Garden without a Destiny: Untangling Landscape Narratives at the National Museum of Australia

Article excerpt

In 1975 the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections released their recommendations, which outlined new directions for Australian museums. Now known as the Pigott Report, after committee chairman Peter Pigott, the report proposed a progressive vision for a new national museum, challenging the historical framings evident in museums established in the nineteenth century. Tropes such as the separation of Indigenous Australian history from European history and the separation of nature from culture were criticised as outdated. The Pigott Report recommended the establishment of a Museum of Australia, which would not 'imitate or duplicate' the locus of older Australian museums but instead 'concentrate on three main themes or galleries: Aboriginal man in Australia; European man in Australia; and the Australian environment and its interactions with the two-named themes'. (1) These themes are evident in the National Museum of Australia's permanent exhibitions, for example in the inclusion of the Gallery of First Australians and the environmental history exhibit Tangled Destinies.

In 2003 an independent review of the National Museum of Australia was published, concluding that many of the exhibitions failed to develop a compelling narrative of the nation. Tangled Destinies was criticised for the absence of an explicit evolutionary narrative, and it was recommended that the Garden of Australian Dreams, the external courtyard exploring cultural constructions of landscape, be comprehensively redesigned. (2) Through an analysis of these two works, this article examines how the intent to explore relationships between people and environment proposed twenty-five years ago in the Pigott Report has been realised in practice in the National Museum of Australia, and why the exhibitionary approaches adopted in Tangled Destinies and the Garden of Australian Dreams provoked such a negative reaction from this latest review.

The Pigott Report

The Pigott Report was a catalyst for the reassessment of the role and construction of history in Australian museums. Reflective of then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's commitment to developing a 'new sense of cultural nationalism', the document highlighted the continual separation of Indigenous people from European history and a general lack of post-colonisation history in Australian museums. (3) In recommending the establishment of a national museum of history, the intent was not to duplicate or imitate the fields already represented in existing museums but instead to mend the intellectual rifts that 'tended to divorce Aboriginal man from European man and to divorce Europeans from Nature'. (4) Acknowledging that this schism owed much to nineteenth-century scientific interests, this national museum was to locus on 'the history of man [sic] and nature in this continent, their linked roles, and their interactions', expressed in the three overarching themes of 'Aboriginal man in Australia; European man in Australia; and the Australian environment'. (5)

This new museum would not duplicate the natural-history focus of older museums; instead, it would offer an interpretation of the natural environment that integrates people with their environment. (6) This represents a significant departure from the approaches of many Australian State museums, which tend to separate natural and human histories. This separation fails to acknowledge that European culture has been conditioned and influenced by the natural world. Instead, the Pigott Report stressed the importance of the juxtaposition of knowledge to challenge 'the old system of dividing knowledge into the familiar compartments of the school syllabus, into history and anthropology and zoology'. (7) The report prescribed new, interdisciplinary approaches and encouraged consideration of the interpretative role played by external spaces surrounding the museum.

After twenty-five years of extensive debate over the appropriate themes and site for the museum, many of the agendas put forward by the Pigott Report were incorporated into the National Museum of Australia (NMA). …