The Authorised Heritage Discourse

ImageThe Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, Longreach – photo by Michael Rogers

I read an article yesterday written by one of my lecturers, Prof. Laurajane Smith, who’s done some work on visitor responses to the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame. I am yet to visit this institution, but definitely plan to include it in my research.

You can get a pretty clear idea of what the Stockman’s Hall of Fame is all about on their website. The home page has a banner image featuring changing captions, including ‘Just as nature has shaped their land / So too has it shaped their character’ and, ‘Matched only by the beauty of the land they discovered, / Was the courage it took to discover’. The text is intercut with images of windmills at sunset and close-ups of the brooding, larger-than-life statue of the eponymous Stockman that stands outside the building. It’s all very much designed to tap into everything you’ve ever heard about the great Australian ‘outback’*.

Smith has written previously about what she’s termed the Authorised Heritage Discourse, or AHD. The AHD is designed to reinforce approved ideas of national identity; Smith argues that ‘heritage is not the place that heritage agencies protect or the objects that museums curate, but rather a process framed by particular discourses, which engages in negotiations over the meaning and values of the past in terms of present day needs and aspirations.’ [1] In other words, it’s not about the actual past, it’s about constructing ideas of the past that serve present agendas. This can be witnessed in reverse in the practice of terming certain things ‘un-Australian’. If it’s been labelled un-Australian (and most things that attract this label involve criticism of our supposed time-honoured traditions), you can bet that there’s a political reason for having done so. As academic Catriona Elder points out, ‘nationalism and the idea of a single national identity encourages citizens to conform to particular ways of doing or seeing things. This is why an easy way to discredit [opposing opinions] is to call them ‘Un-Australian’.’ [2] So, in short, the Authorised Heritage Discourse could be seen as the antithesis of things ‘un-Australian’.

The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, however, fits safely within the Authorised Heritage Discourse, supporting popular notions of what it means to be Australian via heritage interpretation. In 2003 the Galleries were redeveloped to take a more inclusive stance and to incorporate the roles of women and Aboriginal people. However, one of the most interesting things Smith found in interviewing visitors to the Hall of Fame was that, despite these inclusions, the presence of these alternative histories did not register with most visitors. 

One visitor stated, ‘I mean you’re walking around here but you’re not taking away the message that Aboriginal stockmen were involved, but I’m sort of thinking where were they, or not even thinking about them at all ‘cos there’s nothing really to cause me to think about them.’[3] This is in spite of what Smith has identified as the clearly articulated inclusion of Aboriginal histories, across all the Galleries.  A similar absence of women’s history was also noted by visitors. [4]

What this seems to indicate is that the Authorised Heritage Discourse is larger than individual attempts to define or interpret it. Smith feels that visitors came to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame already holding particular cultural beliefs, which were reinforced by their visit, despite conscious attempts by the institution itself to challenge such beliefs. She concludes, ‘messages and meanings taken from heritage and museums cannot always be controlled by the intentions of curatorial or interpretive staff, … [which] suggests such places may play more complex and uncertain roles as agents of cultural production.’ [5]

This finding has broader implications for my PhD research (not to mention my career as a museum curator!), demonstrating that the overarching influence of cultural mythologies are such that they cannot easily be de-centred by interventions of accuracy or truth (the William-Webb Ellis rugby union foundation myth is a good example) [6]. Catriona Elder argues that ‘the longevity or centrality of particular national stories does not reflect the truth of these stories or their accuracy; rather, it reflects the power of the story. … Over time, the dominant story or representational codes become naturalised’.[7] The notion of Australia as an outback nation has certainly become naturalised in this country, as has the dominance of the Anglo-masculine ideal of the Stockman. And it seems that it will take a lot to destabilise this particular mythology.

 

* To me, the very idea of an ‘outback’ (much like the idea of ‘the bush’) is a bit too amorphous. I want to know, ‘Which outback?’ Is it the red desert? Is it the limestone plains of the Nularbor? Is it sand-dune country? What about the tropical but equally inhospitable terrain of northern Australia? Australia has any number of ecosystems that might fit the description of the ‘outback’. However, it seems that the outback as portrayed at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame has been loosely interpreted by visitors as, anything west of the Great Dividing Range.[8]

 

REFERENCES:

[1] Laurajane Smith, ‘A pilgrimage of masculinity: the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre’, Australian Historical Studies vol. 43, no. 3, 2012

[2] Catriona Elder, Being Australian: narratives of national identity, Allen & Unwin, Crows nest, 2007, p. 27

[3] Laurajane Smith, ‘A pilgrimage of masculinity: the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre’, Australian Historical Studies vol. 43, no. 3, 2012, p.479

[4] ibid, p. 480

[5] ibid, p.482

[6] See Jed Smith, ‘Discredited class-war fable or priceless promotional asset? The duality of rugby union’s William Webb Ellis foundation myth’, in Jeff Hill, Kevin Moore, Jason Wood (eds), Sport, History, and Heritage: studies in public representation, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2012

[7] Catriona Elder, Being Australian: narratives of national identity, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2007, pp.25-26

[8] Laurajane Smith, ‘A pilgrimage of masculinity: the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre’, Australian Historical Studies vol. 43, no. 3, 2012 p.478, see especially footnote 16

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3 thoughts on “The Authorised Heritage Discourse

  1. Pingback: Phar Lap and the other Lindsay | horsesfordiscourses

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