Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 3, No. 1, 1990
Space * Meaning * Politics
Edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University


Mark Finnane

Opening the Arthur Boyd museum recently, Federal Minister for the Arts Clyde Holding observed that more people in Australia went to an art gallery each year than attended a football match. Behind his observation lies a terrain of debates about culture. Cultural institutions, government funding, the high/low culture split, access to culture, the privileging of certain activities as cultural, others not: the range of issues has become the stuff of policy considerations and academic disputation in Australia and elsewhere in recent years.

This issue of Continuum, edited by the Institute for Cultural Policy Studies, Griffith University, seeks to address some of these matters under the general rubric of the political and cultural meanings of spaces: public sites or institutions, domestic space, even natural domains invested with the changing valuations of science or a popular aesthetic. Our concern has been to bring together contributions which looked at a variety of ways in which spaces or sites could be analysed - historically, phenomenologically, discursively - to discern the ways in which their meanings and uses were negotiated by visitors, observers, participants and occupants.

The contributions may be loosely grouped around two objects of concern. The first is the cultural politics of the practices of museum displays and exhibitions. As the papers here show, there is now a great variety of institutions brought under the heading of museum. The great museums of the nineteenth century, with their ambition of serving both as moral uplifters and repositories of scientific classifications of the natural and human world, have been challenged in recent decades by new practices of display and new visions of their democratic and pedagogic function.

Writing of the National Museum of Victoria, David Goodman suggests that an austere pursuit of scientific knowledge determined the shape of a museum which would be distinct in presentation and use from the theatre and the circus. Such aspiration, however, disguised some severe contradictions. Tony Bennett argues that the tension embodied in the nineteenth century museum as a 'vehicle for popular education' on the one hand and 'an instrument for the reform of public manners' on the other, has been sustained and transformed in the opposition between 'populist' and 'statist' conceptions of the desirable direction of the modern museum.

Whether and under what conditions museum representations have the capacity to change is a matter determined not only by the 'political rationality' of the museum, but by curatorial practices and conventions. In the representation of the world of work in museum collections, Gaby Porter discerns the barriers to an adequate and equitable recording of women's' working lives. At another level, that of the conditions of knowledge and technical ordering of objects, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill suggests that Foucault's concepts of 'spatialisation' and the 'gaze' may be profitably deployed to understand the changing forms of the museum in the last two centuries.

While the older museums are being profoundly altered by new curatorial and presentation practices, the demotic impetus has had its own role to play in new institutions, such as the Stockman's Hall of Fame at Longreach: an institution whose founding moment in 1988, recorded here by Donald Horne and Toby Miller, was the occasion for the re-presentation and affirmation of some dominant Australian mythologies.

A profound shift in the valuation of the natural world and the remnants of the built environment has placed heritage questions high on present-day political agendas. A number of papers here address this in terms particularly of the conflict of discourses and uses which have influenced the sites discussed. Contemporary valuation of the natural environment is conditioned by a longer historical shift in Eurocentric perceptions and values. For Australia, a post-colonial society, this shift has affected sites as varied as the northern rainforests (discussed by Kevin Frawley in the context of shifting aesthetic and ecological values) and the Kimberleys, where Stephen Muecke points to the contemporary conflict between Aboriginal ownership and use and the onslaught of tourism.

Adjudicating the heritage (natural and built) which should be preserved or conserved is a process which is both profoundly technical and political. Dawkins outlines the complex of technical valuations and political choices which bore on the preservation and reconstruction of Arthur Head in Fremantle. The politics of histories imbues the development of another Western Australian site, Rottnest Island: Stephen Mickler shows the selectivity of representations of the past on this former prison island, site both of Aboriginal occupation and of the starkest moments of their colonization.

The built environment bears the traces of a colonial past, but there the politics of popular memory may obscure past uses and meanings. Boer War monuments, analysed by Hamilton, now require almost a new encoding, while everywhere Aboriginal uses of the land or subjection to colonial rule requires an insistent politics of archaeological practice and representation: hence Paul Carter's evocation of Aboriginal linguistic signifiers of the now urbanised Yarra.

Human uses of the built environment are of course constantly changing. Domestic architecture is much more than a register of shifting aesthetics. Just as public sites have their overlays of uses, so the private house displays the changing preferences and practices of everyday life: recovering the traditional is, Jennifer Craik suggests, always an impossibility. The urban industrial environment has quite different meanings and appeal, profoundly affected by economic fate at one level. But in the post-modern urban economy, Sophie Watson implies, gendered practices of representation of the industrial landscape articulate established systems of sexual difference in a refigured form.

The forms of analysis employed in this volume indicate the breadth of approaches now in use in cultural studies, at a time when the meanings of 'culture' and the politics of representation are the subject of vigorous debate. Importantly, many of the subjects addressed in this collection of papers are notable for their politicisation, in Australia as elsewhere. Not a politicisation which is exhausted by the 'zero-sum' conception of power so criticised by Foucault and others, but one which renders these objects of the natural and built world sites of debate over use and value. We address here, therefore a domain of contemporary public policy which requires new sets of terms, new techniques of understanding and evaluation, new criteria for the analysis of choices. We trust that this selection of papers will stimulate further work on the sites and institutions and practises which make up the cultural, especially as they have become the object of policy.

Institute for Cultural Policy Studies
Griffith University

Mark Finnane
Gail Reekie
Tony Bennett
Toby Miller
Gillian Swanson

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