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Following a proposal that the intended National Museum of Australia be shelved, there have been claims that Aboriginal artefacts may be moved to Adelaide

ELIZABETH JACKSON: It appears the on again, off again national museum of Australia is finally off. According to a report in today's Canberra Times, Arts Minister, Michael Lee, will take a submission to the Cabinet tomorrow, proposing that the museum idea be scrapped and that the extensive collection of Aboriginal artefacts that were to fill the museum be shifted to Adelaide.

Now, we've tried to get confirmation about this, this morning, from Minister Lee and the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Robert Tickner, but neither were prepared to comment. The Chief Minister, Rosemary Follett, also declined our invitation this morning. But the collection, which includes the largest number of bark paintings in the world was given to the museum by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in the mid-1980s. To discuss the fate of the collection, I've been joined by the chairperson of the Institute, Marcia Langton.

Marcia, I guess firstly, what's you initial reaction to this report?

MARCIA LANGTON: Well, as it's been read to me over the phone this morning and if it is in fact the case - and I'm not casting aspersions on how you do your job, it's just that I have to see the Government's proposal in black and white - it is astonishing that I should have to respond in the first instance to a media report about this matter of national significance. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, which donated the national ethnographic collection to the national museum on certain conditions, has no knowledge other than what you've told me this morning of the Government's intentions. The people in Government who are apparently proposing these plans to send the Australian treasures of the Aboriginal nation to a State don't understand what they're dealing with.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So, Marcia, you're saying that if it is an accurate report, that there's been absolutely no consultation with the people who were the ones that donated the artefacts in the first place?

MARCIA LANGTON: There's been no consultation, and I have heard this in the way that you have put it to me as conjecture.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Right. Well, we spoke to the press secretaries of the two Federal Ministers involved, Tickner and Michael Lee, and neither of them were prepared to deny that this proposal was going to go ahead, so I guess that's all we have to go on at this stage. Now, given that that is the situation, Marcia how would the Aboriginal people, do you think, feel if the collection was to be shifted to South Australia?

MARCIA LANGTON: If there are no consultations and if there is no careful consideration given to this matter, then I would think that most Aboriginal people will see it as an act of grand larceny of a kind. I mean, for instance I'm sure they're not going to say in the cultural policy that the gay mardi gras should be moved to Hobart.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Is that the sort of parallel that the Aboriginal people would see? Are they that opposed to it going to South Australia?

MARCIA LANGTON: Well, I don't know how many people know about this; I can only talk about my own personal reactions, and it is an astounding piece of news that I find very, very difficult to understand.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Why are they so opposed, Marcia, to it going to South Australia in particular?

MARCIA LANGTON: Well, I don't know that one is opposed to it going to South Australia in particular; what is astonishing is that a collection of 110,000 objects of national significance, the treasures of the Aboriginal nation, have been discussed at the highest government level with no consultation with us, and plans are being made as if we simply don't exist. And this is during the course of the Government's reconciliation program, after the Government has admitted that there is restitution to be done to the Aboriginal peoples, and our national treasures are the subject of a bureaucratic larceny.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So it flies in the face, you think, of all the Government's statements about reconciliation, trying to work together and all that sort of thing?

MARCIA LANGTON: I was recently on the Kirner committee, the Centenary of Federation Advisory Committee, and the majority of submissions mentioned the national museum as an important focus of Australian national life, and the recommendation of that committee was that the museum should represent the symbolic heart of the nation and that all other OECD countries have fully established national museums which serve to bring into focus issues of national identity and national life. But particularly, the report said, the Aboriginal Australia gallery and the people and the environment gallery will reinforce major themes of the centenary of federation. And, of course, one of the themes that the report was referring to was reconciliation, because all over the country people said to us that they did not want a party in 2001, but people wanted to see some substantial progress with reconciliation so that Australia's nationhood, or sense of nationhood, could be meaningful.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: And this was supposed to be the symbol of it?

MARCIA LANGTON: Well, certainly. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander collection is an enormous part of the museum collection. It's the majority of the museum's collections, a significant majority. These are treasures for the Aboriginal people. If any of this is the case, then you're talking of a situation that could be compared to, say, the Elgin Marbles. The Greek Government has fought for many years and the late Cultural Minister, Melina Mercouri, fought for many years to have the Elgin Marbles returned to Greece because they represent something fundamental in Greek society.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Now, Marcia, I'll just interrupt you there. I'll be speaking in just a few minutes to Winifred Rosser, who belongs to the Friends of the National Museum organisation here in the ACT. Now, she says that it's been leaked to her that the plans in fact are not to go ahead with any sort of national museum in any State, but that the collection is more than likely going to be split up.

MARCIA LANGTON: I think the Government or the people in government who are proposing this simply don't know what they're dealing with if that's what they're proposing. Aboriginal people wouldn't tolerate this. If anything is to happen to this collection, then there are two options: It should either be returned to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies which donated it, along with the Institute of Anatomy in 1980.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Will you be demanding it back if they go ahead with any of these changes?

MARCIA LANGTON: Well, we'll see. Or, secondly, a national Aboriginal council must be established as the custodial authority of the collection.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Marcia, you sound fairly disgusted with the whole thing.

MARCIA LANGTON: Well, Bishop Tutu said when he was here about the reconciliation policy that you can't on the one hand say that you're sorry without giving back what you have taken. But this is even worse. This is a continuation of the theft. It may not be in legal detail the case, but morally it is and I'm quite sure that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will see that if this is all the case, the Government has been utterly disrespectful.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: All right, Marcia. We thank you for your comments this morning. We'll leave it there, but thank you for joining us.

MARCIA LANGTON: Thank you.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Marcia Langton from the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Well, as I mentioned in that interview, Winifred Rosser is the Vice President of the Friends of the National Museum here in Canberra and she joins me now.

What have you heard? Have you had this proposal confirmed?

WINIFRED ROSSER: Yes. We of the Friends are absolutely appalled at what we've heard. The intention of the Government is to take the Aboriginal collection and send it to South Australia.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: You've had that confirmed, Winifred?

WINIFRED ROSSER: We have.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: By whom, can I ask?

WINIFRED ROSSER: I don't wish to divulge my sources, but enough to say that I'm very confident of my sources, and that then the balance of the collection is to be sent to various State and regional institutions, but what we find absolutely abhorrent about all of this is that a lot of people donated to this collection. The majority of the collection has been donated. It was donated in good faith for a national museum of Australia. And we also find it as Marcia says - I feel if the Government is sincere in reconciliation, reconciliation involves a two-way street, not just a building for a gallery of Aboriginal Australia. That smacks of appeasement. Our history is supposed to be united and presented as a united front, and we need to have a balanced view so that we can all learn from the past so as not to make those mistakes in the future.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So Winifred, as far as you're concerned, then, the story is confirmed and, more than that, that the collection will in fact be broken up and sent to individual States and Territories.

WINIFRED ROSSER: That's correct, and this I think, to a lot of individuals who've made these donations, would be absolutely appalling.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: All right. So what can your organisation do about this? Have you made any approaches to any of the Ministers involved?

WINIFRED ROSSER: We did send letters off to every Cabinet Minister yesterday - very, very strongly worded letters, I may add - saying that at that stage we were not intending to go public just yet, but we had advised them that we would go public and we would attempt, in every way, to get a reversal of this decision by galvanising public opinion far and wide. This is a national issue; it is not a Canberra issue; it is not a State issue; it is a national issue. We are talking about a national museum for all Australians, to teach us all about Australia. And what is even worse is that we are the only country in the OECD that does not have a national museum. Papua New Guinea, which is a fledgling nation, has one. New Zealand is building one at a cost of $250 million.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Winifred, if I just interrupt you there. Are you working together with Aboriginal groups on this one?

WINIFRED ROSSER: Yes, we will be.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: All right. Thank you very much for your time this morning. Winifred Rosser, the Vice-President of the Friends of the National Museum here in the ACT.