Newsletter 516

Published November 7, 2023
Wrong attitude for a curator.. an early study

Another week when I’m away from home and struggling to find time to write anything, let alone a newsletter. The art column looks at Hoda Afshar’s mid-career survey at the Art Gallery of NSW, which was a show worth doing, but it’s amazing how one “activist” artist gets such lavish treatment while so many others are completely ignored. With no slight intended to Afshar, I couldn’t help wishing her exhibition was an installment in a successful series, not simply a one-off.

The movie being reviewed is The Origin of Evil, a highly viewable French crime story that is being billed as a comedy, although the description doesn’t quite fit. No character is especially likeable in this tale of unhappy families, but Laure Calamy puts in another first-rate performance.

Next week I’m finally writing up Leo Schofield’s 1,001 Remarkable Objects at the Powerhouse Museum (I’m still thinking of it as a museum, even though current management has repudiated the title). I assume the Herald will run the piece next weekend, although I can’t be certain of anything nowadays, with columns regularly suffering significant cuts, or not being posted on-line. As ever, I encourage everyone to read the unexpurgated versions posted on my website.

Anyway, as I was looking up the Powerhouse site, checking details, I came across Right of Reply – a rather extraordinary statement by the “inaugural Powerhouse Director of First Nations,” Emily McDaniel. Although it’s a perfectly reasonable idea to appoint a curator of First Nations material, I was amazed by the hostile, negative tone of what was presumably intended to be a statement of policies and principles.

“The inception of this institution and its early practices were driven by a vision of trade, industry and economic growth for the future of the colony,” McDaniel writes. “It was a future we were not imagined to be a part of. This museum was not created for First Nations peoples; its structure and practice never intended to benefit us.”

Talk about getting off in the wrong foot! No spirit of reconcilation here, it’s simply “Us and Them”. She goes on to denounce, in suitably patronsing fashion, “the failure of foresight by the museum’s forebears”, suggesting that the institution suffers from an “illness created historically”. She seems to believe the Powerhouse has ‘exploited’ the eucalypt in some way by collecting “countless oils, vials of kino, sheets of pulped paper, thousands of wood samples, turned-timber pedestals and furniture, pianos, sledges and pipes made of eucalypt hardwoods…”

The implication is that the eucalypt belongs to Aboriginal people, and the colonial industrialists had no right to lay hands on it, nor the museum to collect the finished goods. This was corrected by getting 21 “creative practitioners” (which may be another way of saying “artists”) to make works in response to the collection. Problem solved? Not quite, because McDaniel goes on to express her contempt for “the European tradition that to collect and catalogue something was to know it.”

Apparentlybeing okay with not knowing is a First Nations methodology that Powerhouse is beginning to come to terms with.” This will come as a big relief to all those who were worried that the curators spent too much time striving to learn about the objects in the collection, both historically and scientifically. From now on, not knowing is cool.

The museum’s new role is to “not only [to] care for the object, but equally to care for our relationship with its maker and knowledge holders.” This sounds like an awesome responsibility, but surely to care for objects in a contemporary museum already implies a reasonable level of care and concern for makers and knowledge holders. Why else appoint a specialised Indigenous curator? Need one turn it into a moral obligation and a social welfare project? I’d be more convinced about this level of “care” if McDaniel’s statement managed to spell “Yolngu” correctly, instead of writing “Yoliu” and “Yolru”. So much anger, so much righteous indignation, and so little concern about typos!

I sincerely hope the belligerent tone of this statement is not carried through into the workplace, as it basically sets the curator against the collection and the institution. Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve always believed curators need to have both respect for their collections and a genuine interest in the growth of knowledge. The “Us and Them” approach may be creeping into the museums, but ultimately, it’s a recipe for disaster. My considered advice for any incoming curator would be to drop the aggressive attitude, cultivate an open mind and a willingness to listen and learn. Opinions, no matter how fiercely held, are not ineluctable truths. Not knowing may be OK in some places, but within the walls of the museum it should only be a spur to go and do the research.