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National Museum of Australia

CHAIR —We thank the National Library for appearing. I know Ms Fullerton was to be in Geraldton today, but she is here. We now welcome the National Museum of Australia officers.

Senator LUNDY —Can you confirm the report in the Bulletin by Bernard Lagan dated 16 May this year that the decision not to include the work by Aboriginal artist Queenie McKenzie titled Mistake Creek Massacre in the national historical collection was because council member David Barnett objected on the basis that he does not believe the massacre took place?

Mr Morton —No, I cannot confirm that. The decision to not include the painting in the national historical collection was a decision of the council.

Senator LUNDY —The council?

Mr Morton —It was a decision of the council.

Senator LUNDY —Of the council. Mr Barnett is a member of the council.

Mr Morton —He is.

Senator LUNDY —You participate in those meetings, don’t you, Mr Morton?

Mr Morton —I do.

Senator LUNDY —So are you saying that that did not happen or that you are unable to confirm it because council meetings are confidential?

Mr Morton —I am saying that the decision in relation to that object was taken by the council, not by any individual member of council. There was a wide range of discussion not so much in the council but in the collections committee of council about the issue.

Senator LUNDY —Are you able to speculate on the basis of Bernard Lagan’s story?

Senator RONALDSON —No. The witness cannot speculate.

Senator LUNDY —Perhaps I will rephrase my question. Can Mr Morton provide an explanation as to the source of this story?

Senator RONALDSON —I do not think the witness can answer that either, with the greatest respect, Mr Chair.

Senator LUNDY —Well, why would Bernard Lagan have written this story if there was not some basis to it?

Senator Kemp —I think the answer that was given was that it was a decision by the council.

CHAIR —Yes, that is right.

Senator Kemp —The council made that decision. I think under the act they are entitled to make that decision. They made that decision.

Senator LUNDY —I ask Mr Morton whether the council made that decision on the advocacy of that view by Mr David Barnett.

Senator Kemp —I do not think that is an appropriate question. It puts Mr Morton in an invidious position, where he is meant to be giving a ball-by-ball description of confidential discussions of the council meeting.

Senator LUNDY —This is a very notorious occurrence, Mr Barnett’s insistence on being involved in the collection policies of the museum, as you well know, Senator Kemp.

Senator RONALDSON —Well, it is notorious if the article is right. They may well be two entirely different things. The notoriety is generated by the article, not by the alleged facts.

Senator Kemp —Under the act, the council and the museum make these decisions. The decision was made and that is it. I do not think what Dr Fleming said or what David Barnett said or Dr John Hirst said, to be quite frank, is the business of this committee.

CHAIR —Quite so. If it is a confidential decision, it is a collective decision.

Senator LUNDY —Mr Morton, you mentioned the collections committee. Did they provide a recommendation to the council about this work’s inclusion or otherwise?

Mr Morton —Yes, they did.

Senator LUNDY —And what was that recommendation?

Mr Morton —The recommendation was that it not be included in the national historical collection.

Senator LUNDY —And who participates in that working group or that committee?

Mr Morton —David Barnett is the chair of that committee.

Senator LUNDY —Who, sorry?

Mr Morton —David Barnett is the chair of that committee.

Senator LUNDY —So he is on that committee too? He chairs that committee?

Mr Morton —As is Dr John Hirst, Dr John Fleming and Mr Tim Duncan. In fact, most of the members of the council are on that committee. Mr Christopher Pearson is on it and Ms Sally Anne Hasluck.

Senator LUNDY —I see. Has the painting been shown in the collection previously?

Mr Morton —No. The painting has not been shown, to my knowledge. It was only purchased in December.

Senator LUNDY —And how much did the museum pay for it in December?

Mr Morton —We paid $29,280.

Senator LUNDY —Nearly $30,000. Was the collections committee involved in the decision to purchase the painting?

Mr Morton —No, they were not.

Senator LUNDY —Who was involved in the decision to purchase the painting?

Mr Morton —The decision to purchase the painting was a decision of the museum management on the basis of a recommendation from the museum collections group, which makes recommendations in relation to potential purchases.

Senator LUNDY —Did that decision at the time have to be acceded to by the board, or did it not come before the board?

Mr Morton —No. The board’s role in relation to purchases, gifts, donations or anything of that kind is to determine whether it should be taken into the national historical collection or it should remain in one of the other museum collections.

Senator LUNDY —Which is essentially the decision making process that we are now discussing?

Mr Morton —Yes.

Senator LUNDY —Once the painting was purchased, did that automatically generate an agenda item for the collections committee to consider its placement in the collection?

Mr Morton —Yes.

Senator LUNDY —That resulted in a decision of the collections committee chaired by David Barnett to not include it in the national historical collection?

Mr Morton —To recommend to the council that it not be included.

Senator LUNDY —What are the criteria for determining various paintings’ worthiness for inclusion in the national historical collection?

Mr Morton —I am happy to give you the collection policy, which is a publicly available document on our website, which does refer to the national historical collection. I will quickly go through the criteria for acceptance into the national historical collection. The first one is significance. The second one is prominence. The third one is originality or rarity. The fourth one is research value. The fifth one is display value. The sixth one is conservation qualities.

Senator LUNDY —Are you able to provide the committee with the assessment done by museum management in relation to this painting?

Mr Morton —Yes. I can give you a brief description of it. In essence, the painting represents Queenie McKenzie’s view of an incident in which eight people were killed in the east Kimberly in 1915. The painting has particular significance due to the argument that surrounds the actual circumstances of the events at Mistake Creek.

Senator LUNDY —What does the picture depict?

Mr Morton —The picture depicts a massacre of Aboriginal people at Mistake Creek in 1915. No-one contests the fact that the massacre occurred. But the painting by Queenie McKenzie shows white involvement in the massacre whereas the historical record shows that there was no white involvement at all. So the issue which the collection committee was concerned about was whether this painting, if I can quote the criteria for acceptance into the national historical collection in relation to significance:

... will assist in making a lasting contribution to understanding and interpreting Australian history and culture.

The view of the committee was that as the painting depicted an event which did not occur—that is, a massacre involving white people—the painting did not fulfil the criteria for acceptance into the collection.

Senator LUNDY —So they used the criteria of the accuracy of the content in the picture?

Mr Morton —Indeed.

Senator LUNDY —So how does that compare to the assessment by museum management of the significance, prominence, display and all the other values that obviously it passed the criteria on in the first assessment?

Mr Morton —I think museum management had a view about why they thought the painting was a worthy acquisition. The committee of council and subsequently council itself determined that while that was a view, it was not the view they were going to take.

Senator LUNDY —Just going back a step, are you able to provide the reasons by which the museum management originally sought and paid close to $30,000 for a painting that they were obviously of the opinion was worthy for inclusion in the collection?

Mr Morton —Well, when the painting was purchased, it was purchased on the basis that it was a useful object for the museum to have. The painting was not purchased on the basis of either being appropriate or inappropriate to the national historical collection because that is not the decision that museum management takes under the legislation. The council takes that.

Senator LUNDY —I appreciate that.

Mr Morton —Further, whether it is taken into the national historical collection or not, the painting is nonetheless available for use in exhibitions and in education programs and for research purposes in the same way as if it would be in the national historical collection.

Senator LUNDY —On that point, what are the full implications—I think you have just answered this question, but I will ask in case there are any other points—for the painting given the decision not to include it in the national historical collection? I think you have partly answered that.

Mr Morton —In practical terms, management and our curatorial staff are still able to consider the painting for use as part of museum displays. It is still looked after to the same extent as an item in the historical collection. So the real effect is very little. The effect more was a statement, if you like, by the council of the importance of historical accuracy in the material that it takes into the historical collection.

Senator RONALDSON —It was going into the historical collection and presumably needed to be historically accurate?

Mr Morton —That is right. But it is now in the archives collection and, as I say, it is available for use. Indeed, one of the ways we may be able to use it is in, if you like, a debate about the nature of evidence and the nature of an oral tradition versus a standard police record or some other form of written evidence. It provides us with the basis of making perhaps some interesting comparisons and telling a story in relation to different traditions.

Senator LUNDY —The criteria that the collections committee used to reject the painting you read from earlier.

Mr Morton —Yes. I read from the museum’s collection development plan, which includes the collections development policy, the development framework and the operational systems and procedures. As I say, this is a publicly available document. It is on our website.

Senator LUNDY —Sure. When were those guidelines established?

Mr Morton —Those guidelines were established in December 2005.

Senator LUNDY —It is not that long ago. Was that as a result of the review into the National Museum’s collections?

Mr Morton —No. In fact, these policy guidelines pretty well mirror the previous policy before this version came into effect. What happened was when I became director, I undertook to review all of the existing policies of the museum, some of which had not been reviewed for a number of years, and to bring them up to date. That is why this policy is dated December 2005. It is part of an overall policy review process. It is part of our governance regime.

Senator LUNDY —My recollection was that there was a review into the National Museum’s collections by an external consultant. Can you refresh my memory?

Mr Morton —Are you talking about the Carroll report?

Senator LUNDY —Yes.

Mr Morton —Yes. The Carroll report looked at our collections as part of an overall look at how the museum told, if you like, national stories and presented the history of Australia. It certainly made some recommendations in relation to where we could strengthen our holdings. We have taken that up in terms of our acquisitions. Indeed, that has been aided by the government providing us with a special acquisitions budget to fulfil that recommendation of the Carroll report beyond the acquisitions funding we previously had.

Senator LUNDY —So did the Carroll report have any impact on your consideration of collection policy?

Mr Morton —Not in terms so much of the policy but in terms of the framework and the priorities that we would attach to going about collecting. In other words, for example, the Carroll report found we had a weakness in relation to colonial material. So it recommended we pay attention to collecting colonial material. That is one of the things that we have been doing over the last period of time.

Senator RONALDSON —I am a little unsure about what Senator Lundy is saying. Senator Lundy, are you saying that a painting that clearly misrepresents an historical event should be in an historical collection? I am just not too sure what this line of questioning involves. Are you suggesting it should be there?

Senator LUNDY —I do not need your commentary on my questioning. There was an article—

Senator RONALDSON —I am not too sure where you are heading with this.

Senator LUNDY —If you are saying that I am suggesting something, you are wrong. I am referring to an article published in theBulletin in relation to this issue. I am trying to get to the bottom of the processes within the museum which have led to this speculation.

Senator RONALDSON —But are you suggesting that paintings that do not represent an historical situation or event should be in the historical collection?

Senator LUNDY —I am asking questions. Are you suggesting that it ought not be?

CHAIR —This really should come through the chair.

Senator LUNDY —Thank you.

CHAIR —Senator Ronaldson probably makes a valid point. We would not like to think you were seeking to have an historical misrepresentation included in the museum.

Senator LUNDY —I am so grateful for your interpreting the purpose of my questions, but I can really do without it. I would like to finish this portfolio before 11 o’clock.

CHAIR —Well, that is fair enough.

Senator LUNDY —Well, please be quiet.

CHAIR —We were just concerned, Senator Lundy.

Senator RONALDSON —You cannot say that to the chairman.

CHAIR —Please proceed.

Senator LUNDY —Thank you. Is the department involved in these decisions relating to acquisitions in any way?

Ms Bean —No.

Senator LUNDY —So, as for the aspects of that particular collections policy, how specifically do they vary from the previous policy?

Mr Morton —I would have to take that on notice. My sense is that the policy itself does not dramatically differ but that the framework in which we collect has been substantially updated. The procedures I think do not change very much from the previous procedures as well. It is the framework more than anything else that has changed. If I could take that on notice, I would be happy to provide you with a check on the policy pre December 2005 and post 2005.

Senator LUNDY —Yes, if you could.

Mr Morton —I will do that.

Senator LUNDY —Can you tell me whether this happens often, where the museum and their team of professionals purchase a painting with the intention of including that painting in the national historical collection and it is subsequently overturned by the collections committee of the board?

Mr Morton —I want to make it clear that when the museum purchases material, it does not purchase it with the intention of including it in the national historical collection. It purchases it with the intention of using it in some way to fulfil the museum’s charter. As I say, that may be done by material which we purchase which is used in the education collection or which is used in the archival collection as an adjunct to material in the historical collection. But, generally speaking, the number of occasions on which the council have rejected items which have been considered for the historical collection is extremely infrequent.

Senator LUNDY —So it is a rare occurrence for this to have been rejected?

Mr Morton —It is an infrequent occurrence. In my time, it has happened twice.

Senator LUNDY —Twice. And this is once?

Mr Morton —This is once.

Senator LUNDY —What was the other one?

Mr Morton —The other was a Leunig cartoon, which was drawn in early 2002 and purchased then. It was a cartoon which criticised the Israeli government’s position on Palestine by comparing the Auschwitz slogan ‘Work brings freedom’ with the slogan ‘War brings peace’. It was decided at that time a most unsuitable item for inclusion in the collection, so it was not included.

Senator Kemp —Sounds like a very sensible decision to me.

Senator LUNDY —How long has the collections committee been in place? Has that always been a feature of the board of the National Museum in oversighting the museum’s acquisitions in this way?

Mr Morton —It has certainly been there as long as I can remember, yes.

Senator LUNDY —The article alleges David Barnett’s active advocacy of effectively censoring the national historical collection.

Senator Kemp —David Barnett, like other members of the council, is entitled to his views. You might not like David Barnett’s views, but he might not like your views.

Senator LUNDY —I am giving Mr Morton the opportunity to challenge that possible perception or interpretation of events, given that it has happened twice and it is, therefore, an unusual occurrence.

Senator Kemp —Let’s put it this way: you would not have supported the Leunig cartoon being part of the national collection, would you?

Senator LUNDY —The difference is, Minister, I do not consider myself a professional in the matters of putting together art collections. I would not expect that the members of the board of the National Museum would consider themselves professional in this regard either. The point I am making is that surely the integrity of our national collections is based on policies that collections are determined by professionals in their field rather than a bunch of Liberal stacks on the National Museum board.

Senator Kemp —I think that is a rather unusual way of thinking about accountability. In my view of accountability, you appoint an independent council under the act. They have certain roles specified under the act. They fulfil those roles.

Senator LUNDY —A censorship committee.

Senator RONALDSON —How is that censorship?

Senator Kemp —The suggestion we can refer to one person as a professional and he can have an unfettered right to do what he or she likes is a complete nonsense, in my view.

Senator LUNDY —The National Museum board has form on this, though, don’t they, Senator Kemp?

Senator Kemp —What sort of form, Senator?

Senator LUNDY —Well, form on interfering in the nature of the collections. David Barnett’s objections to the way migrants were treated in Australia and various other collections are well-documented in the Carroll report, which was instigated by the board on the basis of David Barnett’s and Christopher Pearson’s complaints about the collection. You know its history as well as I do.

Senator Kemp —You may not like David Barnett and Christopher Pearson and they may not like you. Big deal. Who cares? They are distinguished people. They are appointed to a council. They exercise an independent role. They are fulfilling their duties. On issues of history there will be debates.

Senator LUNDY —What credentials do they have as curators of a national institution?

Senator Kemp —They are perfectly able to judge and debate whether—

Senator LUNDY —They are political appointees.

Senator Kemp —Why do you sneer at appointees?

Senator LUNDY —I am saying that they have form on trying to censor the National Museum’s collection.

Senator Kemp —Well, they have views and they are entitled to those views, and other people have differing views.

Senator LUNDY —And the people with differing views have not survived their appointments on the board very long. We know that.

Senator Kemp —I think you will find there are vigorous debates on the board. That is what I think you will find. It is unfortunate that, because you do not happen to agree with someone, you suddenly start to demean their character. These are distinguished Australians. They are entitled to their views. They are put on to run the council under the act, and that is what they do.

Senator LUNDY —This is another unfortunate chapter in the history of the manipulation of that particular institution’s collection. It affects its independence as a national institution.

Senator Kemp —I think you are exhibiting signs of paranoia. That is what I think you are showing signs of.

CHAIR —Senator Lundy, Senator Ronaldson wants to ask a question. Before he does, may I just draw your attention to the time.

Senator LUNDY —Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR —We still have to deal with the department.

Senator LUNDY —I have many questions, so thank you.

Senator RONALDSON —Mr Morton, was this picture an accurate or inaccurate representation of an historical event?

Mr Morton —It does not accord with the official record of the event, so the council took it as being an inaccurate representation.

Senator RONALDSON —Thank you.

Senator Kemp —The council, therefore, on that basis, was perfectly entitled to do that. Therefore, it was a proper exercise of the council’s authority. Senator Lundy does not agree with that. Senator Lundy does not worry whether it is historically accurate. That is of no consequence to Senator Lundy.

Senator RONALDSON —I can’t believe we have spent 15 minutes talking about this. If it is not historically accurate, how can it go into an historical collection? It is absolutely bizarre.

Senator LUNDY —For the sake of closure, it obviously has some historical value because the museum staff, the professionals in the field of collection management and acquisitions, chose and paid nearly $30,000 for this painting. So it becomes a disagreement between the views of the professionals in the field and the political appointees. That speaks for itself.

Senator Kemp —I have to say, Senator Lundy, you are utterly failing to address this issue.

Senator LUNDY —I am happy to move on.

Senator Kemp —I think we should move on because I think you are failing, as usual, to make any impact whatsoever. So let’s move on.

Senator LUNDY —I am happy to go to the department.

Senator Kemp —Have we finished with the National Museum of Australia?

Senator LUNDY —Yes.

Senator Kemp —I thank Mr Craddock Morton and his staff for appearing before the estimates and for the good work they are doing.

[10.30 pm]