Nations are like any individual; they tell stories, to themselves and to others. Like any book or documentary, these stories are produced, packaged and weighted with various agendas. With the help of Tourism ACT, I’ve just spent a few days in Canberra visiting a number of official state institutions – such the National Gallery and the War Memorial – investigating how our stories are told, by whom, and to what purpose. I’ve been looking into what agendas are served, what balance is maintained and what messages are being created. I’ve tried to approach each like it was a documentary of our nation, a fixed narrative that seeks to tell our story. How is our national identity presented?

This exercise is not meant to be a challenge to these institutions or to the national leaders who have established them. Nations have to document themselves in order to ensure their stakeholders are informed and engaged. And, in doing so, they are obliged to present and collate their narratives, and to somehow order them to allow them to be disseminated and broadcast through various media. In most cases this means that a nation is constructed on the stories it tells itself and often the biggest, most pervasive stories are told by those most invested in the state’s future; its very leaders. And there’s where the problems arise.

So, the intention is to look into ‘The How”, not so much “The Why”.

At their best, states tell stories they are most comfortable with. At their worst, they tell fibs. At their best government-run cultural institutions give the nation a foundation that allows their constituents to grow and develop, at worst they undermine them and stifle their advancement. At best they give. At worst, they take.

What you would hope for from such state-sponsored institutions of national memory or state character is that they will talk to reality, not myth; that they will be honest, not duplicitous; that the power structure that drives them and funds them doesn’t define them and; that they serve free thinking, not narrow minds.

Generally, this comes down to choice. Almost all major national cultural institutions have more material – artefacts, displays, exhibits – than they can use. The choices behind what gets used and what sits in a basement are as political, as they are aesthetic or financial. Each institution, through its leadership and staff, presents the picture they see fitting the national identity most effectively and interestingly. They are inevitably constrained not only by the policies and mindset of the governments that fund them – many are the result of a specific Act of Parliament upon which they are founded – but by the interests and agendas of those making those decisions.

As such, what stories they tell are the result of a creative tension between the desire to inform and inspire the nation state that cradles them and the more prosaic political necessities of a government, its funding priorities and, it’s employees.

In a pure world, the stories told by our national bodies would be designed to generate a better democracy; balanced, contextualised, forward-thinking and occasionally provocative. Few institutions I visited fulfill all these goals. Most dally with them while using the anesthetic of time and devising gaps in the story to act as spacers between the reality and the story.

The messages conveyed can be complex and reading them can be difficult. Unlike, say, a film doco or a non-fiction book, the meaning can be more complex and layered, the media more varied, the politics more squeezed and tortured. So, its hard to devise a definitive approach. Plus, I’m just a humble blogger – I don’t have the resources for that. So, I haven’t tried.

Nor is this series a contest. It’s just an attempt to look a little more closely at those big stories in our nation and to assess how fair dinkum they are, and at how useful they are.

Over the coming weeks, T2T will be featuring 6 leading cultural institutions in Canberra that represent an attempt to tell the national narrative against this critical backdrop. What are the stories being told?

If you stand on the steps of Canberra’s Old Parliament House – now the Museum of Australian Democracy –  and look outwards, you’ll gaze down the grassy boulevard to the War Memorial. It’s meant to encapsulate the majesty of the Australian national journey; war and freedom; the good fight for democracy. It’s a vista rife with state symbolism. However, unavoidably in your eye-line is a small, smoldering fire, an aboriginal flag and a few ramshackle tents and caravans: The Tent Embassy. It’s the perfect juxtaposition of the state’s attempts to tell the grand stories, and the people’s determination to have input into them. This series draws on such inspiring efforts and hopefully makes a contribution to the national tapestry which can only be a weave incorporating all those threads.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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