Identity formation at the National Museum of Australia

Contemporary critical engagements with citizenship and museums have centred on the re-evaluation of ideas about power, authority and the dissemination of these ideas into the public sphere—a process that was exemplified by statements that the new National Museum of Australia was to be self-consciously postmodern, postcolonial and pluralist in outlook (Figure 4.1).[22] Reflections about the recent history of the NMA demonstrate the urgency through which the exchanges between politics, culture and society were characterised at the close of the twentieth century as a time when, to quote former NMA director Dawn Casey, the issue of ‘Australian-ness’ was ‘being debated possibly more vigorously than in any other period of the nation’s history’. According to Casey, ‘We [the NMA] accept from the outset that there will be disagreements about the way we examine historic[al] processes or about our very choice of themes and stories and issues’.[23] This statement reflects the recommendations in Museums in Australia 1975: Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections including the Report of the Planning Committee on the Gallery of Aboriginal Australia, the document that first called for the development of a national museum. Chaired by Peter Piggott (and subsequently referred to as the Piggott Report), the report recommended that not only should the museum ‘extend the front-lines of knowledge’, it ‘should enable curious spectators to visit those front-lines and understand how some of the battles to extend knowledge are fought’.[24] It is my contention that in the institution’s aspiration to engage with the History Wars (that escalated from about 1993), and in its aim to heighten awareness of the contribution that ordinary members of the national community make to conceptions of identity and citizenship (as symbolic ideas and everyday lived reality), the NMA has sought to create ‘a more widely shared and more widely available form of “the political” as moments of engagement, of “public connection”’.[25] The representation of ‘the political’ preferred by the NMA is one that is centrally tied to ideas about culture, and linked therefore to a supposedly more inclusive, civics-based notion of citizenship.[26]

My interest in this essay is not to sift back through the well-known series of actions, recriminations, responses or the wider social implications that followed from the museum’s opening and culminated in the 2003 Review of the National Museum of Australia, Its Exhibitions and Public Programs: A report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia (henceforth referred to as the NMA Review).[27] Instead, I want to highlight two particular aspects of the process through which the NMA was conceptualised and then presented to the public that have continued to inform understandings about the social role and purpose of the museum.[28] My first point of focus is the intellectual framework or approach that was adopted for the new museum. Seeking to represent identity as unfinished and contested, contingent and continuously negotiated, national identity was represented as a work in progress to which museum audiences were encouraged to contribute. The contributions of audiences and constituents were enabled on the basis that the museum would function as a public forum that aimed to ‘speak with many voices, listen and respond to all, and promote debate and discussion about questions of diversity and identity’.[29]

The second notable aspect is the decision to present the museum as an active agent in the emergent History Wars. As indicated by recommendations made by the Piggott Report, the intention for the museum to adopt the role of provocateur was indicated before it opened. These intentions were clearly aligned with an implicit attempt to question old certainties (especially those relating to the history of Indigenous people).[30] As early as 1998, Casey publicly commented: ‘It is never easy for a publicly funded cultural institution to become involved in controversy, but that is probably inevitable if we are to do our job honestly.’[31] We can understand that the museum, rather than adopting the position of distanced observer or neutral reflection, sought to provoke and challenge long-held ideas about identity and question what citizenship meant in this country. Casey’s desire for the museum to enact a program of social change and political intervention was motivated, in part at least, by the less controversial aim that the institution should incorporate and demonstrate to the Australian public a self-reflexivity about the general historical complicity of museums in the colonial enterprise.

On the one hand, it is possible to understand the museum’s provocative purview to be an affectation associated with the emergent discipline of new museology through which it was designed and articulated (American ‘new museologist’ Elaine Heumann Gurian was involved in the museum’s development phase during the 1990s). Its aim, however, to be politically aware, responsive to contemporary events and to represent the changing place of Indigenous Australians within Australian society was based on the initial concept of the national museum (as recommended by the Piggott Report), which outlined a bicultural museum that should concentrate on ‘Aboriginal man in Australia; European man in Australia; and the Australian environment and its interaction with the two-named themes’.[32] Early exhibitions such as Landmarks: People, land and political change (exhibited in 1993 at Old Parliament House, Canberra) presented the reconciliation project as a way to bring these themes into dialogue in order to make the museum appear contemporary and relevant.[33] The exhibition sought to improve the public’s understanding of the reconciliation project, which had been formed largely through the media’s coverage of events including Indigenous responses to the 1988 Bicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney (problematically promoted as the ‘celebration of the nation’), as well as the 1992 Mabo ruling.[34]

Although commentators sometimes contend that the level of public interest in reconciliation was indicated by the great numbers of signatures (more than one million) that were collected in thousands of ‘sorry books’ and by the more than 260 local reconciliation groups that were established to mark the inaugural National Sorry Day held on 26 May 1998, the majority of Australians did not sign sorry books or go on reconciliation marches.[35] For his part, the Prime Minister, John Howard, steadfastly refused to lead or have any part in offering a formal national apology for past mistreatment of Aboriginal people, arguing that Australians should not be asked to ‘accept responsibility for the acts of earlier generations, sanctioned by the law of the times’.[36] Further, the Liberal-National Coalition’s electoral success at the 1996 federal election was due as much to Howard’s ‘tough stance’ as it was to his ability to tap into and reflect residual attitudes among the ‘majority’ of Australians—‘the battlers’ targeted by his ‘For all of us’ campaign slogan.[37] Even despite its varying levels of support, however, the reconciliation project was front of stage in the mainstream media and popular imagination in the period leading up to the NMA’s opening and the new museum, widely promoted as offering a ‘public forum’, was a logical site to host debates of national significance. The debate about reconciliation increasingly became associated with the museum when rumours started to circulate that the word ‘sorry’ was written in the Braille transcript that skirted the building’s postmodern exterior.[38]

The Prime Minister famously responded to the new NMA building by labelling it ‘very un-museum-like’ at its launch in March 2001.[39] His suspicion of apologies and postmodern museums was soon allied to claims laid by conservative commentator Keith Windschuttle that the museum’s selection and representation of a biased ‘people’s history’ overlooked the contribution of settlers and great Australians to the national project and misrepresented colonial events. Windschuttle derided the museum’s commitment to pluralism on the basis that it gave ‘equal time for every identifiable sexual and ethnic group’.[40] His interpretation gained further traction when one of the NMA’s own board members, David Barnett—a former press secretary to Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Howard’s official biographer—accused the NMA of presenting a version of Australian history that was ‘claptrap’ and influenced by ‘Marxist rubbish’.[41] Barnett contended that the exhibitions portrayed a revisionist ‘black-armband’ view of Australian history that was politically partisan in that it championed ‘unfortunates’ such as workers and stolen children and ignored the contributions of ‘founding fathers and prime ministers’.[42] Of Label 0826-70, Barnett said: ‘Heather Rose. Another unfortunate. The way to get a place in the Museum is to have something terrible befall you.’[43] Despite the slowly growing public support for a national apology to be made to members of the Stolen Generations, Barnett took particular offence at the museum’s Stolen Generations exhibit, denigrating it as a ‘victim episode’.[44]

Barnett’s complaint about the NMA’s depiction of ‘biased’ accounts of Aboriginal experience and its concentration on the extraordinary achievements and stories of ordinary Australians (at what he considered to be the expense of notable Australians) stood in stark contrast with comments made by Al Grassby 30 years earlier.[45] In a 1973 conference presentation called ‘A multi-cultural society for the future’, Grassby asked:

How often do our television screens reflect anything like the variety of migrant groups encountered in a real-life stroll through our city streets, or particularly our near-city suburbs? The image we manage to convey of ourselves still seems to range from the bushwhacker to the sportsman to the slick city businessman. Where is the Maltese process worker, the Finnish carpenter, the Italian concrete layer, the Yugoslav miner, or—dare I say it—the Indian scientist?[46]

Grassby’s comments about the poverty of representation offered by Australian television were picked up by the Galbally Report in 1978, which lay the groundwork for the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS).[47] The multicultural policies developed in the ensuing 30 years also led to the transformation of public culture in Australia. Initiatives such as ‘Harmony Day’, the establishment of migration museums in Adelaide and Melbourne, the development of cultural diversity policies by state museums and the leading professional organisation, Museums Australia, as well as the establishment of the Australia Council policy on Australian arts and cultural diversity demonstrate that a significant cultural change has occurred, as do the many community development projects funded by local and state governments.[48] The NMA was also founded and designed during the early days of multicultural policy development. Refining the general approach outlined by the 1975 Piggott Report, the 1982 Report of the Interim Council: Plan for the development of the Museum of Australia envisaged that:

The Museum will emphasise that Australian society comprises people of many different origins…pay special attention to events in the peopling of Australia…highlight the effects of cultural diversity…[and explore] how the concept of assimilation of new immigrants is being re-examined and re-shaped by pluralistic philosophies and practices.[49]

The report tasked the museum with enlarging perceptions of Australian nationhood and with providing a space that would invite public scrutiny of the policies emerging in the post-White Australia Policy era. It sought a museum that would enable consideration of the impact of such policies on the everyday experience of ordinary Australians. This was less a revisionist approach to history telling than one that sought to represent those people (Grassby’s Maltese process worker, Finnish carpenter and Italian concrete layer, but also the diversity of Indigenous Australians) who had been previously excluded from the national register. It also recognised the role that museums had in measuring and reflecting (as well as influencing) public opinion.

[22] The pluralist approach was evident in early exhibitions developed by the NMA (even before the new building opened on Acton Peninsula). To celebrate 1995 as UNESCO International Year of Tolerance, the museum developed an exhibition entitled Tolerance (shown at Old Parliament House) that used items from the museum’s migrant heritage collection. See the exhibition’s companion volume: Zubrzycki, Jerzy 1995, White Australians: Tolerance and intolerance in race relations, National Museum of Australia, Canberra. In 2002, Dawn Casey defended the NMA’s pluralism on the basis that ‘the world’s newest museums…take a…many-stranded approach to national history’. She goes on to argue: ‘We accept that there are few absolute truths in history. We admit many voices to the debate.’ Casey, Dawn 2002, ‘Modern museum is meant to startle those who visit’, The Canberra Times, 14 March 2002.

[23] Casey, Dawn 2001, ‘The National Museum of Australia’, in Darryl McIntyre and Kirsten Wehner (eds), National Museums: Negotiating histories, National Museum of Australia, Canberra, pp. 3–11, at p. 9. In a keynote speech presented to the annual Museums Australia conference in 1999, Casey said: ‘The date of opening for the National Museum coincides with the celebration of a pivotal event in Australian history. Many Australians will come together to explore our collective cultural achievement through celebrating, examining and debating the 100 years since our passage into nationhood. I have no doubt that many in 2001 will also be debating the newly opened National Museum of Australia.’ Casey, Dawn 1999, The development of the National Museum of Australia: a museum for the 21st century, Keynote speech at Museums Australia conference, Albury, May 1999.

[24] Piggott, Museums in Australia 1975, p. 6.

[25] Hermes and Dahlgren, ‘Cultural studies and citizenship’, p. 261. In tracing the development of the History Wars in Australia, Macintyre and Clark argued that after he was elected to office in 1996, John Howard ‘took up the prosecution of the History Wars [and political correctness] with a vengeance’, adopting the ‘black-armband’ epithet employed by Geoffrey Blainey in his 1993 Latham Lecture. Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna 2003, The History Wars, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria, pp. 132–3, 220–1. Blainey, Geoffrey 1993, ‘Drawing up a balance sheet of our history’, Quadrant, vol. 37, nos 7–8, pp. 10–15.

[26] For further discussion about cultural citizenship, see Couldry, Nick 2006, ‘Culture and citizenship: the missing link?’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 321–39; and Dahlgren, Peter 2006, ‘Doing citizenship: the cultural origins of civic agency in the public sphere’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 267–86.

[27] Carroll, Review of the National Museum of Australia. See also Message, Kylie and Healy, Chris 2004, ‘A symptomatic museum: the new, the NMA and the culture wars’, Borderlands e-journal, vol. 3, no. 3, viewed 19 January 2009, <>; and Healy, Chris and Witcomb, Andrea (eds) 2006, South Pacific Museums: Experiments in Culture, Monash University E-Press and Sydney University Press, Melbourne and Sydney.

[28] For a curatorial account of the new Circa and the recently opened Australian Journeys exhibition, which replaces Horizons and was designed vis-a-vis the NMA Review’s recommendations, see Schamberger, Karen, Sear, Martha and Wehner, Kirsten et al. 2008, ‘Living in a material world: object biography and transnational lives’, in Desley Deacon, Penny Russell and Angela Woollacott (eds), Transnational Ties: Australian ties in the world, ANU E Press, Canberra, pp. 275–97; and Morton, Craddock 2008, ‘The National Museum of Australia: have we got the museum we deserve?’, ReCollections: Journal of the National Museum of Australia, vol. 3, no. 2, viewed 19 January 2009, <>

[29] Casey, ‘The National Museum of Australia’, p. 6.

[30] Piggott, Museums in Australia 1975, p. 71 (section 12.8).

[31] Casey, ‘The National Museum of Australia’, p. 9.

[32] Piggott, Museums in Australia 1975, p. 4 (section 2.11).

[33] According to the catalogue, the exhibition attempted to examine land ownership through the lens of Australia’s political history, and focused on three recent ‘landmarks’—the end of the White Australia Policy in 1973, the Franklin Dam dispute of 1983 and the Mabo High Court decision in 1992—‘that have challenged traditional assumptions about these issues’. National Museum of Australia 1993, Landmarks: People, land and political change, National Museum of Australia, Canberra.

[34] Mabo vs Queensland (No. 2) was a court case in which the High Court of Australia recognised native title and in so doing overturned the claims of terra nullius that had been used to defend British colonisation. The Native Title Act was enacted the next year (1993) and, in a ‘citizenship promotion’ speech in 1994, then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said that pluralism ‘will guarantee an Australia which is not only culturally rich but socially cohesive and harmonious. Just as importantly, it will mean an Australia which counts among its primary values the capacity to find practical ways to mediate differences—not just ethnic or cultural differences but the differences between men and women, between urban and rural Australians, between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians…The catchword is not uniformity, but difference. It is not conformity, but creativity. It is not exclusive, but inclusive. Not closed to the world, but open to it.’ Keating cited in Kalantzis, Mary 2000, ‘Multicultural citizenship’, in Wayne Hudson and John Kane (eds), Rethinking Australian Citizenship, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 99–111, at p. 105. Also see Mabo vs Queensland (No. 2) [1992], HCA 23; [1992], 175 CLR 1 (3 June 1992).

[35] Sorry Day was established one year after the report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families was tabled in Parliament, on 26 May 1997. For details, see Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. For analysis of the opinion polls published in relation to Indigenous affairs in Australia (including the 1991 establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation), see Goot, Murray and Rowse, Tim 2007, Divided Nation? Indigenous affairs and the imagined public, Melbourne University Publishing, Carlton, Victoria.

[36] Quoted in Galligan, Brian and Roberts, Winsome 2003, Australian multiculturalism: its rise and demise, Paper presented to Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart, 29 September – 1 October 2003. The intersection between the NMA and reconciliation has continued to be apparent. In their submission to the NMA Review, for example, the Lane Cove Residents for Reconciliation wrote in support of the NMA and its recognition of reconciliation as ‘the defining issue of our nation’. See Lane Cove Residents for Reconciliation submission (25 March 2003) to the NMA Review. A full list of submissions is available at < nma_corporate_documents/exhibitions_and_public_programs_review/submissions/> (viewed 19 January 2009).

[37] Hage, Ghassan 2003, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for hope in a shrinking society, Pluto Press, Annandale, New South Wales. Gale, Peter 2001, ‘Representations of reconciliation: bridges, symbols and substance’, in Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope (eds), Reconciliation, Multiculturalism, Identities: Difficult dialogues, sensible solutions, Common Ground Publishing, Altona, Victoria, pp. 123–34.

[38] Devine, Miranda 2006, ‘Disclosed at last, the embedded messages that adorn museum’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 2006.

[39] Prime Minister Howard’s address at the opening of the NMA, 11 March 2001, in McIntyre, Darryl 2006, ‘The National Museum of Australia and public discourse: the role of public policies in the nation’s cultural debates’, Museum International, vol. 58, no. 4, pp. 13–20, at p. 13.

[40] Windschuttle, Keith 2001, ‘How not to run a museum: people’s history at the postmodern museum’, Quadrant, vol. 45, no. 9, pp. 11–19, at p. 16.

[41] In McCarthy, Greg 2004, ‘Postmodern discontent and the National Museum of Australia’, Borderlands e-journal, vol. 3, no. 3, viewed 19 January 2009, <> Barnett’s political persuasion was described in one newspaper article as ‘far-right’. Mitchell, Alex 1999, ‘More boys in the jobs’, Sun Herald, 24 January 1999.

[42] Morgan, Joyce 2001, ‘Howard’s man: “These people are not my heroes”’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 2001. Morgan obtained the notes through freedom of information. See also Macintyre and Clark, The History Wars, p. 193.

[43] Message and Healy, ‘A symptomatic museum’.

[44] In Macintyre and Clark, The History Wars, p. 192.

[45] Grassby, A Multi-Cultural Society for the Future, p. 2.

[46] Ibid., p. 2.

[47] Galbally, Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services.

[48] On the flipside, however, in 2003, Andrew Jakubowicz argued that ‘the key institutions over which government has control do not represent the diversity of Australian society at all—the monocultural Cabinet (0/17), the monocultural High Court (0/7) and the monocultural ABC (0/7 government appointees) are the ones at the tip of the iceberg. Public representation on government advisory boards no longer has to reflect cultural diversity, where most participants are selected for their willingness to accept government cultural priorities.’ Jakubowicz, Andrew 2003, Auditing multiculturalism: the Australian empire a generation after Galbally, Address to the Annual Conference of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, Melbourne, December 2003. See also Australia Council for the Arts 1996, Arts for a Multicultural Australia: Policy principles 1996–99, Australia Council for the Arts, Sydney; Australia Council for the Arts 1998, Arts for a Multicultural Australia, 1998, Australia Council for the Arts, Sydney; National Museum of Australia 2005, Cultural Diversity Policy, POL-C-027, National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Museums Australia 2000, Museums Australia Incorporated Cultural Diversity Policy, Museums Australia, Canberra.

[49] Quoted in Zubrzycki, Jerzy 2003, ‘The place of ethnic heritage collections in the National Museum of Australia’, 10 March 2003, Submission to the Review of the National Museum of Australia, Its Exhibitions and Public Programs: A report to the Council of the National Museum of Australia. A full list of submissions is available at < exhibitions_and_public_programs_review/submissions/> (viewed 19 January 2009). Also see the source document: Museum of Australia Interim Council 1982, Report of the Interim Council: Plan for the development of the Museum of Australia, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, p. 40 (pars 1–35).