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Cultural Institutions

Melbourne's cultural institutions reflect the yearnings and myths of an antipodean city which has sought to see itself as a capital of the world and nation. Established as harbingers of civilisation and a bulwark against the mob, these institutions' century and a half of existence chart the ebb and flow of institutional power and knowledge in the city and state.

The Public Library (State Library of Victoria) was conceived initially as an encyclopedic institution of art, science and ethnography. This vision was thwarted by the separate foundation of the Natural History Museum under the German naturalist Blandowski and then by the long tenure of the implacable Frederick McCoy, who until his death in 1899 defended the right of the Museum to be housed at the University of Melbourne. Despite this, the Library remained the powerhouse of Melbourne's institutions, giving rise to the National Museum of Art established in 1864 and the Technological Museum founded in 1870, as well as housing intercolonial exhibitions from 1866 until the erection of the Royal Exhibition Building in 1880.

This sense of purpose arose from the vision and commitment of Redmond Barry, who used every opportunity to advance the Library as the premier cultural institution of the city. Not confined by the specialisation of knowledge, Barry positioned the library Janus-like looking back to the best of the past as well as with an eye to the present and future. His tours of Europe, and those of the librarian, Augustus Tulk, became odysseys in search of collections which would enrich the Library and broaden the colonial mind. Consequently Barry introduced the citizenry to works which in Europe were found in royal libraries, scientific institutions and grand metropolitan libraries, as well as creating a plaster cast museum of antiquity.

While this reaching out to the world might be interpreted as evidence of the global aspirations of Barry, it is tempting to see this grand instigator (who hailed from County Cork) drawing on his Irish provincial experience as an inspiration for his antipodean vision. If this is the case, then the Melbourne cultural institution, rather than speaking of world models, might re-create Irish experience in another province of Empire. The grand myth that Melbourne's Library was akin to South Kensington and Great Russell Street might be nothing more than a pretence.

Despite the aspiration of the provincial cultural institution, its ambitions were realised or curtailed by access to the networks and knowledge of London elites and to (a lesser extent) their European counterparts. In this regard it is instructive to examine the aspirations of Barry, McCoy and Ferdinand von Mueller, the Director of the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens. Barry was able to secure marvels for the Library such as Lepsius' Denmaler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien through personal entreaty with European governments or through the London bookseller Guillaume; McCoy gained the latest discoveries in natural history through London dealers such as John Gould; while the redoubtable Mueller was able to build an invaluable National Herbarium of Victoria through extensive correspondence with overseas savants and scientific institutions. Yet the city's status within Empire meant that it sent the Cranbourne meteorite overseas while the new knowledge and collecting among European art connoisseurs were not necessarily shared in Melbourne. In the latter regard it is instructive to compare the purchase by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, of examples of the Trecento and Quattrocento in the 1860s with the fledgling Melbourne Art Museum where the copies of old masters and contemporary works such as Australian painting were thought sufficient. It is open to question whether this was a consequence of resources or the acceptance of the copy as a means of educating public taste.

What is equally instructive is how different cultural institutions gained ascendancy over others. McCoy's anti-evolutionary stance consigned the Museum and Victorian colonial science to the backwater of the province, and the technological museum never inspired the drama of Cole's South Kensington. So even though Melbourne was the manufacturing capital of Australia, the Technological Museum was closed between 1901 and 1915. By contrast, the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Gallery School established in 1871, under the guidance of Trustees of the Library-cum-aesthetes James Smith and Sir George Verdon (who was a Trustee from 1872 to his death in 1896), became a powerful force within colonial culture.

If in the 19th century Melbourne's cultural institutions were given cultural coherence through Empire's global cultural and intellectual systems, this could not be sustained in the 20th century as Empire diminished. Upon McCoy's death in 1899, the Museum was transferred to the Library and Gallery site under its new honorary director, Baldwin Spencer, professor of biology at the University and fledgling explorer of what he termed 'Wild Australia'. Spencer reinvigorated the Natural History Museum, adding the ethnographical function previously housed in the Library and the collections he obtained on his explorations of Central Australia and Arnhem Land. In revitalising the institution as an expression of evolution he reconfigured the museum within intellectual systems of contemporary British thought. Spencer further reinvigorated the institution by means of the inevitable building project. With the ailing interest of the great director the institution lost its way in the 1920s. By 1925 the Museum had lost its intellectual edge as a research institute, being poorly staffed and equipped, and was in no condition to face the impecuniousness that would result from the great depression. Although the Baldwin Spencer exhibition gallery was opened in 1931, the Museum was only revitalised in 1937 by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This state of affairs in part reflects the ascendancy of the National Gallery of Victoria among the institutions housed on the Swanston-Russell streets sites. This bias was attributable in part to the 1904 Felton Bequest, which funded acquisitions for the Gallery and to a lesser extent the Library, and to the Melbourne elite's English provincial taste which favoured the antiquarian. Importantly, the Felton Bequest allowed the mythology of 19th-century Melbourne created by the Library to be given currency in the 20th: the city could still be defined by collections worthy of premier European cultural institutions. The Gallery's desire to obtain the old master was a reflection of a provincial city's need to be seen as important, even though the vociferous Melbourne critics of the London Felton advisers' acquisition policy exhibited a disquieting lack of understanding of metropolitan taste and modernity. In 1920s Melbourne, the artist as arbiter of taste was akin to the Emperor with no clothes. Yet in drawing on the myth of Melbourne's destiny to be a great metropolitan centre, these public arbiters gave the pretence of being anything but provincial. That the cultural institution was the stage where such artifice was played out is telling in the assignation of meaning given to the state institution in a country town of Empire where opportunity, patronage and sophistication were limited. The 1933 Markam and Richards Report on the Museums and Galleries of Australia, funded by the Carnegie Corporation, pointed out that a single large museum in London had five or six times the income of all Australia's museums and art galleries put together. Amid the threadbare impecuniousness of these provincial houses of culture, debate and passion were about the small canvas: the Felton acquisitions.

Lack of leadership also played its part in the atrophy of the Melbourne cultural institution. In 1936 Sir Sydney Cockerell, Felton adviser and former director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, opined upon visiting the National Gallery: 'It was a shocking place ... Quite half the Committee were totally ignorant - just people who were rich or important. The Director was a slave and never consulted about anything. I protested the Director must direct ... It would need the strength of Hitler to get anything done.' In Melbourne, gentility tempered the get up and go and the acquisitiveness of the plutocracy, which in America built great art collections by taking advice from the great European picture dealer Joseph Duveen (later Lord Millbank). Yet as the London Felton advisers of the interwar period were to find, the name Duveen meant nothing to the rich and important of Melbourne.

Perhaps the person who stands above this small-mindedness was Sir Keith Murdoch, press baron and inaugural chairman of the National Gallery Trustees from 1945 until his death in 1952. He not only championed the moderns but in 1945 endowed a chair of Fine Arts at the University of Melbourne. In a stroke Murdoch created an intellectual framework in which the Gallery could function and sustain its audience and mission. In a similar manner the Library, which had exhibited its historical collections during the Victorian Centenary celebrations, was able to draw upon the University of Melbourne History School's intellectual framework and the groundswell of interest in Australian history to found the La Trobe Library to coincide with the 1956 Olympic Games. The Gallery matched this tangible interest in things Australian when in 1962 it employed Brian Finemore as its first full-time curator of Australian art.

Postwar Melbourne planned new buildings for new sites. The Melbourne Observatory site in the Kings Domain was earmarked for the new Museum, while the present St Kilda Road site was reserved for the Art Gallery. The Gallery relocated from the Swanston Street site when the present building, designed by Roy Grounds, opened in 1968. Despite this apotheosis, past representations of the Gallery as a place of taste and tradition continued, so in 1973 Finemore questioned the Gallery's purpose, suggesting that 'to exhibit the serious, questioning work of our contemporaries may be more useful to the artist and the community', and posing the simple but provocative questions: 'New Art? New Aesthetic? New Artist? New Museum?' During the social and cultural ferment of the 1960s and 1970s there was a hope that the Gallery would embrace contemporary art practice. It was to be an unrealised aspiration, and the 1980s were to see the establishment of contemporary art spaces outside the aegis of the Gallery.

At least the Gallery was engaged in contemporary debate; physically and metaphorically the Museum and Library were a Miss Haversham's wedding cake: repositories of broken promises and vanished expectation. Indeed, in the 1980s the Museum with its empty exhibition halls became a parody of what a Museum is, while the Library's physical decay was palpable. As in the past, the new building was seen as the panacea for this atrophy. New plans and competitions were set in train while nobody appeared to ask the more fundamental question as to how we had got into such circumstances in the first place. In the antipodes, building rather than critical thought was the more propitious. So too was heritage-cum-nostalgia, which was instrumental in the preservation of that colonial simulacrum of the British Library - the domed reading room of the Library opened in 1913.

While the Australian Labor Party committed itself to building a new museum at Southbank, this was overturned by the incoming Liberal Government which in the 1990s was to oversee the renaissance of the cultural institution by building a new museum in the Carlton Gardens, an Australian Art Gallery on Federation Square and revamping the St Kilda Road site, while the Library was to be completely refurbished on its existing site. The then premier, Jeff Kennett, compared his ambitions for these cultural monuments to those of the 19th-century colossus Redmond Barry. In Melbourne even the conservative radical cannot escape the myths engendered by the city's cultural institutions. However, Kennett's late 20th-century celebration of 'the visionary in Barry' should be tempered by the understanding that in the postmodern city of spectacle an increasingly important role is assigned to revitalised cultural institutions. If governments understood their role in financing futures, then the last word would go to the Botanic Gardens Annex at Cranbourne when in 1998 an innovative landscape design was matched by the forward-looking establishment of the Australian Research Centre of urban ecology. Government, however, appears not to have understood. In 2004 cultural institutions braced themselves for cuts to recurrent funding. Has the vision of the Melbourne public institution again fallen on hard times?

Paul Fox