislation more than a decade earlier. ) It is fair to say that it was a battle to get the Museum into both statements in the way I believed it should be: as a commitment to the development of a physical site in which to display a growing collection. The government was reluctant to spend the sums required in Canberra. (Paul Keating certainly was — he was well-known for his view that in Australian terms there was Sydney, and then there was camping out.) For another example you might consider the Australian Academy of Music, the subject of an excellent brief and a substantial cash and kind commitment from The Australian National University. It ended up in Melbourne, forced onto a somewhat bemused state government. Paul Keating must have had some very boring experiences in the Australian Museum in Sydney — lots of people did. A natural history museum where the approach was resolutely taxonomic, including to Indigenous people from Australia and the Pacific, the museum had almost nothing to say about the development of post-European-arrival Australia or about the relationships between people and the environment, which is now the distinguishing characteristic of the National Museum of Australia.
A mausoleum down by the lake full of dusty objects in glass cases was therefore anathema. No matter that it didn't have to be that — there were lots of good suggestions around about how the new museum could be set up. At the same time — it's amazing to remember that this was only 1993 — we were beginning an infatuation with the wonders of the technological revolution in telecommunications. At that time a CD-ROM was an exciting novelty — remember CD-ROMs? This led to the idea that we didn't really need a museum at all — what we could have was a virtual museum. Despite the fact that most of us had only a very vague idea about what a virtual museum actually was, or how you could operate it or get the 'product' to the Australian community. A virtual museum fitted the bill in two important respects. First, it was at the technological cutting edge, which was where we wanted a statement on Australia's cultural development to be. Especially because we had to promote as a priority that cultural development was not an effete indulgence from a prime minister with a penchant for antique clocks, but the way to secure Australia's future economic prosperity. Second, because a virtual museum did not need an expensive building, and could indeed be 'built' anywhere.
However, there was an exception to all this: the proposal for a Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, to which Paul Keating, to his credit, attached a great deal of importance. Keating's commitment to such a gallery was in line with his feelings expressed in his Redfern speech and support of the Mabo case. He believed that visitors who came to Australia were not interested at all in 200 years of European settlement, and were much more intent on getting an understanding of a culture which was 40,000 years old, which had survived and even flourished in the midst of one of the world's harshest environments and which had not been brought down by 200 years of white depredation. A Gallery of Aboriginal Australia would fill an immediate need; it could be built with and co-operate with an Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), which was then housed in unsatisfactory accommodation, and it could serve as a first stage of a national museum. The remainder of this museum could come about when funds were available, including a healthy input from the private sector and, when the technology caught up, that brilliant idea for a virtual museum. So the national museum could be returned to the backburner, and indeed it was.
Shortly thereafter, the Labor government was defeated at the polls and the Howard administration began. I must confess to feeling a little sorry for the new Coalition government for the situation it found itself in in relation to the Museum. It was confronted with a half-baked project for which no funding had been set aside. There had been a land swap between the Commonwealth and Australian Capital Territory governments to situate the Museum on the Acton Peninsula, which was really no-one's first choice of a site. And there was a small, poorly funded group of people sitting in a couple of rude huts further around the lake at Yarramundi Reach trying bravely to do all the things that a museum should do.
There was also an influential part of the community agitating for the National Museum of Australia to be developed at the Yarramundi site. The Yarramundi issue, in my view, bedevilled the development of the Museum for much longer than it should have. The idea originated in the Pigott Report or, to give it its official title, the Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections (1975). Now I've read the Pigott Report again recently and, to my mind, it was a brilliant report in most of its aspects. Remember it covered a much wider area than the development of a national museum. A lot of its recommendations were implemented, and a lot of the credit for the healthy situation in which we find our moveable cultural heritage today must go its way. But I have to say that it was at its weakest on the siting of a new national museum. The report recommended that an area of some 90 hectares be set aside, although it would not all be utilised immediately. It recommended that there be 60,000 square metres of exhibition space, divided between inside galleries and external spaces. The museum building should not be monumental, and the complex should contain a nature park and a planetarium, although the committee noted that it had not seen a museum, nor was it aware of one, where a nature park had been incorporated. That should have provided a clue to the committee and put a brake on its enthusiasm! They hadn't seen one because the cost and difficulty was prohibitive. I have some direct experience. We are mounting an exhibition on Charles Darwin at the end of this year, and have been defeated in an attempt to incorporate a single Galápagos tortoise for a very limited period of time.
But some of the central ideas stuck: the idea of a site outside the parliamentary triangle, the idea of a non-monumental building, the idea of substantial activity in a large outdoor space. I'm not saying that these were not good ideas, but rather that a little reflection would have shown that the cost pressures that they imposed on the government were far too great. The cost of running the infrastructure down to Yarramundi was almost as expensive as building the building. It was never a goer, but some academics, some Museum staff and some public servants — who should have known better — kept up the push for it. That made it an easy target. The Labor government certainly was able to forget about it. For what it's worth, my preference was to build the Museum in the Parliamentary triangle, alongside the other national collecting institutions. It didn't have to be monumental because it was there — look at the new National Portrait Gallery. It could have utilised substantial outdoor spaces — look at the Science Park that Questacon intends to build. And it would have had the advantage of the walk-by traffic from the other institutions and the synergies from being alongside them, including an opportunity to share back-office services.
The question that interests me is why, when the Coalition came to power, it didn't leave the project where it was: on the backburner. There are several reasons for this, in my view. The first was to show that, in one part of the cultural sphere, it could deliver what Paul Keating couldn't or wouldn't deliver. The mileage that Keating had got out of 'Creative Nation' was immense, especially in terms of the adulation of the arts community. My impression has always been that the National Museum was 'one in the eye' for the previous prime minister. Having said that, it is true that the Coalition has always been the leader on the bricks-and-mortar side of cultural activity, and that this lined up with the National Gallery and the National Library as Coalition achievements. And I think the Coalition has always felt more comfortable on the side of heritage, and away from the cutting edge of artistic practice. 'The times will suit us', John Howard is claimed to have said in another context, and the times certainly seemed to suit the National Museum project. The government was awash with money, thanks to a surging economy. Telstra had been sold. And the Centenary of Federation was approaching, which required a strong gesture towards our history.But time was against the Museum, too. The speed with which the project had to be completed, to be ready for its place in the Centenary program, made it very difficult to go through a proper planning process, which was something the project really needed, given the lack of experience and understanding of how to create a museum. Allied with this was the difficulty that the project was being funded from the total budget for the Centenary of Federation year, which meant that there was no scope for going back to government for more money, even though it was apparent, quite early in the process, that funds were inadequate to build the type of museum that needed to be built. You can imagine the sort of response we would have got if we had gone to government and said, 'Even though you have given us $150 million out of a total Australia-wide budget of $1 billion, we really think that you should divert some of those funds from elsewhere to put more dollars into Canberra!' So, after a very quick investigation of where the new museum should be built (not surprisingly endorsing the Acton option), we then had another overly hasty selection process for an architect, rather than an international competition, as the Australian Institute of Architects wanted.
But the museum that opened was not, I think, the museum that the government was expecting. A number of people, including some of his strongest supporters, have mentioned to me that John Howard, when he came to open the National Museum, was totally perplexed by what he found there. There was nothing much on Cook, or on the nineteenth-century explorers who were the subjects of a packet of cards that I got in my new Stamina school suit when I was young. There was nothing on the Queen, no hagiography of Menzies, nothing on Bradman nor, indeed, any sport at all! Instead, what the prime minister saw was the British Empire represented by a pudding, swinging Hills hoists, dancing kangaroos, a Fiona Foley sculpture showing hanged Blacks next to an electronic display of Aboriginal massacres, costumes from the Gay Mardi Gras and a large concrete garden. All of this preceded by an introductory film which featured a venerable Aboriginal man proclaiming that 'he didn't need no viagra!' Of course I am caricaturing the situation. But I do make the point that the Coalition government never really understood that museums had moved on from the taxonomic/narrative model with which the prime minister had grown up. The new National Museum of Australia had been built at the high point of debate about the function and role of a museum in modern society, and the balance that it had decided on seemed at first blush to very much favour the non-traditional approach.
A conversation such as this is no time to embark on an analysis of the theory of museums. But let me briefly sketch the two sides of the debate. If you want to explore them at length, I suggest that you can do so nicely by reading the relevant part of the Carroll Review, which makes the case for a unifying narrative approach. It reminds me (probably unfairly) of the speech that winning politicians always trot out about the things which unite us being more important than those which divide us. And then read Bain Attwood's response, where he argues that such an approach would result in a narrative that would overwhelmingly favour Anglo–Celtic history and alienate many other Australians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The great nineteenth-century museum figure, George Brown-Goode, suggested that the role of a history museum was to preserve those material objects which are associated with events in the history of individuals, nations or races, or which illustrate their condition at different periods in their national life. A good museum, therefore, was a collection of instructive labels illustrated by well-selected specimens. On the other hand, as summarised by Tony Bennett in his ground-breaking book, The Birth of the Museum, there is the view that museums should be characterised by two related principles: first, the principle of public rights sustaining the demand that museums should be equally open and accessible to all; and second, the principle of representative adequacy sustaining the demand that museums should adequately represent the cultures and values of different sections of the public.
I think John Howard and his government thought that they were getting the first model — a sort of grand narrative history from above, with an expert museum staff being guided by a wise council suitably directed by a group of historians sympathetic to the government's broad position on economic, social and cultural matters. But what they found on opening was a museum which seemed to be based very much on history from below, with every vocal anti-government minority group's position being recognised in the various displays which confronted them.
Obviously this is a gross simplification of what is a complex debate, but it suffices to illustrate why the government, some of the Museum Council, and a not insubstantial number of visitors were confused, dismayed and angered by what they saw. I received more than one letter, even several years after opening, which deplored the superior and sneering attitude to 'ordinary' Australian history that the Museum embraced. Equally it explains why we received so many letters from people praising us for telling their stories which hitherto had not been in the official museum domain. Clearly, no museum's displays are today thought of as being exclusively focused on either a grand narrative or a radical pluralism of historical views. Good museums find a balance. It would have been impossible to present the Gallery of the First Australians, for example, without full input in terms of direction and co-operation from the Indigenous communities on display. John Carroll found the Gallery of First Australians to be the Museum's strongest gallery. But, equally, we needed a strong collection of objects out on the floor to meet visitors' expectations, and we did need to present an authoritative view, where there were aspects of Australian history that were more important than others.
I should pay tribute here to Tony Staley, who has been chair of the Museum Council during the time I have been director. From the beginning Staley recognised the need for balance and ensured that his Council went along with it. Sometimes this wasn't easy. Did we get the balance right? I would suggest that there will always be competing views about where the balance should lie, and that none of them will be absolutely, timelessly true. Furthermore, no museum is ever perfect. They are always works in progress, depending on the level of support from government and the private sector, the quality of their staff, the resources available and so on. Here's my take on the balance in 2001. I would say that when we opened the National Museum of Australia, we had real weaknesses in two of the major galleries. We had some good objects, but not enough of them. There was too much of a tendency towards playfulness, which was taken by many as trivialising Australian history. A good example was the multimedia experience in the orientation gallery, Circa, which did nothing to provide an introduction to the Museum, or the part that objects play in revealing aspects of our history. From the first day I arrived I was keen to get rid of it and put in a proper introduction to Australian material history. That has now been achieved and I think the result is first-rate. I commend it to you if you have not already seen it. We also had a real weakness on the intellectual side of the Museum. I don't mean in the quality of our staff, which was, and is, excellent. I mean rather that hard research work, publishing and so on had fallen away because everyone's efforts were diverted to getting the Museum open so quickly. Most importantly to me, we were confronted with a museum which was too small to do the job required of a national museum, particularly with inadequate exhibition and storage space. But since opening day, we have been working towards rectifying the perceived weaknesses. This is what I will address in the time left to me tonight.I think the National Museum of Australia will be one of the world's great museums, and that it is moving to that position at a fast clip. Some time ago (2006) we commissioned a consultant to advise us on the characteristics that define the great museums. He identified a number of features but, interestingly, he didn't rank them in order of importance, which to me was the crucial question, or indicate how many of them you had to have to qualify. The desirable characteristics included:
- institutional visibility — brand and buzz
- collections — definitive quality and scope
- exhibitions and programs
- stewardship and attention to long-term responsibilities
- scholarship, including original research and its promulgation
- education — innovation in learning practices and technologies
- memorable visitor experiences
- management and governance with rigour, transparency, accountability
- facilities and their strategic use.
How do we stack up? Quite well, I would argue. In fact, we asked the consultant to benchmark us, on the basis of a literature review, against those museums which fitted the world-class category. As to be expected, perhaps because we were paying him handsomely, he found that we were doing well in some areas, had more work to do in others, and in no respect were we doing badly. He nominated repatriation of Indigenous remains and artefacts as an area in which we were a world leader; likewise education. Some of our collections, such as stone tools and bark paintings, were the best of their type. Visitor experience was strong, as was governance and our exhibition program, and we were steadily building our brand and buzz. Not surprisingly, we fell behind in the areas of scholarship, stewardship of our collection, and our physical facilities, and it is therefore those areas which I have made my priority during the time of my directorship.
We have bolstered our commitment to scholarship very strongly in the past few years and the results are beginning to show. We now have a research centre, the Centre for Historical Research, with a mix of eminent and emerging full-time fellows (some shared with The Australian National University), and a steady flow of visiting fellows. We have also made it part of their conditions of employment that curators do research work and produce research papers, and we have given them dedicated research time and the capacity to move to the research centre to complete their projects. I think that this, above all, has been strongly welcomed. We have also entered a partnership with the Research School of Humanities at The Australian National University to produce a graduate program of museum studies. Again I think this is ground-breaking. We have a strong conference program, which operates both within Canberra and in other state capitals. It is encouraging that other museums and universities within Australia are now approaching us to partner them in this area, and we are receiving interest from overseas institutions as well. We now have our own National Museum of Australia Press, which has already assembled a strong back catalogue and a good forward publishing program. Our exhibition catalogues now sell out more often than not. We also have our own e-journal, reCollections, which we publish twice a year, and which is quickly becoming known for its leadership in the field. I feel confident in saying that we now enjoy a pre-eminent position in material history studies in Australia, and are developing an international reputation in this area.
If only we were proceeding as quickly in relation to our storage issues. We have less than 5 per cent of our collection out on the floor at Acton. This means that the other 95 per cent has to be somewhere that is accessible to scholars and staff for research, where its condition will be maintained in as close to ideal temperature and humidity as possible; where it can be worked on for preservation purposes by our expert conservation staff; and where, from time to time, the public can visit and see an open store. In short, we need a purpose-built facility in reasonable proximity to Acton. For a number of years now we have been attempting to secure government budgetary support for this project. We have a well-thought-out and well-costed plan — even the Department of Finance seems to be onside! The Audit Office has declared it a project of high priority. But once again we have been caught by the spending-money-in-Canberra curse. With the new Portrait Gallery, the changes to the National Gallery, the recent completion of major works at the Australian War Memorial, the problems with the forecourt at the National Library (I won't go on, I'm sure you get the picture), the till doesn't seem to have any money left for us. But I'm pleased to say that our minister, Peter Garrett, is well aware of our situation and is determined to do something about it. We are definitely in the queue, and I don't think it will be too long before we get to its head.
In the meantime we have made a number of improvements to our currently leased premises which make the best of our current circumstances. Things are not at crisis point and I would not wish to be thought of as saying so. Sometimes it just gets a little frustrating to know that for the price of only a small item of Defence materiel, we could take an equally important step towards protecting Australia's heritage. We are taking steps to remedy our current lack of exhibition space. By world standards we have an extremely small national museum. We need to build a second stage and, in the design of the original building, provision was made for this. It is unlikely, however, for the same reasons I referred to in relation to storage, that we will be funded for this in the near future. Meanwhile, great collections like the Official Papuan collection and most of our large mechanical objects are never on public view. But we can help ourselves within the existing footprint. When the National Museum of Australia was first planned, it was at the height of the fashion to see museums as competing in the entertainment business. Don't get me wrong. Museums have to entertain. But also to educate, engage, challenge and awe. We can't compete with the video games arcade, the theme park, even the home entertainment packages that are now available. If you don't believe me, ask a teenager. So we are looking at changing spaces that are currently devoted to these activities, such as the broadcast studio, which is very rarely used for that purpose, back to dedicated exhibition space. We also need to think seriously about whether we need to be in the catering and functions business to the extent that we are. The revenue that we get from these activities, while welcome, is derisory compared with the cost of building more exhibition space outside the existing footprint. This is a process that will take some years. But we hope to start this year by extending our administration wing to house the staff that will be displaced by reworking the back-of-house areas. It will be a logical process which will go hand in hand with the refurbishment of our existing galleries.
This year we will complete our new Australian Journeys gallery. Australian Journeys is guided by the premise that Australian history is particular and distinctive, while always connected to international forces and conditions. It will therefore explore key themes by acknowledging the diversity of people's experiences in particular places or regions, and represent the connections between historical experience in Australia and related global conditions and circumstances. We intend to accent the dynamic process of people adapting to, and impacting upon, the landscape in which they find themselves. The stories of migration to Australia will reflect on migrants 'making' and in turn 'being made' by these places. Similarly we will deal with the question of how places overseas — London, Gallipoli or Bali, for example — have become important for Australians, and the continuing links that migrants maintain between the places they have come from and the places that they now inhabit.
By mid 2010 the Creating a Country gallery will be open. Creating a Country will explore how people have responded to the challenges of living in this continent and developed distinctive social, political and economic practices. It will explore this broad theme through a number of modules dealing with early settlement, inland exploration, the growth of the pastoral industry and resultant conflict and accommodation; it will also deal with communications and transport, the growth of the cities, education, science and environmental research, and discoveries and inventions, economic development in the various sectors, Australia as a world leader in social experimentation and the delivery of social services, political debate (e.g. the Republic, Aboriginal rights) culture and sport and so on. I hate the idea of listing these modules in this way. I know I'll always forget to mention important things; so if I have, forgive me. Once again, go to our website where you can find a lot more information than I am able to convey this evening. After Creating a Country, our plan is then to move on to the Old New Land gallery, which I would like to expand considerably, then the Gallery of First Australians, with perhaps a companion Pacific gallery. At the same time we will be looking to improve our children's and school education facilities, with the development of a new Discovery Centre.
This is why I say that I am optimistic about the future of the National Museum of Australia. It won't be easy to achieve everything we want to achieve. We will need strong government support, but there is every indication the current government will help us. I think too we now have a reasonably bipartisan position about the Museum. The fear that the party in power would use the Museum to push narrow political agendas has been seen to be groundless. Certainly both parties will want to see the Museum as a place where the important historical debates can be explored, but it is the debate, and the putting forward of the competing views, which is now the important part of it all. So when will Australians have the museum they deserve? I don't know, but I suspect that they will keep letting us know when we are coming up short. Probably we will not achieve it in my term. Perhaps we will never achieve it, although I doubt that. But we have to keep trying, and that, for me, is what makes my job so challenging and so satisfying.
1 The Museum was created with bipartisan support in 1980. The legislation can be viewed at http://www.nma.gov.au/about_us/corporate_documents/governance/legislation/. 2 A Gallery of Aboriginal Australia was included in the 1980 legislation.
3 The High Court's Mabo judgement in 1992 recognised Indigenous land title. Later that year, Paul Keating's speech in the Sydney inner-suburb of Redfern challenged the nation to confront past mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and called for national reconciliation.
4 Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre.
5 Review of the National Museum of Australia, its Exhibitions and Public Programs, a Report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 2003.
6 'Whose dreaming? Reviewing the review of the National Museum of Australia', History Australia, vol. 1, no. 2, 2004.
7 'Museum-history and museums of history', in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution: A Memorial of George Brown Goode Together with a Selection of His Papers on Museums and on the History of Science in America, 55th Congress, 2nd Session, Doc. No. 575, Washington, 1901, pp. 65–81.
8 The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Routledge, London, 1995.