This paper explores the subject of how identity and difference are constructed in and by museums. Specifically, the policies and practices of museums regarding the international display of Australian art during the 1940s are investigated. Under examination is the Art of Australia 1788–1941 exhibition, which toured the USA and Canada during 1941–42. Scrutiny of the exhibition uncovers the role it played in alliance building and the promotion of a range of cultural and political agendas. For the analysis of empirical data, a theoretical model developed by the presenter (derived from the writings of Tony Bennett) allows the investigation of power/knowledge relationships implicit in the displaying of cultural artefacts. In particular, the concepts of culture and contact zones as outlined by the anthropologist James Clifford, confirm that institutional agencies such as museums become a ‘dominant force’ embodying a system of individual agencies which affect the practices, meanings and values that constitute territories and contact zones. These zones or territories are characterized by uneven relations where cultural exchange and the intentionality of the colonized cannot be recognized.
The Art of Australia exhibition is a paradigmatic case of the instrumental, cultural application of exhibitions in the interest of the state. The deployment of a theoretical framework reveals the existence of diverse agendas and power/knowledge relationships between governments, corporations and the exhibition. This paper seeks to examine cultural identity in light of museum practices that displayed and reinterpreted cultural objects through patterns of difference and exclusion.
Lecturer in Art Education, School of Art History and Art Education, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
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