Is a museum obligated to tell the whole truth?
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA — 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.
Its alleged crime? Presenting a "black armband" view of Australian history in which the original inhabitants were massacred and their land stolen. The implied message was that, in most cases, the arrival of the British was a disaster.
The most scathing criticism of the museum came from Keith Windschuttle, a conservative historian, who pointed out that part of the building was modeled on the design of the Holocaust Museum in Berlin.
"There were no gas chambers in Australia or anything remotely equivalent," he says. "For the Australian government to construct a permanent national structure that advertises such a grotesque historical misinterpretation is an insult to the nation."
Now, following a government review of the museum released last July, curators are feeling political pressure to revamp the multicultural presentations that have proven popular with the public.
The debate touches on some of the most unsettled aspects of Australian identity, including the position of Aborigines and Asians - two groups that supporters of the museum argue are finally getting some recognition.
Funded by the federal government, the museum caused the entire political establishment to draw a collective breath when it threw open its doors to the public two years ago in the nation's capital.
Instead of a simple narrative showing the beginnings of settlement 60,000 years ago to the crowning glory of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the exhibits unleashed a cacophony of impressions - focusing largely on everyday life rather than successes of the pioneers and explorers.
The visitor is encouraged first to enter a rotating theater where the themes of land, water, and people lay out the central concept. Seating 25 people every 12 minutes, the screens flash staccato images ranging from the vast deserts in the country's center to the multicultural cities.
Snapshots of individuals tell visitors that Australia has had to "manufacture a sense of identity" and that "we don't have to rush to define ourselves," and then offers other such 30-second random opinions.
The film shows a diverse culture without references to significant moments in the country's history.
Further into the museum, clothing of the early British settlers from the 1800s is shown in the same glass cases as those of the boat people from Vietnam who arrived in the 1970s - an effort to bring a sense of inclusion rather than exclusion in the story of immigration.
An extraordinary amount of space is devoted to showing the ordinariness of people's lives - the rotating clothesline known as "Hill's hoist" and the fondness for Vegemite, a yeast extract spread.
Conservatives complained that cricketing heroes, explorers like Captain Cook, and famous outlaws like Ned Kelly, who have a mythic status in the Australian psyche, had not been given their due. The exhibits were confusing, they added, and the Aboriginal section had been given more importance than other sections.
Under the initiative of two members of the government-appointed board, a review of the museum was agreed on. The results of that review, published in July, found that although the institution was not politically biased, it should incorporate more about European settlement.
Among its recommendations, the review 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.
It also recommends that the Garden of Australian Dreams, a vast concrete courtyard with colorful etchings and myriad references to Aboriginal land, should be replaced by a real garden where people can sit in the shade.
The review stated that the rotating theater 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.
"The government is probably going to make changes, even if the board takes longer to decide," says Martin Portus, director of public affairs of the National Museum. "It's the conservative politicians and academics who want this change. They are much more used to other museums in this country, most of which opened in the 19th century and are embedded with a sense of imperial history."
Some historians who support the museum question the tendency to favor one view of history over another.
"Why is it that critics are unable to go beyond the black versus white sense of competition? Why is it 'my history versus your history?' " asks Frances Peters Little, research fellow at the Australian Center for Indigenous History at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Professor Little says this is the first time in Australia that Aboriginal history is being shown "so broadly, instead of being marginalized in the way it usually is."