The Hon Barry Cohen, former Arts Minister in the Hawke Labor Government, said he was surprised and proud to be asked to open this year’s National Folk Festival 2007 last Thursday. Thoroughly in keeping with Australian folk culture, and in tune with his many books of anecdotes such as What About the Workers?, The Almost Complete Gough and From Whitlam to Winston, humour of an unofficial kind was the keynote of his official opening speech.
For NFF Board President, John Taylor, there was good reason to celebrate the publication 20 years ago this year of the report of the Committee of Inquiry into Folklife in Australia: Our Living Heritage, commissioned by Cohen. “It is a unique document with which any student of Australia’s rich and diverse cultural history should familiarise themselves … We have Barry to thank for having the vision to get this project started.”
Unfortunately one of his revealing anecdotes, a bit less than humorous but nonetheless of the blunt Australian kind, told in conversation with The Canberra Times, concerned later Prime Minister Keating and Minister for Education John Dawkins.
Cohen had done his research, personally observing the positive social impact of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in Washington. The famous and continuing Centre's interests and practical work in cultural policy are “framed principally around local agency and cultural democracy in grassroots communities, and collaborative projects designed to foster self-representation.”
But Keating “wouldn’t have a bar of it” as year after year Cohen tried in Cabinet to implement the Inquiry’s recommendation to set up a Folklife Centre in Canberra. Dawkins put in the boot in the last budget before Keating’s fatal flaw election in 1996, using the favourite politician’s ploy by going for an inquiry. At this point in history a project delayed was a project as dead as a bloated wombat on a country road.
Mention of wombats introduces a different side of Barry Cohen, wildlife sanctuary endangered species breeder until, in 2005, age crept into the picture and he passed on this work to others. Environmental issues are an important theme in this year’s National Folk Festival with three interrelated themes.
Various performers present songs, poems and even narrative dances about water, in its many incarnations. But the flip side of the issue is the presentation, headed by Social History and Folklore Collector Rob Willis, of material from the National Library of Australia’s ongoing project on drought. Among presenters is Dr Graham Seal of Curtin University, WA, who had a major part to play in the Folklife inquiry back in 1987. Another is Sue Riley, a Centrelink Counsellor, addressing the human impact and social cost of continued drought. Willis can be contacted at email@example.com if you have stories to add to the collection.
Alongside the NLA is the Climate Change Tent, where there are workshops, talks and films by a wide range of experts and commentators including Professor Will Steffen, director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, the Fair Trade Society, Australian Greens economics researcher Richard Dennis and Bob Douglass, formerly head of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population at ANU who leads a Forum on Nature and Society at 3.30pm tomorrow.
Everyone can take part in the third aspect of cleaning up the National Folk Festival, called No Ifs, No Butts. Clean Up Australia says that 49% of rubbish around Australia consists of cigarette butts, so this year there are specially designed bins all over the Festival site, and special individual butt bins for smokers to carry with them, produced in a new partnership with the Butt Littering Trust.
Smoking is no joke, but jokes aside, the former Minister Cohen was clearly the right person to open this year’s Festival. He even had a very serious suggestion for how to set up a Folklife Centre for Australia. Why not, he said, make it part of the National Museum of Australia? Why not, indeed.
Cohen is nowadays deputy chair at Old Parliament House, and points out that the National Portrait Gallery began life in a space shared with OPH. Its success has won it the fame and consequent power to claim a new building in its own right. An Australian National Folklife Centre set up in a space at the National Museum will surely have a parallel history in the future, he says. Now that heritage and history are the regular subject of debate, on all sides of politics, it’s time for the move to be made.
Young people and more recent migrants need an active centre to discover our folk history, as happens in Washington, where the Smithsonian themes cover indigenous life, working life, regional folklife, and recent migrants’ life. Like the National Folk Festival, which Cohen calls Canberra’s best kept secret, the Smithsonian exhibits include a Guest State each year, and even a Guest Country for comparison. With the National Museum’s visitor drawing power based so strongly already on its cultural history and personal story exhibits, a National Folklife Centre should be a natural fit, like a stockman on his horse or a novelist from Brindabella writing My Brilliant Career.
National Folk Festival runs until late on Monday April 9 at Exhibition Park. Information at www.folkfestival.asn.au
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