National Indigenous Centre

Nicolas Rothwell, ‘Search for a defining centre’, The Australian, 31 December 2014

Picture it: a perfect building, museum and symbol, designed by a master architect, representing myriad traditions and one shared narrative. Picture it: an indigenous cultural centre, a place to define the nation’s past and help shape its course into the future. It is a dream vision, rich in potential, one that has its keen, contending proponents and besetting ambiguities.

But where should it be built? Where is the key focus of indigenous Australia: the harbour city of Sydney, the site of the First Fleet settlement that inaugurated two centuries of cultural contact; the monolith of Uluru, old meeting place and ceremonial site for desert groups; or Alice Springs, the frontier town in the red heart of Australia, the capital of the ­Arrernte people and their living traditions?

There are already indigenous culture centres strewn across Australia, in every state capital and in places as far-flung as the Grampians, Mossman Gorge in far north Queensland, Kakadu, Tennant Creek, even Thursday Island in the Torres Strait — in fact, given the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia there is an almost embarrassing, over-compensatory number of them, serving as local exhibition galleries and display spaces, as educational facilities, as discreet memorials to life ways and times that will never return.

But there is no single national focal centre — nor, indeed, is there a dedicated national indigenous museum, though many state institutions vie for the position and hold extensive collections of Aboriginal art and material culture: the National Museum and National Gallery in Canberra, the Australian Museum in Sydney, the National Gallery in Victoria, the South Australian Museum.

The field of plausible host venues for a special gallery and indigenous cultural focus point is almost too diverse.

What to do? The most ardent advocate for an Aboriginal-controlled centre of art and culture is the pioneer indigenous curator Hetti Perkins, who resigned from her post at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney in 2011, convinced “the mainstreaming of Aboriginal art and culture” had largely failed her ­people. Perkins, of Central Australian Arrernte descent, had been intrigued by the idea of a centre at Alice Springs, much like her sister, filmmaker Rachel Perkins, who co-directed the Mbantua indigenous culture festival in the town a year ago.

But the impetus now lies with Sydney and the inner harbour site of Barangaroo, where a large-scale redevelopment is taking shape. When the project was first put forward it included a proposal for an indigenous cultural complex, which was quietly shelved, only to be highlighted anew recently when the NSW government made the scheme a central element in its new billion-dollar “sports and culture plan”.

Hetti Perkins, who sits on the Barangaroo Delivery Authority’s art and culture panel, has always been clear in her view that an indigenous-run “flagship national cultural institution” is necessary to present, protect and advance the profile of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elements within Australia.

This is, if not a separatist vision, one that emphasises the need for complete indigenous control over the direction and activities of the national centre; it is a position that stems from a bleak awareness that, despite a plethora of Aboriginal advisory boards and reference groups, indigenous perspectives hold little weight in the prominent museums, galleries and arts planning bodies of our day.

A similar awareness that mainstream cultural institutions include, rather than foreground, indigenous materials lies behind the proposal put forward last month by the chairman of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Mick Dodson, who called for the creation of a new, stand-alone museum in Canberra — a centre to rival the majestic National Museum of the American Indian, “marvellous, central and symbolic” in Washington, DC.

A quite different approach animates the best-developed alternative project for a national indigenous centre, the Nganampa: Our Story, Your Story proposal, put together by an Alice Springs team of mainstream and Aboriginal leaders.

“It is glaringly obvious,” they argue, “that Australia lacks a cohesive and comprehensive centre which is all encompassing of the arts, history and culture of indigenous Australia.” Hence the need for a new kind of institution, as much embassy and performance space as entombing, staid museum of fixed traditions.

The key figure behind this scheme is Scott McConnell, chief executive of the Ngurratjuta Aboriginal Corporation, which runs a well-known art centre. Backing him are Owen Cole, one of the founders of the indigenous broadcaster CAAMA, and Alice Springs Aboriginal bureaucratic networker Harold Furber, chairman of the Desert Peoples Centre. They envisage “a living space where people come together to learn, collaborate, celebrate and share the knowledge of our indigenous history and culture”.

Art collections, public programs and shifting displays would promote the creation of a new kind of shared, hybrid national identity.

Whatever else this is, it is a bold bid to reconceive the relations between mainstream and Aboriginal people through a new kind of institution, and to advance a distinctive philosophy of indigeneity.

One of the chief inspirations for this proposal is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which aims to immerse its visitors in the past and present of the region’s 19 ­Native American Pueblos; the Nganampa team visited the ­centre and prepared a detailed ­report on their findings and the ­directions provided for their project.

They have applied for federal funding to stage a nationwide ­consultation to advance their idea; their outline brief estimates $80 million would be needed to build a top-flight indigenous cultural centre in Alice Springs. Nganampa also approached the Northern Territory government for support, with striking results.

The regime in Darwin has been campaigning throughout the past decade to secure additional federal money for its various Aboriginal culture projects, despite the huge untied funding it already receives from the commonwealth. The Territory has custodianship of two of Australia’s key indigenous treasures: its Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has the first jewels of the desert art movement, the so-called “boards” painted in 1972 at Papunya settlement.

The Strehlow Collection in Alice Springs holds a trove of artefacts gathered by anthropologist Ted Strehlow in the mid-20th century. Insiders believe there are covert plans afoot to sell the Strehlow Collection.

The understaffed and resource-starved MAGNT’s failings, though, are a matter of public record in the wake of this year’s report into the Arts and Museums Department by the Territory Auditor-General, which ­depicts an institution in need of ­urgent upgrades to ensure the “future safeguarding” of its collections; but what exactly are those collections?

According to the auditor’s unsparing report, one-quarter of the new objects in the history and culture section of the museum are still awaiting decisions about their ­accession; some have been languishing in limbo for 20 years.

This is the department the government in Darwin nominated to draft its own hurriedly prepared proposal for a “new cultural centre”, rushed out in the wake of the Nganampa proposal. By one of those astonishing coincidences that make life in the Territory so rich in texture, the NT Arts and Museums “confidential” dossier also included a glowing overview of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre in Albuquerque, and it too stipulated a construction budget of precisely $80m.

The need to obtain funds for the cultural centre was put forward by Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles as part of the justification for the sale of the NT’s government-owned insurer, but in the wake of the sale those proceeds have been committed elsewhere.

As a result, the Territory is casting about for federal backing for its blueprint. In recent years it has made repeated attempts to establish a dedicated indigenous museum funded by outside sources. An initial plan to set up a centre for contemporary indigenous art, in Darwin or Alice Springs, was drawn up by some of the country’s leading private collectors and presented to the highest levels of the Territory government, which showed no interest until last month’s flurry of proposal-writing.

A separate scheme to create a stand-alone gallery in Darwin for the Papunya boards was killed last year in the wake of a political coup that replaced a strongly pro-Aboriginal leadership group with the present inner cadre. Yet another long-running project to set up a special indigenous ethnographic gallery in the Territory also has run into the sand.

Against this backdrop, the chief result of the initial consultation by the Nganampa team is unsurprising: soundings in the Aboriginal communities around Alice Springs found strong backing for an indigenous cultural centre based in the town, but only on condition it was free from all Territory government control.

Such is the landscape as the national cultural centre project comes into focus. The alternatives are stark: a structure in the heart of Sydney, the city that epitomises modern, mainstream Australia’s all-transforming dominance over what was once untouched Eora country; or a project in the red centre, where indigenous land rights are under threat from a hostile Territory government. The timing of the push for an indigenous centre is telling.

The fate of the dream will provide an intriguing index of Australia’s interest in recognising the indigenous strain within the national story and highlighting, from an indigenous perspective, the sources of the present in the patterns of the past.