Tag Archives: Australia

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 –

The NGV Triennial Giving Art to the People

Pae White’s colourful installation drawing in all ages

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest and possibly most well loved museum of art, founded in 1861. Its mission statement  – “To illuminate life by collecting, preserving and presenting great art” and perhaps the unwritten mission of “giving it to the people”.

NGV Triennial 15 December 2017-15 April 2018

In 2016 the NGV was the 19th most popular art gallery in the world with more than 2.6 million visitors across its two campuses. The ranking places the gallery in the company of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors flock to the NGV Triennial in Melbourne

The NGV is not only Australia’s most popular art gallery, but one of the top 20 most visited art museums worldwide as revealed by the U.K’s  The Art Newspaper in its latest survey of global art museum attendance. Not a bad effort for a small country on the world stage. Australia’s population is around 24.8 million compared with the U.S.A.’s 326.8 million and U.K.’s  66.6 million people. This ranking was based on visitation to “Van Gogh and the seasons” from the 2017 Winter exhibition. (Note that another Australian art museum on the list was the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art with its 2016/17 Summer exhibition – Sugar spin: You, me, art and Everything.)

Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms are always popular with visitors

The NGV held forty-nine exhibitions during 2016-17, including major retrospectives of international and Australian artists and designers, as well as focused displays of works in the NGV collection. The quality and variety of audience engagement initiatives presented in support of these exhibitions was extensive. They offered guided tours, audio tours, mobile phone apps, talks, lecture series and workshops as well as social events – such as the Friday Night events (aimed at capturing more of the younger audiences after work), the Summer Sundays music series and the NGV Kids Summer festival and supporting Kids spaces for some of the major exhibitions. For example – as part of the exhibition Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (2015-2016), NGV Kids presented Studio Cats, a large-scale installation especially for children and families to draw upon creative connections between the two artists and their mutual love of cats.

The Gallery aims to present programmes that engage visitors in meaningful cultural experiences and to keep them coming back.

According to their audience research data, The National Gallery of Victoria enjoys one of the highest community participation rates in the world. 70% of their visitors are local from Melbourne and regional Victoria unlike many other international art museums where the majority of visitors are incoming tourists. This also indicates that the locals keep coming back which is what every cultural institution needs to strive for. This is what Nina Simon talks about most recently in The Art of Relevance but also in The Participatory Museum and her Museum 2.0 Blog.

For any Cultural Institution, the collection remains  fundamental to the audience engagement and education strategy. The thoughtful curation and presentation of historical and contemporary collections is a key museum management strategy for continuing and ongoing audience engagement. Colleen Dilenschneider regularly writes about this in her Know Your Own Bone Blog (most recently in Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA) and previously in Death by Curation).The NGV strategy is to ensure that its collection is accessible to the widest possible audience who may be unable to visit the museum through the ongoing work of the NGV Digitisation Project which is still progressing.

I have to disclose that I am already a big fan of the NGV and the way that they design their spaces. I visit the NGV each time that I am in Melbourne, so over many years have enjoyed both Summer and Winter exhibitions as well as taking time to learn about the permanent collection shown across both campuses (St Kilda Road and the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square). On my recent visit I took in the inaugural Triennial at the National Gallery Victoria which on the surface (without actual audience data analysis) appears to be a great success. What I enjoyed most about this free experience was seeing the diversity of visitors attending the exhibition and the way that the work of 100 contemporary artists, architects and designers from 32 countries was juxtaposed against the existing works from the collection – which was great exposure.

Audience engagement with the art at NGV Triennial

I think that there is currently a cultural revival happening worldwide despite Government funding cuts trying to choke the Arts into submission. Creativity and cultural heritage feed the soul when so much about modern life seems to do the opposite. Now is a better time than ever for cultural institutions to offer their prospective audiences something new and different, to  re-energise and maybe even reinterpret their collections to be more inclusive, to build community and feed the souls that are weary of modern life and meaningless 24 hour connectedness to media, social media and globalised sameness. Keep leading the way National Gallery of Victoria and hopefully other cultural institutions in Australia will follow or at least just lift their game a notch.

Interesting reading:

Cultural Heritage and the City

Cultural heritage as a driver of economic growth and social inclusion

Creative Country

The value of culture

Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.