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2005 Australia-Israel Hawke Lecture

Changing headsets: the impact of museums on social thinking

Ms Viv Szekeres, Migration Museum, Adelaide

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak at the Hawke Centre and of seeing Helen who has been a friend and colleague for many years and who has also been a great inspiration to me in my work at the Migration Museum.

Are museums important in the development of changes in social thinking? This immediately raises the question as to whether museums are important at all? And if so to whom? And who says so? In Western civilisation museums do appear to have been accorded significant cultural capital. Perhaps this is because museums invariably occupy very large impressive civic buildings that are known to house precious and valuable things. There is also the awe and wonder factor which is a widespread belief that exposure to these things is good for us.

So what role can we claim for museums in society?

But more recently some museums have been

It is the changes that have taken place in my relatively short experience of 20 years of working in the museum industry that I want to describe and analyse in an attempt to see where museums sit in the arena of ideas.

A quick look at the history of museums which began in the late C18th was that they started as kind of storehouses for old and exotic things collected by wealthy, white, men who had the luxury of both time and money and needed something to do.

Naturally these early museums reflected the particular interests of these gentlemen, whose main obsession was to collect, identify and name just about everything they could lay their hands on. I have a theory that it was their way of trying to tame and understand the complexities of their world at a time when the effects of the Industrial Revolution appeared to be turning the world upside down. You can see the inheritance of this taxonomic approach to collecting in many of our museums today. And I for one am not knocking it. For apart from anything else, without their obsessions it would be more difficult to gauge the accelerating rate of extinction of so many species as an indicator of the deteriorating health of this planet.

The other great passion for these gentlemen collectors in addition to collecting art works was that they really did believe that the minds of the general public, even working people would be greatly improved by being allowed to have a look at these collections. Gradually, ownership moved from the private collector into public hands as Governments saw the advantages of having control of these institutions. But the museums continued to display the taxonomic collections, art works, objects and treasures that mostly reflected and represented the interests and lives of the collectors and their rich and famous friends. If we were to look for a narrative amongst these collections then it is one about the winners. I suspect if we were to analyse this narrative more closely, in a number of countries it would trace the rise of national aspirations, the history of colonisation and in some cases the celebration of religious hegemony. If you donít believe me when you are next in London have a good look at the collections in the British Museum or pop over to Italy and have a look at what is displayed in the Vatican.

Around 70 years ago some French scholars of history began to ask questions that I believe have had an impact on museums. They wanted to know about what they called Ďthe ordinary peopleí. They meant people like you and I. Rather than document or look for cause and effect in the decisions made by Kings, Queens and politicians, the Annales school of history began to document phenomena such as climate change as maybe a more plausible explanation for the causes of social and economic unrest. They concluded that weather that caused crops to fail and people to starve was more likely to be the underlying cause of a riot rather than a Kingís edict. They wanted to know what people ate and why it was that records for a number of centuries showed that the peasants seemed to be healthier and even live longer than many wealthy people. Not surprisingly it seems that a peasants diet of ale, rough bread and vegetables were probably a healthier option than a surfeit of wine and rich meats. The influence of these social historians was enormous. They asked questions that had not been asked before about people whose lives had rarely been documented.

The advent of social history opened a Pandoraís box amongst historians. The history of women, children, working men and ethnic minorities were now regarded as legitimate subjects for research. Within a decade or two a museum had opened in York devoted to collecting and documenting the material culture of ordinary folk and thereby also started a minor revolution in the museum field. Historians joined anthropologists and scientists amongst the staff of museum curators. In Australia from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s a number of museums were established that could be described as social history museums, which of course includes both the museums where Helen and I currently work.

I want to argue that social history has had an enormous influence on museums and that it has fundamentally changed and democratised the industry. Firstly, it has challenged the way we in museums perceive and represent knowledge. Secondly it has changed the relationship that museums have with their public. Thirdly it has changed the role of the curator from expert to intermediary.

So how have social history museums challenged the way we perceive knowledge? There is an assumption in our society that science is objective. I donít necessarily agree with that assumption but donít wish to argue it here. Whereas when we start to examine issues about the past we are clearly in a much less secure environment. One of my favourite historians who I quote all the time, Peter Geyle, in response to the question what is history said, ď history is something that never happened written by someone who wasnít there.Ē An extreme even absurd view perhaps but the point I think he was making is that there are many versions of the past and the focus of each will depend on who is telling the story. I canít remember the name of the other historian who argued that history is Ďargument without end.í But if we relate these ideas to museums and their exhibitions then the notion of the institution of the museum as a bastion of objectivity, truth and certainty is inevitably challenged.

My second point is that social history museums have changed the relationship they have with their public. If your aim is to collect peopleís stories then you must go out into communities. I believe this has the effect of turning the institution outwards towards society. Whereas if the major concern is the management, research and presentation of mostly dead specimens then your focus is likely to be more inward. To quote one of the Migration Museumís education staff when asked what the difference was between the Migration Museum and a more traditional museum she said and I quote ď if someone brings in spider, you donít really care who the person is because what you care about is the spider because your motivation is to collect an example of every spider that exists.

My third point is the role of the curator in the museum has undergone a radical change since the establishment of social history museums. There are still many museums where the curator is seen as an expert in one particular field of endeavour, for example whales, minerals, or invertebrates. If on the other hand the role of the curator is to collect stories and the objects that help interpret those stories, then the processes will be different. The curator is either out working with different communities or they are inviting people to come into the museum and to be involved in the way their story is told. A social history curator has no less expertise but a much wider brief.

The discipline of social history by definition is about people and society and therefore will focus on social change. It could be change that resulted from immigration and settlement, the closure of workplaces, the construction of traditions, or the experience of prejudice and racism. The events may have happened years ago or just yesterday. When the curator goes out into the community we should not forget that the concept of community is itself a contentious one. A community can be represented by one vocal and powerful leader or as happens with another group that some of you know well, there may be twenty people with twenty five or more different opinions or perspectives. Community is not a neat easily defined idea. Being made up of individuals no group is homogeneous, they are complex and their views often contradictory.

The introduction of social history into museums also changed the relationship that museums have with their collection of objects. In order to tell the stories of Ďordinary peopleí you need examples of the ordinary things of life. But how many of us have kept those things. For example, old work boots, overalls, the contents of your bathroom cabinet or a battered gardening hat. We tend to keep pretty things like wedding dresses or christening robes. Having said that I must admit that many museums, especially regional ones have captured aspects of the built-in obsolescence of western society, particularly in the farming and domestic sphere. You must have seen displays of old farm machinery, scrubbing boards and flat irons.

But if we want to tell the history of the poor, dispossessed and marginalised it is much harder. The material culture of the poor has rarely survived either because it was used and worn to death or because it was not valued by later generations and was thrown out. When Margie Anderson, who was the first Director of the Migration Museum and I set out to tell the story of the women and children who had lived in the Destitute Asylum, which is the site which now houses the Migration Museum, we found very little. Hundreds of women and children had passed through these buildings but little material evidence remained of their brief stay.

The same problem exists when you want to tell the stories of refugees. By definition refugees are forced to flee often before they have time to collect any of their belongings. If they do manage to keep something it becomes very precious to them and they may not wish to hand it over to a museum. At the Migration Museum you will see that many of the objects on display are borrowed and are returned to their owners after the display. It is another example of the changing relationship that museums have with their constituents. Ownership becomes less of a concern for a museum when the story is the significant issue.

One of the problems for all museums but perhaps particularly for social history museums is that objects rarely if ever speak for themselves. Objects need to be interpreted in order to draw out their meanings and their stories. This brings us to the question of who is going to do the interpreting? Who is going to speak on behalf of whom? It may be a director, curator, educator, or production team full of challenging ideas about society or it may be an individual or community group with more conservative ideas. But I feel it is in this process of interpreting the past that the museum emerges as a voice that has the opportunity to generate new ideas. A well known American museologist Elaine Heurmann Gurian in trying to define the emergence of a new role for Museums felt that many had become ĎSafe places for unsafe ideasí. Safe places because museums are places for social congregation usually with their own security surveillance. But how about the unsafe ideas? How unsafe are these ideas and what impact do they have on social thinking?

A close friend recently reminded me of one of the most dramatic examples of a museum at the forefront in changing social attitudes. The Famine Museum in Ireland. Iím sure many of you know that between 1845 and 1847 a blight caused successive crops of potatoes to rot in the ground. As it was the main source of food for thousands of Irish peasants, they starved to death. The Famine was a national tragedy. It decimated the population. Yet for nearly 150 years there was silence in the public domain and whilst most rural people knew of mass burial sites no one spoke about it. A great shame surrounded the memory of the Famine with a simmering anger that the British Colonial Government who had the resources to feed the population could have let this happen.

Isnít strange how ideas have their moment. They seem to surface when the time is right. The Famine Museum was opened in 1994 by the newly elected President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. It opened in Stroketown in the county of Roscommon which had been one of the areas worse hit by the Famine. The opening of the Famine Museum legitimised a period of history which had been buried in the Irish subconscious. It heralded a new confidence coinciding as it did with a massive economic recovery for Ireland and it is not irrelevant to this story that Mary Robinson was the first woman to be elected President of Ireland.

In a recent discussion with my colleagues at the Migration Museum I was told about another example the Tuol Sleng museum which is in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. It was established on the site of S-21, a secret prison which was operated by the Pol Pot regime between 1975 and 1979. At S-21, 14,200 Cambodians were photographed, tortured until they confessed and then executed. On liberation by the Vietnamese army in 1979 there were only 7 survivors. Today the Tuel Sleng Museum is devoted to bringing to public attention the genocidal crimes of Pol Potís regime. This is in spite of the fact that there is still a reluctance amongst many Cambodians to talk about this time not only because of the indescribable suffering they experienced but also because many of the perpetrators of these crimes still walk free amongst them. Yet by the Museumís presentation of rooms full of the skulls of the murdered, the Museum is speaking out against the brutal repression of its people. Here is an example where the Government has given tacit approval for the promotion of ideas that some of its population are not yet ready to deal with.

This raises the issue of the influence that Governments have over the ideas that are presented in the museums that they fund. Around the world there are museums that are the voices for their dictatorial oppressive masters or museums that freely present and debate the issues of the day or museums who want to turn the clock back such as the one currently under construction in Kentucky USA. The Creation Museum want to proclaim to the world that the Bible is the supreme authority in matters of faith and practice.

Unfortunately there is no time to explore the role of our own Australian Federal Government in influencing the ideas that the National Museum in Canberra will present in the future. But the fact that they are hell bent on seeing that the Museum presents a Government approved interpretation of history seems to confirm that they at least believe that museums have the power to influence people and change attitudes.

Closer to home and in stark contrast to what has been happening in Canberra, it was the State Government of South Australia that took the remarkable step of establishing a museum of immigration and settlement at a time when the rest of Australia was just beginning to accept that we were a multicultural society and that with the exception of Indigenous Australians the country has been peopled by immigrants and refugees.

At the beginning of my presentation I listed the roles that I felt one could attribute to museums. I didnít put museums at the forefront of changing social thinking. But in spite of the many museums and exhibitions that memorialise rather than analyse, sentimentalise rather than critique and even mythologise, there is a quiet revolution taking place in some museums that is redefining the role and purposes of museums.

I think this change can be characterised by the following

If museums are going to take an important role in the development of social thinking then I would argue one of the key roles for museums is to be tenaciously subversive. Museums with their status of authority are well placed to question our accepted wisdoms and to challenge some of our beliefs and attitudes. But perhaps more importantly museums can encourage the development of active and enquiring minds that will always interrogate the information that daily confronts and bombards us through the print and electronic media. Social change takes place when people are informed and care enough about the issues. I think we in museums have a responsibility to assist in this process.


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