Memory, monuments and museums: the past in the present
Marilyn Lake (ed.), Melbourne University Publishing, 2006. ISBN 0522852505. RRP $34.95
review by Jim Davidson
Cover of Marilyn Lake's 'Memory, Monuments and Museums'

Memory, Monuments and Museums is a collection of a number of papers given at an Australian Academy of Humanities symposium in Hobart in 2004, to mark Tasmania's bicentenary of white settlement. Truly it is a feast of engaging reading, containing within it the kernel of two or three books.

In her introduction, nicely titled 'The past in the present', Marilyn Lake affords a neat summary of much of the book and raises a number of significant issues. One is the fear others have spoken of, namely that prompting the emergence of more widespread monumentalising in the nineteenth century was a fear of forgetting — particularly in those societies which, in becoming more urbanised, were losing their traditional orientations, especially in religion. But one could argue just as strongly that the spread of mass literacy in the late nineteenth century meant that there was a vast audience now to which monuments could proclaim their purpose.

Lake, along with Nicholas Shakespeare and Peter Conrad, also concerns herself with history's relation to art, and to memory. Elsewhere in this volume she quotes an American historian, who writes: 'History is the enemy of memory'. For his part Conrad sees history as an 'adjudication about memory', seeking to bring out a linear clarity and to allocate responsibility. His preference is for fiction, since it enables what he terms a 'second coming'. As he tellingly remarks in his history of memory, the great creative artists always seem like contemporaries. Nicholas Shakespeare, though no stranger to non-fiction, speaks up for the novel and its capacity to highlight individual predicament, temperament, and fate — admitting the autonomy of all and the impossibility of any single character to be in possession of the absolute truth. But each approach has its shortcomings: as he aphoristically writes, 'History needs to forget just as much as fiction needs to remember'. Shakespeare looks to an open house of competing narratives. Moreover, he practises what he preaches by looking at the surprising sympathy evinced by the adventurer Anthony Fenn Kemp for the Tasmanian Aborigines. Allowing his imagination to search even as it wanders, Shakespeare puts this down to the social interaction Kemp might have had with Bennelong: both were cooped up for seven months on the same ship sailing to Australia.

The second section of the book is concerned with memories of manhood. While ostensibly about Anzac memorials and the cult of big-game hunting in Kenya, it is Teddy Roosevelt's America that is pervasive throughout. Even so, for Iain McCalman the elephant's toenails Roosevelt presented to a family member become the turning point for an exploration of nostalgia. There is Roosevelt's for the Wild West, and his youth, which took him on hunting expeditions to Kenya — itself an unusually nostalgic project for a colony, since its social life was dominated by an elite re-enacting the lifestyle of a fading aristocracy. Later, would-be hunters became big game photographers. McCalman interrogates the idea of nostalgia — which he sees as a sentimentalisation of the past, purged of pain. But good things can come from it: he points to his parents, one-time ironic keepers of the elephant's toenails, who have now come to terms with their African past. In the Dandenongs they helped create a garden entirely given over to banksias and their near relatives, the South African protea.

Nostalgia — with its contemporary manifestation in its attachment to physical objects — also presents another problem. In a time like the present, when spiritual values have generally become devalued and marginalised, it can work to eclipse history. There is a tendency for anything old that is of interest to be deemed 'historic'. Graeme Davison points out that museums (which collect such things) are trusted as sources of information about the past more than politicians or history teachers. They have then a particular duty in activating people's sense of the past.

The two pieces by Davison and Dawn Casey engage with this fully. Both, whatever their reservations about John Carroll's committee on the National Museum of Australia, realise that the basic problem was its political impetus and its lack of contextualisation. Carroll, rightly, applied for funds to undertake an international comparative tour. The request was refused. Davison's chapter is therefore cast as a corrective, reviewing 'some of the sights' on a 'tour John Carroll was not allowed to take'. Davison's most striking finding is that, when the mission statements of seven leading museums are examined, only one — the National Museum of American History — echoes the National Museum of Australia's intense national focus. The others explicitly seek to set their own cultures in a broader, usually global, context. (Perhaps our reluctance to do so has been made a little easier by multiculturalism — which gives the illusion that the world has come to us.) It is a problem also encountered, from time to time, by the National Gallery of Australia: the feeling that the national institution should showcase, indeed privilege, Australian materials, and that that is its proper purpose. But national institutions also form, with their counterparts elsewhere, an international chain; and they should be capable of connecting with, and representing, broader international cultures.

Instead of which, as Dawn Casey's contribution makes clear, we have seen a steady narrowing of the cultural agenda as the Howard Government has become more and more entrenched. As she points out, Carroll's committee contained no academic historian, no Indigenous person, nor anyone with international museum expertise. Ruefully, Davison concluded that the critics on the National Museum's board had little interest in scholarly expertise, or balance, and were 'not really pluralists at heart'. Instead, they were concerned about whether the museum 'reflected the right political values'. Moreover, Davison notes, the Prime Minister has virtually shut down the debate on Australian identity. For him it is a fixed thing.

In fact it is being subtly changed all the time, and not least by intelligent museum practice. Ien Ang gives a lively account of the 2001 exhibition held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Buddha: Radiant Awakening. While there was an insistence on the primacy of pieces being displayed as artworks, nonetheless there were two innovations for an art museum: the creation of a central Wisdom Room, where the Buddhist community was involved in such activities as chanting, a Korean tea ceremony and calligraphy, and — to assist westerners — the arrangement of the exhibits to form a narrative. The exhibition was a great success, and reached well beyond the traditional 'western' public. Inherent here is a transformation of attitude: from one of the art museum as a place basically hostile to cultural democracy — the monetary value of the exhibits further underlines its essential elitism — to the idea of a museum as a cross-cultural 'contact zone'. But the unmediated response of a Tibetan monk to the exhibition, given here, reminds us that people may in fact see little more than a confirmation of their own value systems. Venturing inclusiveness in the face of established institutional practice will always be difficult, even a risk.

A section on inscribing memory on landscape — transforming space into place, as it is deftly termed — has two useful chapters on European gardening. But the revelation is Bill Gammage's insightful piece arguing that the Tasmanian landscape was fire-farmed in 900-year cycles. As part of this process the rainforest, the belts of eucalypts and the grassy plains were moved about: hence the stands of eucalypt surviving in dense rainforest today, and aged gum logs in unlikely places. Quotations from white explorers' accounts reveal how recurrent these seeming aberrations were, and therefore indicative of a process.

Not surprisingly, Tasmania figures prominently in this collection. Its fraught, relatively long history, packed into a small space, means that some issues have been played out there with devastating clarity. Jim Everett, in his memoir of dispossession, tells how not only was a continuing Aboriginal presence denied, but it was cloaked in the euphemism 'Islander'. As Michael Roe points out, this denial was for a long time matched by another attempted suppression, that of convict ancestry.

Earlier, Roslynn Haynes contributes a useful history of the rendering of Tasmania in painting, poetry and print. She points to the way some of the tropes about a forbidding landscape, originally devised by the anti-transportationist John West, were taken up by the nineteenth-century novelist Marcus Clarke and persist to the writing of the art critic Robert Hughes. In the process, alienation was often carried to a heightened degree, the charge being that the grim landscape was complicit in the harsh treatment of the convicts. Briskly moving on, Haynes demonstrates how today the situation has been reversed: if paradise is a walled garden, then it is the wilderness that is now fenced in by World Heritage listings and other enactments.

After the decision to hold the symposium in Tasmania had been taken, the venture got caught up in an unusually complex question of commemoration. Michael Roe traces previous such occasions; but this time there was the question of a now-acknowledged Aboriginal presence. Seizing on the fact that northern Tasmania also had a white bicentenary to observe, Premier Jim Bacon decided that 2004 would be the bicentennial year: it was well-known as the anniversary year for Hobart. Thus the earlier Risdon settlement, made on the other side of the River Derwent in September 1803, could be ignored. This would neatly sidestep the thing Risdon is most noted for (apart from a jail), namely the Aboriginal massacre that occurred early in 1804. Its cheek-by-jowl relation to the initial white presence has become an acute source of embarrassment. Nevertheless — although boycotted by the government — a commemorative service was held in the Anglican cathedral, while at Risdon itself one of the two Aboriginal groups, the Liapootah community, held a commemoration, attended by Keith Windschuttle.

Anthony Trollope, visiting Tasmania in 1873, said that it already had the feel of an old country; indeed there is a European complexity about this course of events. In having to shift the projected date of the symposium, the participants were given an object lesson in the difficulties of commemoration. What was already shaping up as a worthy theme, and a good book, turned out to be all the richer for it.

Jim Davidson is an associate of the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne. He is currently writing a biography of the historian WK Hancock.