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postmodern discontent Arrow vol 3 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


Postmodern Discontent and the National Museum of Australia

Greg McCarthy
University of Adelaide



1. From the onset of the Enlightenment, museums were largely monuments to the idea of modernist progress. The exhibitions in these museums represented the development of scientific knowledge as well as the exploration and colonization of the world by European nations, with the spoils of that process being collected and classified in keeping with a sense of Western superiority. The vision shaping these institutions was one that stridently drew a line along the axis of modernity, imperialism and progress. The modernist project was considered to be linear and constant. The emergence of postmodern and post-colonial theory questioned the irreversibility of modernity and exposed the power relations that underlay colonial expansion. In so doing, it placed in question the whole nature of museums and their collections. The severance of the link between modernity and progress, combined with the recognition that museums could no longer be a confident expression of imperialism and colonialism, presented challenges to any new museum. The conundrum was especially acute for a museum that was given the mantle of a national museum. This was the case with the National Museum of Australia.

2. When the idea for building an Australian national museum in Canberra was raised in 1975, it was recognised by those making the proposal that it was impossible to build a monument to modernism, as has been the case with the British museum. Rather, the aim was to address the issue of Australia’s specific history and to capture the contemporary mood of nationalism so evident at that time. The 1975 Piggott Report that explored the idea of a new national museum, chose the history of the continent as its way to express nationalism through capturing the plurality of knowledge and experience of its peoples (Piggott, 1975). History was defined in three forms - the history of Aboriginal peoples, the history of non-indigenous peoples and the history of the engagement between humans and the Australian environment. By the time the National Museum of Australia (NMA) was built in 2001, to celebrate the Centenary of Federation, these themes had become Land, Nation and People. Using these themes as its guide, and the instruction to confront rather than to shy away from contemporary concerns, construction of the museum began and exhibits were collected that began to express the plurality of Australian history.

3. Whilst the pluralistic interpretations of Australian history were in keeping with the mission statement of the NMA, they were contrary to the Howard government’s celebratory position on Australian history and national identity. What followed was an intense ideological struggle to bring the museum into line with the government’s modernist-linear framework and to conform to its political interpretation of contemporary Australia. However, this contestation over the NMA has a greater significance greater than merely the political interference by the government of the day in the affairs of a public institution. Nevertheless, it needs to be added that the Howard government is both repressive and vindictive when it confronts political dissent - as the illiberal fate of Dawn Casey, the respected first director of the NMA, attests (Barnes, 2003). What was politically at stake was the manner in which the past impinged upon the present. As Zygmunt Bauman argues, the present is inevitably depicted as a better world, so that "whatever comes later is (must be, ought to be) … better, while everything receding into the past is also worse" (Bauman, 1997: 96). The dilemma was that the NMA, in delving into the past, exposed the case that for some Australians, notably the indigenous peoples, conditions had not improved, and this was in no small part due to the persistent legacy of colonialism. Moreover, by presenting a plurality of historical points of view, the museum was also bringing into question the claim that neo-liberal individualism was the end point of human progress, and raising the issue as to whether neo-liberalism was better than previous economic doctrines such as Keynesianism.

4. Additionally, what was at issue here was the borderland between modernist and postmodernist sensibilities. In discussing this borderland between modernism and postmodernism, Bauman makes an acute observation that shapes the argument of this paper. Bauman writes," The discontents of modernity arose from a kind of security which tolerated too little freedom in the pursuit of individual happiness. The discontents of postmodernism arise from a kind of freedom of pleasure-seeking which tolerates too little individual security" (Bauman, 1997: 3). By refecting on the past, the NMA exposed the shift from an era of security (the welfare state, full time work, regulated working hours, a clear division between work and private life) to one of discontent caused by political and economic insecurities. The transformation of the welfare state from a distributor of rights to that of obligations (and electoral advantages) has increased the insecurity of many, especially the most vulnerable. Economic insecurity has intensified because of the debt-based consumption. That is, the freedom to consume and its accompanying pleasure is through the mechanism of debt financing, which becomes another basis for discontent. The paper provides a snapshot of that material discontent and then relates it to the debates over the NMA. The aim is to draw out a certain logic (Jameson, 1991) between material uncertainty and the intensity of the cultural contestation over the NMA. The paper will outline how the attack on the NMA was depicted as a debate over history but was ostensibly about the discontents of the present and a despair over the future.

Material uncertainty

5. The philosophical promise of modernity was the development of a rational society of abundance (Berman, 1991: 93). In practice, modernity has created uneven and contradictory outcomes - abundance for some amongst poverty for others, and a rationalism that has produced the irrational Holocaust. Whatever this new conundrum is called, Anthony Giddens refers to it as "late modernity" or the term used herein postmodernism (Giddens, 1991). The point at issue is the loss of a collective sense of progress and certainty. In the place of certainty has come the emergence of postmodern sensibilities, where representation and consumption have taken on heightened significance for both society and the subject. Moreover, postmodernism has been positive in bringing into debate ideas of contingency and ambiguity (Bauman, 1991: 256). However, the potential for reflective contemplation over history and identity (whether it be national or individual) has been militated against by the transformation of capital accumulation and the predominance of the neo-liberal subject.

6. In global economic terms, capital accumulation has been transformed by the unprecedented flow of finance capital, which in turn has offset the over-production and under-consumption tendencies of capitalism, articulated in different ways by both Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes (Marx, 1887; Keynes, 1936). Since the deregulation of the Australian financial sector in the 1980s, consumption has been maintained via a line of credit extending from international financial institutions to national corporations down to households. Foreign debt in Australia has doubled in the period of the Howard government, being $180 billion in 1996 rising to $408 billion in 2004; and this constituted 50 % of Australia’s gross domestic product (Australian Financial Review, 3 December 2004). Simultaneously, household debt has more than doubled in the last five years, from $336.7 billion to $720 billion (Mercury, 10 December 2004). In 2004, the average Australian households spent 2.3% more than it earned per week (AMP.NATSEM Report, 2004: 2). In terms of home mortgage, the average full-time worker is now taking on a debt 50% greater than his or her contemporary in 1994 (Mercury, 10 December 2004). In 1996, household debt was equivalent to 85% of yearly income. By 2003, it was 140% of household income (AMP.NATSEM Report, 2004: 9). Concomitantly, the household savings ratio has fallen from 13.7% of income in the 1970s to –2.3% in 2004 (AMP.NATSEM Report, 2004:1). In short, the average Australian household is spending more than it earn and is able to do so by the financial institutions offering them lines of credit that extend beyond the traditional home loans.

7. Contemporary Australians, via debt financing, have unprecedented levels of consumer freedom but this comes at the expense of security. This personal insecurity is compounded by the reductions in social funds - for the poor, the pensioners and the unemployed. For many, the freedom to consume disguises the loss of security. The promise of modernism and of irreversible progress is becoming at best ambivalent and for many an illusion. Likewise, the promise of more leisure to go with the modernisation of the economy has vanished. In its place is what Barbara Pocock calls a family come - work collision. Pocock estimates that between 1982 and 2001 the weekly full-time working hours increased from 38.2 hours to 41.3 hours (Pocock, 2003: 22). Moreover, the proportion of the workforce working over 45 hours per week has increased from 18% in 1985 to 26% in 2001, with the strongest growth occurring in those employees who were working over 50 hours per week (Pocock, 2003: 22). In addition, employees were working more intensely than ever before. For instance, a workplace survey in 1995 found that 59% of employees recorded that they were working at a heightened rate of intensity than the previous year. Pocock calculates that this trend was also on the rise in the1990s (Pocock, 2003: 22-23).

8. Expressed simply, the average wageworker is deeper in debt, works longer hours and is labouring more intensely than their immediate forebears. This state of affairs is the basis for fears over debt repayments and asset depreciation, which feed into political calculations and thereby make households susceptible to ideological campaigns which play on material insecurity. Nevertheless, insecurity is not shared equally. Expressed simply, this depends on material wealth. A crude but informative indicator of wealth is expressed in terms of corporate profits versus wages. Frank Stilwell calculates that the share of total wages and income to that of capital fell from 63% in 1982 to 57% in 1995 (Stilwell, 2000: 63). Likewise, Tom Conley calculates that, by 2002, the share of wages and income had fallen to 54% whereas the share of profits was 25%, the highest recorded in the National Accounts since 1959 (Conley, 2004: 5). Another means of calculating security is to measure which section of society is missing out on the freedom to consume. Rachel Lloyd and Harry Greenwell estimates that poverty rose in 11 of the standard indicators over the last decade and that when the cost of housing is included poverty rose by 17.5% (2001: 18).

9. In like manner, Saunders makes the striking observation that, between 1995 and 2003, 47% of all income produced in Australia went to the top quintile income earners (Saunders, 2003). In a longitudinal evaluation of the top 200 wealth list from the Australian Business Review Weekly, Stilwell and Ansari discover that a range of class networks, rather than personal ambition, so espoused by neo-liberal theory, were the basis for the majority of wealth accumulation in Australia. They point out that 6 out of 10 of the wealthiest people in Australia "attained a substantial basis for their affluence through inheritance" (2003: 151). Moreover, they note that the top 10% of the population owns 45% of the total wealth and the top 50% has 93% of the total household wealth (Stilwell and Ansari, 2003:154). Also, the top 10% of income earners own 86% of shares in Australia (Stilwell and Ansari, 2003: 155).

10. The Howard government has reshaped the welfare state, paradoxically, to ensure an enhanced security for the wealthy. Ann Harding estimates that the value of non-cash benefits (principally education and health expenditure) under the Howard government has increased by 47% to the top income quintile (Harding, 2002, 8). At the same time, the government has constructed inequality in terms of the spread of wealth at the top, not the increase in insecurity, due to poverty at the bottom. For instance, when the Senate inquiry into poverty concluded that 3.5 million Australians were living in poverty, Howard dismissed the Report, saying at a press conference that:

There is little doubt that the low levels of unemployment Australia is now enjoying means that more and more people have work. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are living in poverty. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are missing out, if I can use that expression. Of course there are. But it’s very important to get this income distribution thing in perspective. To the extent that any gaps have widened, it has been that people at the top – there are more of them, and they’re doing better. It’s not that there has been an inadequacy of support at the bottom. It’s fair to say that the rich have got richer, but the poor have not got poorer (Howard, 2004)

The growing gulf between the corporate world and wage earners, between the rich and the poor, between the rich and the middle classes, has had the effect of heightening the ideological contest over the character of the Australia nation and national identity and it is this struggle which spilled over into debates over the newly built NMA.

Uncertainty and the Cultural Wars

11. The postmodern condition abounds with uncertainty, nevertheless, opens up possibilities of grasping diversity and radical democracy. In the face of the challenge of diversity, the Howard government has sought to reassert modernist notions of progress. The government’s approach to the potential of contingency has been to engage in sustained cultural wars. Akin to the Thatcher government’s "authoritarian populism" (Hall, 1988), the Howard government has appealed to a populist defined sense of "Australianness" while suppressing diversity (Johnson, 2000). Howard has been astute in electioneering, tapping into the psychology of fear in the Australian community, constructing refugees as strangers from outside (‘throwing their children overboard"), and the indigenous people as strangers from within (threatening white property rights). Central to this campaign is Howard’s instance that Australia is a modernist success story. The Prime Minister has developed a range of oft-repeated rhetorical phrases to depict Australia as on a march to a higher social order of neo-liberal individualism and improved Westminster democracy. He employs a range of rhetorical phrases to imply this Western progression, including the call to unite around "the things that unite us, rather than divide us", a code for Anglo-Saxon culture. Likewise, he comments that "people have moved on", in respect of cultural debates on diversity, immigration and multiculturalism. He dismisses the "black armband" view of history, which he regards as denigrating those who question the truimphalist versions of Australian history (Australian Magazine, 11-12 December, 2004).

The NMA - ensuring cultural history serves the Present

12. The critical point here is not so much whether Howard believes this rhetoric or not but the manner in which it has entered the political lexicon defending the present as a triumphant march of progress. That is, all prime ministers will represent their agenda as progressing society but what characterises the current Howard administration is its use of modernist rhetoric to defend repressive practices. It is not the place here to provide a chronicle of the suppression of dissent rather to remind the reader of the political pressure placed on such interests groups as ACOSS, of the stifling of alternative views in the Liberal Party (Barnes,2003), of the politicisation of the pubic service, evident, for example, in the children overboard incident (Weller, 2002). The point at issue is that there is logic to the intensity of the suppression of dissent via an ongoing cultural war. The logic is to assert control of the disparate avenues and discourses (Dean, 2002), whether they be public or in civil society, for voicing discontent over the material insecurity felt by the majority of people. This insecurity is to the move from modernism to postmodernism.

13. In this light, we can see the controversy over the NMA as an expression of the cultural contestation over modernity. When the NMA opened its doors on 11 March, 2001, its postmodern architecture, its pluralist voices of settler Australian history and its sensitivity to the colonial oppression of the indigenous peoples was a direct challenge to both the government’s linear version of Australian history and its suppression of dissenting voices (Young, 2001). Following the NMA’s grand opening, the supporters of Howard’s modernist agenda launched a frontal attack on the museum. They argued that the curators and architects had duped Prime Minister Howard. For instance, Miranda Devine in the Daily Telegraph wrote that:

It’s not nice to pour scorn on other people’s hard work, especially when $155 million of taxpayers’ money went into it. But the underlying message of the National Museum of Australia, opened yesterday in Canberra by the Prime Minister, is one of sneering ridicule for white Australia…It is a mystery how such a swifty was pulled on John Howard and his hand-appointed Council (Devine, 12 March 2001).

Similarly, Angela Shanahan wrote in the Australian that the NMA was founded on the "new orthodoxy of white middle-class guilt" (Australian, 12 March 2001).

14. Soon after the grand opening, Keith Windschuttle launched a vehement attack on the NMA in the pages of Quadrant (Windscuttle, 2001 - for a critique of his position see Morgan, 2003). The essence of Windschuttle’s criticism was that the NMA did not celebrate the role of settlers in ‘civilising’ the nation. He particularly took offence at the charge that the settlers had committed genocide (Windschuttle, in Attwood and Foster, 2003: 99 - view developed at length in his book, 2002). Equally, he criticised the ‘history from below’ approach, associated with E. P. Thompson, arguing that the NMA had become dominated by a biased "people’s history". While praising this school of history as being at least modernist, he derided it for giving "equal time for every identifiable sexual and ethnic group" (Windschuttle, 2001:16). Windschuttle regarded the museum as a failure because it did not have the traditional intent of displaying scientific-based knowledge. He asserted that, "the museum is already a museum piece itself -- an expensive relic to postmodern theory" (Windschuttle, 2001: 19).

15. Inside the NMA, a campaign had been mounted by those closely associated to Prime Minister Howard, namely David Barnett and Christopher Pearson, against both the people’s history and the post-colonial character of the indigenous gallery. For instance, Barnett contended that the NMA’s version of Australian history was "claptrap" and influenced by "Marxist rubbish" (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 2003). The crux of Barnett’s attack on the Museum was that the assembled exhibition displayed a regressive view of Australian history, and took particular offence at the Stolen Generation exhibit, denigrating it as a "victim episode" (Macintyre and Clark, 2003: 192). In response to the criticism, ex-Liberal Party president and Chairman of the NMA Board, Tony Staley, appointed Professor Graeme Davidson to review the complaints made (principally by Barnett) over the NMA. In March 2002, Davidson presented his findings to Staley, in which he defended the pluralist charter of the NMA’s exhibitions and its attempts to address controversial contemporary issues, arguing that this was in keeping with the museum’s terms of reference. He said that he found no systemic bias in the exhibitions and pointedly criticised Barnett and Pearson for merely echoing government ideology. He wrote that their "interpretation of contact history is inseparable from the government’s stance on issues of Aboriginal reconciliation, native title, stolen children and the like" (Davidson, 2002).

16. Davidson’s report seemed to inflame Barnett and Pearson (Casey, 2003). In an effort to placate the critics, Staley appointed a new review committee comprising - Richard Longes (Deputy Chair of the investment company Investec Australia); the controversial curator of the South Australian museum, Philip Jones, who was recommended by his close friend Christopher Pearson, and the Monash palaeobiologist Patricia Vickers. At its head was the eclectically conservative sociologist John Carroll. When the Carroll Report was released to the public on 18 July 2003, the magnitude of the cultural wars within the NMA was revealed. The Report rejected Graeme Davidson’s submission, which spoke of an "interpretative pluralism" (reflexive modernism) and dismissing out of hand postmodern theory. Instead the Carroll Committee called for a "consensus" approach (Carroll Report, 2003: 4).

17. To achieve this consensus, the Report spoke of a unifying narrative that was to be reflective of Australia’s social progress. In the end, this consensus narrative was the same as Howard’s rhetoric of Australia as an exemplar of Western modernisation. The Report said that the NMA should reflect Australia ‘s social success as an egalitarian democracy:

Perhaps the greatest achievement, viewed from the contemporary perspective, and in the context of realistic historical comparisons with other tribes, communities and nations is the society itself. This is the establishment of a notably stable, efficiently managed, prosperous democracy, with very low levels of institutional corruption, with relatively low inequality and a largely inclusive ethos, which has integrated immigration peoples from hundreds of other places with reasonable success… Tied in here are character traits of inclusiveness, a ‘fair-go' ethos, a distrust of extremisms and civic common sense (Carroll Report, 2003: 4).

Given the ever-widening material gap in Australian society and a sustained policy of excluding strangers, seen for example through their incarceration in detention centres, the celebration of egalitarianism and inclusiveness seems to be overblown. However, such a bold claim of success is perfectly consistent with the belief in modernism always creating a better world.

18. Moreover, such a celebratory narrative effectively places Australia’s violent colonial past, as merely part of the march towards progress. In an effort to represent Australian history as a unifying narrative through which the nation evolved into an egalitarian democracy, colonial dispossession and violence are reinterpreted as merely a clash of cultures. The Report discusses "frontier conflict" as the result not of dispossession but merely of faults on both sides of a cultural divide; arguing that:

…Massacres or killings of Aboriginal people were often the end result of a multi-stage set of events. The precipitating event was rarely an unprovoked act, but generally stemmed from unfounded cultural assumptions on both sides. Aboriginal ‘wrong-doers’ were usually acting in retaliation against Europeans who were judged to have infringed Aboriginal rights…(Carroll Report, 2003: 14).

19. Additionally, the Report was critical of the museum for not presenting artefacts that made an "authentic connection" between what is exhibited and specific examples of frontier conflicts. Following Windschuttle’s legal positivism, the Report recommended that all artefacts had to have an authentic link to the historic record of specific "frontier collisions" rather than be Aboriginal "oral" accounts of such events or merely symbolic depictions (Carroll Report 2003: 3). The Report depicts colonisation as basically a non-racist historical process, insisting that these events were incidental "collisions" rather than any systemic pattern consistent with a frontier war (Carroll Report, 2003: 3).

20. As a means of asserting a modernist narrative for the museum, the Report suggests that the arrival of Captain Cook be the guiding thread of the story, and this could unify the exhibits (Carroll Report, 2003: 3). The Carroll Report argues that:

James Cook should be a significant presence in the National Museum of Australia. His story is an easy one to tell, brimming over with dramatic and extraordinary elements – of the man who was arguably the greatest navigator of the 18th century, whose pioneering choice of provisions for his ship, and strict cleanliness regime, protected his sailors from endemic diseases like scurvy, whose humane leadership forbade sailors with venereal disease going ashore in Polynesia…

21. Such a recommendation, however, fails to recognise how problematic this version of history is in the post-colonial world. The scientific explorations of such men as James Cook were not innocent steps in modernisation. Integral to the story of Cook’s voyages to Australia, heroic as they may have been, was the linking of the Enlightenment to imperialism. Additionally, as the Hawaiian academic Haunani Kay Trask notes, Cook’s encounter with the people of the Pacific islands was highly deleterious for them. She writes that Cook brought, "capitalism, Western political ideas (such as predatory individualism) and Christianity. Most destructive of all he brought disease that ravaged my people until we were but a remnant of what we had been on contact with his pestilent crew" (Trask, cited in Smith, 1999: 20).

22. Finally, the Carroll Report was critical of the postmodern character of the NMA’s courtyard "Garden of Australian Dreams". The Report argued for a fundamental restructuring of the ambivalence and pluralism of the courtyard, calling for a unifying theme based on geology and botany (Carroll Report, 2003: 43). Such an approach would work directly against the populist, post-colonial and postmodern intention of the design and its architectural intentions. As Naomi Stead notes, the ‘Garden’ was meant to compliment the NMA’s abandonment of a modernist "authoritative version of history in favour of multiple stories, of ordinary as well as extraordinary people; the nation embodied here is of the most diffident, self-effacing type" (Stead, 2002: 128).

23. In keeping with the pluralist intention of the museum, the chief architect, Howard Raggatt, ‘adapted’ the zigzag theme of history used in the Holocaust Museum in Berlin for the NMA on the banks of Lake Burley Griffin. Raggatt’s design sought to link the past with the present drawing out the idea that the Enlightenment had to be deconstructed to expose how it could allow genocide, for example, the Nazi Holocaust; along with the State removal of "half-cast" indigenous children. The conservative columnist and NMA board member, Pearson, attacked this historic parallel, writing that "There is no sensible comparison between post-contact Australian history and Hitler’s slaughter of 6 million Jews, whose suffering it demeans…" (Australian, 26-27 July 2003:. 20). Raggatt cryptically replied that genocide is unspeakable for those who regard modernism, colonialism and museum ‘collection’ as unproblematic:

...everyone knows, we’ve never tried to hide, everyone knows, it’s that unspeakable word, everyone knows that it’s that terrible feast of zigzag. Everyone knows that table so horrifying and gluttonous, everyone knows it’s so manifest in infamy, everyone knows it’s so unutterable in heartbreak. Everyone knows these are stolen crumbs we have gathered, like food for another wandering people…(Australian, 26-27 July 2003: 20).

24. In an effort to assert its unifying narrative over the NMA, the government sought a new director. As an interim measure, the existing Director Dawn Casey’s contract was renewed but for a shorter period of time (12 months instead of 3 years). The government approached the director of the Australian War Memorial, Steve Gower, to become the new NMA director (Australian, 9 December 2003). Gower declined the position and on 11 December 2003, the chief general manager of the corporate and business division of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Craddock Morton, was appointed Acting Director. Later, he was confirmed as director. Concomitantly, the board members who had supported Casey - Marcus Besen, Sharon Brown and Ron Webb - were not re-appointed. In their place, conservative (if albeit maverick) historian John Hirst , the right-wing religious broadcaster John Fleming, and Sally Anne Hasluck were appointed to the board to sit alongside the reappointed Pearson, Barnett and Staley. The government now had a compliant board to ensure the implementation of its modernist agenda. The voices of dissent to government ideology in the NMA were thereby further quashed.


25. This paper argues that there is a logic between the insecurity and discontent caused by the declining material conditions of the majority of Australians and the concurrent cultural wars. Following a lead from Bauman, the argument is that in postmodern Australia there is a paradox between consumer freedom and insecurity. The intensification of insecurity has brought into question the modernist claims of irreversible progress. Rather, for many Australians, their discontent is based on a real sense of regression. Into this maelstrom came a new institution meant to reflect contemporary concerns and historical themes. The NMA was to be a dialogue between nation and national identity. The political dilemma came when this dialogue became pluralist: wanting to include people’s history, being postmodernist in its architecture and post-colonial in its indigenous sensibilities. All three influences challenged the agenda of the Howard government. Pluralism was a threat because it was associated with diversity and multiculturalism. Postmodernism was a threat because it challenged the government’s claims of linear advancement under their neo-liberal agenda. Post-colonialism was a threat because it not only raised the whole character of settler history but also pointed to the on-going plight of the indigenous people as a result of their dispossession. For all these reasons, the attack on the NMA was sustained and successful in stifling dissent.


Greg McCarthy teaches politics at the University of Adelaide. His particular interest is in the politics of popular culture and his most recent publications is "Australian Cinema and the Spectre of Post-Coloniality: Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian Rules, The Tracker and Beneath Clouds", London Paper in Australian Studies No 8, 2003. Email:


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