You have to feel sorry for the neo-conservative commentariat – their crusade against the nasty politically correct left-wing cabal seems to have failed. Nothing tells you you’re losing the culture wars like the re-instatement of influential public figures you thought you’d successfully slain.
In 2003, they used their substantial powers to get one of Australia’s most successful public administrators fired. In late 2003, the Howard government announced that it would not be renewing the contract of Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dawn Casey. This, despite the fact that in a space of almost three years, the museum had attracted over 2 million visitors.
And what was the problem with Casey? Was it her management style? Was the museum inundated with stress leave claims? Were there allegations of financial dishonesty or other serious misconduct?
Nope, none of that. It all boiled down to a museum exhibit not having enough stuff about Captain Cook.
Five years later and a change in government later, Casey has now made a comeback, as Director of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. The appointment has prompted Miranda Devine to weigh in with a column about the evils of non-sycophantic museums, lambasting the management of the highly successful and profitable Powerhouse. She reserves special venom for Casey, that nasty "Indigenous woman chosen to be director".
Unlike her commentariat colleagues, Devine acknowledges Casey’s management strengths: "By all accounts Dawn Casey … is a polished performer and formidable administrator. She managed to get Canberra’s controversial $155 million National Museum of Australia (NMA) opened on time and on budget in 2001, a feat so fine the builders presented her with a framed piece of the Berlin Wall, on which was engraved, ‘For making the impossible possible’."
However, for Devine, it isn’t enough to be a superb manager. It’s also important that one not be or become a "cultural warrior". Indeed, Miranda, it takes one to know one.
And because Casey is a cultural warrior, she should not be managing "Sydney’s largest and most popular museum, the Powerhouse". I mean, we cannot possibly have a director of a museum showcasing "suppressed" voices and encourage nasty left-wing habits like "dissent and debate".
Devine’s sense of patriotism is particularly offended by the allegedly minor attention given to ANZACs. Which makes me wonder what purpose Devine thinks Canberra’s War Memorial serves. And anyway, to what extent did the early diggers see themselves as fighting for Australia?
Frank O’Shea points out in a book review for the Canberra Times that Irish returned soldiers caused major controversy when they marched in 1920 under the Australian flag, not the Union Jack. In doing so, they effectively "declare[d]that they had fought for Australia rather than for Britain … the Irish in Australia were Australians as well as Irish whereas the loyalists were British first and Australian second".
Were these Irish Catholic diggers also cultural warriors, Miranda?
All nations have good and bad in their history. Last Christmas, I found myself in the northern NSW Federation town of Tenterfield, home to the late Henry Parkes, one of our nation’s founders. The Federation Museum celebrated the process leading up to the establishment of our nation, but also mentioned racism experienced by Chinese settlers. Avoid Peter Allen’s hometown like the plague, Miranda.
And as if to make matters even more painful for Devine, even the Jews are jumping on the museum-as-debating-venue bandwagon. Here is what Dr Helen Light, Director of that nasty communist institution known as the Australian Jewish Museum, recently told a conference on social cohesion about the role of a museum. She describes Jewish museums as places for opening doors and building bridges between the mainstream community and Jewish communities. You only build bridges when you recognise and celebrate diversity. Not when you insist on one version of historical or cultural paradigm.
Still, let’s entertain Miranda’s wish that for museums not be places of debate. Let’s consider a more conservative and less critical model of museum management. Let’s consider a museum that tows the line. For Miranda’s sake, let’s establish a museum according to a conservative compliant model. Like the one adopted here.
Talented administrators like Dawn Casey belong in positions of authority in our museums. Allegedly conservative commentators like Devine also have a place in our museums – behind the glass.
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