‘Let our histories be visible’
Human rights museology and the National Museum of Australia’s Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions
by Adele Chynoweth
Too many ready to call it a day
Before the day starts
Stan Cullimore, Paul Heaton, Ted Key, ‘Flag Day’, 1985
In 2004, at the official hearings of the Senate Community Affairs References Committee as part of the Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, Leonie Sheedy, co-founder of the Care Leavers of Australia Network, demanded that there be space made available for an exhibition about the experiences of children who grew up in orphanages: ‘Get the dinosaurs out of the Australian museum, for once, and dedicate it to orphanages and children. Let our histories be visible’.
Sheedy’s plea, directed at the Australian Museum, Sydney, can be interpreted as a simple preference for social over natural history museums. The National Museum of Australia arguably fulfilled Sheedy’s prescription with the exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, on display in Canberra from November 2011 until February 2012. Sheedy’s proposal to get rid of dinosaur skeletons can also be taken as a criticism of ‘dinosaur’ practices in museums. As this paper will show, there seemed to be an initial reluctance on the part of the National Museum to create an exhibition about Forgotten Australians, and the scope, positioning and temporary nature of the exhibition reflect this. Why this unwillingness? Is the National Museum guilty of a ‘dinosaur’ mentality? Is there a museology that counters this reluctance?
The background to InsideThe federal Senate inquiry into the Forgotten Australians marked the last of a trilogy of reports into Australian twentieth-century institutional ‘care’ for children. The first was the Bringing Them Home report published in 1997, the inquiry into the historical removal of Aboriginal children, now known as the Stolen Generations, from their families. In August 2001 a Senate committee published its report, Lost Innocents, about the consequences for child migrants of the agreement between the British and Australian governments that resulted in the migration of British and Maltese children from the 1920s until 1970. In 2003 the Senate decided that the largest group of Australian children in institutionalised care, the ‘Forgotten Australians’, deserved recognition equal to members of the Stolen Generations and to the group known as ‘Former Child Migrants’. It is estimated that 500,000 children experienced institutional care in Australia in the twentieth century. Approximately 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, many of whom identify as members of the Stolen Generations, and 7000 Former Child Migrants from Britain and Malta, are included in this number. The remainder, and indeed the majority, of institutionalised children were Australian non-Indigenous children. The report Forgotten Australians (2004) explains that this group of children were placed in care often as the result of family dislocation caused by events that are summarised as the ‘Six Ds’: divorce, desertion, death, disease, domestic violence and drunkenness. Many children were charged with being uncontrollable, neglected or ‘exposed to moral danger’ and were then made wards of the state. Many were status offenders because they had run away from abusive or dysfunctional circumstances. Children were sent to institutions run by state governments, charities, religious organisations or welfare groups. One of the 39 recommendations of the Senate report stated:
That the National Museum of Australia be urged to consider establishing an exhibition, preferably permanent, related to the history and experiences of children in institutional care, and that such an exhibition have the capacity to tour as a travelling exhibition.
It took persuasion and funding from the Australian Government before the National Museum fulfilled this recommendation. From 2003, the Care Leavers of Australia Network (CLAN), a support, advocacy, research and training group founded in 2000, repeatedly contacted the National Museum, requesting an exhibition about the experiences of those who experienced out-of-home care. It was not until 30 August 2005 that the Museum’s director, Craddock Morton, wrote a formal reply to CLAN explaining why he could not fulfil CLAN’s request at the time:
As you are no doubt aware the Government is yet to table its response to the recommendations outlined in the Forgotten Australians report. We understand that the response is expected within the next few months. Until the Government’s views are known the National Museum is not in a position to formally act on the recommendation.
This raises the question, how is the National Museum able to effectively and impartially represent Australia’s social history when it is dependent on government approval?
With the provision of funding through the Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), the Australian Government persuaded the National Museum of Australia to create an exhibition about Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants as announced at the National Apology in November 2009. Debate among Museum management about whether or not to take on the exhibition focused on concern about the ability of the Museum to fulfil the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct, which demands that employees remain impartial, as well as concern for the welfare of staff who would be exposed to adversarial and politicised demands from external advocacy groups and individuals. In the end Museum management concluded that it would be unwise to refuse government funding in an era of reduced budgets.
My interest in the exhibition content
I was employed by the Museum as a curator for the exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions. My interest in the subject of institutionalised care for children is both personal and professional. When I was a young child, my parents used to host children for respite on weekends and holidays from the Church of England Home, St Mary’s Mission of Hope, in Adelaide. Barbara used to stay with us regularly and I also remember a young girl called Mary. Further, the Convent of the Good Shepherd, Plympton, known as ‘The Pines’, was situated in the main road at the end of our street. I only found out that it was the site of a convent when I asked Mum what was behind ‘the tall brush fence’. Later, as a student at St Thomas’s Parish School in Adelaide, my classmates included children from St Vincent’s Orphanage. I knew what ‘orphan’ meant but I could not believe that it was possible for so many children to have lost both parents. When I raised this puzzle with my mother, she explained carefully all the different factors that contributed to children being sent to the Home. It was then that I understood about the consequences for children of alcoholism, domestic conflict, illness and most importantly, the financial challenges for single parents. I began to recognise the effects of social inequality. I remember from grade seven, when I went to the local state primary school, the boy in our class from Glandore Boys’ Home who wore khaki clothes every day.
During the Depression of the 1930s, my aunt was employed for three months at the Morialta Children’s Home in South Australia. My mother recalls her sister returning home after work one evening, telling their mother that she could not bear to go back to work as she could not endure the brutal treatment of the children who would be beaten for spurious reasons. She also bridled at being reprimanded by senior staff members who forbade her to speak, or show any kindness, to the children. This must have been a difficult decision for my aunt to make because she was a member of a working class family and jobs were hard to come by.
Despite my early interactions with children from church Homes, it was not until much later with the screening of The Leaving of Liverpool on ABC-TV in 1992 that I learnt more of the brutal cruelty endured by child migrants in Australia. Years later, I was profoundly affected by television broadcasts of the Senate inquiries into the experiences of children in out-of-home care, including footage of senior Australians sobbing while struggling to relate incidents of rape and torture inflicted on them as children. Then I read the Lost Innocents and Forgotten Australians reports and was deeply moved.
In 2008, in Federal Parliament, Senator Andrew Murray described The Pines as a prisoner-of-war camp. I learned that nuns violated the basic human rights of young girls in a suburban convent at the end of our street. Did Barbara or Mary experience any of the report’s cited abuses? Did any unspoken episodes lie in the minds and bodies of the children I played with in the St Thomas school playground? Why was my classmate from Glandore Boys’ Home so unusually quiet? Why were some of my childhood friends now categorised as the ‘Forgotten Australians’? Forgotten, how? We lived in the same suburbs, went to the same schools and we ate together on weekends and holidays. Who forgot them? Several friends and Museum colleagues confided in me about their own experiences of knowing those who were in institutionalised ‘care’. I was not alone. The truth is, this welfare policy profoundly affected many Australians.
My professional research into Forgotten Australians began in 2004 when I was employed as the Research Organiser for the University of Queensland Union. I undertook historical research of the organisation including the heritage of the university’s Ipswich campus, which was the site of a mental hospital, having had various name changes throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I learned of the incarceration of teenage girls, with no diagnosis of mental illness, in Karrala House on the site. I also discovered, through the Forde Commission of Inquiry, that this practice was one example of the way that psychiatry was misused to treat status offenders. A plaque to remember the former residents of Karrala House has since been dedicated on the university’s campus.
My introduction to museum work stems from my role as researcher for the Memory Museum, a site-specific performance and exhibition commissioned as part of South Australia’s official celebrations for the 2001 Centenary of Federation. I brought with me to the role of curator at the National Museum of Australia a personal understanding (by no means complete) of the experiences of Forgotten Australians. My work for the Memory Museum gave me a working knowledge of the representation of traumatic and difficult narratives. Because the Memory Museum was the result of the work of artists and not historians, I understood the importance of both emotion and the politics of aesthetic representation in exhibitions.
The search for a socially responsible methodology
The Inside exhibition provided an opportunity not only for Museum visitors to learn about the experiences of those in institutionalised care but perhaps also for the nation to confront its short, collective memory. My role in the curatorial team was largely of engaging with Forgotten Australians, Former Child Migrants and associated advocacy organisations. As a result, I found myself caught between the culture of an organisation that seemed to have some reluctance to create this exhibition and external stakeholders who understandably had a profound emotional investment in it.
On the one hand, Museum managers prescribed for my interactions with stakeholders, ‘Keep a distance. Don’t get too close’. On the other hand, I met with many Forgotten Australians who, as a result of their experiences as children and their failure to achieve subsequent justice as adults, suffer from debilitating depression and post-traumatic stress disorder and are financially and socially disenfranchised. Some battle substance abuse. On several occasions, when visiting stakeholders to source objects and associated narratives, I confronted crisis situations in which I had to administer first aid and call for ambulance services. Sometimes, I had to source emergency housing and legal aid. In relation to one stakeholder, my colleagues and I had to manage our time so that we would complete our research before the stakeholder’s scheduled Supreme Court trial. I also met with Forgotten Australians who were esteemed leaders and/or professionals, who despite, or because of, their childhood experiences had become successful writers, counsellors, artists, teachers and business managers.
The Museum’s managerial advice demonstrated concern for my welfare but I also wonder if it revealed an aversion to traumatic content in exhibitions. However, the Senate report detailed the tragic consequences of Australians having kept their distance from this chapter in our history for so long. I surmised that this project needed an authentically human response. Emotion could neither be absent from the exhibition nor from my rapport with stakeholders. So that I could find support for this approach, I sought, externally, the help of those museum professionals who employed a similar perspective.
Human rights museology, as espoused by the Federation of International Human Rights Museums (FIHRM) has particular relevance for exhibitions like Inside, and also has wider application to much of the work of the National Museum. David Fleming, Director of National Museums Liverpool and President of FIHRM, is a key spokesperson in the field of human rights museology. He founded FIHRM as a response to the opening of the International Slavery Museum and a perceived lack of international dialogue that accompanied this new museum. His speech at the museum’s opening can be read as a rationale for international discussions concerning human rights and indeed, as the methodology for human rights museology: ‘This is not a museum that could be described as a ‘neutral space’ — it is a place of commitment, controversy, honesty, and campaigning’.
Fleming’s vision was affirmed, in 2009, in Mexico, at the meeting of the International Committee on Management (INTERCOM) of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) where the following declaration was ratified:
INTERCOM believes that it is a fundamental responsibility of museums, wherever possible, to be active in promoting diversity and human rights, respect and equality for people of all origins, beliefs and background.
The National Museum’s reluctance to engage with CLAN’s requests for an exhibition runs counter to David Fleming’s view that museums carry an increased responsibility to break silences of the past. Because museums are held in high regard by the public, they can expect to be approached by interest groups who want their experiences and histories represented. Zahava Doering, senior social scientist from the Smithsonian Institution, views current, conventional museum practice as supported by a middle class that accepts the museum has the right to set its own agenda. This right is strengthened by the idea that visitors are novices. However, Doering believes that visitors should be seen as experts who rightfully have the desire to see museums affirm their identity. Robert Janes, editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, also challenges the view that museum staff are the experts:
Museums ... must confront their traditional belief that they are the authority ... Museums must be prepared to reach out to their communities to acquire the expertise and experience they themselves lack.
David Fleming further argues the case for the socially responsible museum that serves the needs of its public:
What I think is no longer open to challenge is that museums are for the public benefit. Those which are publicly funded are supposed to achieve something for society, rather than act simply as self-perpetuating institutions, the value of which is obscure and unmeasurable. They carry a social responsibility ... It could be argued that the more traditional functions of museums — collecting, preservation, research, basic interpretation — are in themselves socially responsible activities, and indeed they are, to a degree. But to me, real social responsibility is when museum staff commit themselves to identifying and meeting the needs of the public, and when they place this at the head of their priorities, so that it becomes an imperative, a leitmotif.
The National Museum of Australia may have overlooked CLAN’s request for an exhibition in favour of blockbuster exhibitions that attract corporate sponsorship, such as Not Just Ned: A True History of the Irish in Australia (2011) and Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (2010). This observation is not to suggest that such initiatives should be avoided. However, if the rationale for choosing exhibitions is based on mainstream public engagement with the associated topic and hence its ability to attract sponsorship, then those marginalised histories that do not bring in external funding will be overlooked. How can the Forgotten Australians attract corporate cash when for so long they have not been a recognised group within Australian culture? While curators may be directed to work on exhibitions outside their areas of interest, exhibition topics within the National Museum are sometimes determined by the personal research and collection interests of museum staff. This practice may be problematic unless accompanied by other decision-making processes that ensure significant chapters of Australian history are not ignored.
The theoretical space
Inside was assigned to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program team (ATSIP) within the National Museum. Initially, curatorial discussions within the team focused on the specific narratives of members of the Stolen Generations, and this can be seen as symptomatic of a wider confusion in the public’s mind about the different groups. The fact that Inside was assigned to a curatorial section based on race could be perceived as symptomatic of the Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary that has become part of the consensus of Australian history. Management’s initial prescription for the Inside exhibition was for a ‘small exhibition’, on the same scale as From Little Things, Big Things Grow, a Museum exhibition about Indigenous Australian civil rights. It seemed to me that the Museum is more comfortable in administering the representation of perceived difficult or traumatic narratives outside those curatorial areas that deal with mainstream Australian culture and instead through the lens of Australia’s Indigenous history. The Government’s initiative of two separate apologies is also symptomatic of the cultural binary, which is endemic to Australia’s understanding of its history. Co-Founder of the Care Leavers of Australia Network, Joanna Penglase, notes that this construction is problematic for the majority of those who were institutionalised as children:
The older generation of ‘wardies’ and ‘Homies’ are the forgotten, and perhaps even the hidden generations. We number hundreds of thousands across Australia, more than the Aboriginal Stolen Generations, more than the adoptees who have services in every state, more than the child migrants who numbered at most ten thousand people. This is not to deny in any way the significance of those tragic histories or the right of those groups to recognition and to services. But the story of white Australian children growing up in care has not been told, let alone acknowledged.
Former senator Andrew Murray also notes:
Historically there has been more academic and serious attention to the history of institutionalised Indigenous Australians than to others who were institutionalised, but even so it has been limited.
I suggest that the history of children in institutionalised care is part of a trajectory of imprisonment within Australia since colonisation. The confinement of children to institutions is indicative of the ‘inconvenient’, whom Australia has ‘put away’ — convicts, nationals (as well as their descendants) of countries at war with Australia, migrant children, working class children, sexually abused girls, runaway children, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and now asylum seekers and their children. The policies and the associated legislation vary but the outcome is the same. Social injustice and disadvantage in Australia are not restricted to race. The articulation of this perspective is problematised by contemporary Western neo-conservative movements that fantasise about a return to pre-multicultural nations. Australians should be able to intelligently and rigorously critique a race-based binary without fear of, or buying into, paradigms that support white/monocultural supremacy or polemics that disavow the existence of the Stolen Generations.
There are significant numbers of Forgotten Australians who reside overseas, having left Australia as adults after being released from institutional care. They have chosen to live in exile, as it were, from a country that failed in its duty of their care. So the existence of Forgotten Australians not only challenges a notion of human rights based on a cultural binary. Diasporic Forgotten Australians also question a parochial view of this social history. David Fleming argues that not only should museums be concerned with histories of the oppressed but that the narratives of the marginalised are not monocultural and therefore narratives that are concerned with gender, sexuality, class and migration should be represented. The National Museum of Australia, as Australia’s premier social history museum, is well placed to critique the dominant race-based binary and represent the complexity of oppression within Australia. Interestingly Michael Pickering, Head of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program at the time the Inside project was assigned, was also concerned that exhibitions with difficult narratives are not usually assigned to a range of curatorial areas within the Museum:
I was … concerned with how … [the exhibition] automatically seemed to fall within ATSIP — the team has a well deserved reputation for appropriate consultation with often difficult interest groups — but that alone shouldn’t be a reason for allocation. The rest of the curatorial team just stood aside. It should’ve been more widely shared.
The exhibition space
The National Museum’s choice to allocate the small 200-metre-square Studio Gallery to the exhibition could be interpreted as reluctance to take on this project. The significantly larger Temporary Gallery is reserved for high-profile exhibitions with their associated expensive and prestigious marketing campaigns. It appears that the status of such exhibitions is usually determined by the worth and number of associated objects. For example, Not Just Ned: A True History of the Irish in Australia, displayed in the Temporary Exhibition Gallery in 2011, boasted ‘nearly 500 rare and unique objects from Australian and international collections’. Similarly, Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route featured over 100 canvases acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2009. Yiwarra Kuju did represent the Alfred Canning’s appalling abuse of his Aboriginal guides. However, the appeal of this exhibition drew on the successful commodification of Aboriginal art within international arts markets and associated popularity among the general public.
How does a museum represent the narratives of those who have been dispossessed of their belongings and their identity? What objects of interest can those who own very little possibly offer to a museum collection? An exhibition about the Forgotten Australians seemed to only suggest a sad history and an absence of prestigious objects, hardly a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition. Such was the topic of discussion in an early managerial meeting when I raised the possibility of the using the larger Temporary Gallery as the site for the exhibition.
Human rights museology, with its emphasis on people and stories, alleviates concerns about the lack of significant objects for display. Fleming notes that the object-as-central-to-museums argument dates back to the late nineteenth century, when museums became dominated by scholars. He argues that research activity and the associated collection and display of objects should only be a means to people’s narratives and not an end in itself. Similarly Lisa Roberts’s discussion in From Knowledge to Narrative: Educators and the Changing Museum, is based on her premise that narratives, and not the scholarly representation of objects, should be central to the role of the museum.
The irony was that despite initial managerial assumptions that there would be a dearth of objects relating to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants the Inside curatorial team were able to acquire more objects than the exhibition space allowed. Most were donated to the Museum’s National Historical Collection and others were loaned for the exhibition. A significant level of curatorial decision-making focused on which objects to exclude from the exhibition due to the space restrictions. For example, there was not enough gallery space available to exhibit the large dining table from Fairbridge Farm School, Molong, donated to the Museum.
The curatorial team compensated for the lack of exhibition space through the provision of a blog, which enabled members of the public to share, according to a set of published guidelines, their personal experiences of institutionalised ‘care’. The blog was active from December 2009 to November 2011. At the end of June 2011 there had been over 79,000 visits to this Inside website. In addition, to make up for the limited three-dimensional space, we used the walls of the exhibition as a space for quotations of those who were institutionalised as children, so that the ‘walls could speak’, as it were. Here, in varying fonts to convey the diversity of subjects and their experiences, the walls featured the ‘voices’ of Forgotten Australians. In this way the curatorial team limited the number of text panels in order to make space for the experiences of Forgotten Australians in their own voices without the conduit of the curatorial voice. This demonstrates the way in which a range of signifiers, and not objects alone, can be used to convey narratives. For example, many modules within the Memory Museum in Adelaide, created for the state’s Centenary of Federation celebrations, did not rely on objects to convey the memories of South Australians. Similarly, several exhibitions within the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile, have no historical artefacts. For me, one of the Museum of Liverpool’s most powerful installations is ‘Kicking and screaming’, which, through the use of film, conveys Liverpool’s passion for football. The pending Canadian Museum for Human Rights, due to be completed this year, will not feature objects at all.
Temporary versus permanent status
During the display of Inside, a visitor left a single rosebud in the cot which contained, embroidered on its mattress, the story of a baby that died at St Joseph’s Home, Neerkol, Queensland. The rose was promptly removed by Museum staff. For those exhibitions that convey emotion, it is important to provide a mechanism for visitors to respond. The curatorial team had planned for the blog on the exhibition website to remain active so that public responses could be moderated and published, as they had been throughout the exhibition development process. However, contributions to the blog ceased on the day that the Inside exhibition opened, even though external government funding had been offered several months before to maintain the website until the end of February 2012. Museum management refused this additional funding and decided to close the blog because I had been the target of offensive emails from a former staff member of an institution that had a record of horrific abuse of children. If these negative emails had been viewed as merely symptomatic of a historical shift in power, when survivors of traumatic oppression are finally listened to and believed, then any alarm that these emails had caused might have been assuaged. Fleming reminds us that controversy is unavoidable: ‘If you’re going to deal with human rights, then of course you will upset people. Causing offence goes with the territory. Don’t try to avoid it. Get over yourselves!’ No other provision was made for visitors to contribute their own responses on site until local Forgotten Australians lobbied the Museum to provide a visitors’ book which was eventually made available in January 2012.
After the closure of the Inside exhibition, how might the National Museum of Australia represent the narratives of the 500,000 children who were residents of over 800 children’s Homes and institutions in Australia? The National Museum’s permanent gallery, Landmarks: People and Places across Australia, narrates a broad history of Australia through stories of places and their peoples. Choices of places to focus on could include the site of a children’s institution. Potential modules include the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, which served as the principal destination for unassigned convict women transported to the colony of New South Wales and then became the site for the Catholic Orphan School, the Lunatic and Invalid Asylum and later the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. I think, too, of the rural New South Wales town of Hay, the site of internment camps during the Second World War. Later, in 1961, the Hay Institution for Girls was established at the site of the former colonial Hay Gaol, as a maximum security prison for teenage girls who had not been convicted of any crimes but who simply did not comply with the strict regime at Parramatta Girls Home. The importance of place in the history of Forgotten Australians can also be found at the site of the former Westbrook Boys Home, outside Toowoomba, Queensland. This institution had its beginnings on board Proserpine, a boat that was moored in the Brisbane River and served as a reformatory for boys in the late 1900s. The reformatory was then transferred on to land, to the facility at Litton, and then moved to Westbrook in 1900. The site is now used for a low security prison. Queensland Corrective Services acknowledges this history with the display on site, of what is now a low-security prison, of the original foundation stone and a horse-drawn cart used by former incarcerated boys as part of their forced farm labour. Perhaps Landmarks could acknowledge this history, too.
The trafficking, and subsequent institutionalisation,of British and Maltese children to Australia throughout the twentieth century could be represented in the Australian Journeys gallery, which features the narratives of migrants and travellers to Australia. Eternity, the permanent gallery that represents ‘stories from the emotional heart of Australia’ and foregrounds the story over the object, could also include the feelings of profound loss, separation and abuse experienced by thousands of Australian institutionalised children.
The Museum’s Gallery of First Australians currently screens the Apology to the Stolen Generations, accompanied by the display of the Bringing Them Home report. This space would be suitable, as well, for a future screening of the 2009 National Apology to Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants. There are many publications written by and about Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants that could be available for purchase in the Museum Shop. There was also no exhibition catalogue produced for Inside. Again, if people and stories, not objects, become the focus of the social history museum, publications could be developed that give a permanent voice to the narratives collected.
Given the observation that advocacy groups may expect their narratives to be represented in museums, how might museums assist in the work of these groups in addition to creating exhibitions? I suggest that the observation that members of such groups may appear to be ‘adversarial’ is not a justification of the choice not to engage with such stakeholders.
Instead, museum staff could view antagonistic behaviour as an understandable response by those whose narratives have been ignored by mainstream historians. Joanna Penglase notes:
Histories of trauma are the least likely to end up in the history books. Survivors of trauma usually end up powerless and voiceless.
How might social history museums support those who are powerless instead of viewing them as a possible source of conflict? Fleming elaborates in relation to his work at National Museums Liverpool:
Positive action means that the museum is joining the fight against social exclusion, joining with other socially responsible agencies to effect a difference at the personal, community and social levels. In other words, social responsibility means being socially inclusive, which leads ultimately to social value: that’s our end game. Without social value, museums aren’t worth having. This is our moral obligation.
Museum scholar and author Lois Silvermanprovides examples of museum programs throughout the world that directly improve the lives of participants. Silverman observes that museums are being asked to fulfil more than their conventional role:
Museums have long been considered institutions that benefit society, most familiarly through the activities for collecting, preserving and educating about valuable artifacts and art. Today the world’s museums are embracing starkly bolder roles as agents of well-being and as vehicles for social change.
Delegates at the 2011 FIHRM conference provided some concrete examples of socially responsible public programs at their own institutions. At the Museum and House of Culture in Tanzania, education officer Lucina Shayo, in partnership with local schools and Tanzanian children’s television, runs youth clubs for children with disabilities. Liz Ellis, curator of Community Learning at Tate Modern, London, facilitates programs about modern and contemporary art specifically designed for a range of identified groups including women, the homeless and those with learning disabilities.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has established the ‘Preventing genocide’ program. The program’s website provides several resources for individuals or groups who wish to take action against current crimes against humanity. Further, the National Institute for Holocaust Education, at the Museum, teaches police and military leaders about the process of genocide and how it can be prevented. In 2004, The Imperial War Museum, with financial support from The History Channel and The Guardian newspaper, hosted the Rwanda Forum, an event organised by the international student organisation, Never Again. National Museums Liverpool’s Community Partnerships Programme, since its establishment in 2002, has engaged an estimated 15,000 people who had rarely visited museums. Programs include the Conversation Club for refugees and asylum seekers, Slave Remembrance Day for Liverpool’s African descendants, the Arabic Arts Festival, and the Health and Wellbeing Project for those with mental illnesses. In addition, the International Slavery Museum has established partnerships with police, the local fire authority and victims’ rights group in order to help combat local hate crimes and current slave trafficking.
It is interesting to note that since David Fleming has become the director of National Museums Liverpool, visitor numbers have more than trebled. This suggests that when human rights issues are explored in museums, the public responds more favourably. In Museums and Community: Ideas, Issues and Challenges, Elizabeth Crooke argues that museums should link with communities based on her observation that social cohesion and/or inclusion has become an important part of public policy in the United Kingdom. This is partly a response to human capital theory, in the field of economics, which acknowledges the importance of social capital. Crooke also acknowledges the importance of community relations for those communities that experience conflict and how associated policies impact on all organisations, including museums as an important ‘contact zone’. Similarly, Robert Janes notes that:
some museums are now being called upon by government to implement progressive, social policies, such as in the United Kingdom, where publicly funded museums, galleries and archives are expected to play a part in the combating of social exclusion.
Richard Sandell affirms Silverman’s view:
Museums and galleries of all kinds have both the potential to contribute towards the combating of social inequality and a responsibility to do so.
True social inclusion in a cultural institution is not an act of middle-class evangelism whereby marginalised people are invited to share in the recreational activities of the privileged. Instead, the programs must be relevant to the needs of the participants, whose contributions, in turn, need to be valued. The programs developed for the Inside exhibition drew on the work of Jo Besley, senior curator of social history at the Queensland Museum, for her 2009 Churchill Fellowship. Besley examined ‘the role of museums in assisting communities to recover from traumatic events and experiences — USA, UK, Ireland, Netherlands, Germany, South Africa’.
Besley drew our attention to the practice, which we employed for Inside, of inviting volunteers who have lived through the represented traumatic events to share their experiences, informally, with visitors in the exhibition space. This initiative assists the healing process of survivors by enabling them to talk about their experiences in a supportive environment. Often survivors, in everyday life, are told to ‘move on’ and there is little opportunity for them to fulfil their need to talk about the events they endured. This practice also assists visitors in gaining a further understanding of the events, in addition to exhibited objects and text, with the opportunity to ask questions of survivors. This program is used in museums and memorial sites throughout the world, including District Six Museum, Cape Town, South Africa; The Tribute WTC Visitor Centre, New York; Gedenkstätte Berlin Hohenschönhausen (Stasi Museum), Berlin, Germany; and The Museum of Free Derry, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
Some of the Forgotten Australians who so generously gave their time and personal objects to Inside wanted more than an exhibition. They want justice. ‘What are you going to do to get the bastards?’ one stakeholder asked me. It is a perfectly reasonable question.
I wonder about the ethics of collecting the personal histories of those who have suffered trauma — stories that end up in a museum that the traumatised may not usually visit. Reassurances that objects will remain in the National Historical Collection and stories will be remembered forever provide little consolation to those struggling daily with post-traumatic stress syndrome and social isolation. How can museums give back? Is there more that museums can do to help bring justice to communities?
David Fleming argues that museums should be more ambitious about their impact. Inciting social activism and helping to bring perpetrators to justice are activities that can lie well within the reach of the agenda of cultural institutions. For example, District Six Museum in Capetown refers to its object collection work as ‘evidence’ gathering: sourcing archival documents to support claims by displaced people to reclaim their land under the Land Restitution Act of 1995.
For socially responsible museums, the emphasis on people and their stories is reflected in a pluralistic approach to the representation of cultures and discourses, evident in content, positioning and associated aesthetic approaches. Historical objects need not be central to the representation of social history as a range of semiotics can be used in exhibitions. In addition to exhibitions, social media has an important, empowering role to play, and museum websites and blogs can also contribute in this area. The socially responsible museum does not shy away from potentially adversarial behaviour — it offers public programs that welcome the members of marginalised communities and focus on their needs, including their right to justice. The socially responsible museum knows that it has much to learn from community participants.
It is important that all people have the right to benefit and be represented in museums. Museums are no longer solely concerned with dinosaurs and social history has a firm place within the sector. I suggest that the next phase in the evolution of museology involves the fulfilment of the narratives of our social history, including the achievement of justice, otherwise what are these stories for? Research, the maintenance of collections and the creation of exhibitions are not enough. Granting access is not enough. A significant number of museums throughout the world know this, and the 2009 ICOM Declaration of Museum Responsibility to Promote Human Rights underscores it. The National Museum of Australia is well placed to embrace and lead a national approach to a socially responsible — and responsive — human rights museology.
1 Commonwealth of Australia, Official Committee Hansard, Senate Community Affairs References Committee: Children in Institutional Care, Parramatta, 4 February 2004, www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/inst_care/hearings/index.htm.
2 Although the exhibition was designed and funded for touring, at the time of writing this paper no cultural organisation within Australia has agreed to host it.
3 CLAN accepts this number as a conservative estimate and notes, by way of comparison, that MacKillop Family Services holds the records of 115,000 care leavers who lived in a mere six orphanages in the state of Victoria. This figure is interesting given that there were over 800 children’s homes in Australia. Information sourced by author from Leonie Sheedy, phone conversation, 24 February 2012.
4 Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians Who Experienced Institutional or Out of Home Care as Children, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2004, www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate_Committees?url=clac_ctte/completed_inquiries/2004-07/inst_care/report/index.htm. Status offenses are behaviours which are illegal for minors only such as running away, truancy and tobacco and alcohol consumption.
5 Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians Who Experienced Institutional or Out-of-Home Care as Children, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2004, p. xxvii.
6 Craddock Morton, Director, National Museum of Australia, letter to CLAN, 30 August 2005.
7 Interestingly, the Museum neither contacted CLAN when the Howard Government’s response to the recommendations was released, nor after the change to a Labor government.
8 Dr Michael Pickering, Head, Curatorial and Research, National Museum of Australia, email correspondence to author, 13 February 2012.
9 My aunt’s resignation from Morialta Children’s Home was echoed in a submission to the 2004 Senate Inquiry: ‘A hard core of staff stayed forever but otherwise there was a high turnover and constant shortages of staff. Anyone with any humanity couldn’t bear to stay after they saw what the Orphanage was like and what they were expected to do to keep the children under control’: Ballarat Orphanage, Submission 18, quoted in Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee, Forgotten Australians: A Report on Australians who Experienced Institutional or Out-of-Home Care as Children, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2004, p. 137.
10 Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (the Forde Inquiry), Parliament of Queensland, Brisbane, 1999.
11 I attended FIHRM’s second conference held at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, UK, October 2011.
12 David Fleming, ‘The need for the International Slavery Museum’, speech given at the opening of the International Slavery Museum, 22 August 2007, www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/resources/opening_speech.aspx, accessed 18 January 2012.
13 This declaration now appears on the front page of the INTERCOM website, www.intercom.museum.
14 Zahava D Doering, ‘What are we doing anyway? The problem of the effectiveness of museums’, paper delivered at the FIHRM conference, October 2011, www.fihrm.org/conference/conference2011.html#papers.
15 Robert Janes, ‘Museums, social responsibility and the future we desire’, in Simon J Knell, Suzanne MacLeod & Sheila Watson (eds), Museum Revolutions: How Museums Change and Are Changed, Routledge, Oxford and New York, 2007, p. 145.
19 I am indebted to conversations with Dr Wayne Chamley from Broken Rites and Mr Harold Haig from the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families for this observation.
20 David Fleming, plenary session delivered at the FIHRM conference, October 2011.
21 Katherine Goodnow notes: ‘Except when treated as part of the general migrant population, asylum seekers and refugees have in the past seldom been included in museum representations. It is only recently, with the push for museums to become more inclusive and deal with contemporary social history issues, that refuges at least have become a focus for museums: ‘Expanding the concept of participation,’ in Hame-Lovise Skartveit & Katherine Goodnow (eds) Changes in Museum Practice: New Media, Refugees and Participation, Berghahn, New York, 2010, p. xxxii.
22 Pickering, email correspondence.
23 Exhibition website, www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/irish_in_australia/home, accessed 28 December 2011.
24 Fleming, ‘The changing role of museums in society’, Museum Ireland, 15, 2005, 2–17.
25 Fleming, plenary session.
26 Lisa C Roberts, From Knowledge to Narrative: Educators and the Changing Museum, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC, 1997.
27 It is interesting to note that the National Park Service initiated the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection in the US. It is understood that the responses to the Memorial signified by objects left at the site, are part of the nation’s history: www.nps.gov/mrc/indexvvm.htm, accessed 17 January 2012.
28 Fleming, plenary session, 11 October 2011.
29 The closed blog can be accessed at http://nma.gov.au/blogs/inside/.
30 Penglase, address delivered at the Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions Forum, National Museum of Australia, 14 February 2012.
31 David Fleming, ‘Museums campaigning for social justice’, 5th Stephen Weil Memorial Lecture, Shanghai, 8 November 2010, www.intercom.museum/documents/5thWeilLectureShanghaiNov2010.pdf, accessed 29 December 2011.
32 Lois H Silverman, The Social Work of Museums, Routledge, New York, 2009, pp. 2–3.
34 Elizabeth Crooke, Museums and Community: Ideas, Issues and Challenges, Routledge, Oxford and New York, 2007.
35 Robert Janes, Museums in a Trouble World, Routledge, Oxford and New York, 2009, p. 16.
36 Richard Sandell, ‘Museums and the combating of social inequality: Roles, responsibilities, resistance’, in Sandell (ed.), Museums, Society, Inequality, Routledge, London and New York, p. 3.
37 Joanna Besley, ‘Making peace with the past?’, Churchill Fellowship report, 2009, www.churchilltrust.com.au/site_media/fellows/Besley_Joanna_2009.pdf.
38 District Six Museum website, www.districtsix.co.za/.