Exhuming defining moments

Featured in

  • Published 20141104
  • ISBN: 9781922182432 
  • Extent: Extent: 296 pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

WHEN PRIME MINISTER Tony Abbott declared and repeated, just in case it was missed the first time, that ‘the defining moment in the history of this continent’ was the arrival of the First Fleet the reaction was swift and loud. Indigenous leaders and bloggers were quick to point to the hurt embodied in the statement; conservative commentators shouted back that this sort of response was the reason the Racial Discrimination Act should be changed.

In the overheated digital world of immediate call and response, where only one truth can be left standing at the end of the day, they were all almost half right.

The problem was the use of the definite article – the defining moment – coupled with continent. The weight was wrong. Clearly the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet was – by definition – an essential moment in the creation of modern Australia, although as the Prime Minister noted, most Australians know almost nothing about the Enlightenment man who lead that perilous journey.

The Prime Minister was alert to the likely reaction to his comments – maybe he was inviting it. Earlier in his speech launching the National Museum’s ‘Defining Moments in Australian History’ project, he commented that any list would ‘inevitably be contentious’.

Reducing history to the language of politics is not helpful. Contentious implies right and wrong; it means that the winner will take the lot and everyone else will become invisible. It does not allow the sum to be greater than the whole.

We are not good enough at public history in this country. We have forgotten to remember, only too willing to live in a permanent present and squabble about some details and interpretation.

In a place like this, where the recent layers are so accessible and the bedrock of the ancient is so remarkable, allowing myth to do the work of remembering is just lazy.

The desire to collapse complex layers of people and place to a single hierarchy does not work anywhere, but in a country like Australia it is especially problematic. This is a continent with an ancient geological, botanical and zoological lineage. It is a place with histories of human settlement dating back tens of thousands of years. It is a country that has in more recent times beckoned and made welcome people from every continent. At every point in this continuum there are tales that embody, define and crystallise the moment or epoch. Some are captured in official records, others in the archeological record, and in paintings, song and dance, and all the other means by which people record the stories and moments they hope will endure. As Maria Tumarkin wrote in Griffith Review 44: Cultural Solutions, stories are not sufficient, they cannot do the work of analysis, but they are a start.

Too many are forgotten and lost.

THE LIMITS OF myth, of reducing life on this continent to a few iconic moments, is becoming increasingly apparent – there are richer and more complex tales to be told, tales that in the retelling can increase understanding and open new possibilities.

The ‘Defining Moments’ project is one of a number that are seeking to animate our history. Smart, curious, able people are doing this in many ways: digging through dusty archives, interrogating the records, finding the keepers of memory, reimagining lives in words, music and performance, on screen and in installations.

So the decision to note the anniversary of Captain Phillip’s death by placing his bust in the forecourt of the museum built on the site he chose for the first government house, provoked many to say, ‘Hey I don’t know much about this guy, I should find out more.’ Claire Wright’s powerful evocation The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text, 2013) puts the recent, rather tawdry, history of women in public life into a fresh but much longer frame. Similarly Michael Cook, whose images feature in this volume, reimagines history with photographs that animate a new way of seeing.

Recognising that there are many layers of history is a sign of maturity.

It is not surprising that those who own and have access to the stories and history of the First Australians are offended that everything that occurred before 1788 should have been rendered invisible for so long. It is also not surprising that those who have come here from elsewhere would bring their histories with them, or that those who came here to create something new just want to get on with it.

The challenge is to find ways to allow these histories to percolate and inform each other – to foster a rich, informed, hybrid culture that is not subsumed by myth, where the truth has a multi-layered crunch.

THERE ARE LESSONS, both good and bad, for Australia in the way the United States celebrates and interrogates its history. As a grand experiment in creating a settler society it has been a magnet for dreamers and the disaffected for nearly four hundred years.

The legacies, good and bad, endure. Most importantly, they are accessible: the grand national museums bring the past to life, under the hallowed domes of the National Archives and Library of Congress, in the halls of Ellis Island and in countless other places. Americans, and people from around the world, queue for hours to get close to the contradictory and complex records of settlement.

But the task of exhuming the past and unpicking the layers continues – even at the heart of the nation.

Thomas Jefferson’s library is at the epicentre of the Library of Congress. Dim lights illuminate the thousands of leather-bound books he sold to the Congress to create the new nation’s first library. It is a beautiful shrine to the power of words and intellect, organised into Jefferson’s preferred categories to capture the full scope of human endeavour – Reason, Memory, Imagination.

It is a remarkable and enduring tribute to the man who crafted the Declaration of Independence, and its self-evident truths that all men are created equal: the founding and enduring principle of the American Dream.

Less than two hundred kilometres south of this shrine, Jefferson’s home stands on a hill overlooking the lush Virginia countryside – and reveals the hypocrisy at the core of the nation. At Monticello, the reality of Thomas Jefferson’s long life as a slave owner cannot be ignored – slaves were essential to his lifestyle, he even refused the gift of a bequest to free them. The elderly guides, who take thousands of tourists through the home and its grounds every week, note that the Monticello Foundation recognises that Jefferson fathered his slave Sally Hemings’s children and skirt, somewhat nervously, around the details of this inconvenient truth. But visitors are fascinated and the associated ‘slave tour’ is now the most popular. When Annette Gordon-Reed told this long-forgotten story in The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (WW Norton, 2008), she challenged a founding myth – and put a defining moment into context.

This is the problem with exhuming the layers, of bringing forgotten stories back to life: myths are challenged, defining moments become contentious. But the gift is that the sum is greater than the parts, forgotten people become visible, and memory can enrich reason and imagination.

9 September 2014

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