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Welcome to Des

Find out about museums and what's happening in the museum world, about leadership, management and governance of museums, including the management of change, the contribution of museums to learning, contribution to public issues such as the natural environment, cultural diversity and relations with indigenous peoples.

More recent posts and pages take up the education debate with essays on every aspect of education including economics and community and inequality. These are derived from a set of essays which hopefully will be commercially published shortly dealing with education.

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ICOM Australia Award 2016

July 27th, 2016

I thought it would be appropriate to place on the site the details of the ICOM Australia Individual Award “recognising sustained international achievement over a long period” which I received at the dinner at the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the Museums Australasia Conference in Auckland New Zealand 17 May this year, 2016.

Details have been published in the the ICOM Australia newsletter, Museums Australia Magazine 24(4), Winter 2016 (“ICOM Australia’s International Awards 2016” by Nancy Ladas) and Museum Matters for July 2016 published by Museums Australia New South Wales.

It was a great honour to receive the Award, presented by Dr Robin Hirst, Museum Victoria and past Chair of ICOM Australia

I was especially pleased that following the award to me, the National Museum of Australia was presented with the ICOM Australia Institutional Award for the exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilisation, shown at the British Museum in 2015 and Encounters: Revealing Stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Objects from the British Museum, shown at the NMA in Canberra over the Summer of 2015-2016. That award was accepted by Museum Director Mathew Trinca and colleagues.

The link is to the citation and my response.

My response draws on the ideas already presented on this website, not least in the paper presented to the conference for the late Stephen Weil.

The Myth of School Choice and the Distortion of Education Policy

April 24th, 2016


At the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai in March Education Director for the OECD Andreas Schleicher criticised the Australian education system for falling behind global standards. He pointed to the very significant drop in the results of students at the top of the PISA test rankings in the past year. He said “[Australia] more or less defines teachers by the number of hours that [they] teach in front of students. That is part of the problem. We treat teachers as interchangeable widgets on the frontline – they are just there to implement prefabricated knowledge.” Schleicher said many countries were struggling to keep the best teachers in the profession because of curriculums that restrict creativity.

The OECD through its PISA program which explores literacy in 15 year olds in writing, math and science every three years has been criticised very heavily in some countries as driving the education agenda. Countries determine their own policies but unfortunately the ideology which underlies PISA – standardised testing, along with performance pay and independent schooling – has been adopted too vigorously by some countries. The important findings about effective school education policies and practices brought out in the comprehensive reports of PISA and Education at a Glance are ignored or even deliberately misinterpreted.


In Australia parents are moving their kids in ever larger numbers to schools they perceive to be better based mainly on scores in standardised tests – NAPLAN – published on the MySchool website. What is happening is a drift of students from advantaged backgrounds away from public schools, which generally have large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to independent schools. As a result learning gaps between children from different backgrounds are widening. Parents are responding to test scores and to other factors. That should have been anticipated by those deciding to privilege standardised testing and support extra funding for independent schools.

The Myth of School Choice: Government support for Independent Schools and Standardised Tests traverses the recent report from the Grattan Institute which illuminates important outcomes of the Howard Government’s support of independent schools and the reactions of parents to that. The focus on NAPLAN has problems drawn out in a report by Chris Bonner and Bernie Shepherd for the Centre for Policy Development and a study by David Zyngier of Monash University. That independent schools do not contribute to better educational achievement when socioeconomic background is taken into account is shown by a sophisticated report by researchers from the University of Queensland and colleagues. As it has been by many previous analyses!

Study after study has shown no significant educational gain by the much better resourced independent schools. The extra funds would have been better spent supporting those children with greatest needs, those from disadvantaged backgrounds having trouble with the learning program.

The Turnbull Coalition Government, like the Abbott Government before it, has refused to fund the last two years of the National Plan for School Improvement framed in response to the Gonski Panel’s recommendations: it maintains there are insufficient funds. However, there is substantial evidence to the effect that funds are available by addressing the substantial tax expenditures – tax concessions – introduced in recent years; Australia is a relatively low tax country and a major contribution to debt is private debt funding purchase of houses and apartments.

The response by the Turnbull Government to the States’ refusal to consider operating their own income tax systems has left unresolved the funding of schools (and hospitals) through agreements between the former government and the states, with the Prime Minister maintaining that the states have no grounds on which to ask the Commonwealth to raise taxes and claiming the previous agreements were made in “barely credible circumstances”. The Myth of School Choice: the Economics of Independent Schools and Australian Government Policy shows just how wrong this is and how billions of taxpayer funds have been wasted. A report by Lyndsay Connors and Jim McMorrow and detailed analysis by Trevor Cobbold illuminate the situation.

Proposals to have the Commonwealth fund independent schools and the States fund public schools were strongly criticised and are not supported by the Government’s own Green Paper on the Future of the Federation. In Victoria a review by former Premier Steve Bracks recommends policies reinforcing the Gonski reforms.

Despite adoption of policies in the US and UK based mainly on neoclassical economics which privilege private sector participation in generating public goods like education, favour competition and choice and deploy financial incentives to drive change, there are examples in those countries, as in Australia, of exciting outcomes from schools which do address the main features of effective learning in schools.

The Myth of School Choice: Genuine improvement happens when everyone collaborates for the benefit of the children summarises an important review by education historian Diane Ravitch of two very interesting books on schools in the United States.  It isn’t simply quality teachers or the administrative independence of school principals and it certainly isn’t standardised testing which make the difference! Kristina Rizga, author of Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, about a high school in San Francisco with an enrolment of students from a wide cultural diversity, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, points out, “too many politicians, powerful bureaucrats, management and business experts, economists, and philanthropists are making decisions about the best solutions for schools. In short, the people in charge don’t know nearly as much about schooling as the students and teachers they are trying to “fix.””

Despite everything, at Mission High in San Francisco great gains were made by students through the intense enthusiasm of their teachers.

Rizga says, “What matters in quality education – critical thinking, intrinsic motivation, resilience, self-management, resourcefulness, and relationship skills – exist in realms that can’t be easily measured by statistical measures and computer algorithms, but can be detected by teachers using human judgment. America’s business-inspired obsession with prioritizing “metrics” in a complex world that deals with the development of individual minds has become the primary cause of mediocrity in American schools.

Diane Ravitch points out “grand ideas cannot be imposed on people without their assent. Money and power are not sufficient to improve schools. Genuine improvement happens when students, teachers, principals, parents, and the local community collaborate for the benefit of the children.”

And education does not by itself fix poverty.

Not listening Not hearing

March 11th, 2016


How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

      “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Bob Dylan

“That Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land without benefit of treaty, agreement or compensation is generally known. But .. little known is the amount of brutality and bloodshed involved in enforcing .. [it]… people were deprived of their land and if they showed resistance they were summarily dealt with. The loss of land meant the destruction of the Aboriginal economy which everywhere was based upon hunting and foraging. And the land use adopted by the settlers drastically reduced the population of animals to be hunted and plants to be foraged. And the loss of the land threatened the Aboriginal culture which all over Australia was based upon land and relationship to the land. These were the most dramatic effects of European colonisation supplemented by the decimating effects of introduced disease to which the Aboriginal people had no resistance. These matters are understood to a very imperfect degree by non-Aboriginal society.

“But the facts of later policies and their effects are even less well known to the general population. Having reduced the original inhabitants to a condition, in many places, of abject dependency the colonial governments decided upon a policy of protection which had two main thrusts: Aboriginal people were swept up into reserves and missions where they were supervised as to every detail of their lives and there was a deliberate policy of undermining and destroying their spiritual and cultural beliefs.”

      The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991


“Ten years old. Think about that. Someone’s daughter. A child who came into the world with the joy of all newborns. A child who first smiled, who spoke her first words, who said “mum” and “dad”. A child who laughed her first laugh, who took her first step, who held the hands of her parents as babies do, tiny hands tightly gripping a finger. All of this potential, all of this love, all she could have brought to the world: all of it gone.

“I can’t speak to the specifics of this girl’s life or death, but I can say she was born into the sadness that too often is our world. She was born into the intergenerational trauma of so many black families. This was her inheritance. …

“Look to your children this day and think about that. Then ask: how we can possibly look away?

“I have spent these last weeks travelling Australia speaking to people about how we – Indigenous people – live with the weight of our history.

“We are connected directly to the darkness of our past. We are born out of the legacy of dispossession and suffering and injustice. The crippling malaise that sits at the heart of so many black communities and lives in this country is seeded in that still unresolved grievance that underpins the Australian settlement: Terra Nullius.

“Our land was deemed empty we as a people were denied the fundamental rights that pertain to all humanity. Those things that are self evident – equality and dignity.

“The high court may have ruled in favour of native title, but the original sin of dispossession and the subsequent despair and poverty casts a dark, menacing and long shadow.

“Our lives are shaped by the great forces of history as surely as the lives of peoples of other lands: those who live with the legacy of war in Afghanistan or Syria or Iraq, those hidden behind secrecy and propaganda in North Korea or those emerging from a fractious troubled century of humiliation to grasp the China dream.”

          Stan Grant, “A 10-year-old girl has taken her own life. How can we possibly look away?” The Guardian 9 March 2016


“One in three deaths across the country among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 to 35 is a suicide and the rates of suicide for First Australians is twice that of other Australians”, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator the Hon Nigel Scullion.

“The suicide rate among Indigenous people in Australia is twice that for non-Indigenous people. In some areas, such as the Kimberley region in northern WA and far-north Queensland, the suicide rate is six or seven times that.

“One in four Indigenous suicides occurs in WA. Between 2004-2005 and 2012-2013, hospitalisation rates for self-harm among Indigenous people increased 48%. Hospitalisation rates for non-Indigenous people remained steady.”

     Carla Wahlquist, “Critical response team to tackle ‘ongoing tragedy’ of Indigenous suicide”, The Guardian 18 January 2016

“A Select Committee on Aborigines reported in 1837 to the House of Commons that the state of Australian Aborigines was “barbarous” and “so entirely destitute … of the rudest forms of civil polity, that their claims, whether as sovereigns or proprietors of the soil, have been utterly disregarded” … The theory that the indigenous inhabitants of a “settled” colony had no proprietary interest in the land thus depended on a discriminatory denigration of indigenous inhabitants, their social organization and customs…

“As the Governments of the Australian Colonies and, latterly, the Governments of the Commonwealth, States and Territories have alienated or appropriated to their own purposes most of the land in this country during the last 200 years, the Australian Aboriginal peoples have been substantially dispossessed of their traditional lands. They were dispossessed by the Crown’s exercise of its sovereign powers to grant land to whom it chose and to appropriate to itself the beneficial ownership of parcels of land for the Crown’s purposes. Aboriginal rights and interests were not stripped away by operation of the common law on first settlement by British colonists, but by the exercise of a sovereign authority over land exercised recurrently by Governments. To treat the dispossession of the Australian Aborigines as the working out of the Crown’s acquisition of ownership of all land on first settlement is contrary to history. Aborigines were dispossessed of their land parcel by parcel, to make way for expanding colonial settlement. Their dispossession underwrote the development of the nation.”

       High Court of Australia, Chief Justice Mason presiding, Mabo  v Queensland (No 2) CLR 1 (3 June 1992):           Opinion of Justice Brennan

Successful Museums – An Anniversary Tribute to Stephen Weil

December 7th, 2015

One of the Museum world’s most distinguished museum scholars, Steve Weil, died just over 10 years ago. He was a mentor and friend to myriads of people in many museums, of many ages, in many countries, at numerous conferences and elsewhere. Steve had been Scholar Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Education and Museum Studies and longtime deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian.

A brief biography appeared in the Washington Post and also in the New York Times.

[This introductory post is a work in progress: it concerns one of my principal interests, how organisations work and how decisions get made and why. Additional paragraphs will be added from time to time.]

A very fitting conference supported in part by the Getty Leadership Institute, ‘A Tribute to Stephen Weil: Making Museums Matter, 2006’ was held at the University of Victoria BC, Canada September 11-13. The Institute commissioned this presentation and for support of that I am grateful.

Though parts of this essay have appeared elsewhere the entire piece has not previously been published.

The essay addresses the matter of accountability, how museums might be judged to be effective in the pursuit of their mission and responsibility. Weil was a long time advocate of an approach to this which went beyond the dreaded metrics so beloved of those who believe they are in a position to judge such things. As the decade since 2006 has progressed accountability has become much degraded as corporatisation has invaded museums as it has so many other non-commercial sectors.

Many museums have been increasingly active in embracing change, most particularly in engaging visitors in their learning journey where they make a particular contribution. Likewise in advocating for issues concerning meaning, the value of cultural activities in individual life and in other areas such as biodiversity and evolution and social justice in respect of minorities including Indigenous Peoples. Yet they nevertheless have fallen to the ongoing drive to reduce government expenditure and been affected also by cycles of economic collapse including the Global Financial Crisis.

How museums respond to these pressures is a daily concern of those who lead museums as well as most of those who work in or are associated with museums. How often are they recognised for their success? The Natural History Museum in London, the Melbourne Museum, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. Many others.

At that vitally important level of leadership and governance how common is it to find superior performance? Too often government intrusion and the pressures to maintain the budget both through careful oversight and attracting greater community financial support comes to be the main concern. Too often, leadership ends up in the hands of those who believe they know about money, the law and marketing but understand little of the core mission of museums, the nature of their business and their history.


The concluding paragraphs of the presentation outline the meaning of the (unusual) terms purposiveness and capability as Weil used them. What follows then is a list of issues which the board, the board and executive leadership together and leadership by itself should regularly review. Some may say this is far too process driven. Professional judgement should suffice. Those who say you don’t learn leadership you do it. But organisations are complex and judgements are critical but seldom effective if they are only the judgments of one person. The Cuban Missile Crisis and much of American foreign policy and that of other countries illustrates that convincingly.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and writer practicing at major hospitals in Boston Massachusetts. He was the 2014 Reith lecturer for the BBC. In those lectures he recalled the importance of using lists which had to be checked off by everyone. These helped significantly in major recovery surgery, of people who had been overcome by avalanches on mountains, for instance. Reference was made to the checklists which airline pilots use. In his second lecture he said:

We have made tremendous discoveries, but find it’s extremely complex to deliver on them. We have inadequate homicide investigations, for instance. We have flawed software design. We have intelligence failures. We’ve had tottering banks. And what we see repeatedly, again and again, I think is that as we embark on the 21st century we have found that the 20th century has given us a volume and knowledge and skill that is beyond what any individual can simply hold in their head, can know how to deliver on, and simply do it on their own. The volume of knowledge and skill has exceeded our individual capabilities.

And so then we went to the medieval approach… We’ve issued standards and guidelines and regulations. We’ll take away your licence if you don’t do this. Or, if we’re being nice about it – we’ll pay you more, if you do it, we’ll give you incentives. And that did make improvements in matters, but only a bit. It didn’t get us to what we want. And what we want in the modern version of the world is that the norm is to do X. And the way that we make it the norm are systems. And they can be as simple a system as just checklists. It can be defaults, it can be feedback loops. The important insight is that what we have to focus on is how to deliver on the guidelines and standards and knowledge that we have discovered, how to make it easy for everybody to follow.

These are lists but they are not the simple recitation of statistics, performance indicators which supposedly tell us what has been achieved but lack any information about the factors contributing to the outcomes that have been measured. Worse such lists often reveal what has happened after it is too late to take action to change course or remove impediments. As the enterprise collapses the only course of action is to sack large numbers of staff, cancel programs or restructure with all the damaging outcomes that attend such action. None of that amounts to good governance or leadership! Ambiguity and uncertainty are everywhere and the systems in place have to manage that. That means the right oversight as well as the honesty to recognise when programs and policies don’t work.

In every consideration of policy and achievement a major focus should be on creativity and how people work together. I find it interesting that organisations highly successful in research and development share some features with other types of successful organisations. In the former, considerable effort is put into encouraging staff from different parts of the organisation to meet frequently to discuss issues central to the organisation’s main activity: people have morning tea or coffee and/or lunch together and the most senior staff attend those events. In one, lunch tables have places for a maximum of eight people because it is difficult for a larger number of people to conduct a single conversation. In one, staff have to present a seminar each year on a topic outside their own field of research. In another there are whiteboards in the foyers between section laboratories, and in the garden, which staff use during their discussions.

In a recent discussion on the ABC RN Late Night Live program journalist Laura Tingle, discussing her latest Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia How we forgot how to govern, mentioned that at the Reserve Bank of Australia, a successful organisation which has mostly escaped the depredations of the efficiency experts at the Department of Finance, all the staff go to morning tea.

The point is that in almost all organisations ideas are central to the future and ideas get worked through by conversation where they are evaluated and challenged. Without those discussions ideas may become solidified and enshrined as articles of faith, immune from challenge. That is precisely why boards, when they meet, benefit from a chairperson skilled at encouraging the exchange of views. A relevant story concerns a chairman who put forth a proposal and then asked for contrary views: when none were offered he postponed the meeting for a week by which time he said he wanted to receive contrary opinions.


Too often those responsible for governance do not see their role as both encouraging above average performance by the museum’s leadership, as Peter Drucker would say, and defending the museum against the depredations of those who would marginalise the museum as of little relevance and deserving of less support. The result is inevitable decline. What this essay contributes is, I believe, as apposite now as it was when delivered. There are too few Steve Weil’s around to urge us to think about what is really important.

Society and Community: Governments and Corporations

December 1st, 2015

A year ago, I posted a long piece addressing the proposition that 2014 had been one of the most difficult years Australians had faced in peacetime, a year in which a government showed itself incapable of governing. I observed that the citizenry by and large made clear they were not prepared to be a party to an attack on the economy of those less advantaged, especially when they were told the policies would be fair.

In particular the anger by many in the community was triggered by the first Abbott/Hockey budget which clearly sought to withdraw funding from a wide range of programs critical to the less advantaged in the community. The commentary on that is substantial and does not need further elaboration here.

The consequence was continued low ratings for the Abbott government and eventually in the second half of 2015 a successful challenge for leadership of the Liberal Party and therefore the Prime Ministership by Malcolm Turnbull. Elaboration of that likewise does not need revisiting here. Except to say that it is yet to be seen as to whether critical elements of the Abbott government’s program – in health, education, climate change and in social programs generally as well as various areas of taxation – will in fact be overturned. One can say that the government is at least showing a more reserved and intelligent approach to many issues.

In this follow up post I address significant developments in  the more important policy areas to which this previous essay was directed.

Continue to “Governments and Corporations – An Update

Clearly the two most important events of the year 2015 have been the replacement of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister and (Joe Hockey as Treasurer) by Malcolm Turnbull (as I have said above) and the agreements reached at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP (Conference of the Parties) 21) in December. The continuing horror of conflict in Syria and the consequent exodus of millions from the horror as refugees and asylum seekers to Europe has consequences for Australia as an event of enormous significance for humanity and reactions to it and various terrorist attacks, especially in Paris, continued to fuel anti Islamic sentiment by those who cannot look beyond their petty prejudice and ignorance. The other major issue is the continued slow progress in recognising Indigenous Australians and according them the rights to which they are entitled, not least the right to self-determination.