Thursday, December 27, 2018

What did the Berndts have to hide?

So asked Jan Mayman in a story on 16 December 2018 about the 30-year posthumous embargo placed in 1993 by the will of Catherine Berndt (8 May 1918 – 8 May 1994), on the unpublished writings of herself and her husband, and fellow anthropologist Ronald Berndt (1916-1990).  

Mayman’s article is sceptical overall, and bluntly dismisses one possible explanation of why the Berndts wanted to hide posthumously for 30 years, that it was only to avoid future criticism of their research.  However, Mayman takes at face value the proffered alternative explanation by their literary executor and UWA Adjunct Professor John Stanton (1950 –) that the 30-year embargo was because of the Berndts’ “deep and abiding distrust of government of all political colours”, as “innately hostile” to the interests of Aborigines.

That may be so – certainly Mayman, apparently channelling Stanton, cites in support of this distrust the 1980 (red-herring) Noonkanbah dispute (a time when the Berndts were still in their prime, and lobbied against the WA government of the day) and the post-Mabo failure-by-a-thousand-cuts of legislated native title (a fiasco which, coincidentally, started to play-out just before Catherine Berndt’s death).  That the Berndts therefore chose 2024 as a date by when governments would have got their act together on this front seems implausible, however – certainly in 2018.  Even during, if late in, her lifetime, Catherine Berndt surely would have drunk, with the rest of us, the Paul Keating Kultural Kool-Aid – the potency of which peaked when the then PM made his celebrated Redfern Park speech on 10 December 1992 – and then, before she died, surmised that either:

(a)    the Keating Summer would reach new heights as GenX took over the reins from the mid-1990s, in which case the 30-year embargo would seem small-minded and unnecessary, or     

(b)   the Keating Summer would crash and burn soon enough, in which case a 30-year embargo was an estimation of the length of the consequent Great Leap Backward, aka the Menzies-and-baby-boomer cultural overhang (which started, of course, on 2 March 1996, almost exactly 30 years after Menzies left office).

As to the first hypothesis, needless to say, it didn’t happen.  But of more note, and whether or not Catherine Berndt foresaw this eventuality, it would be patently unfair to label Catherine Berndt (or her husband) as small-minded – which is a topic I shall return to shortly.

As to the second hypothesis, with five-and-a-bit years still on the clock before 2024, I hope that Catherine Berndt’s implicit optimism that the Great Leap Backward would have finished its run within 30 years may yet be proved correct – but this is also a topic I shall return to shortly

In any event, Mayman’s main point is that five-and-a-bit years are a probably too long a wait for at least one man, 81 y.o. Vince Copley.   

The Ngadjuri elder’s moral right for the 30-year embargo to be waived, so allowing him to access in his lifetime Berndt notebook material relating to his late grandfather Barney Waria (1873-1948) could hardly be more compelling.  That there is arguably a corresponding legal right also is put here (penultimate URL), although not by Mayman, as is the fact that the embargo has been waived on two previous occasions, by court order.  

Mayman aside, the real reason, I think, that UWA and its Berndt Museum/archive are being so intransigent in this case is that the label “Pandora’s Box” probably understates the toxicity of the contents.  As noted, the Berndts, in their day, were nothing if not broad-minded.  One axis of this was the probably unparalleled geographic and socio-economic diversity of their field-work, including New Guinea and a pan-Australia cocktail of downtown Adelaide, Vestey cattle-stations in north-western Australia and Arnhem Land (amongst other places).  

While apart from a brief sojourn at Hermannsburg in 1944, they bypassed Central Australia in their Indigenous field-work, the Berndts nonetheless absorbed, probably mainly via TGHS Strehlow, some of its most sacred aspects.  From work published by the Berndts in their lifetimes, it seems plain that they had little or no appreciation of the ethics of dealing with restricted/secret material, from Central Australia (the area that I am mostly familiar with) and before the 1980s, at least.  Prior to the 1980s, the word “sacred” was used by them as a seeming titillation.  While the Berndts’ offence here is hardly unique, they deserve particular ignominy because their 30-year embargo compares so strikingly with the clear (if unwritten) embargoes they knew, or should have known, they were breaking regarding textual and photographic depiction of restricted/secret material from Central Australia.       

By 1982, and with John Stanton now on-board, the Berndts were notably more circumspect regarding Central Australian material – the reproductions from there in the trio’s book “Australian Aboriginal Art – a Visual Perspective” are confined to some semi-attributed crayon drawings collected at Hermannsburg in 1944 and three Papunya dot-paintings from 1976, 1977 and 1978, two of which were bought from an art-gallery in Perth.   

The copyright declaration over that book’s reproduced visual material is a fudge, however.  In lieu of seeking permission and paying royalties to the artists, on page 6 there is a “dedicat[ion]” to the artists in tandem with an assurance that their foregone royalties will accrue to a fund used to purchase further works by Aboriginal artists for the Berndt Museum (then titled the UWA Anthropological Research Museum).  Seven years later, Stanton used a similar formulation (just without the dedication bit) in his Kimberley-specific book “Painting the Country” (1989).  In fairness to the trio here, it was not until the early 1990s – that Keating Summer, again – that copyright generally began to be attributed to Aboriginal artists by the tomes reproducing their work.  Prior to this the siphoning of royalties was whitewashed in a number of creative ways.  Apart from the Berndt/Stanton dedication-and-worthy-whitefella-fund model – which CP Mountford had pioneered with his “The Art of Albert Namatjira” in 1944 – there was the popular copyright nullius approach, in which copyright was only asserted in the text (which was by non-Aboriginal author/s), such as in Jennifer Isaacs, “Australian Aboriginal Paintings” (1989).     

Lastly, and back to the Berndt Museum/archive’s toxic contents and the Berndts avuncular broad-mindedness (except when it came to keeping the secrets of, and paying royalties to, Aboriginal Australians) is a second-axis; as well as their geographical promiscuity, the childless couple were promiscuous in the ordinary sense.  In their New Guinea field-work (most probably in 1951-1953), they dropped their anthropological gaze – and pants – when researching sexual behaviour, and joined in the festivities.  Further, this appears to be an open secret in anthropological circles (to which I’m not privy).  My source for these twin facts is Peter Ryan “Final Proof” (2010) p 91, which, while not naming the Berndts, leaves them hanging rather awkwardly as (AFAICT) the only possible pairing of eligible Australian anthropologists (Ryan also doesn't name the anthropologist-author whose book, with its salacious detail about the Berndts, he declined to publish).

So the real reason behind Catherine Berndt’s embargo probably had nothing to do with the Keating Summer (and its denouement of many a stillborn career among my generation).  Rather, it relates to the Menzies-and-baby-boomer Dreamtime Mark 1 (1949-1966) – before it was the long overhang of recent decades, and when John Stanton was just a wee lad.  Sex in the early 1950s was a general embarrassment at best, and so Catherine Berndt presumably thought, when making her will in 1993, that what the Berndts did in New Guinea back then had to be suppressed until a time when settler Australia hopefully had the maturity to handle the anthropological gaze being inverted, or zoomed-in on our own (white) backsides.

And, strangely enough, 2024 seems to be about on-track for this cultural turning point, from snicker to sober.  Which is not to say that, in the meantime, Vince Copley should have to wait a moment longer for access to the Berndt Museum/archive – his “royalties” are already and embarrassingly overdue.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Ramsay Centre announces – finally – it has secured a mistress . . .

. . . and the next step, in due course, will be a blushing bride from within the G8.

Yes, that’s the bottom-line from today’s announcement.  The non-sandstone University of Wollongong is – of course – happy to take the cash for breaking the drought, and keep schtum.  Meanwhile the Ramsay Centre, well aware that if, shock horror, it was seen to be marrying beneath itself, people would talk, emphasises that this is only a preliminary, and definitely not a monogamous, arrangement.

The secrecy in the lead-up to the deal being inked is all class, too – a charming early window into the behavioural expectations upon the mistress from now on.  If UoW wants academic freedom, then first and foremost, it needs to behave!

I would like to think that if the estate of some dead billionaire came knocking at the doors of the main state galleries, offering buckets of cash for them to administer an art prize with one stipulation – it had to be a traditional Australian landscape of gum trees and livestock – the said main galleries would laugh off the approach as “Nice try, but we’re not:  (i) your April Fool, or (ii) that desperate".

It will be interesting to see who will be the academics who staff this joke.  But even more interesting, I think, will be who the scholarship students are – and will be, in a few years’ time.  If I was a bright young thing looking to start uni in 2020, I’d play along, firstly to land the scholarship and then, and most importantly, to get a comprehensive inside story of the course over the next year or more.  Then voila, when the time was right, I’d have one of the juiciest (and, in the present climate, best paid!) stories of investigative journalism in Australian history, all ready to roll.  

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