Curating a Nation’s Past: The Role of the Public Intellectual in Australia’s History Wars




public intellectual, history wars, curator

How to Cite

Fordham, H. (2015). Curating a Nation’s Past: The Role of the Public Intellectual in Australia’s History Wars. M/C Journal, 18(4).
Vol. 18 No. 4 (2015): curate
Published 2015-08-07


The role, function, and future of the Western public intellectual have been highly contested over the last three decades. The dominant discourse, which predicts the decline of the public intellectual, asserts the institutionalisation of their labour has eroded their authority to speak publicly to power on behalf of others; and that the commodification of intellectual performance has transformed them from sages, philosophers, and men of letters into trivial media entertainers, pundits, and ideologues. 

Overwhelmingly the crisis debates link the demise of the public intellectual to shifts in public culture, which was initially conceptualised as a literary and artistic space designed to liberate the awareness of citizens through critique and to reflect upon “the chronic and persistent issues of life, meaning and representation” (McGuigan 430).

This early imagining of public culture as an exclusively civilising space, however, did not last and Jurgen Habermas documented its decline in response to the commodification and politicisation of culture in the 20th century. Yet, as social activism continued to flourish in the public sphere, Habermas re-theorised public culture as a more pluralistic site which simultaneously accommodates “uncritical populism, radical subversion and critical intervention” (436) and operates as both a marketplace and a “site of communicative rationality, mutual respect and understanding (McGuigan 434).    

The rise of creative industries expanded popular engagement with public culture but destabilised the authority of the public intellectual. The accompanying shifts also affected the function of the curator, who, like the intellectual, had a role in legislating and arbitrating knowledge, and negotiating and authorising meaning through curated exhibitions of objects deemed sacred and significant.  Jennifer Barrett noted the similarities in the two functions when she argued in Museums and the Public Sphere that, because museums have an intellectual role in society, curators have a public intellectual function as they define publics, determine modes of engagement, and shape knowledge formation (150).

The resemblance between the idealised role of the intellectual and the curator in enabling the critique that emancipates the citizen means that both functions have been affected by the atomisation of contemporary society, which has exposed the power effects of the imposed coherency of authoritative and universal narratives. Indeed, just as Russell Jacoby, Allan Bloom, and Richard Posner predicted the death of the intellectual, who could no longer claim to speak in universal terms on behalf of others, so museums faced their own crisis of relevancy.

Declining visitor numbers and reduced funding saw museums reinvent themselves, and in moving away from their traditional exclusive, authoritative, and nation building roles—which Pierre Bourdieu argued reproduced the “existing class-based culture, education and social systems” (Barrett 3)—museums transformed themselves into inclusive and diverse sites of co-creation with audiences and communities. In the context of this change the curator ceased to be the “primary producer of knowledge” (Barrett 13) and emerged to reproduce “contemporary culture preoccupations” and constitute the “social imagery” of communities (119).

The modern museum remains concerned with explaining and interrogating the world, but the shift in curatorial work is away from the objects themselves to a focus upon audiences and how they value the artefacts, knowledge, and experiences of collective shared memory.  The change in curatorial practices was driven by what Peter Vergo called a new “museology” (Barrett 2), and according to Macdonald this term assumes that “object meanings are contextual rather than inherent” or absolute and universal (2).  

Public intellectuals and curators, as the custodians of ideas and narratives in the contemporary cultural industries, privilege audience reception and recognise that consumers and/or citizens engage with public culture for a variety of reasons, including critique, understanding, and entertainment.

Curators, like public intellectuals, also recognise that they can no longer assume the knowledge and experience of their audience, nor prescribe the nature of engagement with ideas and objects. Instead, curators and intellectuals emerge as negotiators and translators of cultural meaning as they traverse the divides in public culture, sequestering ideas and cultural artefacts and constructing narratives that engage audiences and communities in the process of re-imagining the past as a way of providing new insights into contemporary challenges.


In exploring the idea that the public intellectual acts as a curator of ideas as he or she defines and privileges the discursive spaces of public culture, this paper begins by providing an overview of the cultural context of the contemporary public intellectual which enables comparisons between intellectual and curatorial functions.  Second, this paper analyses a random sample of the content of books, newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, and transcripts of interviews drawn from The Australian, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Sydney Institute, the ABC, The Monthly, and Quadrant published or broadcast between 1996 and 2007, in order to identify the key themes of the History Wars.  

It should be noted that the History War debates were extensive, persistent, and complex—and as they unfolded over a 13-year period they emerged as the “most powerful” and “most disputed form of public intellectual work” (Carter, Ideas 9). Many issues were aggregated under the trope of the History Wars, and these topics were subject to both popular commentary and academic investigation.

Furthermore, the History Wars discourse was produced in a range of mediums including popular media sources, newspaper and magazine columns, broadcasts, blogs, lectures, and writers’ forums and publications.  Given the extent of this discourse, the sample of articles which provides the basis for this analysis does not seek to comprehensively survey the literature on the History Wars. Rather this paper draws upon Foucault’s genealogical qualitative method, which exposes the subordinated discontinuities in texts, to 1) consider the political context of the History War trope; and 2) identify how intellectuals discursively exhibited versions of the nation’s identity and in the process made visible the power effects of the past.

Public Intellectuals

The underlying fear of the debates about the public intellectual crisis was that the public intellectual would no longer be able to act as the conscience of a nation, speak truth to power, or foster the independent and dissenting public debate that guides and informs individual human agency—a goal that has lain at the heart of the Western intellectual’s endeavours since Kant’s Sapere aude

The late 20th century crisis discourse, however, primarily mourned the decline of a particular form of public authority attached to the heroic universal intellectual formation made popular by Emile Zola at the end of the 19th century, and which claimed the power to hold the political elites of France accountable.

Yet talk of an intellectual crisis also became progressively associated with a variety of general concerns about globalising society. Some of these concerns included fears that structural shifts in the public domain would lead to the impoverishment of the cultural domain, the end of Western civilisation, the decline of the progressive political left, and the end of universal values. It was also expected that the decline in intellectuals would also enable the rise of populism, political conservatism, and anti-intellectualism (Jacoby Bloom; Bauman; Rorty; Posner; Furedi; Marquand).

As a result of these fears, the function of the intellectual who engages publicly was re-theorised. Zygmunt Bauman suggested the intellectual was no longer the legislator or arbiter of taste but the negotiator and translator of ideas; Michel Foucault argued that the intellectual could be institutionally situated and still speak truth to power; and Edward Said insisted the public intellectual had a role in opening up possibilities to resolve conflict by re-imagining the past.  

In contrast, the Australian public intellectual has never been declared in crisis or dead, and this is probably because the nation does not have the same legacy of the heroic public intellectual. Indeed, as a former British colony labelled the “working man’s paradise” (White 4), Australia’s intellectual work was produced in “institutionalised networks” (Head 5) like universities and knowledge disciplines, political parties, magazines, and unions. Within these networks there was a double division of labour, between the abstraction of knowledge and its compartmentalisation, and between the practical application of knowledge and its popularisation.

As a result of this legacy, a more organic, specific, and institutionalised form of intellectualism emerged, which, according to Head, limited intellectual influence and visibility across other networks and domains of knowledge and historically impeded general intellectual engagement with the public.  

Fears about the health and authority of the public intellectual in Australia have therefore tended to be produced as a part of Antonio Gramsci’s ideological “wars of position” (Mouffe 5), which are an endless struggle between cultural and political elites for control of the institutions of social reproduction. These struggles began in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s over language and political correctness, and they reappeared in the 1990s as the History Wars.

History Wars

“The History Wars” was a term applied to an ideological battle between two visions of the Australian nation. The first vision was circulated by Australian Labor Party Prime Minister Paul Keating, who saw race relations as central to 21st century global Australia and began the process of dealing with the complex and divisive Indigenous issues at home. He established the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 1991; acknowledged in the 1992 Redfern speech that white settlers were responsible for the problems in Indigenous communities; and commissioned the Bringing Them Home report, which was completed in 1997 and concluded that the mandated removal of Indigenous children from their families and communities throughout the 20th century had violated their human rights and caused long-term and systemic damage to Indigenous communities.

The second vision of Australia was circulated by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, who, after he came to power in 1996, began his own culture war to reconstruct a more conservative vision of the nation. Howard believed that the stories of Indigenous dispossession undermined confidence in the nation, and he sought to produce a historical view of the past grounded in “Judeo-Christian ethics, the progressive spirit of the enlightenment and the institutions and values of British culture” (“Sense of Balance”). Howard called for a return to a narrative form that valorised Australia’s achievements, and he sought to instil a more homogenised view of the past and a coherent national identity by reviewing high school history programs, national museum appointments, and citizenship tests.    

These two political positions framed the subsequent intellectual struggles over the past. While a number of issues were implicated in the battle, generally, left commentators used the History Wars as a way to circulate certain ideas about morality and identity, including 1) Australians needed to make amends for past injustices to Indigenous Australians and 2) the nation’s global identity was linked to how they dealt with Australia’s first people. In contrast, the political right argued 1) the left had misrepresented and overstated the damage done to Indigenous communities and rewritten history; 2) stories about Indigenous abuse were fragmenting the nation’s identity at a time when the nation needed to build a coherent global presence; and 3) no apology was necessary, because contemporary Australians did not feel responsible for past injustices. 


The war between these two visions of Australia was fought in “extra-curricular sites,” according to Stuart Macintyre, and this included newspaper columns, writers’ festivals, broadcast interviews, intellectual magazines like The Monthly and Quadrant, books, and think tank lectures. Academics and intellectuals were the primary protagonists, and they disputed the extent of colonial genocide; the legitimacy of Indigenous land rights; the impact of the Stolen Generation on the lives of modern Indigenous citizens; and the necessity of a formal apology as a part of the reconciliation process. The conflicts also ignited debates about the nature of history, the quality of public debates in Australia, and exposed the tensions between academics, public intellectuals, newspaper commentators and political elites.  

Much of the controversy played out in the national forums can be linked to the Bringing Them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families report Stolen Generation inquiry and report, which was commissioned by Keating but released after Howard came to office. Australian public intellectual and professor of politics Robert Manne critiqued the right’s response to the report in his 2001 Quarterly Essay titled “In Denial: The Stolen Generation and The Right”.

He argued that there was a right-wing campaign in Australia that sought to diminish and undermine justice for Aboriginal people by discounting the results of the inquiry, underestimating the numbers of those affected, and underfunding the report’s recommendations. He spoke of the nation’s shame and in doing so he challenged Australia’s image of itself.

Manne’s position was applauded by many for providing what Kay Schaffer in her Australian Humanities Review paper called an “effective antidote to counter the bitter stream of vitriol that followed the release of the Bringing Them Home report”. Yet Manne also drew criticism. Historian Bain Attwood argued that Manne’s attack on conservatives was polemical, and he suggested that it would be more useful to consider in detail what drives the right-wing analysis of Indigenous issues. Attwood also suggested that Manne’s essay had misrepresented the origins of the narrative of the Stolen Generation, which had been widely known prior to the release of the Stolen Generation report.

Conservative commentators focused upon challenging the accuracy of those stories submitted to the inquiry, which provided the basis for the report. This struggle over factual details was to characterise the approach of historian Keith Windschuttle, who rejected both the numbers of those stolen from their families and the degree of violence used in the settlement of Australia. In his 2002 book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One, Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1847 he accused left-wing academics of exaggerating the events of Aboriginal history in order to further their own political agenda. In particular, he argued that the extent of the “conflagration of oppression and conflict” which sought to “dispossess, degrade, and devastate the Aboriginal people” had been overstated and misrepresented and designed to “create an edifice of black victimhood and white guilt” (Windschuttle, Fabrication 1). 

Manne responded to Windschuttle’s allegations in Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, arguing that Windschuttle arguments were “unpersuasive and unsupported either by independent research or even familiarity with the relevant secondary historical literature” (7) and that the book added nothing to the debates.  Other academics like Stephen Muecke, Marcia Langton and Heather Goodall expressed concerns about Windschuttle’s work, and in   2003 historians Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark published The History Wars, which described the implications of the politicisation of history on the study of the past. At the same time, historian Bain Attwood in Telling the Truth About  Aboriginal History argued that the contestation over history was eroding the “integrity of intellectual life in Australia” (2).  

Fractures also broke out between writers and historians about who was best placed to write history. The Australian book reviewer Stella Clarke wrote that the History Wars were no longer constructive discussions, and she suggested that historical novelists could colonise the territory traditionally dominated by professional historians. Inga Clendinnen wasn’t so sure. She wrote in a 2006 Quarterly Essay entitled “The History Question: Who Owns the Past?” that, while novelists could get inside events through a process of “applied empathy,” imagination could in fact obstruct the truth of reality (20).


The History Wars saw academics engage publicly to exhibit a set of competing ideas about Australia’s identity in the nation’s media and associated cultural sites, and while the debates initially prompted interest they eventually came to be described as violent and unproductive public conversations about historical details and ideological positions. Indeed, just as the museum curator could no longer authoritatively prescribe the cultural meaning of artefacts, so the History Wars showed that public intellectuals could not adjudicate the identity of the nation nor prescribe the nature of its conduct. 

For left-wing public intellectuals and commentators, the History Wars came to signify the further marginalisation of progressive politics in the face of the dominant, conservative, and increasingly populist constituency. Fundamentally, the battles over the past reinforced fears that Australia’s public culture was becoming less diverse, less open, and less able to protect traditional civil rights, democratic freedoms, and social values. Importantly for intellectuals like Robert Manne, there was a sense that Australian society was less able or willing to reflect upon the moral legitimacy of its past actions as a part of the process of considering its contemporary identity.

In contrast right-wing intellectuals and commentators argued that the History Wars showed how public debate under a conservative government had been liberated from political correctness and had become more vibrant. This was the position of Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen who argued that rather than a decline in public debate there had been, in fact, “vigorous debate of issues that were once banished from the national conversation” (91). She went on to insist that left-wing commentators’ concerns about public debate were simply a mask for their discomfort at having their views and ideas challenged.   

There is no doubt that the History Wars, while media-orchestrated debates that circulated a set of ideological positions designed to primarily attract audiences and construct particular views of Australia, also raised public awareness of the complex issues associated with Australia’s Indigenous past. Indeed, the Wars ended what W.E.H Stanner had called the “great silence” on Indigenous issues and paved the way for Kevin Rudd’s apology to Indigenous people for their “profound grief, suffering and loss”. The Wars prompted conversations across the nation about what it means to be Australian and exposed the way history is deeply implicated in power surely a goal of both intellectual debate and curated exhibitions.   


This paper has argued that the public intellectual can operate like a curator in his or her efforts to preserve particular ideas, interpretations, and narratives of public culture.  The analysis of the History Wars debates, however, showed that intellectuals—just like curators —are no longer authorities and adjudicators of the nation’s character, identity, and future but cultural intermediaries whose function is not just the performance or exhibition of selected ideas, objects, and narratives but also the engagement and translation of other voices across different contexts in the ongoing negotiation of what constitutes cultural significance.   


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Author Biography

Helen Fordham, University of Western Australia

Senior Lecturer, Media and Communications