When I was in Longreach in 1985, they were just about to start constructing the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame. The man who took me over the site was quite clean about the coming therapeutic value of this national monument that was to be built, at a cost of $6 million, in a Queensland outback town, population 3000.
He explained its regenerative mission in these words: 'With all these ... migrants ... around' (there was just a slight pause over the word 'migrant', as if suggesting that somewhat less antiseptic words might have been used) 'people are forgetting the true Australian national identity. When the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame goes up they will be able to come here and understand what it means to be an Australian.'
There has not been so pre-emptive a claim to be the shrine of the true spirit of Australia since the Australian War Memorial was established in Canberra in 1941. But (as will be suggested later) this comparison is unfair to the founders of the Australian War Memorial.
I visited the completed Stockman's Hall of Fame last year and no time was wasted in setting the theme of the pilgrimage. At the end of opening prayers (provided in the form of an audio-visual display of slides of outbackery with tapes of bush ballads and bush music) we received our instructions: 'This makes you feel very proud to be Australian. And if you are not Australian, when you see the Hall of Fame you will understand why we feel that way.'
In the exhibition itself definitions of Australianism are implied more by theme presentation and visual images than by words. However, wherever there are verbal instructions about being Australian they are explicit and exclusive. Take the text in the Bush Sport section:
The Australian's history and environment have put into his (sic) bloodstream a feeling for games and competitive sport which seems necessary to his (sic) fulfilment.
A distinctive Australian attitude simply holds that a man (sic) should 'be in it' with his mates and 'have a go'.
In the videos, photographic blow-ups, computer banks, authentic relics, authentic replicas, push-button models, paintings and other artefacts 'the Australian character' finds its ideal personalised form in the bushman on horseback, preferably working in outback sheep or cattle country. The two most dominant human figure groups in the Hall of Fame both tell the same message. One of these is a monumental image at the top of the Hall, placed in the position where, in a Christian church, there might be a crucifixion scene or an image of Christ in majesty. It shows two drovers standing by their camp fire ... The other dominant figure group derives from the Disneyland rather than the Christian tradition: this is the audioanimatronic figure, now indispensable in a hi-tech exposition. It moves its head and talks through the tapes inside its vinyl skin, in the form of a representation of a drover, having a yarn with us all as he sits beside his electrically glowing camp fire. There aren't many authentic museum-style objects in the Hall (again, see later) but authentic stockwhips and saddles abound. The cover of the souvenir booklet shows a bushman with his cheek caressing his faithful saddle.
That the spirit of the outback, as personified in the stockman, is the true spirit of Australia is proved beyond any reasonable doubt by the appropriation of Australian history. The Hall is not only an exposition of the sheep and cattle industries. It purports to be a history of the true Australia. This is done by seizing that history at its beginning. Thus the story opens with a representation of the life of 'the first inhabitants'. (The heading to an introductory text, 'Aboriginal 'Invaders' Take Up Their Lands', is accompanied by a map of the 'invasions'.) It then portrays the early navigators, the First Fleet, convict life, and the general theme of 'Toehold on the Continent'. After these expressions of creation myths, with the section 'An Opening to the Inland' the sheep and cattle men, with a bit of help from a few other outback types, take over the destiny of what was in fact to become one of the world's most urban societies. They are (in the words of the declared objectives of the Hall of Fame) 'the pioneers who built and developed Australia'. No one else need apply.
When government secondary schools began their slow spread in Australia early in the twentieth century, school textbooks of Australian history were called for. The supply was met in such 'short histories' as those of Arthur W. Jose, editor of The Australian Encyclopedia and Ernest Scott, Professor of History at Melbourne University. The formula that was devised was one of British civilisation spreading out to, and then across Australia, with an emphasis on explorers, followed by a highly selective tale of the economic conquest of Australia, accompanied by a story of the spread of British social and political institutions. The Australians were then seen as making their own contribution to nationhood by federating, and then by sending military expeditions to the Great War. The necromancers of the Hall of Fame have simplified even these legends, leaving only the explorers and economic conquest itself, simplified as the story of 'the pioneers'.
All national pasts are, of course, inventions of the present and can often, or usually, be taken to explain and justify ('legitimise') an existing regime and/or point to what seems an inevitable future. On the face of it, what is remarkable about the legends of the past offered by the Hall of Fame is their uselessness to theories about the future of Australia. From almost all conceivable views of what might be seen as the self interest of various kinds of Australians, a stockman riding a horse does not lead us anywhere but back into the past. Even in the sheep and cattle industries horses have been very largely replaced by motor trains, four-wheel drives, motor bikes and aircraft.
Someone innocent to the mysteries of cultural tourism might dismiss this as 'pure nostalgia'. But nostalgia always has a relationship to the present. In this case, especially to those Australian tourists who know next to nothing about the sheep and cattle industries, these evocations of a past dominated by stockmen on horseback might seem to be a description of what matters now. And it might provide part of the true discovery of all Australia to those foreign tourists whose knowledge is based on Crocodile Dundee and who are bound on a tourist pilgrimage 'from the Reef to the Rock'. As they pass from admiring the architectural skills of coral polyps in the Great Barrier Reef to finding true spiritual liberation by reverently photographing Ayers Rock the tourists can spend a few hours at Longreach and make their study of Australian society in the Stockman's Hall of Fame. But nostalgia can be most significant when it expresses values that are supposed to belong to events that happened in the past but that in fact now give an aura to what is going on in the present. Presumably few if any of the many delegates who were wearing their plastic cowboy hats at the 1984 Republican Convention believed that the West was still wild but, in the revivalist spirit of mid-Reaganism, they were asserting the belief that the true values of 'the West' were what the United States still needed today.
What does the Hall of Fame offer a post-industrial Australia? First, one must look for the absences. Despite the occasional Aboriginal face in the blown-up photos we are very much looking at a White Australia. Not only is there no reference to the dispossession of the Aborigines from their own lands: there is no reference to the fact that in much of the outback cattle industry the characteristic stockman was in fact an Aborigine.
As to women - there is a song called 'The Women of the West'; following the findings of recent historical theorising Elizabeth Macarthur as well as her husband whose face was on the two-dollar note, is given credit for the breeding of merino sheep; there are pictures of pioneer women, a reconstructed kitchen, and so forth, but there is nothing about the effects of women on the productive processes of pastoral life. There are photographs of 'jilleroos', but while nominally these are the female equivalent of 'jackeroos', the important difference is that jackeroos are young men getting station hand experience before passing onto something better, while jilleroos are merely female station hands full stop.
What is relevant to economic concepts is that there is scarcely any projection of the pastoral industries as part of more complex processes; there are no references to world markets or even country towns; agricultural shows get in, but not the banks; there is not even treatment of the pastoral houses, those uniquely Australian institutions whose agencies in country towns provided an almost universal service to the pastoral industries. In short, there is no reference to the sheep and cattle industries existing as part of the complexities and expertness of an industrial society. Practically all that matters are the skills and the determined individualism of the stockman on horseback. This emphasis becomes all the more alarming in its simplicity when one considers how, just as the Hall in general appropriates Australian history on behalf of those it wishes to honour, by methods of assimilation and appropriation, it also appropriates to the sheep and cattle industries most of the rest of Australian farming. Yet while one of the ways in which one can praise the Australian farming industry generally is that much of its success is based on some of the world's best scientific research, the only mention of the contributions of science to the successes of Australian farmers is one display panel. The panel is about half the size of the display given to Sir Sidney Kidman, a cattle king whose chains of stations stretched over an area as large as England; a dealer and exploiter rather than a producer, Kidman contributed nothing to Australian farming other than building up a great fortune out of his own speculative manipulations. In the realities of contemporary Australia, the museum passes the aura of the past onto a narrow form of rugged individualism. The true heir of Kidman is the corporate raider. It is doubtful if this is a useful way of approaching the future of a post-industrial Australia.
In my book The Great Museum and elsewhere I have made a certain amount of fun out of the cult of the authentic object, but when going through the Hall of Fame it occurred to me that authentic objects can have a steadying influence on triumphalism, because they give you something to look at that has its own interest as an object in itself. They give your mind something to play with. You can look at the object and forget the triumphalism. Even in a V.I. Lenin Museum if you are looking, say, at even one of the many chairs in which Lenin sat and did some famous thing the chair itself can become interesting. Perhaps what at least might add subtlety to the Hall of Fame would be the addition of many more authentic objects. This may come. One of the Hall's Board members admitted that what is in the Hall now is an exposition put together very quickly so that Queen Elizabeth could open it when she was in Queensland last year. In fact I found some interesting sections in the Hall but with authentic objects so light on the floor interest was more likely to be found in the videos. However, I spent the largest single part of my time looking at an authentic Afghan hawker's van, on loan from the National Museum, and the second longest time inspecting a display of authentic mail order catalogues of some decades ago. Observing these relics of ordinary life and letting the imagination play around them put me back in control - far from glorifications of men on horseback.
Here is the difference between the Stockman's Hall of Fame and the Australian War Memorial. The War Memorial goes in for triumphalism (even if the triumph is of salvation through death) but it does this separately, in the Hall of Memory, and on a grand scale, in sandstone walls, copper domes, mosaics, stained glass, marble plinths and bronze statues. To this are attached the galleries of a museum, but they are not part of the Hall of Memories. As in any apparently 'objective' display a particular kind of story is told but there can be an interest in these objects themselves (partly because they show a greater concentration on the ordinary life of service people than in most military museums). This means that active-minded observers can negotiate their own meanings from the things that are displayed in the galleries. If they wish, they can make up some of their own stories.
How quickly the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame has for some people already assumed the sacred resonance of the Australian War Memorial was shown last year in an instructive passage in a 'debate' in the House of Representatives when Mr Alex Downer was attacking me. His abusive statements seemed to reach their climax when he said 'We all know his views on things like the monarchy'. But Mr Tim Fischer found in me an evil that outdid even having views on the monarchy. He interjected at that point to say that I had even attacked the Stockman's Hall of Fame.
New: 2 February, 1996 | Now: 12 March, 2015