Thursday, 6 June 2013

Contested Histories; Aborigines, National Museums and controversy

This is a tentative blog post because it's an area into which I wouldn't normally stray; I have no knowledge and no declared interest in either side. It feels like I am stepping in to unknown territory armed with only my wits and – in the current terminology, a bucket of privilege. Still, I can always blame naivety - and the lecturer; Prof Amanda Nettelbeck of the University of Adelaide. She gave a few of us an overview of the national museums project that she and other historian colleagues are working on. The title was: ‘Contested Histories: Settler Colonialism, Aboriginal History and the National Museum’.

I’m not going to present a complete transcription of her lecture but do a brief overview.

She opened with comparative observation regarding settler treatment of aboriginal people in Canada and Australia. [First observation - she used the word ‘aboriginal’ to describer ‘first peoples’ of both countries]. Canada recognised their legal rights, whereas Australia didn’t, however it seems that the outcome was the same. That is to say aboriginal people found themselves on reservations and under state control.

In recent years she stated that within the Australian population [not specifying which section but I am guessing the white European] there has been a strong resurgence in national history and social memory. She cites the popularity of Anzac Day and the increase in visitors to Canberra’s War memorial. There has also been a similar rise in anxiety in national identity and heritage, with attention being paid to historical injustices.

She then made some observations on the polarising views of history, stating that the black armband 'sorry' versus white blindfold 'triumphant' view is unhelpful. She gave the example of ‘The West as America, Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820–1920’ (1991) as an explosive way of museums handling contested histories. It was deemed as political, too left, and anti American.

These combined factors – increased historical interest, exploration of the relations between settler and aboriginal communities, the general controversy – gave rise to the two national museums of Canada and Australia. The obligation of national museums is to consult, engage, and communicate regarding repatriation, projects, and invite participation. Both have gone about it in different ways, which is why she is interested in comparing the two.

1. National Museum of Australia

National Museum of Australia
They have laid it out not chronologically but thematically, to emphasise diversity. The ‘permanent’ galleries change regularly but have aboriginal motives of land, nation and people woven through. This is designed to set up a dialogue and interlink aborigines and non natives.

So far so good [in my view] but in the ‘Contested Frontiers - the Bells Falls Gorge Massacre exhibit’, the museum quickly under attack because of the challenges posed to orthodox histories, eg Keith Windschuttle. An excellent explanation is given and Professor Nettelbeck was calmly academic about these ‘conservative’, traditional historians. How any historian can dismiss oral testimony is beyond me; their view is if something wasn’t documented by settlers, then it isn’t valid. [Having recently listened to a programme about the Icelandic Sagas, these ancient stories captured on paper richly colour a civilization and add personality and humanity to the bare legal and official documents that ordodox historians rely on. I knew this would get contentious] Anyway Australian History Wars raged on and in 2003 a review of the museum took place and they toned down the controversial aspects of their joint histories. Resistance was the result, it uses only documented case studies, moved away from oral histories and with emphasis on traditional documented material. In essence, it tries to do the same as Contested Frontiers. It’s hard to capture the complexity of the story in a completely neutral way.

2. The Canadian Museum of Civilisation

Where the Australians attempted to bring the histories together, the Canadians split them in two with Canada Hall and First Peoples’ Hall. The first was committed to diversity and avoiding the conventional story, whereas the second examined the history of political struggle and ongoing land problems.

Canadian Museum by D Gordon E Robertson
However like the Australian Museum, this caused controversy as Canada Hall was criticised for being too political correct and led to an external review. Historians felt that familiar historical touchstones were required. The two parts were also seen as an issue as it separates the history; Canada Hall seems to begin and end with European settlers and Amanda suggest than you can leave the museum with no idea about Canadian ‘First Peoples’. [If this is the case, then something is very wrong]

She cited the New Zealand Te papa Museum which has also polarised national history and been criticised by both sides. By trying to please everyone, they have succeeded in pleasing nobody. I see this as a missed opportunity to air some really interesting and strong views on both sides.

Some observations:

  • Is it better to have local museums? They are still likely to face constraints, in terms of local political influence. Where a country such as Canada is concerned there are some complicated, transnational issues. 
  • National Museums need to shape and be shaped by the nation. They are initiating high profile debates; controversies are positive. 30 years ago, Colin Tatz suggested that said the mainstream could never engage a suppressed minority which she says is overly pessimistic. [After seeing the privilege debate on twitter recently, I’m not sure if she is being too optimistic]
  • Settlers are compelled to acknowledge the past and take note that Aboriginal activists are still waiting for a land treaty. Injustices are still going on?
  • The role of museums is not to reconstruct histories. [Quite an interesting one this, perhaps not to reconstruct but to re-construct lives, lessons, attitudes, a ‘time’, an ‘atmostphere’ so that we can re-imagine times past.] 
  • We wondered where the term 'First Peoples/Nation' came from. Language has powerful, political implications and it is perhaps useful as historians to check etymologies.
  • Finally, someone mentioned that the Canada Museum was undergoing a rebrand and losing the 'Civilisation' tag to become Canadian Museum of History. Civilisation v History? I'm not sure, it is neutral, follows a similar pattern to other similar organisations, so why not. It's a shame to lose the Civilisation though...enough of that has disappeared.

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