Dr Adele Chynoweth, a Lecturer in the ANU Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, was awarded the Medal (OAM) of the Order of Australia for service to public history this year on Australia Day. Here is an account of her work that led to this honour, and her continuing contribution.
On a warm night in November 2011, Dr Adele Chynoweth was feeling triumphant at the opening of an exhibition she had co-curated. The exhibition was Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, and it told the stories of children who had been in institutional care in Australia in the 20th century. It launched at the National Museum of Australia.
Over the course of her work with the NMA, Dr Chynoweth had spoken with over 200 survivors of institutions. She had collected their stories, objects, and photographs for display. It was an important exhibition, one that fulfilled Recommendation 35 of the 2004 Forgotten Australians report. Her job was done – or so she thought.
“At the opening, two women said to me: Is that it now? Are you finished with us?” recalls Dr Chynoweth.
The women continued: Now that we’ve made all the politicians look good, and the museum look like they’re inclusive, you’ve taken our stories and that’s it. But what about justice?
Remembering this challenge that took place almost a decade ago still makes Dr Chynoweth emotional. “It was at that moment when I realised my job wasn’t over,” she says.
More than five years of unpaid work and doggedness by Dr Chynoweth would finally lead to the outcome the two women and their peers wanted. The journey led her to ANU, which she is emphatic was essential to the result. She couldn’t have known this would take so long, or that they would eventually succeed. Nobody would have criticised her for turning away.
“People have said, ‘It’s not your job.’ Well whose job is it? Who’s doing it?” Dr Chynoweth asks.
So why did she say yes?
“Because I realised that it was unethical, morally reprehensible, to take these stories, and expect them to go back to…” Dr Chynoweth trails off.
“They did so much to help that exhibition,” she continues. “They contributed to the exhibition blog, they told me their stories – they had to re-traumatise themselves to tell the stories.
“The exhibition could not have happened without their contribution. So I said yes, because it’s crucial to give back.”
That was the moment Dr Chynoweth went from being a curator to an activist. From raising awareness and representing narratives, to driving change. It was when she decided that simply giving someone a voice is not enough.
Dr Chynoweth’s work in public history began in 1999. She was part of a theatre team that was commissioned to create The Memory Museum at the Drill Hall in South Australia, a key event of the state’s Centenary of Federation celebrations.
“The Drill Hall was going to be handed back to the South Australian people,” Dr Chynoweth explains. “It was a federal building up until that point. And they wanted a memory museum that would represent the South Australian people’s recollections of war.”
That project, she says, is how she made the transition from theatre work to public history. It also laid the foundation for her understanding that the “voices and narratives of people, including marginalised groups, should be central to the work of the museum.”
In the next century of course, Dr Chynoweth would come to work alongside marginalised groups to not just represent their stories but advocate for them. The first step in that process was joining the ANU as an honorary visiting fellow.
“This is very much a story about ANU,” Dr Chynoweth says firmly. “This would not have happened without ANU.”
The importance of a rigorous and ethical research process, overseen by a credible, independent and trustworthy organisation was central to the progression of this work. Dr Chynoweth also knew that no-one would take notice of her advocacy without the backing of a reputable organisation and its associated processes, such as critical review. Dr Chynoweth knew this was the value of the ANU.
“I am so grateful for the human research ethics office and ANU media,” she says. “They paved the way for trust, and trust in this line of work is groundbreaking.”
“I could not have done this without ANU – I’m really clear about that. I’m not even being nice; it’s the absolute truth.”
Dr Chynoweth was initially based with the School of History, which she is really grateful to, but soon found her place in the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies. She describes the Head of the Centre, Professor Laurajane Smith, as “extraordinary”.
“She’s extraordinary not only in terms of the body of her research work, but Laurajane absolutely understands marginalised discourse, working class discourse,” Dr Chynoweth says. “She absolutely gets it.”
Under the wing of ANU, Dr Chynoweth sums up what she did over six years: “I just did research and lobbied for [the survivors] to get ex-gratia payments, and they did.”
The women survivors Dr Chynoweth worked to get redress for were former child inmates of Wolston Park Hospital, in Queensland. It was an adult psychiatric facility, but the women were neither adults, nor did not have a mental illness.
“They were running away from abusive situations and were deemed juvenile delinquents,” Dr Chynoweth explains. “The Queensland Government at the time used a medical model to deal with juvenile delinquents – you know, the bodgies and widgies of the 1950s.”
The survivors slipped through the cracks of other inquiries such as the 1999 Forde Inquiry into child abuse, because their situation fell outside the terms of reference. Namely, that they were children held in an adult facility rather than one intended for children. The abuse they suffered, however, was indiscriminate. They were beaten, sexually assaulted and raped, put into isolation, subjected to electric shock therapy, humiliated, and drugged.
Dr Chynoweth collected the oral histories of six former child inmates, though she spoke to many more. She found archival evidence, and evidence that placing the children in these facilities was Queensland Government policy.
“One of the things I was concerned about what that the Queensland Government might say that it was just individual doctors who recommended the placements,” she says.
She cites other child abuse cases where institutions have attempted to evade liability on the grounds of the actions of individual staff.
“I found two government reports of the day where they actually said, ‘No, this is what we’re going to do: we’re going to send them to mental hospitals, we are going to…’,” she says. “They showed that it wasn’t just incidental; this was systemic.”
After five years of digging, of working with journalists to shine a spotlight on Wolston former child survivors; after a private Royal Commission hearing and numerous unofficial calls with top bureaucrats, there was a reconciliation process between the survivors and the Queensland health department. Finally, in October 2017, then-Queensland Health Minister Cameron Dick announced that the six women Dr Chynoweth had obtained testimony from, along with others, would receive ex gratia payments in acknowledgement of their unlawful detention.
“They received a significant payment”, Dr Chynoweth confirms.
Dr Chynoweth adds that most of the women have now bought their own houses, having secured financial freedom from public housing and renting. One survivor, could finally afford to visit her sister in Scotland, whom she hadn’t seen in over 40 years. And all the survivors could now pay for much-needed medical attention without having to be on waiting lists – to attend to all those long-term physical injuries from childhood abuse.
As for Dr Chynoweth, she says that the outcome was a good lesson in not giving up and not listening to people who say, ‘Look, you know you’re not going to get anywhere’.
“They’re trying to stop you from having a harder break, I suppose,” she says. “But it’s a good lesson in keeping on going.”
The year after the announcement, Dr Chynoweth was recognised for her work with an ANU Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Public Policy and Outreach. This year on Australia Day, she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for her service to public history, which she described as being a validation of not just her work, but of the lives and narratives of others.
“Sometimes, research is hard – and I’m sure there’d be many people in the ANU community who have experienced this – that if you’re working on an issue that perhaps isn’t part of consensus history or part of the dominant narrative in the media, it’s very hard to get traction,” she says. “Especially with social justice research.”
“It feels very lonely. And sometimes, you wonder if you’re going to get the outcome that the people you’re working with want.
“So I think the most important feeling I have is that this really motivates me to go on. It’s a profound morale booster.”
Having achieved justice for the Wolston Park Hospital survivors, a new chapter has opened for Dr Chynoweth. She will continue to advocate for former child inmates of Australian institutions – this time, children in orphanages who were used as subjects of medical tests and want to know what they were injected with, as well as examine associated resonances in anatomical collections – that’s the connection with museum studies.
“There should be a mechanism by which these survivors can access that information so they might know of how it might impact on any subsequent or current medical interventions,” she says.
“I’m just starting that research with a lawyer and a former government advisor who is a human rights advocate, but I don’t want to say too much. But suffice it to say, this work is the next chapter. So no, it’s not the end and I’m not alone this time!”
On a more conventional academic front, Dr Chynoweth is editing a book comprising international contributors as well as herself, on how class should resonate throughout the museum sector and the world.
“What I learned from this is not only how to answer the question, ‘Are you going to help us get justice?’ and how to say yes and what to do after you’ve said yes,” she says. “I’ve also learned that the notion of class is really absent in Australian public history.”
“There are marginalised groups that have gained visibility – people with disabilities, LGBTQIA+, refugees, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – what a crucial development. In addition, what I’m hoping to achieve in public history policy in Australia is to not only pay attention to social change, but for people to pay attention to class: those of the working classes and poverty classes. And all of this isn’t mutually exclusive. There is important intersectionality here.”
“Sorry, that sounds a bit grandiose!” she adds.
This news story was originally published on the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences website.