Inbox. Outbox. Ignorebox.

One of the architectural features of the new National Gallery of Australia extension that has not attracted much attention (and was missed by Robert Bevan in his review) is the moat and drawbridge, the symbolic function of which, I suggest, is to repel critics (and anthropologists, apparently). Now read on…

Two months ago, I wrote the following letter to the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford. Apparently, Citizen Lendon does not merit a reply. While you might assume that the Director of a major public institution has some kind of obligation to respond to a perfectly legitimate enquiry from any member of the public, apparently this is not the case with respect to the National Gallery of Australia.

I therefore provide the following points of reference – not to blow my own trumpet, but to provide a sense of how difficult it must be to get across the moat. As well as being the author of Iconophilia, readers may know that I also write about art and its histories in a number of contexts. Among other things, I have a longstanding interest in (and a trail of curatorial projects and publications concerned with) Australian Indigenous art. I have been a guest curator at the NGA. I am also a Fellow of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation.

Now, as regular readers of Iconophilia will know, recently I have been thinking out loud about the re-design and relocation of The Aboriginal Memorial at the NGA.  And so I have been considering writing a more substantial account of its recent history. However there are some facts I would need to have clarified for the sake of accuracy. Two months seemed a reasonable time to wait for a reply to this letter before sharing it with you-all:

12th October, 2010

Ron Radford, AM


National Gallery of Australia

GPO Box 1150, Canberra, ACT, 2601

Dear Ron,

May I ask of you a couple of questions? I’m writing a piece on the new installation of The Aboriginal Memorial, and I would like to be sure I have my facts straight.

1. Whose idea was it, and who approved the introduction of the new material as a groundbase for the Memorial?

2. What was the consultation process with the artists and their heirs, at what stage of the design development, and with whom?

3. Has there been a “singing-in” ceremony, as with all the other relocations and rearrangements, (with the exception, I understand, of St Petersburg)? If so, by whom, and when?

Your reply will be much appreciated

With best wishes

Nigel Lendon

As of this date, I have received no reply.

Optimistically, this is the kind of draft response that I imagine is languishing in some hypothetical NGA Ignorebox:


12th November, 2010

<insert address>

Dear Nigel

I do apologise for the lateness of this reply to your letter of 12th October. No doubt you will understand that the first months of the reopening of the Gallery has been a very busy time for us all.

Your questions concerning the redesign of The Aboriginal Memorial are indeed pertinent. I am pleased to tell you that I have reviewed the design of the Memorial, and agree with you that the inclusion of the black basalt rocks as a plinth is indeed an inappropriate and alien material.

I have decided that we will review the decisions of the installation designers, and intitiate a comprehensive process of input concerning alternative options in consultation with the surviving artists and their heirs and representatives.

I agree that the installation is spatially compromised by the design of the wheelchair access ramp, and we will look into alternative design options going forward. At the same time we will investigate alternative modes of installing the airconditioning vents to redress the unfortunate formal association between the hollow log poles and the ring of circular vents which surround them.

In reply to your specific questions:

1. Ultimately the decisions concerning the design were mine.  However I was advised by the installation design group appointed by the architects, in consultation with my staff.

2. Indeed, I do now realize that the consultation process left something to be desired. I intend to initiate an appropriate process in the future, and to seek advice and assistance from the eminent anthropologists of art who are knowledgeable in this area.

3. A “singing-in ceremony” was conducted subsequent to the opening of the new galleries, involving both Richard Birrinbirrin, the son of the late Dr David Malangi, and Djon Mundine, the original conceptual producer of the Memorial.

I should add that we are in the process of producing a pamphlet which explains the original intent of the Aboriginal Memorial, and that we will redesign the wall plaques so that the artists who produced the work are formally named, in accordance with moral rights protocols.

Such critical commentary and feedback as yours is much appreciated and encouraged by the Gallery.

Yours faithfully

<insert name and signature>

P.S. On 6th November the “conceptual producer” of the Aboriginal Memorial Djon Mundine gave a talk at the NGA. The only new and relevant piece of information was that he showed a brief video clip of Richard Birrinbirrin and himself “singing in” the Memorial in its new location on (presumably) the day after the gala opening of the new wing of the NGA. For all its personalised austerity, it was quite a moving record of what actually occurred.  The audience for this apparently impromptu event appeared to be the thirty or so people who happened to be passing by, visitors to the Gallery at that moment. From what we were shown, there appeared to be no other members of the Gallery hierarchy present, or taking part. We were shown no reciprocal ceremony. Unlike every previous occasion, when the “singing in” ceremony has been quite an event.


#1 Hamish on 12.10.10 at 3:07 pm

“alternative design options going forward”

If you do get an email with this horrid phrase, that would be grounds for sacking in itself.

And stop implying the drawbridge isn’t excellent. Canberra needs more castle-features.

#2 Ruark on 01.03.11 at 11:17 pm

Thank you for drawing my attention to this new addition. I’m pleased that at long last the NGA has addressed this matter of equality of access. Equality of Access at the Gallery has always been low priority. The main doorway was difficult to approach for the frail, the disabled and children. In the past mobility challenged access was via a somewhat dark and anonymous doorway at the far end of the underground parking. Needy people arriving by private vehicles or taxi would ring a doorbell, then often wait for up to 20 minutes for the gallery security to come down and let them in. There was a bench provided to rest on. Unfortunately this was a very damp area of the building. An unpleasant smelling rusty ooze leaked from the bedrock behind the concrete walls. This made the location slippery & dangerous to move around especially if you happened to use walking sticks or crutches. What I like most about The Moat, is that, the architects seem to have included references to the previous water feature (the ooze) from down in the car-park. But they’ve done this in much more logical fashion. It actually reminds me of The Rampart at Castlecrag in Sydney. Maybe this is a reference to the Mahony Griffins. After all, their use of reinforced concrete was one of the earliest innovations of the duo. I hope now that the aggregate is truly set. It would be useful if other state Galleries like New South Wales could get their ramparts in order

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