Monday, April 15, 2024

Returning to reading – finding the best of all worlds

It’s a strange time we live in – but then, has any time not been a strange time. I often think that there is no way on Earth that I would ever want to live in an earlier era, before medicine was so developed, when the average life expectancy was in the mid 30s, when life for most people was a short spell of drudgery punctuated by poverty and fear. I'm making the most of it. Lately I’ve started to balance my fascination with the easy-earned opinion of the online universe with a return to reading writing, as distinct from glancing at jotting.

I grew up in the era of mass polio, where every child knew someone who was consigned to an iron lung and fear was everywhere. Then suddenly vaccination appeared and our generation embraced it with relief. In our day the way you became protected from a raft of diseases was to catch them and – if you were lucky enough to survive – when you eventually recovered, you were inoculated. Unfortunately, having spent hundreds of years dragging itself out of the Dark Ages, large chunks of humanity seem hell bent of dragging us back.

 The Boulten and Watt steam engine, Powerhouse Museum.

Easier to be connected than ever before
I like this well-connected time of ours, where I can find information (though not always knowledge) at the drop of a hat – if I’m wearing a hat, that is, which unfortunately in this country of extreme heat most people don’t seem to bother with. It’s a time where it is easier to be connected to those who are important in your life than ever before – no matter where they are on the planet.

‘I like this well-connected time of ours, where I can find information (though not always knowledge) at the drop of a hat – if I’m wearing a hat, that is, which unfortunately in this country of extreme heat most people don’t seem to bother with.’

Unfortunately it’s also a time where it’s far easier than ever to become connected to people you would normally never want to even know about. Once they would be the people – I used to call them harangue-outangs, a species somewhere half-way between ape and human – who bailed you up against a wall at a party, spit flecking their lips, as they banged on about some boring obsession or another, until you excused yourself to go to the toilet. Now there's no escape – any half-baked view is equally as valid as that of someone who has spent decades gaining real hard-earned knowledge, and so much of social media is not much better than that toilet I used to escape to.

Froth on the vast digital ocean
There’s lots to interest the casual browsing reader, especially if you take everything with a grain of salt. The digital and online universe can be a powerful means of enhancing interaction in the physical world – or it can be a way of avoiding it.

Still it’s easy to spend far too much time reading online, following all the soft-earned opinion and scraps of knowledge picked up from the froth tossing like flotsam and jetsam on the vast digital ocean.

Steam train, Powerhouse Museum.

As a result I realised that over the last five years I had largely stopped reading writing – as distinct from spontaneous jotting. Lately, however, I have found my way back to books. I’ve got a shiny new library card and borrowed a book or two. Unfortunately the first book I borrowed, Bill Bryson, ‘At home: a short history of private life’, was very thick and I was only a third of the way through it when it was due for return. I tried to extend it but there were seven people queued up to borrow it after me. In the end I tracked it down and bought it.

‘Lately, however, I have found my way back to books. I’ve got a shiny new library card and borrowed a book or two.’

For good measure I also bought the Andrew Leigh book, ‘The shortest history of economics’. I thought the author sounded familiar, then discovered that it was the same person as the MP and Minister in the current Labor Government. I knew he had been a Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, but I had no idea he had written so many books. I thought all MPs were lawyers or corporate high-flyers, with the odd (and increasingly less common) trade union official thrown in on the Labor side. Someone who actually knew something about economics sounded hopeful.

Unfortunately, as interested as I am in economics, especially cultural economics, this blog isn’t really the place to discuss Andrew Leigh's excellent book. If it was I could have listed just as many insights in his book as I there are cultural insights in the Bryson book, because I found it fascinating with its wide-ranging incisive ambit. I've always been convinced that I should have gone on further with economics after my single year at university studying under much respected economist Professor Keith Hancock. It's not surprising that one of my main areas of speciality became the cultural and creative economy and creative industries.

The Andrew Leigh book seems to have had an enthusiastic reception. Even my favourite economist, Ross Gittins - one of the small number of quality journalists that keep me subscribed to the Sydney Morning Herald - has reviewed it.

The museums of applied arts and sciences
Bryson’s excellent book ranges widely and it’s impossible to even sketch what he manages to cover – 19th Century architecture, the changing use of rooms, the development of public parks, the life of servants, the dreaded scourge of scurvy on seafarers.

Though it’s only a part of his wide-ranging series of topics, there is one subject that enthralled me. Bryson’s book has a lengthy outline of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and the marvellous Crystal Palace, the vast glass and iron building that housed it. That for me was the highlight of the book.

‘Though it’s only a part of his wide-ranging series of topics, there is one subject that enthralled me. Bryson’s book has a lengthy outline of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and the marvellous Crystal Palace, the vast glass and iron building that housed it.’

I have a strange connection to the Great Exhibition and a resulting fascination with it. The Powerhouse Museum – the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences – where I worked as Members Manager for many years, grew out of the vast Garden Palace. This was home to Australia’s first international exhibition in 1879, an antipodean version of the Great Exhibition that took place in the Sydney Botanic Gardens – until it eventually burned down, a common enough fate of buildings in those times. Its themes echoed through other parts of Australia, in the the Economic Gardens in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens and around the world, in places like the Economic Gardens in the UNESCO-listed Singapore Botanic Gardens.

‘The nineteenth century fascination with applied arts and sciences — the economic application of nature, arts and sciences — and the intersection of these diverse areas and their role in technological innovation are as relevant today for our creative industries.’

When I visited the National Museum of Scotland in 2017, I was astounded to discover that it was housed in another of the grand cast iron buildings that were copied from the Great Exhibition. In 2019 in London I wandered into the Museum of London just as a talk was about to begin about the Great Exhibition. It seems I couldn’t get away from the long term influence of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace.

Focus on manufacturing, industry and innovation
What fascinates me so much about the Great Exhibition is the way it focused on manufacturing and industry and innovation. My own area of specialisation is the creative and cultural economy and creative industries, where innovation and creativity meets commerce. When I was on the Board of Craft ACT and we were establishing what became the long-running and highly successful DESIGN Canberra festival, it was this very applied and practical aspect of creativity that attracted me.

As I said in a blog article, Creative Industries - applied arts and sciences, that I wrote back in 2011, ‘The nineteenth century fascination with applied arts and sciences — the economic application of nature, arts and sciences — and the intersection of these diverse areas and their role in technological innovation are as relevant today for our creative industries.’ These collections and exhibitions laid the basis for modern Australian industry. They were the Australian version of the great Victorian-era industrial expositions, where, in huge palaces of glass, steel and timber, industry, invention, science, the arts and nature all intersected and overlapped.

Huge lost collection
What was deeply interesting about the Garden Palace was that when it burned to the ground in 1882, it contained amongst many other things a huge collection of Aboriginal cultural artefacts which were lost as well. The ‘barrangal dyara’ (skin and bones) project by Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones, was a vast sculptural installation stretching across 20,000 square metres of the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney. It was a project that seemed to manage to pull together so many troubled and troubling strands in Australia’s cultural life.

Part of the collection of aircraft, Powerhouse Museum.

Jones’ exhibition referenced the original Garden Palace. At the time the artefacts were presented to reinforce the prevailing narrow view of Aboriginal Australia. Their destruction meant that they were never part of the changes over the decades in how Aboriginal culture came to be seen in relation to Australia’s culture and heritage as a whole.

Great loss and inspirational gain
The exhibition also wove the story of that 19th Century loss with the inspiring contemporary national campaign by hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia to revive and maintain Australia’s Indigenous languages before they are lost forever. A friend of mine who is active in the movement to make Wiradjuri part of everyday speech again, attended the installation representing national languages body, First Languages Australia. He travelled to Sydney with a large group of school children from the area round Parkes and Orange in Western NSW. Decades of work there have made Aboriginal languages part of their educational reality for many students. The students were recorded for a soundscape as part of the exhibition, with assistance and inspiration from those who have been teaching them for so long and from Dr Stan Grant, whose role in the revival and maintenance work is now the stuff of history.

‘The exhibition also wove the story of that 19th Century loss with the inspiring contemporary national campaign by hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia to revive and maintain Australia’s Indigenous languages before they are lost forever.’

The extent of the original missing collection can be gauged by the range of languages reflected in the exhibition – those from the Eora nation of the Sydney area which were first affected by colonisation, as well as Wiradjuri, Gumbayggirr, Gamilaraay, Paakantji , Ngarrindjerri, Gunditjmarra and Woowurrung – all languages from communities on the frontier of the expanding colonies which lost artefacts in the fire.

Manicuring the land
In Bryson’s book I also came across a description of how the vast forests of wood they found on the Eastern seaboard were so important for the houses of the American settlers and affected the character of their buildings. Then unexpectedly I had a sharp sense of déjà vu. I am well familiar with the writing by author and languages activist Bruce Pascoe and historian Bill Gammadge about how before the arrival of Europeans Aboriginal groups consciously manicured the land for their long-term economic survival. I didn’t realise how widespread such practices were beyond Australia. Perhaps they depended on similarly vast landcapes.

‘I am well familiar with the writing by author and languages activist Bruce Pascoe and historian Bill Gammadge about how before the arrival of Europeans Aboriginal groups consciously manicured the land for their long-term economic survival. I didn’t realise how widespread such practices were beyond Australia.’

Bryson comments ‘When Europeans arrived in the New World…the woods that greeted the newcomers were not quite as boundless as they first appeared. , particularly as as one moved inland. Beyond the mountains of the eastern seaboard, large expanses had been cleared already by Indians, and much of the forest undergrowth burned to make hunting easier. In Ohio, early settlers were astonished to find that the woods were more like English parks than primeval forests, and roomy enough to allow the driving of carriages through the trees. Indians created these parks for the benefit of bison, which they effectively harvested.’ Reading this I thought I could be reading Pascoe or Gammage.

Culling and unreliable borrowers

I have a large library, though somewhat diminished from the size it originally was – due to culling and unreliable borrowers failing to return books. It takes dedication to carry about so many books when you move regularly like so many Australians – from city to city and from state to state (and territory).

When you decide you have to do something about it and you cull your books, there’s a trick to it. Once you decide you can live without a certain book, then every other book with the same level of significance can automatically go as well. It’s good in theory, less successful in practice.

My return to reading, as opposed to glancing, continues to continue. I suspect it will be a long-term return and in moving forward I will also be recapturing my history and, as we all know, it’s not only the future that can change, the past will continue to change as well.

© Stephen Cassidy 2024

See also

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

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.

The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

The whole picture – an arts and cultural policy for everyone and everything
‘After a hiatus of ten long years Australia finally has a new national cultural policy that maps out what the current Albanese Government plans to do in support of Australian culture and creativity. At first glance the new policy appears to be an arts policy, rather than a broader cultural policy, but on closer scrutiny it is connected to far wider initiatives. Part of a series of three articles that consider different aspects of the cultural policy, this second one is about the connection between the policy and broader social and economic features, such as the cultural economy and First Nations economic development. The first one looks at the policy generally and outlines some of the major components it will deliver. The third article looks at the boost to the national collecting institutions which collect and safeguard Australia's cultural heritage,’ The whole picture – an arts and cultural policy for everyone and everything.

Standing out in the crowd – a regional road tour of arts and culture
‘A recent regional road tour through Victoria to South Australia showed how a focus on arts and culture is a pointer for how regional centres can take a path other than slow decline. It also showed how a small country on the edges of the mainstream can become a global design force by staying true to its language, locality and culture – the things that make it distinctive in a crowded, noisy marketplace dominated by big, cashed up players’, Standing out in the crowd – a regional road tour of arts and culture.

The island to the North series
Celebrating the ties between large and small islands, my original island home and the vast Pacific Ocean that laps and links them.

The island to the North – a nearby foreign country
‘Sitting by a roaring fire in a wintry pub in Tarraleah I found Tasmanians liked to call Australia “the island to the North”. We are neighbours but sometimes I wonder if I am behind enemy lines’, The island to the North – a nearby foreign country.

The island to the North – disappearing worlds
‘Islands are easily overlooked – Tasmania is an island that periodically disappears off maps, sometimes there, sometimes not, at the edge of consciousness, at the end of space’, The island to the North – disappearing worlds.

The island to the North – turning the map upside down
‘Our geography teacher taught us about the Australian fear of the Yellow Peril, ready to pour down from Asia and inundate the almost empty island to the South’, The island to the North – turning the map upside down.
 
The island to the North – the islands to the North East
‘The awkward relationship between Tasmania and the island to the North is not the only clumsy relationship between islands in this part of the world. The history of the ties between the island to the North and the islands of the Pacific is even more troubled.’ The island to the North – the islands to the North East.
 
The island to the North – rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic 
‘When Australia finally ceased to be a rabble of competing colonies and instead became a nation comprising a rabble of competing states and territories, it still seemed possible that New Zealand might join the new Federation. Both New Zealand and Tasmania have long been an afterthought for the island to the North. But lots of mountains, clean water, high quality untainted produce, dramatic landscapes and acres of ocean all mark Tasmania as suitable for New Zealandership. It’s a partnership waiting to happen. It’s clear that the future for Tasmania lies with New Zealand, the islands to the East rather than the island to the North. In a form of Federation in reverse, Tasmania should join its neighbouring islands to make New Zealand three islands instead of two – the North Island, the South Island and the West Island. New Tazealand forever’, The island to the North – rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. 
 
Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights
‘The arts and culture sector has spent far too many years pressing the case for why Australian culture is crucial to Australia’s future, without seeming to shift the public policy landscape to any great degree. Perhaps a proposed fresh approach focusing on cultural rights may offer some hope of a breakthrough. What makes this approach so important and so potentially productive is that it starts with broad principles, linked to fundamental issues, such as human rights, which makes it a perfect foundation for the development of sound and well-thought out policies – something that currently we sadly lack’, Changing the landscape of the future – a new focus on cultural rights.

What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture
‘With arts and cultural support increasingly under pressure, arts and cultural organisations and artists are trying to find ways in their own localities to respond and to help build a popular understanding of the broader social and economic benefits of arts and culture. Much work has been done in Australia and internationally to understand, assess and communicate the broad value of arts and culture. The challenge is to share and to apply what already exists – and to take it further’, What is art good for? Understanding the value of our arts and culture.
 
Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet
‘The recent exhibition 'Piinpi', about contemporary Indigenous fashion, has a significance for Australian culture that is yet to be fully revealed. The themes covered by the exhibition are important because they demonstrate the intersection of the culture of First Nations communities with creative industries and the cultural economy. In attempting to address the major issue of Indigenous disadvantage, for example, it is critical to recognise that one of the most important economic resources possessed by First Nations communities is their culture. Through the intellectual property that translates it into a form that can generate income in a contemporary economy, that culture is pivotal to jobs and to income. It may not be mining but it mines a far richer seam – authentic and rich content that has already been recognised internationally for its high value, just like our iron and coal. At a time when First Nations communities are talking increasingly about gaining greater control over their economic life, this is highly relevant’, Contemporary Indigenous fashion – where community culture and economics meet.
 
Saving the farm – recognising Indigenous languages part of salvaging community
‘The end of the year – after a bumper 24 months of disasters – is a time of closure. Many things have changed and many more will change – hopefully mainly for the better. In particular people who have made major contributions to Australia creativity and culture are moving on from their roles to take up new interests or interests they have been too busy to pursue. This is particularly the case in the arena of First Nations languages, where the recognition amongst Australians generally of the importance of languages and culture is part and parcel of salvaging community – for everyone’, Saving the farm – recognising Indigenous languages part of salvaging community.
 
Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week
‘Being involved with Australian culture means being involved in one way or another with First Nations arts, culture and languages – it’s such a central and dynamic part of the cultural landscape. First Nations culture has significance for First Nations communities, but it also has powerful implications for Australian culture generally. NAIDOC Week is a central part of that cultural landscape’, Always was, always will be – a welcome long view in NAIDOC week. 

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.

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.


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