Wednesday, June 14, 2017

History all around us – the long term practical impact of cultural research

Cultural research has long term impacts in terms of our developing body of knowledge which stretch far into the future. Researchers are finding stories in our major cultural collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future. The collections of our major cultural institutions are becoming increasingly accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. In the process they are generating greater understanding about some of the major contemporary issues we face.

Recently I posted a notice about a forthcoming talk at the National Library of Australia by Paul Diamond, Curator, Māori, at the National Library of New Zealand. Paul has has been researching Australian, New Zealand and Pacific records in the collections of the National Library of Australia.

Curator Paul Diamond begins his talk in Te Reo Māori.

The talk turned out to be fascinating because there were so many overlapping topics and perspectives. The talk was being recorded, so hopefully the Library will make it available online for those who were unable to attend. While the talk was highly relevant to New Zealand and its history, it also alluded to some of the big contemporary issues affecting Australia.

Cross-Tasman collaboration
For a start a collaboration between the national libraries of two countries so interlinked was always going to be of interest. With the recent sister city relationship between the two capitals, Wellington and Canberra, already long-established partnerships are becoming much stronger.

Layer upon that alliance the issue of the parallel relationship between the British Empire, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific and then the question of Māori and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander relationships with Britain and there’s a lot happening.

‘The biggest collection of material in any Indigenous language….is a monument to lives that span different countries. Whatever the motivation at the time, such collectors are preserving invaluable material for future researchers. These researchers are already finding stories in the collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future.’

To cap it off the talk was also about the whole issue of what has been called moveable cultural heritage – though in this case the word moveable might better describe how the meaning of these collections shift over time. Collections are built by many different people for many different purposes. In this case, the collection he had been researching, with some 15,000 items, was deliberately brought together as a collection for the peoples of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.

‘Lives that span different countries’
It has been described as the biggest collection of material in any Indigenous language. It is a monument to ‘lives that span different countries’. Whatever the motivation at the time, such collectors are preserving invaluable material for future researchers. These researchers are already finding stories in the collections that were never envisaged by those originally assembling them – a process that will continue long into the future.

These collections have massive repercussions. The issue of repatriation of human remains from the colonial era is a particularly sensitive one. It has been a major issue for communities and collecting institutions in Australia and internationally and Paul touched on it as it affected Māori in relation to the collections he had been studying.

It’s all about language – and languages
What surprised me was the extent to which the talk was about language. Ironically, earlier in the day I had caught up with friends from First Languages Australia, the national organisation advocating for the great community movement in Australia reviving and maintaining Australia’s own distinct languages – the original ones which exist nowhere else in the world.

‘He tellingly made the point that, even though to Australian eyes, Te Reo Māori is quite a strong language, it is still vulnerable. It risks becoming a ceremonial language, rather than one in regular, everyday use.’

This is at a time when the most important community-driven Indigenous languages conference in Australia, the Puliima Conference is about to occur again, in October this year in Cairns, one of the frontiers of language loss. Scheduled every two years, this event has gone from strength to strength since it began in Newcastle in 2007, on the back of a widespread interest and involvement by communities in their languages. Recognising the relevance of the New Zealand experience, the Conference has built a strong relationship with Māori over many years.

Paul introduced his talk in Te Reo Māori and referred to particular matters in the Māori language throughout. He tellingly made the point that, even though to Australian eyes, Te Reo Māori is quite a strong language, it is still vulnerable. It risks becoming a ceremonial language, rather than one in regular, everyday use. Interestingly he noted that some of the most extensive use of Te Reo Māori seems to be on social media, a communications mode that is hard to track, so the extent of this use, presumably often by young people, is hard to gauge.

Challenges of accessible collections
He also referred to one of the big issues for cultural institutions which are committed to making increasing amounts of their collections accessible to the very people the collections are drawn from and reflect. Digitisation is a two edged sword that needs to be wielded with care. On the one hand digitised collections can be widely available – and this can have valuable spin offs in enabling communities to see previously inaccessible material and to make their own contribution to it through a form of crowdsourcing. This is especially the case with a widely dispersed population, with so many New Zealanders living in Australia. On the other hand, some material is culturally sensitive or may be of material value to communities, through intellectual property rights that can be eroded by free access.

‘The long term impact of research and scholarship…stretches far into the future. After over 25 years of Library Fellowships, with more than 150 to date, the Library is just starting to see these long term effects on learning.’

Finally, the recently appointed Director-General of the National Library, Dr Marie-Louise Ayres, in a very eloquent thanks, made the highly pertinent point that the long term impact of research and scholarship like this stretches far into the future. After over 25 years of Library Fellowships, with more than 150 to date, the Library is just starting to see these long term effects on learning. As she summed up, apart from its immediately apparent value now, it would be interesting to look at Pauls’ research in another 25 years to gauge its full impact.

Latest update 9 Jul 2017
After his highly successful stint at the National Library of Australia, Paul Diamond, journalist, broadcaster and Curator, Māori at the National Library of New Zealand, is off on another research adventure about ‘lives that span different countries’. This time he's going to Berlin, as the latest recipient of Creative New Zealand's Berlin Writer's Residency.

See also

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’, A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy?
‘Can Australia successfully navigate the treacherous and confusing times in which we live? Understanding the crucial importance of our cultural diversity to our cultural, social and economic future will be essential. Applying that in the policies and practices that shape our future at all levels across Australia can ensure we have a bright, productive and interesting 21st Century. An important part of this are the political parties, major and minor, that are increasingly negotiating the compromises that shape our world. The recent launch by the Labor Party of a new group, Labor for the Arts, could be an important development. Combining as it does a focus from an earlier time on both arts and multiculturalism, it could potentially open the way for some innovative and forward-thinking policy’, Understanding why cultural diversity is central to Australia’s future promise – a refocused Labor arts policy?

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’, Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future
‘The real danger for Australia’s arts and culture is not funding cuts but steady, unending neglect. The decline of Government arts and culture support can be attributed to four long-running factors. This I call a quadruple whammy, from lack of indexation, the cumulative effect of ‘efficiency dividends’, the trend towards project funding rather than operational funding an falling behind as the population and economy expands’, Quadruple whammy – the long-running factors that together threaten our cultural future.

Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia
‘The arts and culture sector has long suffered from a shortage of high quality, useable research and statistics. This makes what is available doubly important as we argue the case for the central relevance of arts and culture and the broader social and economic impact of involvement. New research demonstrates the positive scale of involvement, views on importance and trends in participation in Australia’s arts and cultural life, especially hands on involvement. It also shows a worrying decline in engagement and recognition in recent years and points to the need for a more strategic view by government’, Taking part – Arts involvement in a divided Australia.

Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture
‘Australia’s arts and culture is at a critical stage. One of the issues confronting it is lack of any kind of shared sense of what the role of government is in encouraging our arts and culture. The whole set of interlinked problems with the relationship between government and Australia’s arts and culture can be reduced to a lack of strategic vision and a long-term plan for the future. This deficiency is most apparent in the lack of any guiding policy, like trying to navigate a dark and dangerous tunnel without a torch or flying at night without lights or a map’, Creating the future for Australia's arts and culture.

Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy
‘With the ongoing malaise due to the absence of national arts and cultural policy in Australia, it's worth reminding ourselves what beneficial impact good policy can have. To understand the power of policy to make an impact in the world, it’s worthwhile contrasting two recent major Australian Government cultural policies – the National Cultural Policy and the National Indigenous Languages Policy. This helps illuminate how cultural policy can promote the long view, innovation, breadth and leadership. Both policies showed that more important than funding or specific initiatives was the overall strategic vision and the way in which it attempted to place culture not just on the main agenda, but somewhere near the centre of the main agenda’, Putting culture on the main agenda – the power of policy.

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?
‘In response to steadily diminishing support for arts and culture by government, it's crucial to recognise that Australia's arts are central to everyday life and should be firmly on the main national agenda. Apart from their value in maintaining a thriving Australian culture, the range of social and economic benefits they deliver and their role in telling Australia's story to ourselves and the world make them an essential service’, Dear Treasurer – our arts are central to everyday life, why doesn’t funding reflect it?

Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support
‘In the slowly unravelling universe of arts and culture support, organisations – whether they be small arts organisations or the largest of national cultural institutions – need to think seriously about their future. They need to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This means developing strategies to survive the combination of drastic cuts and slow erosion already occurring and likely to continue into the foreseeable – and unpredictable – future’, Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst – the looming failure of arts support.

Arts funding – it’s not all about the money
‘National Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, has said that being a strong advocate for the arts doesn’t mean delivering government funding and that an arts Minister or a government shouldn’t be judged just on the quantum of money the government puts in. This sidesteps the Government’s very real problems that it has muddied the waters of existing arts funding, cutting many worthwhile organisations loose with no reason, that rather than delivering arts funding, it has reduced it significantly, and that it has no coherent strategy or policy to guide its arts decisions or direction. The real issue is that a national framework, strategy or policy for arts and culture support underpins and provides a rationale for arts funding – and is far more important’, Arts funding – it’s not all about the money.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

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