Tim Blair


New Criterion



Wednesday, July 16, 2003
ALREADY DISQUALIFIED AS 'CONTROVERSIAL' by the ABC national television news service, the report of the panel reviewing the National Museum of Australia is far from that.

Considering how much Auntie used to love the panel's Chair, Professor John Carroll, at least when he was in his flakier, intuitive sociologist mode, you have to remember that it greeted the panel's establishment with barely disguised loathing, its commentators, especially Philip Adams, portraying the exercise as a political witch-hunt. Perhaps because someone told them that Carroll was a friend of arch-demon and Coalition front-bencher, David Kemp.

Most of the report is a sober discussion of how best to represent Australia's history, and if you're interested in that you should read the report. It gives convincing praise of the Museum's major achievements.

The report doesn't shy away from the politics, but puts it in perspective as a relatively minor blemish, and easily remedied. It refrains from asking the obvious question of why the grosser blemishes weren't corrected voluntarily, and within months.

Here is the review at its most Solomonaic:

The Panel ’s sixth criterion specifies that the NMA should ‘cover darker historical episodes,and with a gravity that opens the possibility of collective self-accounting.The role here is in helping the nation to examine fully its own past,and the dynamic of its history —with truthfulness, sobriety and balance....The theme of Aboriginal/European frontier relations —specifically,the implication that Aboriginal people were significantly mistreated on the frontier and the consequences of this mistreatment — has lain at the base of a succession of contested issues which unfolded during the decade
preceding the NMA ’s opening,and which continue to resonate.They include Aboriginal land rights and the native title issue,Aboriginal deaths in custody,and the Stolen Generations.

The NMA has taken up several of these issues.It has addressed the frontier conflict controversy — in ‘Contested Frontiers ’,a module situated downstairs in the First Australians .This exhibit presents an issue which goes to the heart of one of the key themes of the NMA,relating to the interaction between Aboriginal and European cultures,against the background of the Australian environment. In response to criticism of the module as biased,the NMA hosted a conference
entitled Frontier Conflict:The Australian Experience.It led to a book of that title based on the proceedings.

The Panel regards the NMA ’s method in relation to this issue,in both the overall conception of the exhibition and the scholarly conference that followed,as a model for approaching such controversies....

While acknowledging the value of ‘Contested Frontiers ’,the Panel has a range of detailed criticisms of the module,ones which it hopes will be generically useful to the strategic planning of future exhibitions on contentious topics.

Because of the background to ‘Contested Frontiers ’,and the likelihood that the exhibit would attract significant attention from critics,the visitor might expect it to contain a selection of carefully researched themes,and well-chosen graphics and objects reflecting the subject matter.

In the Panel ’s view this expectation has not been met.

In an era of rising scepticism about the veracity of various forms of media,museums have established themselves as authentic sources of knowledge.This authenticity is founded upon the perception that the objects they contain are not only real,but are connected directly to the events or processes that they represent.The curatorial onus on museums to deliver authentic objects, text and graphics,tightly connected both to each other and to the exhibition theme,is obviously
greater when that theme is controversial. In ‘Contested Frontiers ’neither the objects, text, nor graphics provide the level of authenticity demanded by this weighty and complex subject. While this exhibit contains more than 40 artefacts,only two of these can be said to have an authentic connection with the subject of frontier violence. These two objects are handcuffs and chains used in the restraint of Aboriginal prisoners.None of the guns or swords included,nor any of the Aboriginal spears,clubs and shields,has apparent connection with any situation of frontier violence.

There are a number of well-documented ‘frontier collisions ’and massacres of Aboriginal people on the Australian frontier.The NMA has chosen to focus on two events that have assumed an importance in the oral record,but for which there is very little in the way of tangible evidence.It has a duty to present an exhibit that deals with an occurrence about which there is not such historical uncertainty.
and it proceeds to point out a couple of cases.

If the Museum, under its new Director, makes good use of this review, the Museum and all of us will benefit.