Rehabilitating Australia’s national museum

April 2, 2006

Good news from the National Museum of Australia is heralded (ha! ha!) today by the excellent Miranda Devine, writing in the SMH. There is some hope, after all, that the NMA may be able to re-constitute itself as a genuine national institution and not remain the vehicle for adolescent political propaganda.

I have myself been a minor player in the culture wars that have swirled around the NMA since it opened. After John Carroll completed his 2003 review of the museum's exhibits, the Australian — latterly well-known, of course, as a neo-con Murdochite purveyor of unbridled Chimp MacW. Hallibu$hitlerburtonism and stuff — was unexpectedly kind enough to ask me to contribute an OpEd on the subject.

The OpEd. Great graphic!

It's not online anymore, at least not for free, so I thought I'd reproduce it here. I enjoyed writing it: it's not often you get a chance to be as nasty as you like in public.

Showcase for ideology

THE NATIONAL Museum of Australia Review Panel report, released last week, has neatly sidestepped the charge that has been levelled at the NMA since its opening — that of conscious, institutional ideological bias. True, the panel found "pockets" of bias, and enumerated a couple of the more egregious examples, but it concluded that the problem is not systemic and can be easily corrected.

The museum's critics will regard this as a generous finding. The panel's conclusions, overall, have considerable merit, and they well articulate why the NMA is not a great, perhaps not even a good museum. Accusations of generalised ideological bias, though, were studiously ducked.

Ideological bias is a general condition that interprets the world according to a set of fixed political prescriptions. Specific instances are part of the broader world view. So it makes as little sense to speak of the NMA as containing "pockets" of ideological bias as it would to describe someone as an "occasional racist". The condition is present, or it is not. Unmistakably, it is present in the NMA.

At the heart of the museum lies a tired 1970's world view. For the political class that dominated public debate in the 70's and 80's — which has, in the 30 years since, achieved considerable political clout — the boundaries of political respectability remained clear. They included opposition to the Vietnam War, sympathy of national liberation movements (however distant), rejection of Europe's colonising history, and a general distrust of traditional "Western" values.

Impatient with the suburban lives into which their parents had settled after the traumas of World War II (the NMA, incidentally, trivialises the war as merely "turmoil"), the radicalised generation sought out new, activist platforms from which they could tell the world what they thought was wrong with it: environmental, feminist or Marxist, according to taste.

Above all, the period was characterised by a kind of visceral anti-capitalism. Small wonder the panel noted the lack of representations of science, technology and industry among the NMA's galleries. Radicalism had no time for them. Everyone knew capitalism was bad for the planet.

Reality overtook us 15 years ago with the fall of the Soviet empire and the collapse of the secret states. Soon it became clear that what free people wanted, virtually everywhere, were the very things the European colonists implanted in Australia — democracy, the rule of law and the market economy, however problematic their implementation after decades of misrule.

But for many the world did not change; nor has it, even now. The old prescriptions held. They anchored the political legitimacy of the aging radicals and their latter-day adherents. And over time they had managed to capture some powerful national institutions. Chief among them today is the NMA.

The museum provides the canvas on which to work their grand design — the platform from which, once again, they can tell the world (and Australia) exactly what is wrong with it. Their ideological rhetoric is condescendingly delivered, as if to an audience of none-too-intelligent schoolchildren, and brushed up with modish postmodernism — the intellectual vehicle of choice for Left ideologues following Marxism's crisis of credibility. But the story the NMA tells is the radicals' own, not Australia's.

A HANDFUL of representative samples must suffice — a comprehensive catalogue would be almost endless. Tangled Destinies bluntly enjoins us to regard the arrival of the First Fleet and its European freight as a pestilential infestation, with disastrous consequences for Australia ("biological invasion on an unmatched scale").

There is nothing about the science, technology, political system or culture accompanying the "invasion" that strikes the museum's curators as noteworthy, other than the colonists' lamentable ignorance of Australian fauna (they did not believe the platypus laid eggs).

Snapshots of Australian History simply recapitulates the historical events and formative experiences that marked the political adolescence and later activism of the 70's Left — the Vietnam moratoriums, the Dismissal, and the rescue of the Tasmanian rivers. Gallipoli, Ned Kelly and Don Bradman are not included in Snapshots, although Gough Whitlam is. At the NMA, it seems, history is written by the ideological victors.

Disdain for mainstream Australia is prevalent in Nation. The 50's fridge, among the Suburbia displays, contains panels that celebrate contempt for Australia's "suburban niceness and middle-class conformity", and laud the "young critics" who fled the dull and restrictive suburbs for the excitement of inner-city life. The echoes of adolescent rebellion could hardly be stronger.

Postmodernism is a strong influence in Nation. In its most prominent displays, the gallery repackages the goldfields digger, the shearer, even "the Australian way of life", as merely artifical constructs — fabrications, as it were, for the gullible crowd, entirely emptied of their traditional values, meanings and associations. We have no reason to care about them. One finds no trace of affection or respect in the National Museum's treatment of these iconic elements of Australian culture.

Environmental and anti-capitalist references are prominent. "Some argue for a different understanding of the value of the earth", runs the NMA's commentary on the morality of mining, in a strong tilt to the Greens. And, children, be warned: don't chose the wrong lifestyle options as you build Australia 2030 in Horizons. The museum will directly accuse you of destroying all native forests and devastating Australia's resource base.

IN THE end, the museum is much less challenging than depressing. It simply recycles slogans from the heady days of the Left's ascendancy. That the panel failed to appreciate these resonances is a great pity. Australia merits a national showcase more sensitive to its real achievements than the NMA reveals itself to be. We deserved rather better of the review.

I expected some howls from the Friends of the NMA or others among its supporters. When I commented on my disappointment to my good friend S — who shares my unfondness for the NMA — he remarked, "What — you think you should have been more confrontational?" Touche.

Note: At the time of publication I should have acknowledged the assistance of Keith Windschuttle, who kindly read the original draft of this article and provided valuable comments. I do so now. Keith's influential — and definitive — evisceration of the NMA is here.


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