What good is a new national cultural policy without history?

Along with many other things that are being revised, redesigned or revamped by the Albanian government, Australia is going to have a new cultural policy. The consultation involved public meetings and a call for submissions. Arts Minister Tony Burke set up five review panels to review the comments.

First Nations artists and culture are central to Burke’s invitation. The focus on the artist not just as a creator but as a worker responds to the devastating impact of the pandemic on the already precarious circumstances in which artists and writers often live and work.

The other pillars of this evolving cultural policy highlight the diversity of stories and artists, the construction of audiences and the strengthening of cultural institutions.

The review boards are full of respected and innovative creators and producers, with decades of collective experience.

But their coverage of the sector is uneven. As historians, we are interested in history, publishers and the “GLAM” sector – galleries, libraries, archives and museums.

Although there are representatives from galleries and collecting institutions on the panels, there is not a single historian, publisher or archivist whose comments will help shape Australia’s cultural policy.

Given the importance of history in defining our sense of national identity and the role that publishers, libraries, archives and museums play in preserving, collecting and presenting histories and narratives Australians, the absence of these areas from national cultural policy panels is a disappointing oversight.

A sense of belonging

History and historians play a crucial role in Australian culture. They are fundamental to other areas of the arts, with historical research often underpinning film, theatre, literature and even, on occasion, dance.

A government serious about implementing a cultural policy for the future must make room for history and historians in the formulation of this policy.

History is both a scholarly activity and a widely shared hobby. Millions of Australians visit museums, archives, libraries and galleries each year, in person and online.

Family history has become more than a popular pastime. It is integral to people’s sense of identity and belonging, with First Nations and migrant communities becoming increasingly active.

Australians are involved in the history and heritage of their communities. These activities are integral to the identities of people and places, especially regional places. They keep people active and connected to each other.

Community history and heritage must be at the heart of a democratic and inclusive cultural policy.

Read more: When it comes to heritage, family history takes precedence over museums

The place of history

Historians feature in our media as expert commentators. They intervene in festivals of writers and in documentaries.

They publish stories and biographies that attract readers outside the circle of their colleagues and students. Some do podcasts and television programs.

Historians provide policy advice to the government. They judge the literary prizes and contribute to the development of the school curriculum. Historians work with community groups, including Aboriginal communities in Aboriginal title cases, and provide advice on cultural heritage.

The Prime Minister’s Literary Awards include a prize dedicated to Australian history. History is one of the five compulsory subjects in the national curriculum. Days of national remembrance, from Sorry Day to Anzac Day, mark significant events in Australia’s collective national memory.

Collecting institutions, such as the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, are a priceless asset to the nation.

State and Commonwealth governments fund institutions that collect and preserve Australian history. At the federal level, the national cultural institutions carry out this work. Along with the public broadcasters ABC and SBS, they represent an invaluable asset to the nation.

Writing and learning Australian history would be impossible without them, and we would be a different – and lesser – people without such places.

Institutions in difficulty

Governments on both political sides have subjected these institutions to humiliating budget cuts. In the late 1980s, workers first created “efficiency dividends” to reduce spending on our national cultural institutions.

This initiative meant that each year they received less funding, which a 2019 parliamentary business committee said had a “significant and cumulative effect”.

The situation worsened in 2015-2016, when the Turnbull government disastrously imposed an additional 3% “efficiency target” on these cultural institutions.

Such funding cuts no longer generate “efficiencies”. They diminish the quality of the user experience. National Archives researchers report long delays — sometimes years — in accessing records that, under the law of the land, are supposed to be made available within 90 working days.

Our national cultural institutions no longer have sufficient funds to preserve the collections they maintain on our behalf.

The Archives only received an urgent injection of funds to preserve unique audiovisual records after a public campaign in 2021.

In June, it was reported that the maintenance backlog at the National Gallery of Australia was estimated at A$67 million. The ABC recently announced plans to cut specialist archives and librarians.

A work by James Turrell at the gallery.
The National Gallery of Australia’s maintenance book is estimated at A$67 million.

Funding cuts have come with the leaching of historical expertise from commissions and councils established to advise national cultural institutions.

In the past, many distinguished historians have served on these bodies. Today, they are more likely to be defined by political appointments.

As Tony Burke recently commented:

I don’t see how you have a national museum with a board that doesn’t include a single historian.

We neither. We further call for a stronger presence of history in cultural policy in general – and now for the presence of historians in the construction of a new policy document.

History is the very kind of creative and democratic practice that must be at the heart of any reimagining of Australia in a time of anxiety and promise.

Read more: Our history in flames? Why the crisis at the National Archives needs to be addressed urgently