Category Archives: Museum Concept

What does Australia look like in cultural institutions overseas? Part 2

In Part two of this post, I’d like to think more about the “decolonisation” of cultural institutions and how this could impact on Australia and the way it is viewed by visitors overseas. Do cultural institutions present Australian history and cultural heritage to reflect our ever evolving nation post British colonisation and including those who have migrated to Australia up to the present day?

Present day Australians. Image: abc.net

I would say that our Colonial past has synergy with other parts of the world colonised by the British – such as the United States, India, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. British Colonial Governors were regularly transferred to different parts of the British Empire and used convict labour to put their stamp onto the newly formed colonies. This period of history provides the earliest evidence of Australia’s changing cultural heritage post British settlement. After losing its American colonies in 1783, the British formed six colonies in Australia. They began to create a European-style “built environment” including townships, infrastructure and industries, large scale farming and trading between colonies and with other nations. 

History is Messy. Image: The Guardian

Calla Wahlquist from The Guardian wrote an article “History is Messy” about the National Galleries Victoria’s (NGV) concurrent shows called Colony (1770-1861) and Colony (Frontiers), exploring Australia’s complex colonial past and the art that emerged during and in response to this period. Presented concurrently, the two exhibitions offered parallel experiences of the settlement of Australia. Drawing from public and private collections across the country, Colony: Australia 1770–1861, brought together the most important examples of art and design produced during this period and surveyed the key settlements and development of life and culture in the colonies. Importantly, the exhibition acknowledged the impact of European settlement on Indigenous communities. Such an exhibition would have relevance in the UK and other Pacific nations that similarly were impacted by British explorers and colonists.

When the six colonies in Australia federated in 1901 and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed as part of the British Empire, there was widespread public support for the adoption of a national immigration policy and administration post Federation. Immigration was at the time administered separately by the states. All of the major parties involved in the new Federal Parliament held policies deliberately aimed at the exclusion of non-European migrants. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, included a ‘dictation test’ for those seeking to immigrate that could be given in any European language, and was the beginning of what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. This policy remained virtually unchanged until after the Second World War.

Until 1949, Britain and Australia shared a common nationality code. The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 created an Australian citizenship and the conditions by which it could be acquired. An Australian citizen was also considered to be a British subject.The Australian Citizenship Amendment Act 1984 was aimed at removing discriminatory aspects of the Act in relation to sex, marital status and nationality. The English language requirement was changed from ‘adequate’ to ‘basic’ and applicants over 50 were exempted from the English language requirement. Of particular importance, the definition of the status of British subject was repealed in order for the Act to reflect the national identity of all Australians. By the end of the 1980s, the total number of migrants from Asia overtook the total number from the UK. 

250 years after James Cook’s arrival, what are we doing to ensure the quality control of this information about Australia’s history on the world stage? There is a great deal of chatter worldwide about whether or not cultural institutions and their collections can be “decolonised”. 

“To decolonise is to add context that has been deliberately ignored and stripped away over generations. There are many examples of the misrepresentation of objects in museum displays that have only been corrected after dialogue with source communities. And there are countless instances where interpretation still needs to be rectified and stories freshly told.”  (Sharon Heal – 2019 Policy article – UK Museums Association) 

I think that it’s about more than that. It’s about being honest, stripping back the imbalance of power that occurred in the past (often unknowingly), really looking at inadvertent racism or examining the way that we tread “softly, softly” on difficult subjects like “The Stolen Generation”, “Slavery in Australia” or the “White Australia Policy”. It’s about looking carefully at museum collections – empowering them by reinterpreting and researching them, perhaps even repatriating objects with significance to living cultures or changing direction to be more “inclusive”. It is critical to consider the present diversity of museum audiences when evaluating objects in specific collections – are they relevant for each museum’s vision for the future or are they stuck with interpretation that belonged to times past, older exhibitions and a different type of museum visitor.

Museums must be safe places for inter-generational learning and education, spaces for healing and reflection and a place where everyone feels welcome and the majority of visitors would want to return again and again. In the era of Covid-19 when cultural institutions are about to take a huge financial hit – getting your house in order is the best way to stay relevant when the doors to your institution reopen. 

The Washington Post defines decolonisation as “a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonisers.”

There are several ways to promote Australia in cultural institutions overseas. The first and simplest method is to design travelling exhibitions in partnership with museums that may have objects in their collections which would enhance an existing exhibition or has had a direct connection which might be relevant  to the subject matter in the exhibition. 

Australia is very much a nation of migrants from 1788 until the present day. We have a number of good “Migration” museums and museums reflecting the migrant contribution to Australian culture around the country. Specific collections relating to our migrant history can be found at the Migration museums in Melbourne, Adelaide, and sections of the Australian National Maritime Museum (Sydney), National Museum of Australia (Canberra), National Archives of Australia (Canberra). There are also “specialist” museums such as Sydney Jewish Museum, Jewish Museum of Australia (Melbourne), Jewish Holocaust Centre (Melbourne) and “multicultural” museums e.g.  Multicultural Museums Victoria (MMV) an alliance  which is an Australian first including the Chinese Museum, Co.As.It Italian Historical Society & Museo Italiano, Hellenic Museum, Islamic Museum of Australia and the Jewish Museum of Australia. I doubt that many of these museums would have an opportunity to exhibit travelling exhibitions overseas which is a pity because I’m not certain how we are seen as Australians from a global perspective.

What’s on at Multicultural Museums Victoria.

 I’ve seen some sad misrepresentation of Australia in world class museums, but in direct contrast, I’ve been very proud to see one of our difficult stories connecting with audiences in the UK. I was lucky to visit “On Their Own – Britain’s Child Migrants”, a collaboration between the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney and National Museums Liverpool in both Sydney and Liverpool, UK and observe the emotional audience response to the telling of this story from our difficult past.

Sometimes the absence of objects in museums overseas also tells a story about how Australia is seen on the world stage. If you look into the online collections and exhibition databases of major cultural institutions overseas, Australia is either not mentioned, poorly represented across layers of history and cultural diversity or aspects of the Australian collection have been vaguely researched or mislabeled or tagged as Australian when they are not, or the provenance is weak to say the least (see Part one of the post). This is an opportunity for Australian cultural institutions to support or partner with museums overseas to assist with researching collections or reinterpreting out of date displays.

For example, I have seen wonderful exhibitions of Fred William’s work in Australian galleries over many years and would love to have seen some of those beautifully curated exhibitions travel the world. The works would also lend themselves to digital or immersive experiences of the outback Australia. Of course Williams is only one of hundreds of 19th and 20th century Australian artists who would look good on the walls of cultural institutions in other parts of the world.

Fred Williams from the Tate Galleries UK Collection

Williams (b.1927) is one of my favourite Australian artists because his works are truly evocative of the Australian landscape. Fred is the first and only Australian artist to have exhibited at MoMA (New York) and this happened  in 1977- 43 years ago. Sadly there are few other references to Australian Art in the MoMA collection. The artists represented in the collection are – Leonard French b.1928, Tracey Moffat b.1960, Toba Khedori, b.1964, Sydney Nolan b.1917, Anton Bruehl b.1900 (born in Australia), Shaun Gladwell b.1972, and the University of Western Australia for their Pig Wings Project 2000-2001.

In the UK the Tate Gallery holds 30 of Fred Williams works and works by over 70 Australian artists including those  with Indigenous and Multicultural cultural heritage. 

I was excited to find 619 references to Australia in the online collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York but so many of these works were by Australian born artists who were more American or British in reality. Indigenous Australia seemed to be well represented in the online collection, but actually looking at these objects and artworks reveals that a large proportion are actually African, Indian, European, Fijian, South East Asian or from Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. 

In the British Museum collection online there are over 7,000 references to Australia but closer examination reveals that hundreds of these are objects from other countries which had been on loan to Australian Museums for exhibitions rather than actually being sourced from Australia. Thousands of objects are Indigenous Australian pieces – tools, weapons, bags, adornments, artwork, shields etc. There are more recent art works and decorative objects, coins and banknotes and photographs and colonial paintings and engravings but only one record for Multicultural Australia – Ithaca I; print; Aida Tomescu (Print made by); 1997 .

Aida Tomescu (1997) Ithaca I. AGNSW Collection. No image available for British Museum.

Australia’s Multicultural heritage is unique and an interesting part of the fabric of our nation and there are many stories in museums in Australia that could be shared world over. In 2011 Viv Szekeres wrote an article  ‘Museums and multiculturalism: too vague to understand, too important to ignore’ . To reflect our changing cultural heritage may require a rethink in collection practices – a more strategic collection practice in partnership with different communities.

The National Galleries Victoria presented a major exhibition of influential British artist, David Hockney, in 2016 at NGV International. The exhibition, curated by the NGV in collaboration with David Hockney and his studio, featured more than 700 works from the past decade of the artist’s career – some new and many never-before-seen in Australia – including paintings, digital drawings, photography and video works. We seem to do really well collaborating with overseas museums to highlight their collections but what about the reverse situation to highlight our Australian collections overseas? 

Useful references

What does it mean to decolonize a museum?

Who’s afraid of decolonisation?

Decolonising museums

The ‘decolonization’ of the American museum – The

White Australia policy

Australia’s hidden history of slavery: the government divides to conquer

The Stolen Generations

Understanding Museums – Museums and multiculturalism

Decolonizing the Museum Mind

Museums Association UK  Collections 2030 DISCUSSION PAPER 

FRED WILLIAMS : INFINITE HORIZONS –

Concept – Museum of Parramatta

I like to visit museums when I travel. Some of my favourites have been specific museums unique to the place that I’m visiting like The Little Museum of Dublin , The Museum of Liverpool and the New York Historical Society Museum.

The Little Museum of Dublin. Picture by Lonely Planet

What I know about Parramatta is that it’s not just about stadiums, new high rise development, Parramatta Eels and Western Sydney Wanderers. In my opinion, the City of Parramatta has a rich cultural heritage which could be a more significant tourist attraction and contribute greatly to building the community and economy of Western Sydney.

The City of Parramatta Council has a culturally significant collection of objects and archives dating back to the earliest days of council (1861), and archaeological evidence dating back to much earlier times. Parramatta’s historical layers provide the perfect inspiration for its own unique museum which I’m calling “The Museum of Parramatta”, not to be confused with the new MAAS Museum (which is a completely different concept) coming to Western Sydney in the future. 

Kaolin Pipe stems and bowls from the collection of the City of Parramatta

In my mind, Australia has three distinct layers of history which make it what it is today. It is too late to undo the colonisation of Australia by the British, but we can look harder at our history, dissect it and present it in new and better informed ways. History is not fixed – it is open to further research and interpretation from primary sources and definitely open to further discussion. I would say that the City of Parramatta is the perfect place to examine and discuss Australian history by exploring further its Indigenous layer, Colonial layer and its waves of migration or the Multicultural layer.

I envisage that The Museum of Parramatta would use 4 spaces to present the Parramatta story – past and present – a story of its First Nations people dating back 40,000+ years, to the arrival of Europeans and the successive waves of migration from 1788 until the present. The museum will also need a functional space for permanent exhibitions, travelling or changing temporary exhibitions and for the public to access Parramatta’s history using onsite digital resources similar to and building upon those available in the existing Parramatta Local Studies Library.

Aboriginal Warriors by Joseph Lycett (1815-1822). National Library of Australia Collection

Space 1. Our First Australians

Starting at the beginning, I have imagined that Space 1 would need to be created in consultation with local Indigenous groups. We need to know Australian history from an indigenous perspective – we are all still learning the facts about our past. How did Aboriginal people live in Parramatta? What were their totems? What animals and foods were special to them? What was the impact that Colonial settlement had on the cultural practices on Indigenous groups already living in Parramatta and surrounding areas. The story goes back much further than Colonial settlement in Australia to more than 40,000 years ago. Who were the standout Aboriginal characters – individuals who were important local leaders and who managed to straddle both worlds at that time of first contact? Some of the stories will be hard to hear but they need to be told. Australians must think more critically about the past rather than continuing to look at history from a Eurocentric perspective.

Two Aborigines spearing eels by Joseph Lycett (c1817). National Library of Australia collection.

What about Indigenous Parramattan communities today? Where are the communities? What are the local languages spoken? Which part of local cultural heritage are the communities willing to share with us today? Are there objects in the City of Parramatta collection or in other cultural institutions that may be appropriate to use to tell their stories? Several Indigenous cultural experiences are already available through Discover Parramatta and perhaps these could enhance the museum experience in Space 1.

I recently participated in an online FutureLearn Course called Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Spaces which examines both sides of Captain Cook’s encounters with First Nations People in the Pacific and and how various societies related differently to his legacy. This reinforced my ideas about a need for Space 1 in the Museum of Parramatta.

The English Channel (2015) by Michael Parekowhai. Captain Cook reflecting on his legacy in a contemporary world. How do Pacific nations view him now , 250 years after their first encounter?

Space 2. The Colonial Years and birth of Parramatta Council

This area would be used to unpack Parramatta’s Colonial layer. There is plenty of archaeological and archival evidence to support learning about the built environment, but sadly there has been a significant loss of the “intact’ heritage buildings from Colonial times as a result of neglect, “progress” and development. Much of this destruction occurred before the Heritage Act was introduced in 1977. There are a number of significant sites in Parramatta which could be cross promoted through The Museum of Parramatta such as Old Government House and Experiment Farm Cottage (National Trust of Australia), Elizabeth Farm (Sydney Living Museums), Hambledon Cottage, Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, Lancer Barracks ………and the list goes on (see more detail at the end of this post).

Space 2 could utilise the objects from the City of Parramatta’s collection of archaeological and culturally significant material as well as its Archives. It will be a great space to tell the stories of Parramatta’s early history using the collection as tangible evidence of the past. 

One of the many Expeditions for the City of Parramatta DigiVol project

The current City of Parramatta DigiVol project has a team of 120 volunteers transcribing the Parramatta Council Minutes from 1862-1945. The minutes tell of the everyday issues facing a new rapidly growing town. When the minutes become searchable primary source, it will bring the Councillors and the people of Parramatta’s past to life. TROVE is also a wonderful resource for reading news from the early days of Parramatta via the old newspapers in digitised form.

The team at Parramatta Heritage and Visitor Information Centre has researched so much about the city’s past which is available via their blog posts. Another significant body of work was researching all the Parramattans involved in the Great War . The team has produced a range of publications on the subject and also a travelling touchtable resource for the public to access.

Space 3. Waves of Migration

Successive waves of migration have shaped the culture and identity of Parramatta. It is home to many people with different pasts, and it is important to recognise that there are connections between the city of Parramatta and the new migrant communities that now call Parramatta home. We know that Chinese people migrated to NSW in the earliest days of the colony. Indian and Lebanese people also came very early on when the colony formed and have participated in the growth and cultural heritage of Parramatta and NSW.

Australia Day at Parramatta

The ‘Waves of People’ report was produced by Western Sydney University for the City of Parramatta. The research recounts the history of Parramatta’s inhabitants – from the generations of Darug families living along the Parramatta River and Australia’s first inland European settlement, to the waves of migrants and refugees from all over the world who made a home here.

“It is the accumulation of stories and experiences inscribed in built form that gives a place its distinct identity. Such stories are not only for the culturally sensitive: they drive real-estate investment too. When a city is rebuilt from scratch, we risk losing these stories and connections.” (The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta)

As well as connecting to the past, Parramatta’s calendar is filled with festivals such as – Parramasala, Diwali, Lunar New Year, ParraLanes and Winterfest to name just a few. These festivals build on Parramatta’s Cultural Heritage and help to bring the community together in the present.

Celebrating Holi at Parramatta

Space 4. Changing exhibitions

This space is essential for presenting temporary exhibitions or travelling exhibitions from other cultural institutions to engage with local and wider audiences of The Museum of Parramatta. The area would provide a safe meeting place for discussion on contentious issues, talks and events. It needs to have banks of computers to be available for research and discovery. The area would be well supported by the existing Local Studies Library, allowing visitors to research in depth information about Parramatta and their connections to the area. It should also host a searchable map of Parramatta to showcase all the amazing historic buildings, house museums and small volunteer run museums in the local area (some mentioned previously and also see the links below).

Final Words

Maybe I’m dreaming, but I believe that Parramatta is worthy of its own purpose built museum (or a museum reimagined in an existing heritage space e.g. Fleet Street Precinct, Old Kings School, Willow Grove) to showcase the history of this city. Parramatta deserves The Museum of Parramatta as well as a satellite of the Museum of Applied Arts and Science (Powerhouse Museum – an existing cultural institution being transplanted in Parramatta). It deserves a well thought out museum of its own to take a more critical look at Australian History from a Parramatta perspective.

Want to think  more critically about Parramatta’ history and cultural heritage? Explore the links below.

City of Parramatta Archive Council Collection

City of Parramatta Heritage Centre

City of Parramatta Collections

Parramatta Stories

Old Government House, Parramatta

Elizabeth Farm

Hambledon Cottage

Experiment Farm

Fleet Street Heritage Precinct

Parramatta Park

The Dairy Precinct

Lancer Barracks, Parramatta

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum

Female Factory, Parramatta

Female Orphan School, Parramatta

The Conversation : Reimagining Parramatta https://theconversation.com/reimagining-parramatta-a-place-to-discover-australias-many-stories-100652