The People's Museum

Australian - 21st October 2000
Author: Sian Powelll

When it opens in March, Australia's new National Museum promises to focus on history as it unfolds. Sian Powell reports

THE Acton peninsula is more than a muddy outcrop, more than simply an ordinary bit of Canberra. Jutting into the still waters of Lake Burley Griffin, it is a place where significant things happen; the intersection, perhaps, of various strange cultural and emotional axes.

Once a significant meeting place for the indigenous people of the uplands, it was later where the valley's first white holding was carved out of the bush. During World War II the much-loved Royal Canberra Hospital was built on the elbow of land, and Acton became the place where so many newborn Canberrans first saw the chill light of day. Then, three years ago, it was the starting point for a 1kg chunk of steel which arced through the sky when the hospital was blown up, speeding across the lake and killing 12-year-old Katie Bender.

Now the construction of the National Museum of Australia is all but complete on the peninsula, and a strip of space age buildings curves close to the water, a series of looping and interlocking galleries surrounding what will be a Garden of Australian Dreams. A monument to non-monumentalism, when it opens on March 11 the museum will embody the culmination of a century of planning, two decades of collecting and curating, and three years of building.

It's the first museum in Australia to focus specifically on people. Even history, as it is commonly perceived, has a lesser role: many of the stories are those of people who are still alive. The museum will cover history as it unfolds, as well as the history of past Australians. The exhibits will include such delights as a spectacular Mardi Gras costume consisting of big glittering balls designed to orbit the human body on aluminium struts, a papier-mache coffin with a sultry mermaid emerging from the lid, and a bunny gasser -- a contraption for rabbit extermination which connects to the exhaust of a car.

The museum's director, Dawn Casey, is an enthusiastic admirer of the new school of museology. She wants the museum to set the imagination alight, rather than simply house a series of dull but worthy objects. ``Museums are now dealing with the stories, rather than just explaining the particular objects,'' she says. ``People just love it. I went to the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa; it was like walking through a film set.''

The museum's collections seem strange to some people. When Sydney's Australian Museum director Professor Mike Archer first joined the National Museum's council he remembers there was great joy that a jungle gym had just been tracked down. ``I thought `what kind of a museum have I walked into here?'''

Archer soon decided that since no other institution was collecting such things, the National Museum was on the right track, particularly as it was obviously part of its mandate to document the diverse cultures which had moved across Australia. The National Museum was never intended to be a collection-driven institution, he says, unlike the big state museums. Nine-tenths of the Australian Museum's budget, for instance, is spent on collections, on their maintenance, their refurbishment. The National Museum does have collections, ``wonderful collections'', Archer says, but of a very different kind.

It shouldn't be surprising that the National Museum stands alone. It is forging its own traditions under the aegis of its director, a woman with a vision.

As an Aboriginal child from Cairns, Casey didn't visit a museum until she travelled to Brisbane to work, and ventured into the Brisbane museum. She found it rather dull. The National Museum, she promises, will be anything but dull, and certainly the building makes a promising beginning in leaving dullness far behind.

A space-age structure with some boat-shaped windows and bits of the key word ``eternity'' etched into the walls, the museum's curving architectural skeleton was largely designed by Ashton, Raggatt McDougall -- the firm responsible for the freaky Storey Hall building in Melbourne -- and Howard Raggatt had the pleasure of showing the Queen through on her visit to Australia. He later said she described it as ``very nice''.

Casey says the past 15 years have seen the flowering of a museums renaissance in Australia, with the Canberra museum one of a number of multi-million dollar complexes and a raft of smaller outfits opening around the country. These include the brand spanking $290 million Melbourne Museum, which opens today, the Museum of Tropical Queensland which opened in Townsville in June, the South Australian Museum which re-opened in March after a $19.7 million renovation, and a new maritime museum which is slated to open in Perth in the next two years. The National Museum will ride the crest of this wave which, it is hoped, will help fill the coffers. Although nothing has yet been decided on an entry fee, or whether there will even be one, one thing is sure: the museum will have to make a minimum of $4 million a year over and above the $17 million-a-year funding it will get for operating costs.

``There's a lot of angst about admission charges, but we'll get half a million visitors in the first year, I've no doubt,'' Casey says with admirable sangfroid.

Gazetted in 1980, with bipartisan support, after languishing as a vague proposal since 1901, the museum was a series of collections without a home until 1996 when the Howard Government announced work could begin on the museum building, a structure which will cost about $151 million, including the fit-out.

The president of the museum's vigorous friends' society, Winnifred Rosser, says she and her colleagues spent years lobbying the Labor government to get going on the museum, to no avail. ``We actually just about lost it with Creative Nation in 1994,'' she says. ``We heard before it was announced that it was going to send the indigenous collection to South Australia and split the rest between state and regional museums. We then, along with [Aboriginal academic] Marcia Langton , went into very public action about that.''

The Creative Nation policy was changed and presented an option for building a stand-alone Aboriginal gallery. The friends remained incensed. ``I found it very, very difficult to understand,'' Rosser says. ``We thought it was a perfect vehicle for reconciliation to have a whole nation's history under one roof. I believe Paul Keating just didn't want it. He thought Canberra didn't need another monolith -- he just didn't understand it.''

(For the record, Labor politician and former arts minister Michael Lee flatly denies the Keating government had gone cold on the National Museum. On the contrary, he says, Keating negotiated the switch to the Acton site from a former proposed site elsewhere in Canberra that would have been too far from the city for many people. Final approval was down the track.)

When Richard Alston became opposition spokesman for the arts he accepted an invitation to visit the repositories housing the collections, which convinced him the National Museum should go ahead, Rosser says. Leaving nothing to chance, though, Rosser also took it upon herself to personally lobby John Howard. The museum became an election issue, and, following the Coalition's return to Government, an increasingly likely proposition.

After years of work on an institution that might never have materialised, Rosser is now more than satisfied. ``I think it will be mind-blowing,'' she says. ``The building itself will be Canberra's answer to the Opera House.''

Arts Minister Peter McGauran says the Coalition is excited about the museum, especially since the realms of Aboriginal culture and the art world usually seem more comfortably aligned with Labor.

``This is something that we have founded that our predecessors hadn't and there's a great deal of pride that the nation has finally got the museum it deserves and wants,'' he says. It was not a question of vote-winning; Canberra is not awash with Coalition seats, McGauran points out. ``It fired the imagination of the cabinet, not least the Prime Minister.''

Three strands will interweave to form the fabric of the museum's essential story: Australian society since 1788, people and the land, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories. The last is perhaps the most important, and the riches of the museum's Aboriginal collection are unsurpassed. The 1700 or so significant bark paintings comprise a holding larger than any other in the world. The museum also holds more than 90,000 stone tools, and more than 30,000 individual items, from sculptures to baskets to weapons. Arrayed on innumerable metal shelves in dim warehouses in suburban Canberra, the collection makes the hairs on the back of one casual visitor's arms stand on end.

Here are the sculptures made by the Wik people and presented to the High Court as evidence for their land claim. Here is a headband from the central desert, collected by the odd and independent recluse, Miss Olive Pink. Here is a tiny basket, woven from minuscule reeds, and here is one of the earliest bark paintings, dating from the early 20th century, when white anthropologists encouraged Aboriginal people to set their body paintings down on wood.

With an Aboriginal woman as the director, people might assume the museum has the inside running on indigenous issues. Not really. ``All through my career, as an indigenous woman I've been doubly disadvantaged,'' Casey says, adding that her race is of no real benefit, even in her current job. ``You just have to be that much more conscious that people go out and consult with the communities.

``Museums around the world have treated indigenous cultures and others pretty badly, but there's been a significant change. Australian museums are at the forefront of this internationally, attempting to redress the dispossession of Aboriginal people.''

Casey says the National Museum has helped to repatriate human remains to their communities, and indeed has been contracted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission to catalogue and repatriate a collection of skeletal remains from the Edinburgh Museum. She explains that while many Aboriginal people still distrust institutions, she will try to make amends in the coming years. ``I want to actually demonstrate to Aboriginal people that museums can help articulate the issues that people have fought for.''

There will only be room for about 600 items in the Gallery of First Australians, which is dedicated to Aboriginal life and lore, but a further 1500 or so will be held in what is known as Open Storage, where curators will conduct tours and where indigenous people will be able to visit to commune with their history in peace. Secret sacred relics will be kept in special storage, seen only by certain members of the communities and perhaps a non-indigenous curator.

Only a tiny fraction of the museum's holdings will be on display at any one time, but that is fairly standard in museums around the world. Most museums, says registration manager Carol Cooper, display 1 per cent or so of their holdings. ``It's interpretation, it's being able to interpret these objects and make them come alive that takes the space.''

A great deal of painstaking work has already gone into conserving and rehabilitating various objects, from the ongoing and complex operation on the ABC outside broadcast van that was used in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, to the delicate washing of a flag that once hung at the Torres Strait Quarantine Station. Conservators are researching the history of these collectibles and making them sing again.

There are two labs in the warehouses, one for metals and one for paper and textiles, and although no time or effort is spared in conserving the objects, there is a point at which the fiddling stops. Eric Archer, the museum's conservation manager, says knowing when to stop is a central plank in the philosophy of conservation. Adding something, whether it be paint, or filler, or missing parts, is a questionable operation, he says. Ideally, conservation should simply arrest deterioration, rather than bring the thing back to shining newness.

``It's a very important point,'' Archer says, watching a conservator at work on an Aboriginal implement in one of the museum's labs. ``We feel it's not our duty of care to restore it. By restoring it, you're adding to it, and you're treading on that territory of forgery and imagination. In the past too many liberties have been taken with restoring objects, particularly paintings.''

Contrary to the common perception of a museum's role, the National Museum doesn't only collect and conserve objects, it commissions them. The papier-mache coffin, for instance, was ordered from a Tasmanian firm of coffin manufacturers, and a crocodile sculpture, with palm trees growing out of its back, was commissioned from an artist on an island in the Torres Strait.

``It's a departure, but it's a good departure,'' Casey says. ``You could never have all the objects you would hope to achieve in the museum. A classic example is the Federation Arch which we have commissioned, from the original architectural plans. It will show how they were built all over the country.''

Nevertheless, the museum is by no means bereft of the standard historical fare. It holds the china brought by Governor Phillip from the mother country and Governor Macquarie's sword but, on the whole, it will tell the stories of ordinary Australians who were caught up in extraordinary times or extraordinary events. ``We don't have huge numbers of historically significant items,'' Cooper says.

Museums around the world are heading in the same direction; they have hauled themselves out of the days of dusty glass cases filled with exhibits painstakingly labelled according to scientific orthodoxy but with little regard for firing children's imaginations or igniting adult illumination. The National Museum will be an exemplar of all that is new in museology; with an emphasis on multimedia, on high-tech electronic interactions, on all that is best and brightest in bits and bytes.

Casey has been inspired by two museums, Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand, and the Newseum, in Arlington, across the Potomac from Washington DC. Both have opened in the past four years and both have a strong focus on high technology.

``Te Papa really did set the benchmark for multimedia,'' she says. ``And the Newseum, which is based on the news, had two aspects I found fascinating.'' Casey appreciated the simplicity of the display, which strengthened the message. ``Freedom Park, based on freedom of speech, included pieces of the Berlin Wall, a cast of Martin Luther King jnr's jail-cell door, and a journalists' memorial to commemorate those who died reporting the news. It was very, very powerful.''

Casey also liked the way the Newseum had an open door to the real world, by way of constantly updated displays of news headlines from all over the world. She intends the National Museum to have something similar, a sort of rapid analysis of history as it unfolds. ``Had we been open now we would have been able to do a wonderful rapid response to the Fiji crisis,'' she says. She envisages talks, debates, lectures, exhibits: a different way into the world-shaking events of the day.

An essential corollary of this is the multimedia emphasis. Te Papa led the way, but the National Museum is hard on its heels, with, among other things, an enormous three-dimensional map of Australia which will display the language group boundaries of Aboriginal Australia, trade routes, exploration routes, population demographics, and how these things have changed over time.

There will be a virtual reality display, a film which runs on a giant screen, with surrounding plasma screens and ``binoral'' three-dimensional sound, interactive media and touch-screen displays. Casey remembers with amusement the way Te Papa was initially criticised for an over-emphasis on multimedia, an emphasis which is now being emulated by even the stuffiest of museums. Success is hard to argue with. Te Papa, after all, had more than 1million visitors in its first year.

Casey is also excited about the temporary exhibitions the National Museum will mount in the months after the opening. The first, Gold and Civilisation, will open when the museum opens in March, and it will cover the Australian gold story, from the gold rushes to golden art. Another exhibition will canvas journeys into space, timed to coincide with the launching of a Japan-Australia satellite in November next year. There will be live feeds from the satellite in the exhibition, displays on space junk, and a Mars ride. Another temporary exhibition concerns prehistoric mega-fauna, and Casey wants to add an outreach program, so, maybe, members of the public can join field trips to central Australia.

The possibilities are endless, and Casey and her crew are ready to march into the new millennium ready for anything. Never has the brief been broader, never has the information flooded in at such a rate. The wired National Museum of Australia is ready for the new age.