Like notions of national identity, historical discourse is metamorphic and in flux. Consequently, as public institutes of national history, national museums are often sites of contention and heated debate. The National Museum of Australia’s (NMA) short life provides a rich case study for the complex relationship between history and nationhood. As a social history museum, the NMA is informed by both the needs of the community it serves, and current historical scholarship. Once aloof from the public, museums now interact with a wider community in more meaningful ways. As well as maintaining their role as collector and conserver, museums are venues for conversation and interaction, and contribute to, rather than reflect, the cultural capital of the community. Following popular criticism of the NMA, chairman Tony Staley announced a review of the Museum shortly after its opening in March 2001. The four-person panel elected to board the review reported back to the council in July 2003 with the primary recommendation that the Museum should alter its exhibits to reflect a unitary national story. The central problem here is that the review and the Museum hold fundamentally different ideas about the purpose of the past. While the review perceives history as essentially unifying, the NMA is structured in a way that explores multiple vistas of the Australian past.
What the NMA Does
As outlined in the National Museums of Australia Act 1980, the NMA is structured according two three interrelated themes: environmental history of the Australian continent, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, and Australian history since 1788. This thematic framework disallows the Museum from telling a single national story. Instead, the Museum gives average Australians historical importance by exploring Australian identity through the personal narratives of those not powerful in the formal political sense. Among the museum’s galleries, Eternity: Stories from the Emotional Heart of Australia best illustrates this pluralist concept. The gallery is one of the smallest but most talked about in the museum, it groups fifty biographical stories spanning the history of Australia into ten themes, or emotions. The exhibit is designed to arouse the visitor’s own experiences with the emotion attached to each story, thereby connecting the visitor’s own biography with the multiple stories presented. This works on the assumption that national identity can be defined by a sharing of multiple identities. The pluralist concept informing the museum treats visitors as contributors to the historical discussion. However, school-aged children and occasional museum-goers seldom posses the necessary information or intellectual courage to critically engage with plural representations of the past, thus by constructing its exhibitions around the presumption of sagacious discussion, the museum risks excluding a large proportion of its visitors.
What the NMA Should Do
The Review argues that the Museum’s fundamental role is to ‘tell the Australian story’ for the purpose of social cohesion. According to the Review’s chairman, Tony Staley, plural accounts of the past work to undermine national solidarity and identity. However, the Review underestimates the problems associated with grand, national narratives. Primarily, that a single Australian story cannot accurately reflect an increasingly diverse Australian society. The Review approaches history as if it is a factual account of the past that should be taught to all Australians so that they share the same understanding of the Australian nation and therefore belong in the same ways. Telling of the Review panel’s limited understanding of history is their recommendation that, ‘James Cook should be a significant presence in the National Museum of Australia … If modern Australia has a foundation myth, it surely involves somewhere at its heart the figure of Captain James Cook’ (page twenty-three). In fact, James Cook constitutes a prime example of the way in which national history privileges one group while marginalizing others. While Anglo-Australian myth valorizes Cook as the discoverer of Australia, Aboriginal myth portrays him as a villain who invaded Aboriginal country and instituted foreign and unjust laws.
To its detriment, the review’s panel did not include a historian or Indigenous person. However, Committee members did meet with historians and other academics and called for submissions from the public. By March 2003, the panel received 105 written submissions, which range from short paragraphs of congratulations to detailed essays. In light of the ‘history wars’ most respondents wrote to praise the NMA, particularly its discussion of contentious topics in Frontier Conflict, and urged the Review to understand the dynamic and subjective nature of history. No more than 5, out of 105, recommended the Museum implement a primarily positive narrative of Australian history. The fact that a resounding majority of responses support the museum’s pluralist approach to national history proves that the review was informed largely by pre-existing conceptions about the role of history and museums. The exclusive nature of any unitary narrative of Australia renders it inappropriate for a museum representative of contemporary society and historical discourse, furthermore, adoption of an overall narrative structure could see material culture reduced to a series of props illustrating a story that has already been written.