Monday, November 5, 2018

Who owns Australia’s ‘soul’? Our cultural institutions, our history and our future

The announcement of a substantial sum from the Government for expansion of the Australian War Memorial has highlighted some crucial issues around shrinking support for our cultural institutions, recognition of our history and heritage, and sponsorship in a time of diminishing budgets. The Director of the War Memorial has commented that ‘the Australian War Memorial is…a place that reveals our character as a people, our soul.’ In the end though, Australia's ‘soul’ might turn out to be larger, longer and wider than our history of wars.

In a time of tight budgets and creeping efficiency dividends on cultural institutions that cripple their ability to do their job, it seems the Government can manage to find an odd 500 million dollars for an expansion of the Australian War Memorial. Director of the War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, has commented that ‘the Australian War Memorial is…a place that reveals our character as a people, our soul.’

It’s generated some heat for them in the world of culture and heritage and some incisive commentary beyond that, but with the Government’s much bigger problems, I suppose they will be unlikely to notice. Still, it’s a pity about all the other declining national cultural institutions which care for our heritage – including our military heritage, witness the extensive war records held by the National Archives of Australia.

Our major national cultural institutions, such as the National Library of Australia, amongst many others, are battling neglect to maintain their services in the face of growing need.

The uncharitable might even say that it helps to have a Director of the War Memorial who is a former Liberal leader, and one moreover deposed by Malcolm Turnbull, who in turn was himself overthrown in a recent case of simultaneously shooting yourself in the foot while putting your foot in your mouth.

‘Then we might start to move towards a genuinely comprehensive War Memorial that addresses the full complexity of our history, in all its messy reality.’ 

The whole business raises a long list of issues about culture, cultural institutions and what they include and how they are supported. I gather that veterans groups have long been arguing for coverage by the War Memorial of more recent wars and the expansion would help make this possible. Why not encompass this by looking forward – and looking back, to also include coverage of the period of the Frontier Wars, which are so important a part of Australia’s history. First Nations groups have been calling for this from the War Memorial but it has been vigorously resisted. 

Then we might start to move towards a genuinely comprehensive War Memorial that addresses the full complexity of our history, in all its messy reality. Politicians won’t like it, but the fact we have a colonial history on one hand and a long record of subservient foreign policy on the other, doesn’t lessen recognition of the service of veterans. They are just doing a messy job in a messy situation in a political environment that has never been their responsibility. Of course, there are also those playing similar roles in the civilian world, such as firefighters, paramedics and police – let’s not forget them.

Questionable sponsorship deals the price of neo-liberalism
This also raises the issue of sponsorship, something all cultural institutions have been dealing with for ages. In a world where neo-liberal ideology has long ruled amongst both major parties, cultural institutions have been forced to find support from private sponsors. Both the War Memorial and the Invictus Games, which I enjoyed watching recently, have been criticised for their sponsorship by arms manufacturers.

It’s easy to see how it happens. If you are running an institution, like the War Memorial or the Invictus Games, with an association with military matters, then arms manufacturers are likely to be ready and willing to throw money your way. Sponsorship arranged. Job done. It's partly a matter of being careful about which sponsors are desirable, but if we want to avoid the sticky issues this raises, government support is always going to be crucial.

Anyone who survived got a medal
I’m as fascinated as the next Australian by our military history – after all I did have five uncles who served in World War 2 and picked up a few medals between them. My uncle Jim was a navigator on a Lancaster bomber and won the Distinguished Flying Cross twice. He once famously commented that the attrition rate amongst bomber aircrew was so high that anyone who survived got a medal – maybe not two, though.

‘[My uncle]..once famously commented that the attrition rate amongst bomber aircrew was so high that anyone who survived got a medal.’ 

My father in law, who was an Austrian conscript in the German Army on the Eastern Front in World War 2, used to enjoy going to Anzac Day events each year, even though as he said, he'd had enough of armies – until he was pointedly told that because he had been on the ‘other’ side, he shouldn’t be there.

I notice that politicians love to celebrate military history more than most aspects of our history. They particularly seem to like wars from a while back – like World War 1 – maybe because there are no cranky veterans left around to contradict their rose-coloured version of events.

Better spent helping veterans?
It’s not that I agree with the simplistic comment heard all too often that this sort of money would be better spent helping veterans – or hospitals, or schools. Resourcing our culture and heritage is critical as well. It’s just that Government has to accept that there are a range of things it has to support, if it is to do its job well. It’s not always a case of either/or.

‘I was shocked the other day to see a new charity amongst the vast range already struggling for the attention of everyday Australians. It was raising funds to support Australia’s veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.’ 

I was shocked the other day to see a new charity amongst the vast range already struggling for the attention of everyday Australians. It was raising funds to support Australia’s veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. I must admit I thought the charity responsible was actually the Department of Veterans Affairs and that Australian taxpayers should be paying for the care of these veterans much more directly than through raffles. Sometimes I think we seem to show a lot more concern about those veterans who have gone than the ones still amongst us.

So I’m somewhat bemused – though not surprised – that the Government has chosen to emphasise the importance of our narrow military heritage at the expense of the much broader Australian heritage. Clearly I’m not the only one, as the comments of Martyn Jolly and Jack Waterford attest. Why not recognise that this is so important that all the cultural institutions need a boost, to enable them to properly service our growing population, economy and history – and the expanding heritage collection that comes with it?

See also

‘indefinite article’ on Facebook – short arts updates and commentary
‘Short arts updates and irreverent cultural commentary about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age’, 'indefinite article' on Facebook.

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.

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.

Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts
‘I’ve said before that the traditional saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, should instead refer to ‘lies, damned lies and lies about statistics’. Cuts to national arts and cultural funding, while relatively small each year, have a cumulative effect far greater than at first appears and, in the long run, will undermine the effectiveness of national arts and culture support. Where the real disastrous impact of these cuts will hit home is when we also factor in the impact of population growth. If anything, there needs to be an expansion of arts and cultural funding to service the growth’, Lies, damned lies and lies about statistics – how population growth will magnify the impact of arts and culture cuts.

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.

Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

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.

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?

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

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?

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.

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.

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