National collecting institutions

Storytellers for a nation?

Towards the end of ‘This narrated life: The limits of storytelling’, cultural historian Maria Tumarkin admits she had intended to open with a story. This was ‘pretty much the law these days’ for essays or any substantial piece of journalism.[1] I can match neither her brilliance nor her strength in resisting the obligatory opening. However, in what follows I aim to emulate her analysis, while focusing on the current use of story and storytelling in the national collecting institutions arena.

My discussion has four parts and uses the National Library of Australia, the National Archives of Australia and the National Museum of Australia as the main illustrations. In part one, the embrace of story by these, and other, libraries, archives and museums (including art museums) is set in a wider societal context. Secondly, I consider some of the distinctive ways they exploit storytelling in Australia. Third, I note the obvious benefits derived from the use of story, but, finally, argue there are grounds for reservation too.

The terms ‘story’ and ‘storytelling’ have many meanings. My interest is in their use by those who regard storytelling as a positive process. (I try to suggest in my opening story that there are other understandings.) Their use is also very broad, ranging from what is variously called the national or the Australian story to providing commentary on objects and documents to little more than a few lines of information posted to a collecting institution’s website.

The significance of storytelling within the world’s diverse cultures past and present is not my concern here. Nor is travel writing, despite the attraction of magazine writer Michael Paterniti’s The Telling Room.[2] Nor, again, are the results of story production within the literary and visual arts, though story woven into works such as novels, artworks and song are held by national collecting institutions. And while the context of my interest is contemporary Australian collecting institutions, I acknowledge the sector includes programs aimed at cooperating with communities to preserve stories central to their identities and wellbeing. Some institutions also manage collections created in the past by anthropologists, historians and others who attempted to record and document stories. Lastly, the intriguing question of an Australian ‘culture of storytelling’, to adopt a phrase from the National Museum’s Where our Stories Live brochure, is also beyond scope.


Once upon a time, when this aging baby boomer was young, stories had a couple of common meanings and contexts. One was a short adventure tale, related at bedtime by our father, whom we importuned, as did Junior, in a Frankie Laine song popular at the time called ‘Tell me a story’. A second category involved stories we ourselves told. Not as innocent as the bedtime variety, they could be just as inventive, including telling ‘stories’ (gossip) and telling ‘fibs’ (straight out lies).

From there, personal and postwar social memory blurs. There were certain very talkative uncles, highly entertaining up to a point, whom we described as rabbiting-on or ear-bashing. For our aunts, such tolerant listeners, it was having a natter or a chat. Journalist Martin Flanagan, recalling his POW father, and a mother who ‘would have loved to travel but she didn’t go anywhere much’, wrote last year: ‘Mum loved stories. “Got any news for me?” she’d say. “Got a story?”’[3] We read published short stories by the likes of John Morrison, Judah Waten and Alan Marshall, listened to radio serials and watched early imports to ABC television such as the US police drama The Naked City. Otherwise, innocent ignorance: one was vaguely aware there was a lot of talking at the pub, outside the local church and with visitors around the kitchen table.

Archiving of folklore and oral history by collecting institutions had barely begun in 1950s Australia. If any stories survived other than by repetition, it was via publication of a certain type of accomplished raconteur, a half RM Williams/half Slim Dusty character deft at spinning yarns incorporating bush lore, Aboriginal legends, outback tragedy and simple values. The prolific WE (‘Bill’) Harney[4] epitomised the type, but there were other notable figures, such as Ion Idriess and Frank Clune, inheritors of oral and folklore recording practices of individuals dating from the early 20th century.[5] The revival of Australian popular culture in the 1980s saw the emergence of new storytellers such as Hugh Lunn, Bill ‘Swampy’ Marsh and Tim Bowden, who mined their own and others’ stories. By then, too, television had discovered Paul Hogan and radio, Ian McNamara and, in the 1990s, programs such as Australian Story began on the ABC. And publishers’ interest held. In 1993, for example, Allen & Unwin released Rugby Stories: Some Rucking Good Yarns by the ex-Test player Peter FitzSimons.[6]

Yidumduma Bill Harney, ‘songman’ of the Wardaman people, Northern Territory
Yidumduma Bill Harney, ‘songman’ of the Wardaman people, Northern Territory
EthnoMedicine Preservation Project

Today’s context

The contrast today is stark. Much of public media and discourse is framed as story. Any past occurrence is represented as a story, and recounting events and accounting for them is storytelling. Political leaders campaign via stories, emulating Karl Rove’s ‘Scheherazade strategy’ he used to ensure George W Bush’s election. And, once in power, politicians are judged by their ability to communicate a convincing story or narrative.[7] Advertising a product (think of Chanel No. 5) is increasingly designed as a sequence of stories; selling has become story-selling. Story is the focus of festivals, slams and entertainment in shopping malls. Information technology, the web and social media have provided the perfect environment for the capture and sharing of content packaged as stories. Indeed, according to the website, ‘Storytelling is the “killer app” of the 21st century’. Apparently, if I make my message visual in imagery and words, I’ll be ‘unstoppable’.

Language itself has been affected. In funding applications, book titles, broadcast programming and many other contexts, ‘story’ is preferred over ‘memories’, ‘experiences’, ‘memoirs’, ‘tales’, ‘anecdotes’, ‘recollections’, ‘reminiscences’ and ‘oral history’. New terms such as ‘storied’, ‘storian’, ‘storyology’ and ‘storify’ have been conjured to aid communication. There are new phrases too: ‘digital storytelling’, ‘Christian storytelling’, ‘environmental storyteller’, ‘Story University’, ‘Story Club’ and even ‘story wars’.

Finally, today we are enticed to believe that every one of us – all seven billion, so media outlets such as the SBS and Guardian Australia assert – are storytellers and have stories to tell. Doubtless a very old idea, it found favour in the ‘narrative world’ of brands, starting with companies such as Levi Strauss collecting stories from discounting chains’ customers. Public broadcasters like the idea too, whether the hugely popular radio program This American Life or the website ABC Open. The latter’s tagline is ‘Real stories made by real people from all around Australia’, and its FAQ page is equally upbeat:

Q. I’m not creative or a media maker. Is there anything for me on ABC Open?
A. Yes! Everyone has a story, and there’s space for all kinds of contributions.[8]

The answer is typical of a very widely held belief that stories meet a deep human need. ‘The truth about stories is that that’s all we are’, wrote the North American First Nations man Thomas King.[9] The idea has been argued internationally by philosophers Alasdair MacIntyre, Daniel Dennett and Richard Kearney, by writers including Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion and Graham Swift, and more recently by neuroscientists.[10] Australian writers such as Inga Clendinnen and Marion Halligan have been just as confident, while the linking of personal recordkeeping behaviour to our nature as a ‘story-telling animal’ (a phrase from Swift’s novel Waterland) was argued by a leading Australian archivist in the mid-1990s.[11] The phrase and idea live on in literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall’s 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human.[12]

Reprising his thesis for the preface of the 2010 English edition of Storytelling, Christian Salmon described it as an investigation into new ways storytelling is being used ‘in areas as diverse as management, marketing, political and institutional communications, and the manufacture of news – and into the surprising applications of narrative in both civilian and military domains’.[13] Salmon traces the modern revival of interest in the ancient practice of storytelling to the Bulgarian–French philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s articulation of ‘narratology’ in the late 1960s. In chapters analysing the origins and champions of storytelling marketing, storytelling management, story-based virtual warfare training, counter-narrative in foreign affairs, and communications spin control in US politics, he identifies as critical the rise of management theorists such as Steve Denning, David Boje and Benedikt Benenati from the late 1980s and early 1990s onwards.

Could Salmon just as easily have had a chapter on national collecting institutions?

National collecting institutions

For much of the first half of the 20th century, each Australian state museum, art gallery and library shared premises and legislative coverage, while archives were seen as part of libraries. Gradually, individual identities emerged, as did separate equivalent national institutions. Some common purpose was still acknowledged, however, with federal and state institutions bracketed variously under arts and culture portfolios, seen as agents of national creativity, innovation and education and, between 2004 and 2010, coming under a Collections Council. None of this has been consistent or stable; at times, galleries and hybrids like the Australian War Memorial and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies have been seen as outside the core sector and, in some jurisdictions, libraries and archives have been merged or partially merged.

As for our three exemplar national institutions, there was some shared prehistory, but they were separately established. Taking legislatively underpinned independence as the measure, the Library has precedence (1960), followed by the Museum (1980), then the Archives (1983). Each has endeavoured to make sense of its origins, inevitably telling a deliberately tailored corporate story in the process.[14] And each has experienced a degree of debate over role and services, the Museum in particular the subject of controversy surrounding its location, building, council appointments and exhibition programs.

 These disparate beginnings aside, one might ponder what now unites them. To describe them as collecting institutions suggests an obvious answer. Yet awareness of the aggregate of national collections’ holdings has been rare, perhaps because the right descriptor has been so elusive: neither community heritage, nor moveable cultural heritage, documentary heritage, the Distributed National Collection and resources that in toto document Australian society have seemed adequate. At the Australian state level, however, there are actual cases of collective thinking, undoubtedly the most developed being in Victoria, accessible via the portal Culture Victoria: Stories, Collections, Places.[15]

By contrast, there was agreed understanding of the role of collections. In the 1990s archivists locally and internationally began adopting ‘memory’ and ‘houses of memory’ as metaphors for archives and the categorisation of archival institutions, though memory dates to the beginnings of 20th-century archival theory.[16] Concurrently, the National Library seized on a line from Pierre Ryckmans’ 1996 Boyer Lectures: ‘A National Library is a place where a nation nourishes its memory’.

In the 21st century, ‘memory institutions’ has become favoured shorthand for libraries and archives and museums, as if aligning with the language of the Australian Memory of the World program established in 2000 and championed by the Collections Council of Australia from 2004.[17] In its 2007 souvenir booklet Memory of a Nation, the National Archives represented its collection as holding ‘the memory of our nation’, and continues to use the title for its permanent treasures exhibition. In 2013 a National Film and Sound Archive media release stated the Archive was ‘the proud custodian of the ... [Film Australia Collection], preserving and providing access to the nation’s documentary record – our collective memory’.[18] Today, the ‘Museums in Australia’ page of the official website for the Australian Government states, without qualification: ‘Museums hold our collective memory’.[19]

Concurrently, however, a rival metaphor has emerged from within memory, as if following and expanding on essayist and novelist Alberto Manguel’s observation that ‘Stories are our memory, libraries are the storerooms of that memory’.[20] In 2015, there are good reasons to regard national collecting institutions as story-keeping and storytelling institutions.

Institutional branding

For almost a decade now, ‘story’ and ‘storytelling’ have been used as a marketing and branding theme by many of Australia’s national collecting institutions. The earliest was the National Archives of Australia, which for the past seven years has used the tagline ‘Your story, our history’. More recently, the National Museum of Australia has been describing itself (on its website, in brochures and even at the entrance to its Acton Peninsula carpark) as the place ‘where our stories live’ and increasingly now ‘where our stories come alive’. This is not a passing whim: the building design was in part an attempted response to the idea of ‘entwined stories of the land, nation and people’, while the Museum’s new 2014–18 strategic plan includes the goal ‘Cherish our stories’ and refers to its work as that of storytellers.[21]

‘Where our stories live’: the sign at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia carpark, 2015
‘Where our stories live’: the sign at the entrance to the National Museum of Australia carpark, 2015

Though the Australian War Memorial has emphasised the personal story angle for years, the centenary of the First World War has seen an even stronger emphasis on stories.[22] The State Library of New South Wales, for example, heads its special war diaries and letters website ‘Our/your war stories’. Its press releases and large banners on the Macquarie Street building read: ‘All great stories lead back to us’, a claim it has made in corporate publications since 2009. And from its webpage, ‘About the Library’, we learn: ‘Its peers are the world’s great libraries, those that tell of the development of our societies and the unfolding stories of humanity’.[23]

The convergence towards a common branding message has a more curious aspect. Everyone seems to assert the sum of the stories/objects they collect and tell add up to the national story.

‘I often say that the Memorial is where Australia’s soul lies’ writes War Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, in his foreword to a recent book on the Memorial’s Gallipoli collections. Around the time of the book’s release, he told the ABC morning current affairs program, ‘It wasn’t until this cataclysm that unfolded in 1914 ... that we had our story. Every nation has its story and this is our story’.[24] In publicity, the National Archives is just as certain: it ‘holds the nation’s memory ... It is an archive about people, from the ordinary to the famous, who together tell the story of our nation. It is my story. It is your story. It is our history’.[25] At the National Museum, its Object Stories project invites the public ‘to contribute to an online collection of objects which together tell the story of Australia’, while on its website, its appeal for financial support asks the public to ‘Help us tell the Australian story, your story’.[26] The National Library’s equivalent request states: ‘We share the nation’s stories and safeguard them for current and future generations’. It was no different a decade earlier when, for the opening of a 2005 travelling exhibition of objects from national state and territory libraries, the marketing text was headed: ‘Library treasures tell the great Australian story’.[27]

Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, George Brandis, speaking at a National Archives of Australia event, 10 December 2014
Attorney-General and Minister for the Arts, George Brandis, speaking at a National Archives of Australia event, 10 December 2014

The storytelling object

‘Read the stories that have recently been uncovered from all areas of the Library and its collections’, invites a recent issue of the National Library’s eNews. It is typical of the idea complementing institutional-level representation that the collected or displayed document, photo or artefact is encoded with storytelling power. ‘Be intrigued, surprised, challenged and amazed by the stories these rare treasures tell’, the Library’s Treasures website commands. The page goes on to quote Library curator Nat Williams, who observes:

To be able to see in the same room some of the most notable and sometimes affecting stories in Australian history, whether it is Waltzing Matilda, First World War items such as Keith Murdoch’s Gallipoli Letter or exquisite colonial watercolours, is a unique and thought-provoking experience.[28]

The embedded-story story the National Library tells about its ‘treasures’ has numerous equivalents. The Museum of Australian Democracy says it seeks ‘objects that tell stories about Australia’s democratic history and traditions’, while the items held by the National Archives, including an original musical score of Waltzing Matilda, ‘tell stories about individuals, families and communities’. [29]

Of course, the storytelling object is an idea more often deployed by museum journalism than encountered in archives or libraries, one of the most successful international examples being art historian Neil MacGregor’s project for the British Museum and BBC Radio, A History of the World in 100 Objects.[30] Again, it can be seen in use more generally, with food generating many similar examples: ‘All food has a story’.[31]

The de-privatised story

Together, ‘my’ and ‘story’have a hundred meanings, including an iTunes app, an ex-prime minister’s memoir, a series of children’s books, a scrapbooking software product, and a database of writers’ stories linked to Melbourne city locations. ‘Story’ we have already addressed; ‘my’ (and its alternatives ‘our’ and ‘your’) is all part of today’s so-called selfie culture dominated by digital narcissism. ‘My’ is the preferred prefix for public transport cards (Myki, MyWay), specific and composite Commonwealth government service gateways (MyTax, myGov), student portals (my.Monash, myANU) and online accounts (My Vodafone, mycoles).

US Secretary of State John Kerry takes a ‘selfie’ with students in Jakarta, Indonesia, 2014
Stories of us: US Secretary of State John Kerry takes a ‘selfie’ with students in Jakarta, Indonesia, 2014
US Department of State

Once collecting institutions organised conferences and seminars around what they called the ‘research adventure’, at which scholars told stories of the ‘How I wrote X using your collections’ variety.[32] Much more so today, they structure their public interfaces via social media to engage with and to source ‘community-created content’ from the crowd. Specifically, everyone is encouraged to believe there is something in the collection about them generally, and that they can probably find a direct family mention. In addition, everyone is invited to share their own stories and upload text and images relevant to a specific exhibition or collective experience.

The National Gallery began using a ‘Storyboard’ site for children’s emailed responses to art over a decade ago. The National Archives was active too: in 2008 with the Mapping Our Anzacs website, and now expanded with Discovering Anzacs and again encouraging the public to contribute content once they have registered via its ‘My profile’ page. Advertising for the Archives’ current feature exhibition A Ticket to Paradise? invites the public to discover ‘the real story of Australian immigration’, and adds: ‘You can tell us your own migration story’ on Similar claims and invitations are made in the National Museum’s exhibition Spirited: Australia’s Horse Story. The State Library of South Australia offers a further example; its ‘My SA memory’ page allowing people to ‘gather together selected resources from SA Memory’s digital collections into a personal folder to view immediately and in the future’, while the ‘Your story’ page allows them ‘to upload a story and image related to a particular theme’.


 ‘Just a story’, Marilyn reassures Anderson in one of the most compelling scenes of Stephen Poliakoff’s brilliant television drama about a documentary photo collection threatened with closure, Shooting the Past.[33] Then, step by step, she recounts a spellbinding story using photographs she and her staff – led by Oswald – located during weeks of searching, using intuition and vast collection knowledge. The story was so affecting, so well told, it convinced Anderson to stop the dispersal of the photographs; the entire collection was sold intact, and saved.

National collecting institutions face budget pressures and competitors as never before. If stories linked to their collections excite ministerial advisers, the media, politicians and rich and influential supporters, they must be exploited. If storytelling engages and widens cultural institutions’ many audiences, including children’s storytelling programs like those run for over a decade by the National Gallery, they must continue. If using social media to personalise collections and source related material and information builds a following, this has to be a good thing.[34] If representing institutional purpose as storytelling cuts through, it would be foolish to change.

Several additional realities should be acknowledged.

Stories do indeed help bind communities, societies and nations, as sociologists and historians have explained, none more insightfully than Benedict Anderson. From history’s ‘remorselessly accumulating cemeteries’ he concludes his Imagined Communities, ‘the nation’s biography snatches ... exemplary suicides, poignant martyrdoms, assassinations, executions, wars, and holocausts’. And ‘to serve the narrative purpose, these violent deaths must be remembered/forgotten as “our own”.’[35] Inevitably, libraries, archives and museums, and especially national collecting institutions, are players in the formation of the Australian biography and the multiple and changing stories that support them. Indeed, according to sociologist John Carroll, ‘when we are drawn into galleries and museums as if they were hallowed temples, what we are after are the authorities, the rocks that do not move, the sacred site where, in the beginning, it was given’.[36]

The telling object is imagined too – day-old babies can no more describe storks than can collection items tell stories or reveal themselves to a psychometric touch. We readily indulge this as marketing sleight-of-hand, yet cheer when the hype is ridiculed in the Leunig cartoon about the discovery of a method for listening to hidden messages stored in table tops: ‘A national archive of restaurant tables is being assembled and the huge process of transcription has already begun’.[37] Granted, some artefacts have stories deliberately built-in. The clan stories residing within designs on the hollow log coffins of the National Gallery’s Aboriginal Memorial are an example and, in a sense, the digital archivist’s ‘MEOs’, so-called metadata encapsulated objects, also applies. But the point remains.

Michael Leunig, ‘Table tops’, published in Wild Figments, 2004
Michael Leunig, ‘Table tops’, published in Wild Figments, 2004

It is humans performing various roles (e.g. as creators, owners, dealers, valuers, custodians, conservators and collection managers), in combination with various kinds of metadata, who tell object and document stories and enable them to be told by others. Through provenance and other research, a scholarly librarian, curator or archivist can still make an object or document shimmer. Some archivists even see one of their core professional functions, the documentation of the context of a record’s creation and use, including the production of guides, lists and other finding aids, as a kind of storytelling.[38] Finally, whether it is called interpretation or object biography or something else, in effect museum curators have been telling collection- and object-based stories for generations. The prevalence of story in the 2013 Museums Australia standards shows just how direct the interpretation–storytelling link now is.[39]


‘A museum cannot live without scholarship’, thought the 1975 Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections. ‘Deprived of scholarship it can become a huckster’s supermarket’.[40] Most today would think this idealism quaint, though palaeontologist Richard Fortey would smile. The final chapters of his intelligent, heartfelt and, at times, hilarious Dry Store Room No 1 covered efforts at his beloved London Natural History Museum to respond to new environments, financial and social. Accordingly, the ‘elbow patches were confiscated. Corporate culture had arrived’. The Museum simply had to change, had to ‘make more fuss about everything we did ... in order to increase our media presence’. Change meant an expanded marketing staff, less pure research and a reduced focus on taxonomy. Around the same time, historian and social commentator Humphrey McQueen’s analysis of the Australian library scene noted the pandering to a culture of distraction and the undermining of libraries as laboratories for knowledge.[41] Nevertheless, in Australia today, with collecting institutions’ budgets under great pressure, making a fuss remains necessary. Stories and storytelling it is.

Regardless, it is worth asking whether this is the only option, and worth questioning the related assumptions, starting with the universal selfie story. Beyond its most trivial and everyday sense, this self-indulgence simply privileges the world’s egotists. As for the line that one’s story is intrinsically interesting and fills a gap in the world’s store of knowledge: pure hyperbole.

Collecting institutions’ story branding is potentially more interesting. Why is the National Museum of Australia the only cultural institution to reflect on its national storytelling role or the Australian story it tells? Its history, including the 2003 review and its aftermath, helps explain.[42] Opposite this commendably self-reflective institution is the breathtaking certainty of the Australian War Memorial. Judged from numerous statements over the past two years by the Director, Brendon Nelson, the Memorial has not the slightest doubt that war – certain kinds of wars – is central in the national story (indeed its very birth) and that the Memorial is its official story custodian.

There are others contrasts too. The Maritime Museum builds its image from a modestly stated truth: ‘Australians have always had close links with the sea’.[43] The National Library and the National Archives regularly state they help tell the national story, but have never properly explained where they, and the stories they keep and collect, fit and interrelate. Perhaps historian Susan Marsden’s reservations about the National Museum’s exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions has wider relevance: Inside she thought represented another version of historical forgetting, in that the exhibition barely mentioned the National Library’s own national project of oral history recording.[44] Tight budgets should mean coordination, cooperation and rationalisation. So is everyone working together to help tell the Australian story (with its cornucopia of variant hidden and parallel texts)? What of the so-called foundational stories that engaged some of the Museum’s reviewers in 2003? Where are the collecting institutions’ collective meta-narrative, the unifying sense of a shared big picture documentary purpose, the belief that each specialist institution is a part custodian of the national memory, the series of national summits auditing the untold stories?[45]

In the same review Marsden noted, putting the word in quotes, that, in any case, ‘stories’ alone were not history. Similarly, literary critics worry that contemporary novelists – however accomplished – are only storytellers: writers with plenty to tell but not much to say and producing novels out of one-liners.[46] Certainly national collections are much more than just lots of stories, though one of the nicest stories (and unlikely ever to be challenged) is that every Australian has a direct documented connection to them.

My final set of questions goes back to the growing practice of collecting institutions inviting stories (and supporting documentation) from the public. Some institutions operate oral history programs and have undertaken specifically funded and targeted projects, including a number backed by broad social agendas and community input. Some have integrated pre-collected stories into impressive exhibitions, the National Museum of Australia’s Eternity: Stories from the Emotional Heart of Australia being an exemplar.[47] Publications like the State Library of Queensland’s Digital Storytelling Manual and the National Film and Sound Archive’s learning package Elements of Documentary Storytelling have also shared storytelling expertise.

But does the more vicarious story-collecting arise from a genuine and clearly articulated desire to document Australian life through stories? Is this interest reflected in preservation plans, collection development policies, records retention authorities, cataloguing practices and inter-institutional understandings, and supported by research about under-documented areas of Australia life?[48] Using story to market specific exhibitions and projects inevitably means a preference for moderated and mediated slivers of information and material that is on message. Story selection conceals. ‘You can see anything you want at Elvis at the O2,’ wrote exhibition reviewer Peter Aspden, ‘apart, of course, from the full story … No one wants to leave this show on a downer’.[49] Let me end by again quoting Maria Tumarkin. To her, the line ‘I am just telling a story’ was ‘the platitude du jour of our times’. And yet she was not against stories: ‘I am, in fact, very much for stories – a big fan, that’s what I am – but these days when I hear someone talk about the universal power of storytelling I do feel like reaching for my gun’.[50]

I am not against stories either; not even stories collected opportunistically by cultural institutions, nor against them, if they must, passing themselves off as story institutions nor indeed helping tell the Australian story. The problem is – their problem, surely – that everyone is telling and recording Australian stories, mostly via the web and social media. Every week a new storytelling initiative is announced. The range of storytelling programs operating within Indigenous and ethnic communities and on the ABC and SBS alone is staggering. In mid-January 2015 on ABC Open alone, there were 67,425 stories preserved, involving 11,051 people associated with 101 story projects, while the ABC Books list has nearly 20 ‘Swampy’ Marsh print and online titles, all following the formula Great Australian … Stories.[51]

Ultimately it is our problem too. The marketing needs of our libraries, archives and museums acknowledged, what specialised national role should they play? Acting in concert, perhaps they might reflect upon Tumarkin’s fear that there is something real behind narrative fetishism: a fear that narrative could become ‘an evolved and brilliantly disguised way of shutting our ears to what hurts and scares us the most, a way not of sharing our experiences but of multiplying the vast archives of unlistened to stories’.[52] National collecting institutions have responded in the national interest by documenting stories in support of reconciliation imperatives, and cleverly harnessed storytelling to support their public programs. But in a culture already saturated with stories, if you are ‘where our stories come alive’ because your very raison d’être is to proactively collect and preserve for the long term, it is which stories and whose stories that matters.



1 Maria Tumarkin, ‘This narrated life: The limits of storytelling’, Griffith Review, no. 44, Winter 2014, 183–92 (pp. 190, 192). Also published with Inside Story at On her website, Tumarkin describes herself as ‘writer, historian, teacher, translator’; see My debt to her essay is large, but I also want to acknowledge the only recent writing I could find specifically on stories and Australia’s national cultural institutions: a series of posts by James Rose on his Truth To Tell blog which began with ‘Here’s Looking at us’, 30 July 2013 (see Finally, I acknowledge and thank Anne-Marie Conde, Stephen Yorke, Margaret Birtley, Dr Joanna Sassoon and Adrian Cunningham for directing me to sources and for kindly commenting on early drafts of this essay.

2 Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room: A Tale of Passion, Revenge and the World’s Finest Cheese, Canongate, London, 2013.

3 Age, 18 October 2014, at See also his collection of stories, In Sunshine or in Shadow, Picador, Sydney, 2002; note especially ‘The kitchen table’, pp. 33–6.

4 For Jennifer J Kennedy’s Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Harney (1895–1962), see Harney’s reputation has never waned, his life the subject of a ‘storytelling performance’ by the National Folk Fellow Jan Wositzky at the National Library on 19 November 2014. The advertising flyer called Harney ‘the greatest yarn-spinner of them all’.

5 See Louise Douglas, Alan Roberts & Ruth Thompson, Oral History: A Handbook, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988, Chapter 2.

6 See FitzSimons’s career summary at He has been described variously as ‘a master storyteller’ (by Michael McKernan reviewing FitzSimons’ book Kokoda), and an exponent of ‘the turgid nationalist epic’ (by Peter Stanley, ‘War without end’, in Chapter 5 of Anna Clark & Paul Ashton (eds), Australian History Now, Sydney, NewSouth Books, 2013, p. 102).

7 See Tony Bramston, ‘The PM needs to get his story straight’, The Australian, 6–7 December 2014, p. 18, and more generally Studies in Australian Political Rhetoric, edited by John Uhr and Ryan Walter (esp. the chapter on Deakin by Mark Hearn & Ian Tregenza, pp. 177–94), published by ANU Press, Canberra,


9 Thomas King, The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003, p. 2. Based on the 2003 Massey Lectures; see

10 See Jessica Marshall, ‘Gripping yarns’, New Scientist, 12 February 2011, 45–7.

11 For Clendinnen, see ‘The History Question: Who owns the past?’, Quarterly Essay, no. 23, 2006, p. 38; and, more generally, True Stories (1999 Boyer Lectures), ABC Books, Sydney, 1999. On Halligan, see her introduction to Marion Halligan (ed.), Storykeepers, Duffy & Snellgrove, Sydney, 2001, p. 10. For ‘storytelling animal’ and archives, the seminal and much-quoted work is Sue McKemmish, ‘Evidence of me ...’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 24, no. 1, May 1996, 28–45. McKemmish repeats the linking as questions relevant to an online networked world in ‘Evidence of me ... in a digital world’, in Christopher A Lee (ed.), I, Digital: Personal Collections in the Digital Era, Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 2011, pp. 115–48. See also Graham Swift, Waterland, Picador, London, 1984, p. 53.

12 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, 2012.

13 Christian Salmon, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, Verso, London, 2010, p. vii.

14 For the Museum history, see the references cited at; for the Archives,; and for the Library, These are of course the official summary stories the three tell about themselves, and the longer versions, such as Peter Cochrane (ed.), Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library of Australia’s First 100 Years 1901–2001,National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2001, are no less deliberately crafted. For critical assessments of Remarkable Occurrences, see Joanna Sassoon’s review article in Australian Academic & Research Libraries, vol. 32, no. 2, April 2001, 155–62, and John Rickard, ‘Secrets of the Sanctuary’, Meanjin, vol. 60, no. 4, 2001, 160–66.

15 See

16 The history of memory within archival thinking is covered in Terry Cook, ‘What is past is prologue: A history of archival ideas since 1898, and the future paradigm shift’, Archivaria, no. 43, Spring 1997, 17–62; and Michael Piggott, ‘Archives and memory’; Chapter 12 of Sue McKemmish, Michael Piggott, Barbara Reed & Frank Upward (eds), Archives: Recordkeeping in Society, Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, 2005.

17 See; and Margaret Birtley, ‘Linking the nation’s memory: Progressing the work of the Collections Council of Australia’, reCollections: A Journal of Museums and Collections,vol. 1, no. 1, March 2006 at

18 See ‘One hundred years telling Australian stories: Film Australia Collection celebrates milestone anniversary’ (28 January 2013), at


20 Alberto Manguel, The City of Words: Understanding Civilisation through Story, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 2007, p. 9.

21 For the National Museum’s strategic plan, see The entwined stories quote is from an April 2009 talk by a member of one the Museum’s design team’s partners, Sue Dove; see ‘Design inspirations behind the Museum building’,

22 Further examples can be found in the subtitle to the Australian War Memorial’s First World War exhibition: ‘The Anzacs, their story, our pride’; and related blog, ‘Personal stories: Love letters from the Front’:

23 See and

24 Foreword, Peter Pedersen, Anzac Treasures: The Gallipoli Collection of the Australian War Memorial, Murdoch Books, Sydney, 2014, p. vi, and transcript of the interview between Chris Uhlmann and Brendan Nelson, ABC AM, 11 November 2014 at

25 See Memento magazine, no. 39, 2010.

26 See The Museum magazine, Mar–Aug 2014 and

27 For the National Library’s ‘Donate’ page, see; for the 2005 Treasures reference, see

28 ‘Treasures gallery’,

29 See and Memory of a Nation, National Archives of Australia, Canberra, 2007, p. 39.

30 See

31 See, for example, the recent announcement by SBS, ‘All food has a story in major new FEAST campaign’,

32 The National Library, for example, has organised such seminars for years (e.g. Private Lives Revealed: Letters, Diaries, March 1996; Challenging Australian History: Discovering New Narratives, April 2000; True Stories: Writing History, April 2011), and published Maryanne Dever, Sally Newman & Ann Vickery (eds), The Intimate Archive: Journeys through Private Papers in 2009. Academic publishers have also found the topic important: see, for example, Antoinette Burton (ed.), Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, Duke University Press, Durham, 2005; and Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton, Yale University Press, Yale, 2014.

33 TalkBack Productions, 1999.

34 It does create more work and heightened expectations of course. In 2013 Mathew Trinca, Acting Director of the National Museum of Australia, wrote of being told ‘more and more visitors arrive at the museum with the desire to tell us what they know about Australia and its history, rather than be told by us what we think they should know’. Australian History Now, p. 148.

35 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (revised edn), Verso, London and New York, 1991, p. 206.

36 See John Carroll, The Western Dreaming: The Western World Is Dying for Want of a Story, HarperCollins Publishers, Sydney, 2001, p. 215.

37 Michael Leunig, ‘Table tops’, in Wild Figments, Penguin Books, Camberwell and New York, 2004.

38 See, for example, Wendy Duff & Verne Harris, ‘Stories and names: Archival description as narrating records and constructing meanings’, Archival Science, no. 2, 2002, 263–85; and Chris Hurley, ‘Parallel provenance: (1) What, if anything, is archival description?’, Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 33, no. 1, May 2005, 110–45. There is, of course, a large literature on the shaping of memory by collecting institutions through their decisions about what is and is not preserved through acquisition, an example being Joanna Sassoon, ‘Phantoms of remembrance: Libraries and archives as “the collective memory”’, Public History Review, vol. 10, 2003, 40–60.

39 On story/interpretation synonym, see, for example, the National Trust of Australia (WA) and Museums Australia (WA)’s 2007 publication, Sharing Our Stories: Guidelines for Heritage Interpretation. For the national standards, see

40 For the 1975 inquiry report (and quote on p. 11), see

41 Richard Fortey, Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the National History Museum, Harper Perennial, London, 2008, p. 271; Humphrey McQueen, ‘An implosion of knowledge’, Meanjin The entire 2001 (vol. 60, no. 4) museums-themed issue of Meanjin is also relevant here.

42 The text of Review of the National Museum of Australia, its Exhibitions and Public Programs: A Report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia and related documents are at For instances of discussion, see Kylie Message & Chris Healy, ‘A symptomatic museum: The New, the NMA and the Culture Wars’, Borderlands e-journal, vol. 3, no. 3, 2004 at Guy Hanson, ‘Telling the Australian story at the National Museum of Australia’, History Australia, vol. 2, no. 3, 2005, 90.1–90.9, Mathew Trinca, ‘History in museums’, Chapter 8, Clark & Ashton (eds), Australian History Now, pp. 136–50, and the chapters by Graeme Davison and Dawn Casey in Marilyn Lake (ed.), Memory, Monuments and Museums: The Past in the Present, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006.

43 Australian National Maritime Museum, Vision statement,

44 Susan Marsden, ‘Orphans of the living’ [exhibition review], History Australia, vol. 9, no. 2, 2012, 210–12.

45 In his Documents that Shaped Australia: Records of a Nation’s Heritage (Pier 9, Sydney, 2010), John Thompson has shown it can be done, if admittedly via what he calls a ‘diverse and eclectic’, rather than definitive or canonical selection and despite being confined to just library and archives’ textual documents. The key was adopting the unifying idea of turning points and critical moments articulated by Martin Crotty and David Roberts in their Turning Points in Australian History (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2009). A more recent instance is Robert Manne & Chris Feik (eds), The Words that Made Australia: How a Nation Came to Know Itself, Black Inc Agenda, Melbourne, 2012. (The reason Australia was able to know itself, of course, was because the words – in manuscript, print and websites – have been preserved by libraries and archives.)

46 James Wood, ‘Soul cycle. David Mitchell’s “The Bone Clocks”’, New Yorker, 8 September 2014, pp. 78–82.

47 See

48 At least one Australian institution, the National Archives of Australia, makes it patently clear it is not interested in preserving as archives the originals of people’s photos and other personal records – see It is also clear from a comparison of the advice available to people considering making contributions to three recent projects (the National Museum of Australia’s My Pony Club Story, the National Library’s Trove: Family History Month: We Want your Stories, and the National Archives’ Discovering Anzacs) that a standard approach to things like rights, liabilities and metadata is still evolving.

49 Peter Aspden, ‘Elvis is in the building’, AFR Weekend, 10–11 January 2015, p. 49 (reproduced from the Financial Times).

50 Tumarkin, ‘This narrated life’ (p. 192, 189).

51 See and The comparable data for mid February, highlighting ABC Open’s huge popularity, was 69916 stories, 11417 people and 105 projects.

52 Tumarkin, ‘This narrated life’ (p. 191).


Related links

Michael Piggott

'A reflection on the National Library of Australia’s Treasures gallery', commentary, reCollections, vol. 7, no. 2