The In Visible Ink Symposium was hosted across the 21st and 22nd February 2019 at the WA Maritime Museum – a key milestone for the emerging Museum of Freedom and Tolerance Western Australia. The museum aspires to be a leading human rights museum, stating on its website that it is ‘founded to promote a society where everyone can live peacefully with each other, free from racial and religious prejudice and discrimination.’ The symposium represented an important moment in the museum’s In Visible Ink project, which works to foreground the stories of those marginalised by race and religion, bringing them out of the shadows to inspire meaningful social change. In Visible Ink brought together local and international activists, academics, museum directors and artists to explore the potential of Australia’s first human rights museum, as well as to consider the controversy and challenges facing such an undertaking. Across two days, the speakers and performers reflected on the different ways human rights can be promoted through shared understandings of our mutual humanity, focusing on storytelling, creative expression and the building of intimacy between people.
Shaheen Hughes, CEO of the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance, asserted her confidence in the ability of civic institutions such as museums to ‘create safe cultural spaces for people to negotiate some of the more difficult conversations facing society today.’ Yet, it remains imperative to reflect on museums and their historic role in perpetrating structures of imperialism and oppression. Stories were shared during the symposium of the ongoing struggle for the repatriation of sacred and culturally significant objects from overseas museum collections. One such story was shared by activist and poet Robert Eggington, who spoke of an instance where the skulls of Aboriginal warriors were finally returned to Australia, only to reveal burn marks from where they had been used to stub out cigarettes in the homes of European aristocrats. Emerging from these stories is the question of how to contend with the tense manoeuvre of turning around a site historically wrapped up in practices of colonial violence and cultural appropriation, while using it as a space for the promotion of human rights and the empowerment of marginalised communities. ‘How does a white institution become a place for the dispossessed?’ asks Dr Alec Coles, CEO of the WA Museum. ‘How does such an institution seek to build trust?’ As a museum founded in Western Australia, there must be particular recognition given to the ongoing history of violence and prejudice against Australia’s First Peoples – a wound which has not been cleansed, and which requires any institutional undertaking to not only look towards the past, but to critically examine its own role in the present and future.
Embedded in the name ‘In Visible Ink’ is one of the symposium’s main conceits – the double play between visibility and invisibility, the making seen of what has not been seen before. The In Visible Ink project strives to give space to the experiences of people and communities excluded by the dominant narratives of history and politics, and to shine a spotlight on their stories of resilience, trauma, hope and everyday experience. But a key theme emerging from the symposium was the notion of oversaturation – in an age where the widespread dissemination of news takes place at unprecedented speeds, and every day we are bombarded with information that competes for our attention and energy, what have we not seen before? In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag questions the usefulness of witnessing images of war and atrocity committed against others, asking, ‘are we the better for seeing these images? Do they actually teach us anything?’ A presentation given by human rights lawyer and academic Dr Hannah McGlade confronted the room with stories and images of Indigenous people and refugees entangled in systems of horrific violence and injustice. Afterward, the energy in the room tangibly shifted. In this moment, many spectators became visibly choked with emotion – despair, anger, weariness. It was the sombre experience of being confronted with palpable suffering, in which many of us perhaps felt complicit. But ‘compassion is an unstable emotion,’ warns Sontag. ‘It needs to be translated into action or it withers.’ Coming out of the In Visible Ink symposium, one is reminded that we live in a time and place where every day egregious human rights violations are committed against our most vulnerable communities, and largely the problem is not ignorance but apathy. The looming question, for ourselves and the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance, is how does all of this knowledge and emotion translate into action and productive social change? As one member of the symposium put it, ‘talking doesn’t cook the rice.’
Certainly The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance is an ambitious and heartfelt project in the making. It strains under the weight it carries – untold trauma and pain, injustice in the highest degree, and the stains of its own institutional history and complicity in practices of systemic discrimination. But the symposium was also fiercely driven by optimism and hope. It is a hope that the museum represents a space of community, education and meaningful action, held together by a sincere desire to connect humans to one another across time and space. ‘Can we change the world?’ is the question posed by the museum’s founder, Adam Levin. The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance surely offers a promising stepping stone along the way. Its mission is to share and hold the multiplicity of narratives forming ‘history’, accompanied by the words of John Berger: ‘Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.’ In the journey towards facing a history which is not always easy to bear, maybe Australia’s first human rights museum offers the beginning of a new story for the museum, as not only a site of pain, but perhaps also one of healing.
Right Now is proud to support The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance’s In Visible Ink project. The aim of In Visible Ink is to make visible the often invisible stories and lived experiences of Australia’s First Peoples, migrants and refugees in meaningful ways that create opportunities to increase empathy and diversity, to address prejudice, and for truth telling, healing and reconciliation.