You look for somewhere
to place the wreath;
any day is the right one.
There’s a crushed silvereye on the pavement; its flat silhouette of motion. Gold everlastings
stone and shadow.
You carry around this word, ‘monument’.
For Koori author Tony Birch, it still means a construction used for ‘identifying, naming and textualising’ places that have been ‘“claimed” by Europeans’. Settler artists, Anna Dunill and Danni McGrath feel the same way:
Monuments — the kind we usually mean, made from bronze and stone — sit heavy on the land. We are not from here, but placing a monument is a gesture of ownership. It says, I was here. It says, This is what we should remember … How do we apply all of these tactics (and more) to monumental history around the country?
You notice that, one by one, the city’s monuments to colonial claims are dissolving: Burke and Wills were removed during subway construction; John Batman’s likeness has been put into storage and marginalised by the community. Their disappearance seems barely noticed. The City of Melbourne’s Forms for Monuments to Complex Histories remarks on the privileges of such invisibility: ‘because classical monuments supply the viewer with an obvious and completed message they in fact attain a kind of invisibility: we simply walk past them’, and therefore, ‘deliberate invisibility … finds a way … to deal with a history that was about making something invisible’.
Is the monument so deeply compromised by Melbourne’s settler colonial history that it can’t be undone, ground down and reconstituted? Is there a monumental way to make the colony’s shared histories visible? Is there a form that can express what is subtle and incomplete?
Instead of a body of facts, a single story and a faceless narrator, shared histories are made when the living evaluate the past together with the present. There are scenes of colonial history that are deeply, invisibly enfolded in language, memory, oral history and archives. The forgotten conflicts, secret rendezvous, private exchanges, quiet deaths, loud resistance, unusual empathy, mixed marriages, public exclusion. The historian Penelope Edmonds has considered these transactions between First Nations and settler people in Melbourne. ‘How,’ she asks, ‘have we shared urban space historically, both in reality and in the imagination?’ Questions like this lead Melbournians to un-forget their colonial history. In doing so, we can find ways to share it. This is the basis of a shared future between First Nations People and settlers.
Seaside rosemary, kangaroo grass
you stand listening to the corner of Franklin and Victoria Streets, Melbourne. Gallows Hill. Brook Andrew’s Standing by Tunnerminnerwait and Mauboyheener was erected here in 2016. You recall a rally in Bowen Street, led by Jim Everett and other activists to lobby the City of Melbourne for the monument’s construction. You pass the site as you cross north of the city’s grid. It has some typically monumental nature – delineated, vertical, landscaped and inscribed – but it asks you to reflect on an act of violence. It is highly ambiguous. A gunmetal granite block and iron chains face off with primary-coloured newspaper boxes and a frame that resembles a kids’ swingset. Inside the boxes are competing historical accounts of the two Pallawa men, warriors and prisoners, executed before a public audience. The height of the stone block invites sitting, yet the men’s chiselled names repel profanity. Each year, and surrounded by hard bitumen, concrete and enclosed lawns, the monument’s native garden grows taller and thicker to baffle out the spectacle. Andrew’s design focuses ‘attention on the ground on which we walk: what is fundamental to us, what has happened there, and how we cannot escape being involved.’ Work it out, the site seems to tell you; spend enough time here, see all the angles, and work it out.
A monument may possess ‘contiguous magic’
be amulet-like, against the return or amplification
of trauma. Could it
carry the heart
and bring into sight the life-worlds from behind the colonial shutters.
Is this the kind of monument – with its ambiguity and its embedded place in the city’s streetscape – that could bring shared history into Melbourne’s future? Could a monument to shared history be something that Melbournians use to acknowledge, build on, pull down and redirect? Could it be a poem, an essay, a soundscape, an event? Will it be able to stand up on its own, or it is formed by layers of other voices, knowledge, history and heritage, like motes of dust?
You recognise a Boon wurrung elder nearby. The power of Standing by Tunnerminnerwait and Mauboyheener is that it gently punctures the concrete apathy of a colonised, urban environment. Its specificity is significant, pinning down a history of injustice that has been made vague by colonial narratives. It interrupts the roaring silence of the traffic; and this gives a great relief, an energy. You catch it and it keeps ringing, beyond the city and the river, beyond the bay.
The settler artist, Tom Nicholson has spent years reflecting on monumental structures in his work. His latest, which takes the form of a material proposal, is called Towards a monument to Batman’s Treaty. It takes another look at Batman’s ‘agreement’ with Wiradjuri, long considered a bad deal and a miscommunication with the traditional owners; as well as the hill where he lived and which was flattened for urban development, and how this connected him to William Buckley, a white settler who lived with the Wathaurong. It does not represent one person or event, nor does it represent one ‘side’ of history. Working with First Nations knowledge, community elders and primary research to share history, Nicholson brings into vision the lost landmarks of a complicated past.
These are acknowledgements that draw pause, create a beat of recognition; they favour the commemoration of lived, human experience over the ownership of dates and names. Can Melbourne find ways to make its shared histories visible? Can it work them into the dimensions of its streets, so that the living can ‘stand by’ the past?
The wreaths dry out, there will always be more
you crouch near the ground
leaf granules spread about
remind you that every place is graven.
You begin to build, slowly taking apart what you know.
This story is part of the Future Stories project with RMIT’s non/fictionLab and creative writing program, which paired writing students with academics to produce creative responses to themes explored during Melbourne Knowledge Week 2019. Come along to Chorus of voices on Thursday 23 May, 10am to 11am to hear from the students and staff involved in the project.