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About borderlands Volume 3 Number 3, 2004


Introduction: Debating the National Museum of Australia

Greg McCarthy
University of Adelaide


This special issue of Borderlands addresses the controversy over the National Museum of Australia (NMA). The three papers offer quite distinct reasons why conservative forces on the museum board, in the media and within the Howard government mounted a sustained and successful campaign against the NMA. The first paper, by Kylie Message and Chris Healy, begins from the premise that the NMA sought to mark itself out as a new museum by sparking emotional response to controversial issues. As such, when it did evoke a political backlash over its exhibition, architecture and direction, the museum was not able to take a neutral stand in the controversy. That is, once the NMA became a player in the cultural wars it had to confront the dilemma that the government of the day was a more powerful opponent. In the end the museum was defeated. Nevertheless, the NMA’s appeal to emotions and the everyday experience of Australians has the potential to see it out last the narrow ideological perspectives of the Howard government.

The second paper by Stephen Foster explores the issue of what place the NMA has within the plethora of Australian museums. He argues that the NMA has had great difficulty in fulfilling its role as the premier national museum, for a number of reasons: the museum had a limited budget for its collection, it was competing with other well-established museums and was hamstrung by its limited size. Consequently, the NMA was significantly constrained in its dealing with the big questions of nation and national identity. As such, the political interference in the NMA is but an immediate problem in the context of a much larger question as to how can the NMA meets its charter, as the national museum talking to Australians about Australia.

In the final paper, Greg McCarthy explores the borderland between postmodern discontent and a postmodern museum. He argues that the discontent felt by many Australians has a material foundation in debt based consumption. By reflecting on the everyday experience of Australians, the NMA entered into this realm of discontent at the very time when the Howard government was seeking to manipulate to its advantage the growing level of insecurity felt by most Australians. As such, the political controversy over the museum was merely the expression of a larger hegemonic war of positioning that matches the logic of debt-based capital accumulation.

© borderlands ejournal 2004


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ISSN 1447-0810