Artlink and Museums, Past and Present

The issues raised by revisiting in some degree the past within Artlink touch upon a more general invocation to the authority and precedent of history in an Australian context. Some of these issues are here discussed with reference to key figures such as the Papunya Tula movement, David Kerr, Jude Adams, Drusilla Modjeska, Joan Kerr, Anne McClintock, Louise Dauth, Penny White, Zara Stanhope, Stuart Hall, Nicholas Rothwell, Paul Carter and Donald Brook.

The past is a foreign country. L.P.Hartley, 1953

Fornication? But that was in another country: and besides the wench is dead
Christopher Marlowe, circa 1592

Artlink describes itself as a Contemporary Art Quarterly, yet from its earliest issue it has always extended to commentaries upon the past and a sense of history. This historical focus is neither inconsistent nor surprising, when the role and function of history in Australian cultural debate is outlined. The issues raised by revisiting in some degree the past within Artlink touch upon a more general invocation to the authority and precedent of history in an Australian context. The very first issue of Artlink, speaks directly of history's central role in Australian culture and consciousness. The subjects of the two major essays say it all. One article deals with the future of the past in Australia, the potential construction of the past in Australia that has become for many people a key both to unlocking Australia's past and for placing ourselves in the present and future. This cautious but hopeful discussion by David Kerr on the emergence of a strong Aboriginal art scene in Adelaide may have been a little optimistic in outlining the possible ease of reconciliation, which it portrayed as a process on the brink of occurring, but it was prophetic in that it identified the potentially unbounded significance of the (then extremely recent) Papunya Tula movement. It also implied that Aboriginal art would become central and develop in ways that could hardly be appreciated at the time. Most prophetically it put reconciliation at centre stage – a far less expected stance in 1981 than 2000.

The other article in that first issue dealt with an equally titanic presence in the Australian cultural overview: the Heidelberg School. Yet whereas the Aboriginal essay was indicative, pointing out a future way of discussion, the directions offered by Jude Adams have remained - two decades later - substantially unheeded and ignored, despite the logic of her arguments and clarity of her prose. She was asking for something that no one is yet willing fully to give - to reconsider the Heidelberg School, in effect to shift the parameters of the whole canon. This shift has not occurred in two subsequent decades, despite the flourishing of post-structural and deconstructive theories. The bathetic Stravinsky's Lunch by Drusilla Modjeska, and its rapturous reception indicates strong emotional ties to a traditional view of art.
History has threaded itself through various editions of Artlink - especially in theme issues which act as a core sampling of a given practice in Australia at any given time. Given the explicit brief in Artlink to decentralise the discussion and validation of culture, there is often an underlying impetus to consciously document what is happening around a particular theme in a particular region. This spatial responsibility gains a de facto temporal dimension in that by documenting what is happening at a particular location Artlink documents what is happening at a given moment. Commenting upon Australian cultural actions in such fields as Indigenous Art, the interaction with various regions in the Asia Pacific, the environment, women, Multiculturalism in Australia, immediately brings into play the image of what has been either achieved previously or the misunderstandings and mistakes that have prevented an effective realisation.

History is also often even more explicitly present in Artlink. 1988 produced a scrutiny of the cultural events surrounding the Bicentennial celebrations which brought into play the official auspicing of culture and a prophetic forecast of the Australian cultural future. Joan Kerr's article, The Bicentenary and the BLOCKbuster, outlined ideas that shaped the decade ahead. Amongst the jubilations and self congratulations - remember the famous faces showcased in the banal Celebration of a Nation video: our multicultural, famous and rich betters showing us how to party - she discussed the limitations of content in Bicentennial vision of consensus and colourful affirmation, including indigenous, class and feminist issues, marginalisation and difference.

The issue on Art and the Republic 1997 could not fail to grapple with history. Yet Australian identity debates and the central role allotted to history in such discourses are infected by irony whereby even deconstructing these issues leads the analyst to be deeply implicated by association (and by default) with the importance that post-Enlightenment whitebread institutional culture has ascribed to such issues. Anne McClintock's discussion of how history catalysed a political identity and established a sense of security amongst the Afrikaner Nation, bolstering a collective self that was constantly challenged by other realities, demonstrates the volatile but important role that history plays when communities are consciously self-constructing.

Artlink's commitment to scrutinising the whys and means of the art business in Australia led it to address 'the past' in an industry-based discourse in the Museums On The Edge issue, guest edited by Louise Dauth, and drawn from the 1991 CAMA (Confederation of Australian Museums Associations) conference. The papers indicate that issue that I always feel most intently in entering those carefully designed, explicitly scripted, ever-so-exemplary spaces of the reborn museum/s: that the museum is a particularly efficient tool for delivering and controlling a 'message' and for shaping/defining/teaching 'culture'. For example, there is the irony of a Museum professional-driven desire to facilitate other audiences/stories into the museum set against the design-based emphasis, whereby galleries and museums are show-case jobs for architects that give a freedom and communicative potential missing in commercial briefs.

Tidal movements of taste have brought history into Artlink, Mining the Archive, a 1999 edition, documents a conceptual art practice - the explicit interaction with historic artefacts and spaces - that was impossible to conceive of three or four decades ago. The art seen in Mining the Archive speaks of a mutually fruitful relationship between art and the museum. Even at its most explicitly political, in terms of artworks that consciously set out a brief to rewrite the forbidden history into the spaces of the legitimised, there is a validation of the museum in that it becomes a worthy space for telling the stories of the unvoiced. In turn these new stories enhance the museum's range and experience. Now the museum space becomes an accepting/acceptable forum for the indigenous story to be heard in. Acknowledging the indigenous, or any other undervalued story, means (amongst its many components) to demand that space is found in the temple where it may speak. This new artform – installations addressing museum objects and spaces - demonstrates the end results of several decades of questioning central concepts of the museum and the past, as Zara Stanhope noted in her editorial. It also betokens a willingness for the museum to allow artists into the archives and a new ability for museum professionals to grant their possessions the possibility of having a life beyond the taxonomic. I can remember those dusty bizarre labyrinthine spaces of the old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, the old Museum of Victoria or even the Queensland Museum where one had to peer intently to discover an object's worthy quality, and to walk through rooms of irrelevant items to find those favourites that were tucked away apologetically in glass cases against a pegboard background. The purely visual and aesthetic were frequently downplayed in the intensely science and technology driven impetus of the mid-century Australian public museum. Yet despite the disavowal of 'culture', the assumptions and hierarchies behind these mid-century displays were profoundly cultural in that they spoke of identity and character, especially via subjective classification systems such as anthropology.

Has the museum gained new relevance, not through the worthiness of its objects or the astuteness of its curatorial policy, but through art practice? The death of painting, the ongoing stress upon installation and conceptual art promotes the museum from the lowly dusty status of being a mere repository or storehouse of the superannuated and worthy, to somewhere that gains in celebrity and importance due to the poetry of the objects held within. Generally what is being spoken about in the new interaction between art and the museum is something poetic and elusive, informed frequently by surrealism as well as post colonial and post structuralist theories. It is allowing the off-beat poetry of what was formerly classified as marginal and irrelevant to speak within the temple. These stories are particularly relevant to the state of being 'Australian' in that, even as we confront our white privilege, we are constantly informed of our marginality in a global scenario.
Due to the centrality of (white) Australian history, the museum can be read as an extremely privileged site for interpretation, standing as it does on a nexus between testament, facilitation/mediation, communication and intellectual validation, a point of verification of identity as well as education about identity. The "New Museology" has early found enthusiastic advocates because of the interchange between the self-positioning of Australian intellectuals as vanguardist and the continual validation of the (white) Australian past. Stuart Hall has outlined how museums and galleries "have been closely associated with informal public education, they have become part of ... how the state indirectly and at a distance induces and solicits appropriate attitudes and forms of conduct from its citizens." He calls for a reconceptualising of the 'museum' or 'heritage' to take cognisance of recent processes of democratisation of the formats of historical presentation from social history, labour history, to local, family and minority histories and also to acknowledge the "critique of the Enlightenment ideal of dispassionate universal knowledge" and "the growing cultural relativism" and "decentralisation of the West and western-orientated or Eurocentric grand narratives". The goal is to transcend that "frontier defined by that great unspoken British value - whiteness".

Ironically Australian cultural institutions have, to a great degree and with much public rhetoric, implemented policies with the stated aim - desired by Hall - of destabilising the old Imperial/empirical systems of knowledge and classification. Yet to what extent do these institutions still covertly and overtly "induce and solicit" appropriate behaviours? Few of the museum professionals writing in the Museums on the Edge issue of Artlink, acknowledged that their own authority could be temporal or finite, bounded by prejudice, fashion, mortality and idiosyncrasies or just plain error.
Hall speaks particularly of minorities and sub-cultural groupings as being at the forefront of transitional and "diasporic", "cross-over cultural forms" that influence all Britons, thus betokening a "'modernity' (or postmodernity) [that] is not waiting on some authority to permit or sanction those explorations of creativity in contemporary media and form." Is minority status the only grounds for dispossession in Australia? Where does Post Colonial revision (when generated from above) stand when Australia avoids, as Nicholas Rothwell suggests: "contending ideas" in favour of "intellectual consensus without real debate". An article by Paul Carter in Artlink exemplifies the tension which grows out of the singular positioning of both history and cultural validation in Australia. Whilst the principles that he advocates are admirable, the methodological basis and the authority from which he speaks is taken for granted. He suggests that museum exhibitions in Australia and overseas form lost opportunities for airing issues related to colonialism and settlement and take the easier option of prioritising seductive Otherness, and flattering the eye with treasures while histories of expropriation are erased; or absolving violence and conflict through technological data and classification. That superficial or narrow stories/historical-material cultural narratives need auditing by "historical self-consciousness", "countervailing advice", as he proposes, I do not question, but whose? The shape of Australian debate favours the elite rather than the mass. Then there is another unspeakable conundrum, a heresy spoken by Artlink regular Donald Brook, when he suggested that nationality is a consensual fiction, which a person assumes at will, but is complicated by a counter theory that claims identities: "are not fictions invented by us, but on the contrary they are inescapable facts bestowed upon us by historical and causal accidents of genetic endowment, birthplace and cultural milieu". This split problematicises (yet again) white identity and also encourages wholesale essentialising appropriations of other cultures, which can more firmly be defined and validated.

The story of the (white, institutionally validated) Australian past as blueprint and instruction manual is not fixed however. Frequently artistic interventions/installations in the museum move out from the socially responsible educative brief that has sent Australian professionals to radically reconceptualise and revamp the idea of the museum since the 1980s, to a more indulgent and surrealist moment in museum history. Beyond either the liberal (small l) conscience's facilitation of tasteful minority stories or the Enlightenment's taxonomic temple lies another paradigm: the chaotic profusion of the private Wunderkammer seen in mannerist and baroque paintings of museums where authentic, mythical, high and low, the rigorously scientific and tokens of superstition mingled promiscuously with the rare and the fake in cabinets and crowded multiple hangs.
History is somehow inescapable in Australia.