Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 27.1 (2006) 90-115
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Motherboards and Desert Sands
Stories of Australian Rural Women
with Rhonda Diffey
This paper explores an evolving cultural partnership between Museum Victoria and the Victorian Women on Farms Gatherings.1 The collaborative partnership, initiated by Victorian rural women, is helping to redefine the cultural discourses of rurality and offers an example of the ways in which museums can engage and empower rural women. Museums are important and powerful agents in collecting, preserving, and creating discourses about Australian identity. As Rhonda Diffey's story (below) demonstrates, some rural women are reclaiming their stories and acknowledging their contributions to rural life.
Museum Victoria houses one of the largest agricultural collections in Australia. During the early 1990s an analysis of this collection revealed a need to document contemporary developments in agriculture and to redress the absence of material relating to women's contribution to agriculture and rural life. The curator began attending the annual Women on Farms Gatherings in 1993 to collect information about the role of women in farming, the issues affecting rural communities, and new directions and innovations in farming practices.
Begun in 1990, the Gatherings are informal annual events held in different locations across the state of Victoria. They bring a diverse range of farming women together to learn new skills, exchange information and stories, celebrate their rural achievements, and regenerate their energy in the face of continuing challenges. While the Gatherings were specifically created for rural women, they also attracted the attention of Museum Victoria and a number of researchers associated with other organizations who were interested in issues shaping contemporary rural Victoria.
Each Gathering features a symbolic "icon" and other material to represent the identity and issues of the particular rural community hosting the event. The nomadic existence of the Gathering meant that the growing Gathering collection continually traversed Victoria or was variously stored in the homes of those who had been involved. The value of this dispersed collection was [End Page 90] first realized at the 2001 Gathering, when it was brought together for the first time in a consolidated display. The need to preserve this significant collection coincided with the research interests of Museum Victoria; from this emerged a collaborative partnership to collect and interpret the Gatherings collection.
This cultural partnership raises questions about the role of museums in contemporary culture, how museums and their collections can have a dynamic relationship with their communities, and most important, who owns the past and how and what "stories" should be preserved and interpreted.
The key argument of this paper is that museums are an important and powerful cultural agent in collecting, preserving, and creating discourses about Australian identity. The paper first gives some background to the Victorian Women on Farms Gatherings, and then considers the role of storytelling as a central tool in recreating rural discourses. Rhonda Diffey's story (see below) is an example of how some rural women are reclaiming their stories and acknowledging their contribution to Australian rural life.
The second part of the paper describes the nature and goals of the partnership, and the role of museums as agents of change. This is followed by an analysis of the factors that have contributed to rural women's invisibility within museums, and the recurring themes represented at the Gatherings.
A Place to Relax, Revive, and Renew
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, rural Australia faced a period of great social and economic change, deeply marked by extended periods of drought, falling commodity prices, rising debt, growing environmental degradation, reduction in rural services (closure of banks, shops, post offices), and the relocation of people to the cities. These challenges were accompanied by a growing sense within rural communities of their political, economic, and cultural marginalization to the urban mainstream.
In response, many farming women sought off-farm work to supplement farm income or were left to manage the family farm as husbands and sons sought work elsewhere. In the face of these challenges, rural women came...