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Interference in the National Museum puts Australian culture under siege

By Kate Lundy - posted Friday, 5 December 2003

Just how important is the independence of our national institutions? It is essential in a modern democratic civil society. So the fact that the Howard government is interfering in a most blatant, offensive and partisan way in the management and exhibitions of the National Museum of Australia represents a new, despicable low in cultural policy.

I believe that a series of events spanning the last two years provide the evidence of a concerted Howard government plan to attack the cultural independence of the National Museum, and replace this independence with John Howard's biased view.

The headlines tell the story: "Diversity is in boy's own history", "Museum director's dumping disappoints", "Howard puts museum on funds tightrope", "Museum on brink, thanks to its Council", "Greatest becomes a no-frills fiasco", "Museum held to ransom in history wars", are all indicative of the increasing politicisation of the National Museum.


This politicisation is the realisation of the Howard government's deliberate plan, complete with acts of secrecy and deceitful sabotage stemming back to the year the museum opened.

Recently evidence came to light that demonstrated John Howard's plans to politicise the Museum had their sinister conception within a year of the Museum opening. He commissioned a funding review in the Museum's first year of operation. The resulting report canvassed three funding options, warning that choosing the minimal option would severely jeopardise the Museum's future development as a major cultural institution and lead to rapidly declining visitor numbers and a significant downgrade in exhibitions. The Howard government chose the minimal funding option ($9.138m Option C) despite these warnings.

Reinforcing the view that a plot was being hatched lies in the fact that this report was not only never released to the public, efforts were made to hide it. The Australian newspaper had to undertake a year long battle to obtain it under the Freedom of Information Act.

But many other elements to Howard's plot played a crucial role. First came the carping, subjective criticisms about the Museum's portrayal of Australian cultural history by mates made members of the Museum's Council, including John Howard's authorised biographer, David Barnett, and former speechwriter, Christopher Pearson.

Professor Graeme Davison was then asked in March 2002 to assess complaints made in an internal memo by Mr Barnett. The complaints included that the Museum's stolen children exhibit was a 'victim episode'.

In December 2002, the Minister for the Arts, Senator Kemp, quietly announced that the Museum's inaugural director, Dawn Casey, had her re-appointment unjustifiably shortened.


Then came the National Review of Exhibitions and Public Programs, headed up by Dr John Carroll, who set about establishing an agenda for the politicisation of the Museum's exhibitions.

When the report was eventually made public in July 2003 it advocated a whitewashing of Australian history. Misinterpreted by some as an innocuous vindication of the Museum, it actually laid the foundations for John Howard's view to be given form and substance in the Museum. It argued that the institution should focus on the achievements of white men in Australia and echo the dismal retelling of the stories we learnt in school, rather than adding to our understanding of all facets of Australian cultural history.

Following the leaking of the Museum Council's response to the Carroll Review, we know the Council explicitly asked for a large injection of funding. Funding which will be used to rebuild the museum according to Howard's view of how Australian history should be perceived and communicated. Hence the Carroll Review and the predictable response is the mechanism to implement Howard's changes.

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Article edited by Felket Kahsay.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in Arts Hub Australia on 19 November, 2003.

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About the Author

Senator Kate Lundy is federal Shadow Minister for Information Technology, Sport and Recreation, and the Arts. She is a Senator for the ACT.

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