A censored discourse

Contradictions in the structure of the Gallery of the First Australians

By MICHAL GLIKSON [email protected]

The First Australians Gallery at the National Museum has received diverse and conflicting reviews. The extent of their exploration of the meanings generated by the curation of exhibits and architectural structure varies greatly. What emerges from looking at a range of reviews about the Gallery is that they either treat the museum’s internal space or its external space or they treat them as a whole. The generation of distinct messages and dialogues by the structure of the internal and external space respectively is, therefore, neither identified nor seen as having an effect on perceptions about the Gallery and its contents. The opinions generated about the workings of the internal structure have been definitive and focussed on the curated space, without reference to the architecture as a speaking form. Similarly, the architecture of the Gallery has been analysed without regard to its relationship with the curated space.

In exploring the impact of the Gallery, what has emerged is that two separate and distinct discourses are taking place within the space. The origin and the nature of these two dialogues, the points at which they meet and/or clash, and the means by which these interactions occur are discussed here in terms of their effect upon the viewer who travels or ‘is travelled’ through the Gallery. S/he is on a journey not entirely of his/her own making, but rather is a product of those who have exercised the most influence over the space.

What I will seek to address, therefore, is the issue of two separate discourses occurring within the First Australians Gallery and their competition, which has major consequences for the interpretation of the architecture, for the significance of the contents of the displays, for the viewers’ perception and understanding of the Gallery as a coherent and purposeful medium and for the message it transmits about issues that govern Aboriginal Australians.

The conflict between the discourses can be better understood if we look at their origins. The origin of the primary discourse lies within the architecture of the museum, authored by Howard Raggat of Ashton Raggat McDougall, the group whose design was selected in a competition for the National Museum of Australia. The architecture of the section housing the First Australians has been a point of much discussion within reviews because its plan was inspired by the Jewish Museum extension to the Berlin Museum, a building which was commissioned especially by the German government as a memorial to the genocide inflicted upon the Jews by Hitler’s regime.(1)

The commissioning of the building as a publicly funded memorial to the Holocaust was a huge commitment and recognition on the part of the government that those catastrophic events could be processed only by claiming them as Germany’s past and present. The architect of the memorial, Daniel Liebeskind, was given a special and complete form of control over the project, including influence over the curation of the internal exhibits. (2) This is an important point to observe in relation to the dominant discourse generated by the First Australians Gallery. Because of the control Liebeskind was able to wield over both architecture and curation, each operated within a single discourse – the memorialization of the Holocaust. In other words the motives of the architecture, the curation and the beauracratic/governmental bodies were in alignment with the task of producing a highly specialized and coherent form.

Tangled Destinies, published by the National Museum of Australia, documents an intense conversation on architecture of the First Australians Gallery. The logic behind Raggatt’s translation of the Berlin Museum’s Jewish Extension, for the purposes of the National Museum, relates to the historical treatment of indigeneous Australians by the colonists, the continuing debates about genocide and the Stolen Generation and the dispossession of place and culture which they still endure. In a small and poetic essay about this process he writes,

This was the mark of the Jewish Museum in Berlin just completed, designed a decade ago, that mark of a jagged break in the star of David, of Jewish history in Berlin, broken by the Holocaust. A mark becoming as if the object of that terrible gap, the object of that unnameable void.

This mark we transcribed at the Gallery of the First Australians if across the sky, long blue gable roof now bent to the zig zag, as if to a building now exhumed, as if the ossuary of another scientific autobiography. (3)

Raggatt’s rationale for locating what some critics have perceived to be a site-specific motif within the National Museum is complex. Some people been outraged by the use of the motif from Berlin in Australia, calling it ‘plagiarism’. It is true that the Holcaust is unique. Genocide, however, is not. Raggatt saw a correlation between the established and accepted fact of Jewish genocide and current discussions in Australia about the genocide of Aborigines. He saw the Liebeskind design of a Magen David (Star of David) with its broken lines and its speaking voids as a gestural mark with symbolic power that is not culturally specific. If mobilized and contextualized, the broken Star could become a ‘footprint’ that gives the unspeakable tragedy of Australia’s past and present a presence; a map with which to navigate Australian dialogue into a global discourse. He has said

We are interested in this idea of the dissemination of ideas from elsewhere, and reworking them and translating them into a kind of local understanding. We have tried to say, ‘Well here is this shape – a very evocative kind of shape and a very particular shape – let’s accept (Liebeskind’s) idea that it should stand for more than the Jewish Holocaust and for other systemic problems of that kind. And use it as a ground for a bit of our local museum. (4)

One of the concerns that journalists have voiced is the issue of plagiarism, that the Liebeskind motif had been simply lifted and spliced. If these arguments are juxtaposed with what actually transpired, there is an ambivalence about the motif, the discussion it has generated and the politics of its translation into Australia. Dimity Reed, in Tangled Destinies, writes

It is of interest that, while questions have arisen about an architecture that questions government policy in public buildings, the Australian public appears to accept the connections that have been made. The questioning has revolved around architecture and how it is made, not about the critique of white Australia’s treatment of the Nation’s indigenous people. (5)

It is, therefore, important to look at the architecture of the Jewish Museum in order to grasp the way it has shaped the abstract and material meaning of the First Australians Gallery. This also helps us understand how the structure of the Australian Gallery has an impact on visitors as they move within its walls and are subject to the interaction between the architecture and the way the curators have located the exhibits.

The origin of the Jewish motif and its incorporation is recognizable. The motif in the Gallery now has a significance, related to a discourse about indigeneous Australians. Liebeskind’s design is specific to its intended function as a memorial,whilst Raggatt’s undertaking was to incorporate a translation of the ‘lightning bolt’ (Raggatt’s ‘zig zag) into the form and function of the National Museum. The meaning of the motif in Australia was subject to political limitations and these prevented it from acting as a memorial. In a discussion the architect said that the curation did not support the message that the motif could convey, as in Berlin. (6)

In his book The Texture of Memory, James Young says, "Some [memorials] are built according to a government’s need to explain a nation’s past to itself" (7). Australia has not yet arrived at the point that the German government did, when it decided that it was in the interest of the nation that a memorial to the Holocaust be built in its capital. Raggatt’s decision to build into the nation’s museum a talking point on the need for a dialogue about something the nation is fighting to forget, and the judging panel’s acceptance of this anticipated Young’s point. Whether the spacial dynamics were to be controlled by curatorial need or by the politics of contested Aboriginal issues, raised by Raggatt’s design was a political issue that cannot be ignored. But this dialogue between internal and external space has been censored.

The contradiction between the architecture and the curation was a consequence of their conflicting visions. Raggatt knew that the space would have to be used flexibly, but anticipated that the visitors’ internal journey would be guided by a curatorial acknowledgement of the motif, which referred to Aboriginal genocide and the stolen generations.

In the Liebeskind model, the journey of the visitor is strictly guided through curated space in respect to architectural ‘voids’ which feature as major contributers to an overall dialogue between visitors and the memorial. The direction in which visitors move is shaped by the entire structure. Essential to the coherence of its narrative is the architectural requirement that the visitors move ever forward, to exit into ‘The Garden of Exile’ (8). Similarly Raggatt envisaged that the shape of the journey through Australian Museum would be constructed to support a higher discourse. As in the Jewish Museum, the visitor would move in a direction that while flexible would be unified and culminative to exit into ‘The Garden of Australian Dreams’.

In a conversation with one of the Gallery’s curators, I asked what consultations occurred between the architect of the museum and the curators of the Aboriginal Australians Gallery. Apparently the curators were "aware of the political issues about the space", but that the issues had no bearing or influence upon the way in which it was curated. (9)The space, as it stands, offers an entirely different discourse to that of the structure housing it. The diagrams below show the difference between the pathways suggested to visitors by the architecture and the curation.

Diagram A:

Diagram B:

The arrows here indicate the directions in which the visitor is encouraged to move within the curated space. As can be seen, diagram B (current floor plan) offers the visitor many options at certain points, yet it encloses and decides the journey at critical moments. What appears to be the conclusion to a ‘loop’, which is at the end of the ‘lightning bolt’, is a space in which the visitor is inundated with information from exhibits that compete with each other, visually and aurally. It is significant that the movement around this loop is directed anti-clockwise - backwards in time.

The exhibits here take the form of a timeline, beginning with colonial occupation. Thus the curation moves forward in history, but the body of the visitor moves physically in a direction that is culturally understood as backwards. This dynamic is problematic for a space that is allegedly proclaiming the importance of Aboriginal issues, particularly genocide and the stolen generation. The space is dimly lit and the exit, which is small, has become an optional and marginalized feature, located opposite the curated end of the journey through the exhibit. The visitor is not guided towards exit and contemplation in the Garden of Australian dreams. Rather their way is led back through and down the arm of the lightning bolt.

The visitors’ subsequent departure through the entrance contradicts and erodes the architectural vision. The evidence for this lies in responses to the Gallery, in a number of the reviews, that regard it as propagandist and incoherent. There are also arguments that the quantity of Aboriginal material is excessive. Keith Windschuttle says, "To look at the authentic exhibits…you have to run a gauntlet of cultural propaganda. This ranges from … an entire hall of ceiling high video screens showing a modern Aboriginal dance troupe … to … monitors that endlessly replay videos of various Aboriginal protests …" Windschuttle also says, "The sound of chants and speeches …booms across the room, making it difficult to concentrate on reading the captions …"(10)

What is interesting about these comments is that the description "running the gauntlet" has been used to describe the experience of sifting through the Gallery in search of that which is of particular interest. The journey of this reviewer as being a disparate, incoherent experience, has evidently been exacerbated by its apparently interminable length as the reviewer must either exit upstairs or retread the Gallery. He makes no reference to the "Garden", nor is it reviewed. The dynamic of retracing the Gallery in order to leave supports the illusion of an overfull space. Because visitors may mess the marginalized exit they are afforded an escape from contemplation of the implications of the Gallery. The nature of Gallery’s content cannot be seriously engaged with while ever this is encouraged.

Michael Mckernan, in his review, supports the case that the Museum’s curation undermined his expectations of a coherent discourse about Aboriginal and European Australia, having been informed that the Museum would take on what was previously viewed as the responsibility of the Australian War Memorial.

It is a pity, I think, the majority of Museum visitors will explore the Museum backwards, as it were. They would expect to find the Gallery of First Australians before … the coming of the Europeans, but the Museum puts European Australia first. This is an architect’s solution that conflicts with my historian’s interest in clear narrative and meaningful chronology and context. (11)

Mckernan’s observations have occurred in response to what manifestly is the contradiction of one discourse by another. His question about the "architect’s solution" is valid and could be related to the situation where a way of generating meaning via reference to the architecture has been overridden by a disinterested curatorial discourse. That responsibility for this has been placed on the design is a signal that the voice of the architecture is not accessible to the visitor. If visitors exited the Gallery in the way invisaged by Raggatt, it would be clear why the European galleries precede the Gallery of the First Australian: the issue of the treatment of Aborigines is a contemporary one.

The curated journey was developed against the architecture - with a view to its assimilation, absorption and censorship. Two discourses about Aboriginal Australia are present and have interacted within the spatial arrangements of one Gallery. I have explored the way in which their motivations and the consequences of their active and passive interactions have had major implications for the interpretation of the museum as a whole. The reception and understanding of the issues presented in the Aboriginal Gallery have also suffered. The result has been marginalization, incoherence and trivialization, due to the priority given to the curation. The public receives a discourse that has been censored. The means of censoring the discourse which Howard Raggatt had hoped to generate, through his use of the Jewish motif, is symbolic of Government policies initiated and now continue the ‘genocide’ of the indigenous population.


1. J. E. Young (2000) At Memory’s Edge Yale University Press, New Haven pp. 160- 163.
2. ibid. pp. 178-179.
3. H. Raggatt ‘Raggatt’ in D. Reed, (ed.) Tangled Destinies : National Museum of Australia Images Publishing, Mulgrave, 2001 pp. 44-43
4. Raggatt cited in Reed ‘Reed’ in Tangled Destinies p. 13.
5. Reed ‘Reed’ in Tangled Destinies p. 13.

6. Telephone discussion between Howard Raggatt and Michal Glikson, 20 June 02.
7. J. E. Young (1993) The Texture of Memory – Holocaust Memorials and Meaning Yale University Press, New Haven p. 2
8. J. E. Young At Memory’s Edge op. cit. p. 179.
9. Telephone discussion between Leilani Bin-Juda, Curator of Torres Strait Islander exhibit, National 8. Museum of Australia and Michal Glikson, 19 June 2002.
10. Keith Windschuttle (2001) ‘How Not to Run A Museum’, Quadrant September p. 15.
11.Michael Mckernan ‘Home- Ground Advantage’, Eureka Street, 11 (3) p. 5


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The Canberra Times (2001), National Museum A Copy, March 5
Mckernan, M. (2001), Home- Ground Advantage, Eureka Street March, vol 11,no. , April, p 4 –5
Reed, D. (ed.) (2001) Tangled Destinies : National Museum of Australia Images Publishing, Mulgrave, 2001
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Young, J E. (1993) The texture of Memory –Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, Yale University Press
Young, L. (2001) Federation Flagship , Meanjin (Melbourne), vol 60, no 4, p149-159

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