Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Canberra’s role as custodian of heritage

The National Film and Sound Archive, which needs more funding to digitise its collection.

Canberra’s role as custodian of history crucial, Canberra Times, 2 November 2019

You’ve probably heard Prime Minister Scott Morrison speak of “the Canberra bubble”.

It’s a term he uses to appeal to people who feel disillusioned by the disconnect between politicians, who are said to be stuck in the bubble, and regular people.

What is often forgotten as people rush to dismiss Canberra as the home of politics is that the role this city plays in our country is far bigger than any particular group of decision-makers at any particular point in time.

Our identity over the course of history is drawn together by the many cultural institutions in the capital, like the War Memorial, National Gallery, National Library and National Film and Sound Archive.

These places are physically located in Canberra, but their reach is wider than just a single place.

This is something politicians would do well to remember as the race against the clock to save invaluable pieces of Australian history heats up.

As reported today, National Film and Sound Archive chief executive Jan Mueller has warned significant collections of audiovisual heritage will be lost without extra funding.

There is an air of urgency in his words, with only a short window until 2025, when material including video cassettes and audio tapes will be considered unsalvageable.

To digitise the entire collection, Mr Mueller says, the archive would need $50 million – a little more than 10 per cent of the budget for the Australian War Memorial’s redevelopment project.

The funding for the War Memorial is a good thing, he says, because it demonstrates an appetite for investing in culture.

But the problems the National Film and Sound Archive face are not unique. The National Library, National Museum and the National Archives are all grappling with digitisation issues.

Our country has already lost a lot. One striking example is apparent in Aboriginal communities. At the time of colonisation in 1788, Australia was home to hundreds of Aboriginal languages. Today, only 13 traditional Indigenous languages are still taught to children, meaning only that small handful will survive into the future.

We need to learn from examples like this to preserve the history we still have a chance to save before it is gone. Canberra, as the home of Australia’s most cultural institutions, has a key role to play in this endeavour.

If these institutions are not adequately funded and pieces of our history are lost, Canberra’s identity – and Australia’s by extension – will suddenly be dictated to a much larger degree by the politicians and issues of the day.

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Mr Brian Oldman, South Australian Museum PO Box 234 Adelaide, South Australia 5001 Australia, © CAMD 2022
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