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18th General Conference of the International Council of Museums, Melbourne, Sunday, 11 October 1998: address on the occasion of the opening.

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I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people and thank their representatives for their generous welcome to their ancestral lands.

This 18th General Conference of the International Council of Museums with its focus upon cultural diversity is an important international event. Let me, as Governor- General of Australia, tell you how delighted we Australians are that you have decided to gather, for the first time, in the Asia-Pacific Region and in our country.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been a remarkable growth in the museum movement both in Australia and elsewhere. We are also seeing a far more sophisticated approach to museum management and exhibitions policy: one that looks to contemporary technology and contemporary insights to empower museums as a means whereby aspects of many human, intellectual and material narratives can be understood in all their complexity. And one that looks at the whole of a society and its history.

The result of that is that museums are increasingly becoming involved in dealing with fundamental issues of a nation’s identity. For Australia, that includes the history of indigenous Australians and their cultures going back 50 or 60 millennia. From very early times in this ancient continent, there was a real diversity of indigenous cultures. Some of those cultures perished in the wake of European settlement and dominance which commenced in 1788. Other indigenous cultures survived and developed and are now respected and treasured as the foundation cultures of our nation.

Those who came from other parts of the world brought with them their own cultures. Initially, the introduced cultures were essentially those of the British Isles. Today it can truly be said that we Australians immediately or more distantly come from - and reflect - the regions, races, cultures and religions of the world. Thus, for example, since the Second World War we have received several million migrants from some 140 different countries.

Yet, notwithstanding our cultural diversity, we are truly united as one nation. The approach and the conviction which have made that possible are what we call our


multiculturalism. That multiculturalism is accepted on all sides of mainstream politics in this country. In essence, it means that our distinctive Australian culture and our distinctive Australian identity encompass and are enriched by all the different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds and cultures from which we come. It also means that our citizens are entitled to expect and demand that there be mutual respect for, and genuine tolerance of, those backgrounds and cultures. Conversely, it also means that our citizens owe a duty not to infect our nation with hatreds and intolerance flowing from old conflicts in other lands.

These matters are, of course, of direct local relevance to the theme of your Conference: Museums and Cultural Diversity, Ancient Cultures, New Worlds. Some of the questions you will be discussing focus on the issue whether museums generally have been successful or otherwise in keeping pace with the changing fabric of the societies they exist to serve. And on how well modem museums preserve, protect and encourage international and national cultural diversity in a world which sometimes seems to be fostering a new monoculture - a new cultural homogeneity - on a universal scale.

In that context, it is important to remember that museums not only display, record, document and teach. They are themselves potent instruments in influencing, and helping shape, culture and identity and, on occasion, acts and events. Indeed an exhibition may itself, and of itself, become a part, even a critical part, of the story or history which it recounts or the culture which it depicts. Let me illustrate the point by the example of an Exhibition - the Captive Lives Exhibition - which was staged in our National Library in Canberra last year and is currently in Caims in Northern Queensland.

The Captive Lives Exhibition is, if measured merely by reference to size or cost, scarcely a major one. But the story which it tells and the manner of the telling combine to make it a profoundly moving experience of national, indeed universal, significance and importance. That overall story encompasses countless other small Exhibitions in the United States and Europe during the 1880s. And the Captive Lives Exhibition itself became an important part of the overall story which it tells.

Time prevents me from recounting that story in detail this morning. Suffice to say it is the story of 9 essentially gentle and trusting Aboriginal people who were enticed from their homes on Palm Island in North Queensland in 1883 by an American entrepreneur and exhibited as “uncivilised savages” in Bamum and Bailey’s circus and in fair grounds and dime museums in the United States and subsequently in Europe. Within a year one of the nine - a young man of about 21 who had acquired the name of “Tambo” - was dead. His even younger wife and other companions were prevented from according him the ceremonial rites traditionally seen by their people as essential for the release of his spirit. His body was in fact sold to the owner of a dime museum, mummified and put on display. Within a year of Tambo’s death, a further five of the human exhibits, including his young widow, were dead. Within another two years the remaining three were lost to history, presumably also dead.

Remarkably, five years ago - in October 1993 - Tambo’s mummified body was found in the basement of a Cleveland funeral parlour. His identity was recognised by an Australian, Mrs Roslyn Poignant, who was at the time fortuitously in the United States researching the story of the group. In February 1994, on the 110th Anniversary of his death, the young man called Tambo was laid to rest in his native soil. Thereafter, Mrs



Poignant devoted herself to collecting materials for what was to become the Captive Lives Exhibition. The opening last November was attended by Elders of the Palm Island community and the young man’s collateral descendants. It culminated in a formal joint imprint of hands by the representatives of the indigenous peoples, by me as Governor- General and by others associated with the Exhibition on a screen which itself became the final exhibit.

Not only is the Exhibition itself the closing chapter in the story of Tambo. Its opening was, for all involved, the final reclamation of Tambo as part of our Australian nation. The Exhibition’s story is that of an odyssey of suffering and oppression. The Exhibition itself had become an act of true reconciliation.

Ladies and gentlemen, in these opening remarks I have been able to do no more than touch, in an Australian context, on some of what I see as issues underlying the theme of your Conference. Regardless of local context and of individual perspectives and experiences, those underlying issues relating to cultural diversity, its protection, interpretation and presentation especially at that meeting point between the ancient and the contemporary, seem to me to be of fundamental importance not merely to museum professionals and to museum visitors but to the whole of humankind. I sincerely wish you well in all your discussions and deliberations.

Let me conclude these opening comments by extending a very special welcome to all of you who have come from overseas. I hope your visit to our country and to this beautiful city of Melbourne is an extraordinarily happy one. I hope that you will revisit us many times in the years ahead. I also hope that the Conference is as fulfilling, both professionally and socially, as you could wish it to be.

And now, with great pleasure, I declare the 18th General Conference of the International Council of Museums to be officially open.