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12.11.03

The White Man's Museum

Is A Museum Obligated To Tell The Whole Truth?

Australia's new national museum, charged with depicting the story of this young nation, has roused the ire of those in power and prompted calls for wholesale changes to the permanent exhibitions.

... Among its recommendations, the review [by the government] said that a major permanent exhibition titled "Horizons," which shows immigrants from the 19th and 20th centuries, should be scrapped in favor of a focus on arrivals in the 19th century only - in other words, the British were in, and the Asians out.

... The review stated that the rotating theater [at the beginning of the museum] with its "potpourri of one-line opinions" should be replaced with the audience "recast as sailors on Captain Cook's longboat approaching the shore for the first time."

But the exhibits, as they stand now, have been a phenomenal success with visitors. In the first year alone, the museum attracted 1 million visitors, 600,000 more than initially envisioned.


I'm probably a bit out of my depth defending a museum display I've never seen, but I have some reactions to the story as reported here. The current display seems very poststructural, disrupting any unified grand narratives of history and pointing to unresolved complexity in what Australia is about. I'll admit to poststructuralist sympathies, but even those without such academic theoretical orientations -- as I presume most of the visitors are -- seem to find the museum appealing. One reason it may work so well is that a focus on the confusing fragmentation of everyday life resonates with people's own experience. Most of us don't feel too much like we're part of some great historical movement, so while such portrayals of the past can be useful in understanding what was going on, they're necessarily artificial.

The changes advocated by the government are a bit worrying. I wouldn't dismiss out of hand the idea that a display could be characterized by anti-white bias, or go too far in ignoring significant events in favor of portraying ordinary life. But the proposed changes indicate a desire to go too far in the opposite direction. They would reinforce a story of Australian history as Anglo history, a history that begins with Captain Cook (who the Aborigines of the time couldn't have cared less about, to judge from their reactions to him as recorded in his journal) and refuses to recognize the shared immigrant experience of the British and Asians. (I'm curious how the museum deals with Anglo Australia's long-standing racism against Asians, which seems to have come from a fear that the Chinese would do to whites what the whites did to the Aborigines. This is not to suggest that the proposed change is based on racism -- it's better explained by an adherence to a linear presentation of history that, due to the differing time periods of the two races' immigration, serves to set whites up as the original founding immigrants.) The "Captain Cook's longboat" device casts the visitor as a white person, and as a human arriving at a preexisting thing. The perspective is not centered on a continent recieving new arrivals (as it no doubt would be in a government-approved treatment of recent Asian immigration) and incorporating them somehow into its cultural-natural matrix, but on a group of people finding, claiming, and remaking a continent. But shouldn't Australia be at the center of a museum of Australian history?

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