Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Statements by Senators

West, Mr Alan Lindsay

12:54 pm

Photo of Kim CarrKim Carr (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader for Science) Share this | Hansard source

On 7 June this year, Mr Alan West of Mitcham, Victoria, passed away, at the age of 88. His daughter Roslyn West is in the gallery today. She's driven up from Melbourne to hear these remarks. Alan's life was long and rich as a teacher, as an anthropologist, as a museum curator and as a member of the Labor Party. It was a life of commitment to principles and to social justice, particularly in relation to Australia's first peoples.

As the son of a locomotive driver, John, and mother Millie, Alan West was born in 1929 in the small town of Wycheproof in Victoria. At the beginning of the Depression the family moved to Coburg, in Melbourne, where his father trained and worked as a government health inspector. As a young man, in the late 1940s, Alan began studying theology and moved to Echuca, where he worked as a junior clerk in the Commonwealth Bank. At the invitation of the minister of the church he attended, he regularly assisted with the conduct of services in an Aboriginal community at Cummeragunja across the river in New South Wales. It was here that he observed firsthand the blatant discrimination and the repressive and racist paternalism of the government. Against this direct experience, Alan determined that he would dedicate his future work to advance the social, educational and human rights of Aboriginal people. For the rest of his life, he did exactly that.

Having completed his theological training, Alan intended to work at one of the Churches of Christ Aboriginal missions in Western Australia but found he needed a further qualification: as a teacher. In 1951, soon after his marriage to Doreen Keats, he began training as a primary school teacher and qualified in 1953. From 1954 to 1958 he taught at the government Aboriginal school at Roelands in Western Australia and then at the Leederville Primary School, also in Western Australia. In 1960 he joined the Victorian Aborigines Welfare Board as a social worker. This brought him into contact with many Indigenous communities and families.

In his determination to make a difference to their lives, he faced many challenges—more often than not, with more bureaucratic office based managers within the welfare board, but he never shirked these challenges. In 1966, in response to the worsening conditions at Lake Tyers Mission Station, at Lakes Entrance in Victoria, Alan was appointed as manager to address these issues. He and his family moved onto the station and he made a number of immediate changes to improve the conditions of residents. It is there that he formed life-long friendships. Alan compiled a report and a series of recommendations for reform. However, his recommendations for reform were rejected by the welfare board and Alan resigned. His fundamental principles could not be compromised.

In 1962 Alan completed a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, under renowned anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt at the University of Western Australia, and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne. In 1967 he was appointed curator of anthropology at the then National Museum of Victoria, now Museums Victoria, from 1967 to 1980 and from 1983 through to 1986. In the intervening three years he was director of the Australia Council's Aboriginal Arts Board. Alan's first task at the museum was to coordinate the relocation and rehousing of the entire Indigenous cultures collection. Significantly, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Alan initiated the removal of Indigenous and ancestral remains from the exhibition in the museum. In that respect, for cultural protocols, he similarly removed secret and sacred men's ceremonial objects from public display.

Alan was a member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, now the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, from 1968. He was a founding member of the Victorian Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Committee and inspector under the Archaeological and Aboriginal Relics Preservation Act 1972. In these roles, he recommended that the Mount William axe quarry, near Lancefield in Victoria, be declared a site of cultural significance and thus protected under the act.

During this time, as curator of the museum, he published extensively on the Australian Indigenous material culture, and he conducted field work, highlighted by documented films on artefact manufacture and taped interviews with community leaders in Victoria, Central Australia and Cape York. Two of these documentaries featured his friends, from Lake Tyers, Foster Moffatt and Albert 'Choppy' Hayes, demonstrating traditional canoe making, and he recorded Thelma Carter's skills as a basket maker.

Alan's primary research is still being called on today. Without doubt, one of the most significant contributions was his research and work on a definitive manuscript on Tasmanian fibre practice and basket making. Copies of this manuscript continue to circulate amongst Aboriginal women in Tasmania, and it is regarded as the seminal impetus for the resurrection of contemporary basket-making practice. In addition, Alan's work with Aboriginal communities laid the foundation for many longstanding partnerships. He supported his old friend the late John Sandy Atkinson in establishing the boomerang keeping place in Shepparton, Victoria, that opened in 1974 with objects on loan from the National Museum of Victoria. In 1980 he completed a master's qualifying course in the division of prehistory at La Trobe University under Dr Ron Vanderwal. In 1999 the Museum of Victoria published Alan's thesis as a monograph, Aboriginal string bags, nets and cordage, which is widely consulted by community members and researchers. A secondary-school publication, Contact, An Australian History, coedited by D Poad and R Miller in 1985, is still being used as a textbook in Australia's schools.

Alan developed many new exhibitions and actively initiated visits and engagements for Indigenous community members in the museum itself. These engagements introduced a whole generation of Indigenous people to the collections of their material cultures and laid the foundations for the partnerships that have continued in contemporary times.

From his retirement, Alan continued to provide information on the material culture to senior and new staff working on Indigenous culture, to researchers, and to cultural heritage officers within the Office of Aboriginal Affairs in Victoria. His invaluable memories continued to enhance collection catalogue records up until his last months. The state of the collections, documentation and the department records are evidence of his extensive, generous, knowledgeable and ongoing contribution. They are also evidence that Alan West has been one of the most valuable curators in the history of the museum. In recognition of this, in 1986 he was appointed as an honorary associate of the museum and in 2013 he was awarded the position of curator emeritus

Alan's social conscience extended beyond Indigenous communities. In the 1970 Victorian state elections he sat as a Labor candidate representing the seat of Scoresby. He received the highest number of first preference votes, 44.4 per cent, representing a swing to Labor of 4.2 per cent. Although receiving the highest first preference votes for Labor ever obtained in this seat, he narrowly lost on preferences. He stood on one more occasion in 1973, but the Liberals held the seat. Nonetheless, Alan's commitment to Labor principles and to social justice have never waned. His commitment to teaching extended into his role as a senior curator, and his legacy is firmly and permanently etched in the records of Museums Victoria and in the memories of all of those he has mentored. His commitment to the causes of Australian Indigenous peoples has never waned. The wonderful glint in his eye when he dryly and irreverently commented on the pretentious and the bureaucratic will be remembered by all who knew him.

We are very fortunate in Australia that there are people out there with a social conscience. They fight for social justice. They fight with principle and with integrity. They fight for all of us, but particularly for those who are most disadvantaged. We should all be thankful for fine, noble Australians like Alan West.


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