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Archive for March, 2009


Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Hoots No. 1 – 26 March 2009: Museums have become “our home from home”, Barack Obama’s work schedule has large gaps in which he sets aside time to step back and think or make calls or read and the late Bill Stanner’s essays  published by Black Inc. Australia will support the UN Indigenous Rights Convention which the former government voted against in 2007. *

Museums  are not much like museums anymore: In “Why museums have become our home from home” (The Times March 14, 2009) Hugo Rifkind writes that “People are visiting our galleries and museums at a startling rate. Is it the cafés, the absence of swearing… maybe even the art?”. Rifkind suggests some reasons: that museums “are the best public space we have” and that museums are safe places. Of course they are free but more people may be visiting “because people are getting cleverer”. But first of all he says it is because “quite suddenly, museums aren’t much like museums”!

Leadership lessons: Writing in the New York Review of Books (“The Thirty Days of Barack Obama”, March 26, 2009) Elizabeth Drew observes the following:

“As carefully as Barack Obama prepared for it, the presidency has held some surprises for him””some foreseeable, some not, and some of his own making. Seeking to avoid the mistakes of the early Clinton era, Obama concluded that, unlike Clinton, he didn’t want to hold the numerous meetings that can chew up so much of the president’s time. Instead, according to his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, Obama’s style is to drop by an aide’s office””a restless man, he roams the White House corridors””or stop an aide in a hallway and ask, “How are you coming on that thing we were talking about?” Gibbs says, “The worst thing is not have an answer.” Asked what happens then, Gibbs replied, “He gets that disappointed parent look, and then you better go find an answer.”

“Obama’s publicly announced schedules have large gaps; he makes it a point to set aside time to step back and think””sometimes going for a long, solitary walk around the White House grounds””or make calls, or read. A night owl, he usually takes work home, to be studied after he’s tucked his daughters into bed. Aides say he turns around paperwork fairly quickly, responding to and signing off on their memoranda.”

Stop Press: Barrack Obama is to read from his book “Dreams from my Father” on ABC Radio National’s First Person (weekdays 10:45am) which is part of the Book Show starting 10:00am, from Monday 30th March. (The readings can usually be listened to or podcast.)

Books: Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, persuaded Black Inc to publish the essays by Professor W.E.H. (Bill) Stanner (under the title of “The Dreaming & Other Essays”) by this distinguished Australian anthropologist and has written the introduction. An edited extract from it appeared in The Australian 14 March 2009 (doubtfully available on the web). There are other articles about Stanner and the essays including one by Professor Marcia Langton also in The Australian on March 4 (on the web).

Manne writes, “In 1968 Stanner was invited to deliver the ABC’s Boyer Lectures. In them he talked of the persistence of “the great Australian silence” concerning the Aboriginal dispossession; the belated recognition in Australia of the genius and the strangeness of the indigenous culture the British had so light-heartedly set upon destroying; the emerging possibilities of a racial composition if we could only see that our problem with the Aborigines was less important than their problem with us; the arrogance and certain failure of the policy of assimilation that was inviting the Aborigines to relinquish what it was that made them a distinctive people or, in Stanner’s biting phrase, was asking them to “un-be”; and, finally and tentatively, the question that came more and more to obsess him, the possibility of a historic act of reconciliation through a willingness to contemplate some new deal over the question of the ownership of land.”

Stop Press: Australia will next week officially back the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reversing the Howard Government’s vote against it in 2007. (the US, New Zealand and Canada also voted against it in the General Assembly.) Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin will make a statement on Australia’s change in position on April 3 at Parliament House in Canberra.

Music: Tapestry is a vocal ensemble founded in 1995 by Laurie Monahan, Cristi Catt, and Daniela Tosic. Based in Boston, the ensemble made its concert debut in its hometown with performances of Steve Reich’s Tehillim. The group has established an international reputation for its bold conceptual programming which combines medieval and traditional repertory with contemporary compositions. Their album “Faces of Faces of a Woman” weaves together a mix of tales, music and poetry to reveal the many faces of a woman, ranging from 12th century nun Hildegard von Bingen to 16th century Irish pirate Grace O’Malley to 20th century Russian poet Anna Akmatova together with music of female troubadours, traditional songs, and lullabies including “Careless Love”. Astonishingly wonderful!

Next week: A quotation about critics from someone who knew heretic and philosopher Giordano Bruno (whose biography by Ingrid Rowland has recently been published), burned at the stake in Rome in February 1600, and two amazing biological stories about caterpillars being welcomed in the nests of ants and the courtship of Bower Birds – if you haven’t heard them already on the Science Show with Robyn Williams. And an inquiry into Britain’s invasion of Iraq: what might the consequences be?

This page, which should appear weekly, is an addition to the blogs page.

Securing the Future

Monday, March 9th, 2009

“I think we live in difficult and dangerous times. We’re faced with problems that are both unprecedented and serious caused by human numbers and associated impacts exceeding the globe’s sustainable limits. The problems are not yet insuperable. But to solve them we require a paradoxical mixture; not only the questioning fact-based spirit of the Enlightenment to acknowledge the problems and seek solutions to them, but also people and institutions showing high levels of cooperative behaviour, the evolutionary origins of which may well be associated with inflexible and authoritarian beliefs and structures which are antithetic to such a questioning spirit.”

(Lord Robert May speaking at the Lowy Institute, 19 November 2007; excerpt from transcript, ABC Science Show, 1 December 2007)

Asked what he thought was the biggest challenge museums faced these days, Thomas P. Campbell, 46, appointed September 9 to be Director and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to succeed Philippe de Montebello at the beginning of 2009, said without hesitation, “A crisis of confidence.” In his view museums are often cowed by an audience that they don’t fully understand.

“There is a fear that the collections themselves are not sufficient, that one has to somehow gussy them up with presentations and dumb them down to two-syllable labels that can be read by a 6-year-old,” he said. “And of course you should never underestimate your audience.

“In this age of communication and the Internet our local and international audiences are actually very sophisticated. So the big challenge is how to deliver different levels of information to different audiences.”

Carol Vogel, “From Tapestries to Top Job, Ready for Met’s Challenges” New York Times September 11, 2008

There is no inherent reason why we should always trust those in positions of authority.

There are five main points to make about museums in Australia in mid-2008, and the future, where they should be and how they might get there. Five because, as I learned many years ago, most people manage to keep seven, plus or minus two, things in their head at any one time. And if we want to move together it is a good idea if we can do so without having to look up the book all the time to find the right lines to speak.

1, Get the social processes right

2, Be engaged

3, Believe in our own goals

4, Celebrate achievement

5, Form alliances.

And we need to laugh more!

None of these justify the existence of museums or distinguish them as special. Rather they recognise that museums are social organisations, groups of people. That is reflected especially in the first point. Professionalism will flourish in an environment conducive to that flourishing!

“Museums are coalitions of like-minded people in search of a constituency, one that will value the product more than they pay to gain access to it. Like clever politicians, the successful museum person knows the utility of the common agenda, vocabulary and shared values. But they know also that the logic of the market is imperfect and that trusted allies are essential. The real experience will give a competitive advantage but the collections and associated scholarship will secure the future only when influential constituencies value the past and its lessons.”

Museums are caught up in the financial meltdown like everyone else. However, let’s not forget that over the last several decades a lot of things have gotten in the way of clearly seeing a viable future. I am not talking about museums having lost their way and don’t know whether they are Disneyland or academies.

In times like these – the present financial crisis – the tendency is to see that the main game is ensuring the health of the budget. Unfortunately, that has often been the focus over the last several decades as neoliberal and market-driven philosophies have held sway. Accountability and transparency have been demanded but seldom exercised by those making the most strident demands for it. A fundamental of this philosophy is its inherent short run focus. But most organisations, particularly museums, have to have a long term vision.

The principal contributions of board and executive, indeed of everyone in the organisation, are those which provide an environment conducive to the ongoing goal to acquire, conserve and research material evidence of people and their environment so as to make a difference to public understanding. Excitement and understanding!

The whole point of all this is not to pursue management as an end in itself but to get things working so that the really important stuff, doing what the show is set up to achieve, can be done and done well!

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