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Cherish the brethren

by Angus Trumble, 1 March 2014

Angus Trumble Director, National Portrait Gallery
Angus Trumble Director, National Portrait Gallery

Fortunately, perhaps, there is no instruction manual for newly appointed art museum directors, especially ones who have lived and worked in the United States of America for the past nearly eleven years. However, in the early twelfth century St. Bernard of Clairvaux gave sound advice to rookie abbots: “Notice everything. Remain silent about many things. Correct a little. Cherish the brethren.” Naturally some abbots were better at doing these things than others. Art museums could hardly be compared with monasteries, and nowadays electronic communications, let alone the functions of our federal government, make it more or less impossible to be silent. But I do like that part about noticing everything.

In its brief history, your National Portrait Gallery has created much not merely to notice, but to cherish and to celebrate. In my first few weeks in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, I have been moved by the many people who have told me that they love their National Portrait Gallery, and I do not think that this was solely for my benefit. This is not to say that our visitors hesitate to deliver occasionally withering verdicts. One gentleman was shocked yesterday to discover that The Hon. E. G. Whitlam shares a wall with Sir John Kerr, and was not inclined to accept our explanation that this proximity is meant to describe one of the great constitutional controversies in our history, about which Australians will still be debating a hundred years from now. The fact that he cared so deeply about this, and beat a path to the information desk to say so, means, I think, that we are more than fulfilling our mission, lately enshrined in legislation, to increase the understanding and appreciation of the Australian peoples — their identity, history, culture, creativity and diversity — through portraiture.