Some years are unremarkable – steady progress, relative calm, the usual ups and downs, but it might take a Google search to recall the significant events.
This is not one of those years. As the calendar ticked over from what seems now to be the benign days of the latter part of 2019, bushfires took hold in the north, a function of heartbreaking drought. New Year’s Eve and January saw ravaging res spread across the country, burning out hundreds of thousands of hectares and taking lives, homes, livelihoods and flora and fauna with them. Lurking in the background was the global cataclysm of COVID-19, of which we and the rest of the world are still in the midst. There has never been a year like this in our living memory.
We will emerge from the pandemic altered. And when we tell our children and grandchildren the stories of how and why 2020 changed us, and what we learned from it, we will remember how things unfolded.
As a nation, the memory of our times is recorded in many ways including in news and current affairs broadcasts, websites, homemade content and the stories we tell in film and sound. This is the NFSA’s mission – to hold and share Australia’s audiovisual memory.
Our collection provides a special window into Australia’s culture. It goes back to the earliest films and sound recordings of the late 19th century, through to the broadcast media and website content we collect today. We are the custodians of over three million items and we have an unwavering objective to share more of our collection to more people through digitisation, and to create a memorable experience for visitors to our exhibitions and events.
The year 2019–20 has been a time of adaptation and evolution for the NFSA, as we continue to expand our collection and step into our role as a leader for Australian digital culture – past, present and future.
Among our initiatives this year, we broadened our remit to include video games in the national audiovisual collection. So far, we have successfully preserved six Australian games, and this is just the beginning.
The appreciation of Australians for a good game was clear when nearly 25,000 people visited ‘Game Masters: The Exhibition’ between September 2019 and March 2020. It was wonderful to witness our visitors discover new and innovative Australian video games and rediscover their childhood favourites. Following the exquisite costumes presented in ‘The Dressmaker Costume Exhibition’, ‘Game Masters: The Exhibition’ continued our new exhibitions program into its second year. It was a great success, despite having to contend with bushfire smoke and then a hailstorm that caused damage to our Acton building.
This was followed by the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many organisations, we acted quickly to ensure the safety of visitors and staff. Wherever possible, we put in place working from home arrangements. My Board colleagues and I are immensely proud of the leadership shown by our management team during this time. We are impressed by the hard work and dedication of all our staff in maintaining productivity under changed circumstances and, in some cases, undertaking secondments with Services Australia to support the national COVID-19 response. We learned much about the new kinds of achievements of which we are capable.
While far from business as usual, we significantly boosted our online engagement with new exhibitions, curated collections, articles and interactive screenings. We moved some of our best-loved events online and developed new ways for audiences to explore our collection through focused, detailed content. As many around the country were feeling the strain of illness and restrictions, we ensured that our collection was still accessible to educate, inform, entertain and inspire.
One of my favourite online events from this year was Archie Roach: His Story in Song, celebrating his life and work. It is so important to celebrate people like Archie, who have made such great strides in building a shared understanding of the experiences and talents of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. One of our Friday night events during the pandemic lockdown was an online screening of Storm Boy. Many know (and everyone should know) this wonderful classic set in the Coorong in South Australia and starring Greg Rowe, Peter Cummins and David Gulpilil. David’s career changed the way First Nations people were depicted on our screens.
Our commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures underpins all the work that we do at the NFSA. We are privileged to hold some precious cultural collections, and we work with communities to preserve their culturally significant audiovisual materials. This year we continued our projects with the Strehlow Research Centre, and two of our staff visited PitjantjatjaraYankunytjatjara Media in Umuwa on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands to provide advice on the digitisation of their collection.
We continued to pursue our goals in digitising our collection, in line with our Digitisation Strategy 2018–2025. The degradation and obsolescence of certain media formats threatens large holdings within our collection, and digitisation work is essential for the preservation of these materials and our ability to share our collection. This year we have also progressed initial planning work to enhance our physical presence and complement our online presence, and we particularly thank the Australian National University for its support on this important project.
On the last day of the 2019–20 financial year, the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, announced that we would receive additional funding of $5.5 million over the next four years. These funds will support the digitisation of the national audiovisual collection and the establishment of a hub for the digitisation of the collections of other cultural institutions, sharing our infrastructure and expertise. We were delighted with this affirmation of the importance of the work we do, and it will set the agenda for 2020–21 and beyond.
I would like to sincerely thank Minister Fletcher for his strong support. We are also grateful for the valuable assistance of our colleagues at the Office for the Arts, within the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications. Thanks also to our NFSA ambassadors, friends and supporters from the film, music and broadcast sectors and to the many people in industry, government and cultural institutions who collaborate so generously with us.
To my Board colleagues, thank you for your support, guidance and commitment to the NFSA. Our governance review this year, in which management was actively involved, yielded some excellent ideas to ensure we work together even better. The support of the members of the NFSA Indigenous Connections Committee and the NFSA Audit and Risk Committee, chaired by Carol Lilley, has added great value.
Finally, I would like to thank our exceptional CEO, Jan Müller, recognised as a leader in digital culture here and internationally. He has led the NFSA with vision and dedication and his senior team and all our NFSA staff have responded superbly. I wish to thank them for their hard work, their focus and flexibility during this extraordinary year – a year that has posed immense challenges, but which has created new opportunities and laid the groundwork for the future of the NFSA.