Donations pour in to Archives as historians decry decay of ‘national memory bank’

The National Archives has raised almost $100,000 in donations in a bid to save its most at-risk records as some of the nation’s pre-eminent historians argue it should never have been forced into a public appeal for funding.

In the four weeks since the Archives launched a membership program, which asks $40 a person or $60 a household, the number of people backing it has swelled seven-fold to more than 700.

Some of the deteriorated negatives, prints and scans of Italian prisoners of war in Australia held by the National Archives. Credit:National Archives of Australia

Donations to the publicly funded institution have also soared. The public has given more than $94,000 to a fund that will help cover the costs of protecting the Archives’ most at-risk records.

The appeal was launched after it was revealed the keeper of Australia’s memories urgently needs at least $67.7 million to digitise records that are disintegrating or becoming obsolete. However, it received only a minuscule boost to its operating budget of $700,000 and no funding for extra staff in last month’s federal budget.

This followed years of funding cuts to the institution, which is struggling to protect 384 kilometres of records that are growing every year. At the same time, eight other national institutions received a collective $85.4 million extra.

The $67.7 million spending increase was recommended by David Tune’s review of the Archives, which noted it wasn’t feasible to save everything in the collection at the rate it was deteriorating. It said the focus should be on those most requested items and photos, films and audio records at very high risk of being lost within the next few years. It also called on the government to spend $167.4 million on a new digital archive facility plus extra funding to increase staff numbers.

More than 150 of the nation’s leading writers, researchers and historians have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, protesting the government’s handling of the Archives and calling for the funding recommended by the review.

Graeme Davison, a former member of the Archives’ advisory council and an emeritus professor of history at Monash University, said the fact the institution had been forced to solicit public donations ignored its special role.

“National Archives are not like museums and galleries. They are not a charity that should have to shake a tin or secure ‘buy-in’ from the public for support,” he said.

“No other national archive is financed in that way. They are a statutory responsibility of government and should be supported from the public purse. Only thus can their independence and sustainability be guaranteed.”

Historian Graeme Davison says the National Archives shouldn’t have to ask the public for donations to survive.Credit:Eddie Jim

Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General Amanda Stoker last month said it was a good thing the Archives was taking donations and that dealing with disintegrating records was “part of the usual process” for the institution since “all sources degrade over time”.

Professor Davison said the Archives were most important to people not even born who would be able to call on its resources to decipher the nation’s history.

“A nation without archives – a comprehensive record of what its government has done – is a nation with amnesia. How can today’s leaders safely navigate without knowing of what their predecessors have done?” he said.

“It’s up to the Prime Minister to decide whether he wants to let the national memory bank decay.”

Opposition arts spokesman Tony Burke backed the historians’ campaign, arguing the government had ignored the Tune review’s recommendations while wasting money in areas such as party political advertisements and on questionable grants to protect itself in marginal electorates.

“The damage caused by Mr Morrison’s refusal to properly fund the National Archives shows how far his party has strayed from the conservative and liberal traditions on which the party was founded,” he said. “The National Archives were founded by Robert Menzies and the Morrison government is now trashing that legacy and, along with it, Australia’s precious history.”

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