musings on ‘Rehabilitating Australia’s National Museum’ Rob Foot
Quadrant October 2008.
There seem to be varying visions on the subject of what a museum might be. To assist with this dilemma we could take a clue from Ananda Coomaraswamy on art and why it should be exhibited. This text is old but why is there always a preference for the phantom ‘progress’ even in ‘wise’ academia? Is it the search for the ever-new and ever-different PhD that is the problem? Using Coomaraswamy’s understanding, one might say that a museum was a space in which to explain matters of time and place clearly and objectively, not to allow – well as far as might be possible - ignorance, fashion, style, politics or prejudice to interpret or re-interpret any period or event in any particular manner. This has nothing to do with displaying things ‘all without being lectured at on what (one is) supposed to think about them’ (p.25); nor does it have anything to do with displaying objects in an entertaining void. It has to do with what was and is, not what might have been or might be.
Indeed, art gallery curators could learn a lot from Coomaraswamy’s essay and stop describing what is obviously a 250mm round brown, glazed bowl only as ‘a 250mm round brown, glazed bowl’ and tell more about their subject. They could also learn much more about the nature of light. Reflections - glowing and glaring - frequently cloud the stylish displays rather than elucidate them. Indeed, this 1943 text may also help with what now appears to be a problem – is aboriginal or indigenous art ‘art’ (p.64).
This understanding about exhibits may mean that things that some folk do not like or agree with are exposed for public viewing. There is an openness and freedom required – as well as an intelligence and tolerance - so that issues can be displayed with an informatively objective text and context. Mr. Windschuttle in his enlightening piece on the Blainey Affair (p.30) has shown how even universities are not open and free – or intelligent or tolerant. So, one might wonder, what hope is there for any museum? It seems that both museums and universities suffer from a similar form of ‘substance abuse.’ Mr. Rob Foot makes this problem in museums clear in his article in Quadrant October 2008 - ‘Rehabilitating Australia’s National Museum.’
My first visit to the National Museum of Australia (the NMA as he refers to it) was to experience the new and controversial building rather than to analyse the exhibits. I recall a disappointment with the museum - the exhibits as well as the building. There was a lack of clarity of intent in both, with many matters appearing just too clever – over-smart and exaggeratedly ‘postmodern.’ Mr Foot clarifies some of these concerns with the displays in his perceptive piece. An analysis of the building is another subject, but what seemed clear to me in my reading of the forms, colours, concepts and relationships was that there was a determined semiotic intent in the whole and perhaps a message in what appeared to be giant braille on the upper surfaces of the building. This left me puzzled, so I asked one of the attendants about this: ‘Was it braille? What did it say?’ Well, I might as well have asked him if the marks on a piece of clay in my pocket were Linear A or B and requested a quick translation of these impressions. So I left with a huff, a grunt and a chip on my shoulder, grumbling something like: ‘You should know or be bothered enough to find out seeing that your job is to assist.’
I have, since this time, always been critical of this fun-and-games smartness with what I still believed to be braille that was well out of reach for something shaped for an intelligibility to touch. It looked like a frivolous game in decoration – totally inappropriate and grossly insensitive. So it is that I have often put this point across. The information in Mr. Foot’s essay that explains that this braille actually originally said ‘Sorry’ and ‘Forgive us our genocide’ changes everything. I do not agree with the sly and sneering interpretation that he places on it. It seems to me that this message spells out exactly what was happening in the community. ‘Little Johnny’ (yes, Australians are brutal) did not want to say sorry, but the general masses did – even our old mate ‘Blind Freddy’ could see the need for it. ‘Kevin 07’ (fresh Australian comic book hero) showed this was the case, as well as the crowds on the Harbour Bridge and the skywriter above. There was a screaming silent ‘sorry’ waiting to burst out, but it was being silenced politically. This created a swelling tension and latent frustration in the community that needed to say sorry both publicly and formally but was not given its voice.
The use of text as graphics on buildings is something we have seen for millenniums in all places and cultures. In the context of the NMA and with the understanding of its intent, the braille as architectural text works beautifully, echoing the architectural role of text and saying exactly what was happening at this time. To claim otherwise is to distort the story. That the now Director of the Museum apparently juggled the huge ‘Sorry’ and ‘Forgive us our genocide’ dots around to mess the message because it may have embarrassed the PM (with the architects laughing ‘behind their hands’ – why even think this of architects?) is as bad as Ed Capon of the Art Gallery of New South Wales removing letters in, say, ‘CORREGGIO’ carved in the sandstone frieze of his gallery just because the PM did not like Correggio’s luscious, sensuous works or different politics. One wonders: what did the rearranged braille say in the end? Was Mr. Morton clever enough to spell something else out in the true mocking style of the Australian larrikin in a public toilet, or did he just leave a careless shambles like a ruffian raider in an ancient town defacing the messages and images of old power? No wonder the attendant was so useless – poor fellow. My apologies.
Why protect a PM when the rest of the population is calling for a clear and loud ‘sorry’? Why change the story of the time? It seems to me that the braille text is not some clandestine or snide attempt to present ‘the finger’ to the PM et al. No, it looks like an entirely relevant poetic architectural statement that accurately and sensitively identifies and expresses the feeling of the nation at this period. The mutilation of this message by the Director can be seen as an act of political espionage that, sadly, says something of this era – but only of the few. One could also see this circumstance as a grand statement of how Australians like to treat their artists and architects – and ideas: their ‘trick’ as Mr. Foot describes it, suggesting a silly, random game rather than any necessity and essential commitment. So, it seems, it is appropriate to have the braille bastardised on a public building, but inappropriate to have this act revealed to the attendant to let all and sundry know. This introduction to Mr. Foot’s article is used to show the beginnings of the rehabilitation of the museum – the correction of past sins: the ‘revolution’ (p.26). I see it as a real worry. We now have our national museum in the hands of a man who is apparently prepared to juggle and confuse messages to suit his personal and political whim.
There are many matters that lie in a similar field to this. Mr. Foot writes (p.26): ‘Thankfully . .“The Australian land mass was formed over many millions of years, yet the way we think and live in it is still evolving. Just as we shape the land, it shapes us, our ideas and our understanding” . . replaces . . “The result [of European arrival] was biological invasion on an unmatched scale, and extinction of many native animals and plants.” ’ While one might wonder about how exactly we have shaped the land and it us – (mining, clearing and matters ‘Australian’ like beaches, barbecues and Phar Lap come to mind rather than any subtle love of landscape and Aboriginal ‘songline’ effect) – and perhaps why ‘natives’ was left off the list in the second, original text, it seems to me that these statements are not alternatives but make perfect sense as a set of sentences for the one placard. The fox and budlea come to mind amongst many examples of ‘biological invasion’ that the new text so easily glosses over in its attempt at a ‘win-win’ evasive language.
Only the other day my mother told me how she would buy rabbit during the war because it was the only meat available (probably for the price – two shillings each). Even today rabbit remains a good ‘chicken’ substitute. Reading the text that Mr. Foot apparently dislikes: ‘ “Big landowners hated rabbits. Yet small farmers and poorer Australians, both European and Aboriginal, needed them. For the price of a cheap rifle or a few steel traps, they had endless meat for their families and skins to sell for cash.” ’ (p.28) rings true to me. In another country at an earlier time it was also my father’s experience. In the Shetland Islands, he went out as a boy before school to shoot a rabbit or two to sell or trade for eggs; or to collect wood for the home fire (or for sale) from the other side of the island. The ‘replaced old display that read: “ Europeans saw Australia as a place that had always been dry …’ (p.25) - (that could also easily sit beside the discarded ‘ “Over time, we have developed new ways of understanding the land” ’ on the same placard) - made me think of father again. He often repeated the last words of the ‘Farwell’ (both The Pommes Farewell and The Bushman’s Farewell to Queensland) with a raw discontent, as part of a lament as he thought of ‘the old country’: ‘Thou scorching, sunburnt land of Hell!’ It seems that Europeans did indeed see this land as dry - and very hot. It was. It is. Perhaps our water problem today is that we have lost our understanding of Australia as a very dry country along with any idea of just what this should mean for our population and our use of the environment.
One wonders if Mr.Foot’s intellectual aggravation has just got too much momentum for him to keep a reasonable and fair eye on things, because some of his points have sense and substance while others seem to be problematical. In this context, Mr. Foot’s excitement over Phar Lap’s heart – ‘which illuminates in its recess as you approach’ and ‘from another angle . . . you see it, in cut-out, inserted into an anatomically appropriate space (where else?) in a huge photograph of the famous horse to which it belonged’ seems awkwardly odd because he appears to endorse this almost kitsch display as somehow appropriate and meaningful. The problem with most new museum exhibits is that the ‘fun-and-games’ possibilities of display design often crush the heart (forgive the pun) of the reality. Things trite and just-too-smart become the core and memorable experience rather than any other understanding. I am thinking here of subtle and rich matters like how landscape and art can indeed move and shape minds and emotions quietly, richly and evocatively. But then one might perhaps be more careless with a race horse than, say, with the subject of race in Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The exhibits in Daniel Libeskin’s beautiful museum – ‘powerful’ is often used – incorporate just about every trick in the book and rudely ignore the significance of their place. No wonder there was a debate about whether the museum should be left empty, completely without any displays at all. One of the few exhibits with an intimate strength is the one in the lower corridors that contains personal items and tells individual and family stories in a rather ordinary row of small shop windows. Most of the sliding, swinging, switching and swaying devices in the nearly always just-too-clever exhibits in the upper spaces of this labyrinth kill the thing they are supposed to be addressing. In a daze of excitement, Mr. Foot seems to fall for this indulgent game that ignores its context and message in favour of the more entertaining ‘bells and whistles’ experience. His great enthusiasm for ‘the hilarious Henley-on-Todd annual “boat” race along the dry river bed that bisects Alice Springs’ (p.27) seems to highlight his interest in fun and farce.
What is worrying with these changes to the NMA is that we might be manipulating texts to cleanse them of their rude and crude power and modifying the reality of the original experience and its context. One worries about the concern with the use of, say ‘Europeans’, when they were; and of being sensitive about ‘brutal’ farm practices when these, in part, were too. On the perceived bias with environmental concerns and things ‘green’, I wonder how Mr. Foot would like to see the very serious problem – ‘biological invasion’ seems truly appropriate - we now have with the imported toads being presented as an exhibit. Is this toad problem all a ‘greenie’ plot that needs a neutral or positive re-interpretation? Should we have toad games: guess which one will hop the greatest distance?
It all seems to me that texts are becoming cleansed in the way political spin and Yankee ‘speak’ use words to restructure and reshape a simple message with a distorting complexity of estranged meanings; e.g. ‘non-core’ to fudge a lie and ‘sub-prime’ to blur greedy irresponsibility. This is language that puts icing on the turd. Thank God for Eric Bogle who sings about ‘the 11th of September’ rather than the much more used and abused ‘9/11’. Australians do not talk like this. We have always put the day before the month, and still do – all the time: ‘24/7’ if simple English is no longer understood. We used to be more honestly blunt when considering matters (look at the English officer and the Anzac’s lack of intimidation) and had much more fun with letters than merely ‘buggering up’ signs. Museums should present things without spin and gloss – like it or not – and not in any decorative or cleansed manner. They have an obligation to reveal things as they were/are. There is no room for any manipulation – left or right or funny or clever. A ‘right’ version is just as objectionable as a ‘left’ version of history or times, just as an interpretation for cleverness or entertainment is. This means that attitudes and intents need to become more open, rational and objective – tough, rigorous, committed and tolerant.
Do we really have to discover/rediscover what it is/was to be Australian? Do we have to deny or reinterpret times when a spade was called a ‘fuc’n shovel;’ when over-pompous politicians were mocked and ridiculed openly; and when intellectual matters were poo-hooed as the work of ‘wankers’? Do we have to present matters in some ‘entertaining’ form for diversionary fun? Let’s see it all in its great raw, richness and not cringe around protectively with false neutrality or play ‘Oh! Gosh!’ games with any era. Oh, by the way: aboriginal art is art. Perhaps the better question is whether Western ‘art’ as “individual self-expression” alone is art. Hirst’s pickled shark comes to mind. The arrogance of the questioning proposition is astonishing. Is it just the analytical intellectual who thinks that aboriginal art may not be? Is this the same mindset that worries about ‘European’ and ‘brutality’? Let’s exorcise the nonsense with a loud Aussie expletive -‘....!’ (your choice). ‘Frilled not grilled’ is good Australian fun - tough, rough, a little careless and to the point; but the braille ‘Sorry’ is much better, richer – more resonant and articulate: but alas, these words and ideas are certainly not as hilarious as Mr. Foot finds Henley-on-Todd. One could see his as rather ‘dry’ humour.
We must not forget how humour, irony, disrespect and cheek all form an essential part of our being Australians. These qualities accompany a blunt straightforwardness that Mr. Foot seems to want to deny. No one might know ‘what “the Australian way of life” ’ (p.25) might be, but as issues arise, there is always a loud cry about things being seen to be ‘un-Australian.’ We must not let the pretence of pseudo-intellectual, politically-correct perceptions change our understanding of things - like it or not; just as we must not let a vacant ignorance play any role in interpretations of our past or present. ‘This quiet, successful and largely unremarked revolution’ (p.26) seems to be far more sly than the more honest braille, ‘Blind Freddy’ statement because it seeks to present what it believes to be ‘neutral and historically informative material’ (p.26) in a very mannered and neutered way: ‘castration’ comes to mind. It may not come with ‘a long and disdainful sneer' (p.27) but it does look just far too self-interested and smart - smug, as can be seen in the claim: ‘The NMA has been markedly improved, overall, and much credit for the many positives should be given where it is clearly due’ (p.29). Placing positives on real living negatives is not useful. It just conceals – covers up - and places just about everything and anything it touches into the seemingly ‘safe’ but very muddled world of ‘non-core’ and ‘sub-prime’ visions.