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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

About the authors

Des Griffin is currently Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, Australian Museum, an honorary position commemorating one of the early directors of the Museum. More about Des Griffin

Leon Paroissien AM is the Chair of Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design in Sydney. More about Leon Paroissien

by Leon Paroissien and Des Griffin

In the years following World War II, history in Australian schools, universities and museums generally continued a long-standing focus on the country’s British heritage and on Australia’s involvement in war. However, by the 1970s Australia’s history and cultural development had begun to take a more important place in literature, in school curricula, and in universities, where specialised courses were providing training for future historians and museum curators.

The essays in this section recount the way museums in Australia have dealt with crucial issues of the formation of national memory and identity. Peter Stanley argues that the treatment of war in Australian museums is disproportionate to its place in the country’s history, overshadowing many other important events and themes. He argues for more inclusive and diverse approaches in the way Australia’s museums address war - highlighting, for example, the civilian experiences of war, the consequences of war, and frontier conflict involving Australia’s Indigenous peoples.

Tim Sullivan reviews recent debates about the teaching of history and outlines the work that Sovereign Hill, a significant ‘open air’ regional museum in Ballarat, Victoria, is doing with teachers in order to present history through directly meaningful, first-hand experiences, while avoiding fragmentation or repetition.

Margaret Anderson points to ‘history’ being one of the primary terms of reference of the 1975 Pigott Report on museums in Australia. The Report recommended that museums be places where the daily life of past generations can be experienced at first hand. Anderson subsequently traces the development of social history programs and related issues and controversies in major museums throughout Australia in the later twentieth century.

Kevin Jones reviews maritime history in Australian museums, including the role of community-based initiatives shaped by volunteers in championing and preserving particular boats – and the positive agency this offers in preserving, developing and ensuring enriched interpretation of collections in the future.

Meanwhile Viv Szekeres, writing on immigration museums, reveals how the profound shifts in the composition of Australian society brought about by migration and the diversity of immigrants who came to this country are reflected in a comparable richness of social experience to be mined in new museum programs and dedicated institutions and collections. These younger types of museum, with their ever-growing oral archives and other forms of first-hand records, provide enduring and eloquent testimony to migrants’ roles in our nation-building.

In facilitating contact with actual objects as both primary evidence and irreplaceable vehicles of first-hand experience, and in their ability to mediate a range of different engagements with collections and the rich interpretations they may arouse, museums are agents of both human record and ‘presence’ in the portrayal of history. In unique and irreplaceable ways through the collections and resources they house, museums provide vital evidence of lived experience and encounters in the world. They thereby complement the literature, documentary evidence and other kinds of educational experiences of history prepared for students in the classroom.

History in museums inevitably becomes the focus of special interest groups. As some parts of the national story continue to evolve, be told differently and even arouse sharp contestation at times, museums have recently become far more experienced and resourceful in anticipating how to support and sustain a multiplicity of views about our past or present, promoting inquiry but without retreating into sectarian division or alienation. 

In their ever more skilful handling of the volatility of responses that may be aroused by particular collections or exhibitions that interpret our social history, museums not only nourish a more lively interest in the complex texture of storytelling and first-person witness to history, they demonstrate one of the most important roles that museums play today in the fostering of democratic exchange of researched knowledge and respectful opinion, thereby making a valuable contribution to civil society.

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Cite as: Leon Paroissien and Des Griffin, 2011, 'Museums and history: introduction' in Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6