Only in Sydney, you may have noticed that there’s been a lively debate about the chances of an Indigenous Cultural Centre for the city. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, we nearly got one at Barangaroo in the extraordinary Cutaway had not the egregious ex-PM, Paul Keating, decided that he knew better and the Parisian model of converting a railway station into the Musee dÓrsay was the perfect way to achieve a multi-purpose art centre.

Seemingly, he knew nothing about any alternative proposal and therefore the man who heroically gave us the Redfern Speech wasn’t denigrating First Nations ambitions by his intervention. Hehad after all had designed both the Cutaway and the Headland Park created on top of it.

Time for a reality check!

Way back in 2007, I was approached by a senior figure in Planning NSW to consider the possibility of an Indigenous cultural centre at Barangaroo. She had been encouraged by both Minister Sator and her DG to pursue the idea. The Governor Marie Bashir was onside. But many pointed out even then that Paul Keating was the main obstacle to any project involving the Barangaroo headland.

And Keating had history, having proposed a National Gallery of Aboriginal Australia in his pioneering 1994 ‘Creative Nation’ document, intended to link contemporary First Nations art to “its relationship to the land and sea”, but never delivered. And ‘Creative Nation’ encouraged the defunding of remote art, culture and ceremony in favour of a new National Institute for Indigenous Performing arts, comparable to NIDA, in Brisbane. Unfortunately that would have replaced the popular and successful NAISDA training institution in Sydney. So no Indigenous NIDA exists.

The project I enunciated was essentially a national one. The argument being that First Nations art was everywhere but it was invariably being presented for many good reasons as contemporary art. That meant an absence of any anthropological or ethnographic backgrounding. Somewhere else was needed to build a cultural understanding of the many complex aspects of Aboriginal lore and society so that the art could have even greater appreciation.

In the current time, such a justification can surely be related to the Uluru Statement too.

Here’s how I put it at the time:
“That is why a place where interpretation is separated from the mass of today’s brilliant art, but where the roots of that art can be appreciated, is so needed. This could be excitingly achieved by offering, in situ, virtual reality recreations of rock art sites in Arnhemland, The Kimberley, Grenfell or Wollemi, and then linking this visual imagery to the development of the system of Aboriginal mnemonics. For these had the power to instil in their viewers the rigid rules that allowed nomadic peoples to survive in harsh conditions for 60,000 years – to understand the land, to find water and food, to relate to others in the tribe, to comprehend the cosmos and deal with the spirits of the living and the dead.

“Of course, the full range of the arts – story-telling, dance, music – will have to be employed to illustrate how Aborigines relate to Country and represent such figures as Baime in NSW, Bunjil in Victoria or Purrukuparli on the Tiwi Islands; to conjure their sacred totem animals and the power of fire, and to share the moral fables that explicate the absolute rules of skin relationships. Where possible, the original languages should be employed – and interpreted”.

How far did this proposal go? I know it went to a Canadian (!) consultancy that was assisting the Barangaroo Delivery Authority and to Sydney City Council. But I also recall that a huge dampener emerged when some local Aboriginal figure declared that his people would never consider allowing their culture to be displayed underground – for The Cutaway was emerging as the only possible site on Paul Keating’s Headland.

That brouhaha suggests that Keating must been aware of such an Indigenous proposal – something he now denies – even one that was being rejected?

Things went quiet – until 2014 when I learnt that “A partnership to explore this option (of an Indigenous Cultural Centre) has been formed between the National Museum of Australia, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the National Film and Sound Archive, the Metropolitan and La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Councils and the Barangaroo Delivery Authority. The first step is to identify how such a centre might look; what it might represent; and how it might be delivered. A preliminary round of consultations reached out to 45 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from all States and Territories, and the concept enjoyed broad support”.

That’s heavyweight stuff, not just “self-appointed Aboriginal people”, as Keating would like us to believe in his riposte to criticism in the SMH. But where did their deliberations go, and why was a subsequent “all-Indigenous taskforce”, consisting only of local people rather than the broader First Nations community appointed?

And was Keating’s head buried in the sandstone of Barangaroo Point all of this long time? Or does the “arrogance” that he accuses the Land Council of for daring to question him exist only in one place – himself?

Of course, since 2007, things have moved on nationally. Though currently stalled, the Tarrkarri institution in Adelaide, with the huge strength of the SA Museum Indigenous Collection behind it, will undoubtedly become THE national Aboriginal cultural centre. Hard to know, but comparable efforts in Perth and Canberra may come off – both federally funded – making half-hearted efforts in NSW to convert the Museum of Sydney into a home for First Nations culture not really seem worthwhile.

What a lot of wasted years!