- Museums in 2003
- Science Programs at the Smithsonian reviewed
- The Parthenon Marbles
- British Museum celebrates 250 years
- The ‘Universal Museum’ Declaration
- Return of Human Remains
- The National Museum of Iraq
- Funding of museums
- The Most Visited Museum In Australia
- Resignations & Appointments
- National Museum of Australia
- The Australian Museum, Sydney
In this section are summaries of major events and issues concerning museums as reported in the media, particularly the print media. I hold articles culled from major Australian newspapers (The Australian, Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Financial Review), the Guardian (London) and the New York Times. Occasionally I gain articles from the Washington Post, the Globe and Mail (Toronto), the Independent (London), the Times (London) and the Chicago Tribune and also electronic media (BBC and ABC).
The stories below cover the year 2003 (to November). I am currently following a number of stories including the following:
- The Australian Museum, Sydney and the appointment of new senior executives, especially as it relates to issues of governance and relations with government
- The National Museum of Australia and its public programming and governance following the Carroll review
- The funding of ‘national’ museums in Britain, especially the British Museum, Tate Modern and the Natural History Museum
- The funding of museums in the USA
- The nature of museums and their relations with their visitors and with communities
- Return of cultural property, especially of human remains of indigenous peoples held in museums in Britain (following the Palmer report); see Recent Developments and British Government’s Working Group for background.
- The relocation of the Western Australian Museum, especially its natural history collections following the discovery of asbestos in the Francis Street buildings.
Stories concerning the years 2000 through 2002 are contained in the archive of museum literature.
Canadian Museum of Civilization,Â (More)
Museums in 2003
The major issues confronting museums this past year include some perennial issues such as leadership and governance and funding as well as thefts and return of cultural property. And of course exhibitions: there were very exciting exhibitions at Tate Modern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and some other art museums, including museums in Australia where the opening of new galleries for the National Gallery of Victoria drew extraordinary crowds.
There were two other kinds of issues which were very significant, significant because of their intensity, the magnitude of the impact. These were the destruction and looting of much of the National Museum of Iraq and the controversy of the exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. One of the other issues highlighted concerns the Parthenon Marbles and the claims by Greece for their return from the British Museum.
In the following commentaries these stories are introduced by focusing on the latest reports followed by some background; the main source of information is mentioned.
This edition covers the following stories:
- Science programs at the Smithsonian Institution
- The Parthenon Marbles
- British Museum celebrates 250 years
- The ‘Universal Museum‘ Declaration
- Return of Human Remains
- The National Museum of Iraq
- Funding of museums
- The most visited museum in Australia (The National Gallery of Victoria/Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square)
- Resignations & Appointments (Maxwell Anderson (Whitney) & Cristian Samper (Smithsonian)
- Controversy (Smithsonian)
- National Museum of Australia
- The Australian Museum, Sydney
A major review by two of the leading Research bodies in the US reported late 2002/early 2003 on their review of science programs at the Smithsonian Institution.
On 31 October 2002 the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council reported that direct Government funding of Smithsonian science centers should continue. The report said, in part, “Three research centers of the Smithsonian Institution should remain exempt from having to compete for federal research dollars because they make unique contributions to the scientific and museum communities, says a new report by the National Academies’ National Research Council. The committee that wrote the report also said that three other Smithsonian research centers should continue to receive federal funding since they are performing science of the highest quality and already compete for much of their government research money.
“A second report to be issued today by the National Academy of Public Administration — a separate organization that is not part of the National Academies — also calls for the continuation of direct appropriations for Smithsonian science centers. Its study was conducted parallel to the Research Council study.
Model of the Aztec city in The Zocalo, Mexico City (More)
“It is true that competition for federal research funding helps ensure high-quality science, but much of the research at the Smithsonian is already supported by competitive grants, and its quality is not in doubt,” said the Research Council committee’s chair Cornelius J. Pings, president emeritus, Association of American Universities, now living in Pasadena, Calif. “There would be little or no scientific benefit to transferring funds away from Smithsonian research to a competitive mechanism. In fact, withdrawing federal support would likely lead to the demise of much of the institution’s research and compromise its mission to ‘increase and diffuse knowledge.'”
“The White House Office of Management and Budget asked for the review of Smithsonian research after expressing concern that the research was not ” inherently unique” enough to justify noncompetitive funding. In particular, OMB wanted to know how much of the money directly appropriated for Smithsonian research should be made available to all scientists via competitive grants that would be administered by the National Science Foundation.
In “Panel Offers Blueprint to Fix Smithsonian’s ‘Unfocused and Underfunded’ Science Programs” (The New York Times 9 January), Elizabeth Olson reported, “The Smithsonian Institution should refocus its vast scientific research on four major areas, and it should receive more federal and private money for that mission, a commission has concluded. In recent decades, the Smithsonian has been diverted by the expansion of its museums, and its science programs have been ”unfocused and underfunded,” said the commission’s chairman, Dr. Jeremy A. Sabloff, director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
“The commission urged the Smithsonian, which covers fields from astronomy to zoology, to concentrate on the origin and nature of the universe, the formation and evolution of Earth and other planets, the discovery and understanding of life’s diversity and the study of human diversity and culture change. Those areas, the panel said in a report issued on Tuesday, are closely related to the institution’s major centers and collections and reflect its staff members’ expertise.
“In addition, a wildlife conservation center, threatened earlier with closing, should continue to operate, the panel concluded, but only if it succeeds in finding more private money. The findings echoed two earlier studies, released in October, that science centers at the 156-year-old Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum and research complex, should continue to receive federal support because in many cases its work is not duplicated elsewhere.
“The National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Public Administration disagreed with earlier suggestions by Bush administration budget officials that $35 million of the Smithsonian’s research money be transferred to another agency. In response, the Smithsonian’s governing board agreed to keep the institution’s research activities intact and appointed the panel in May 2001 to review the research centers, which are as varied as its astronomical observatory at Harvard and its Arctic Studies Center in Anchorage.
“The board endorsed the commission’s recommendations on Tuesday.”
This is an extraordinarily long running campaign which shows little sign of resolution. As long ago as January 1999, the European Parliament called on the UK Government to give positive consideration to Greece’s request for the return of the Elgin Marbles to their natural site.
In “Virtual intervention in battle over Parthenon marbles” (Guardian October 7, 2003), Fiachra Gibbons, Maev Kennedy and David Hencke reported,
“The British Museum yesterday issued its most stinging rejection yet of Greek pleas for the return of the Parthenon marbles, on the day an exhibition opened to show how even a partial return of the sculptures could dramatically alter the way they are seen.
“Neil MacGregor, the first director of the museum to agree to meet representatives from Greece, in effect slammed the door on them yesterday in a speech at the Museums Association conference in Brighton, an event dominated by the issue of the marbles.
“Mr MacGregor said that it was the museum’s duty to preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol.
“But with half of the marbles still in Greece, and with a museum being built to house them at the foot of the Acropolis, campaigners for their return said that they found the British Museum’s attitude “insulting”.
Greece is constructing a special museum on the side of the Athens Acropolis to house the Marbles and objections to this construction that valuable archaeological sites were being irrevocably damaged have been lost in the courts. The Greek culture minister, Professor Evangelos Venizelos, has already conceded that the British Museum can retain ownership of the marbles if they lend them to the museum in Athens. The Greeks are also prepared to make its galleries “an official outpost of the British Museum”.
But MacGregor has consistently asserted that the Trustees of the BM will not allow the removal of the Marbles. At the meetings of the Museums Association in Brighton in early October MacGregor said, ” it was the museum’s duty to preserve the universality of the marbles, and to protect them from being appropriated as a nationalistic political symbol.
George Vardas from Australia responded (Guardian 8 October), “the latest pronouncement that the British Museum acts as a bastion “against fundamentalism” is yet another attempt to reinvent the British Museum as some kind of museum of mankind that must remain detached from any debate regarding the return of cultural treasures. .. I found it rather ironic that this museum that calls itself the “collective memory of mankind” suffers from amnesia when it comes to displaying the Bassae frieze or the Benin Bronzes. I am afraid that its director’s latest statements has reaffirmed that it is still fundamentally a citadel of colonialism.”
On the other hand Val Bott of London (same issue of the Guardian), “[Neil Macgregor] set out the British Museum’s origins in the political and intellectual life of the 1750s. He made a powerful case for retaining these rich collections together as a resource for education, enjoyment and inspiration, independent of nationalistic and political symbolism.”
Earlier (“Marbles will not be returned”, Fiachra Gibbons, The Guardian, August 4), it was reported that “the museum said that although there were discussions about other loans to a cultural Olympiad to coincide with the Games, the marbles were not up for grabs. “The trustees cannot envisage any circumstances under which they could accede to the Greek government’s request for the permanent removal of the sculptures from London,”
A MORI poll conducted in October 2002 found that only 7% of the British public still opposed the return of the Marbles under any conditions.
In October 2003 a virtual exhibition showing how the Marbles in the British Museum would appear united with those remaining in Athens opened at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The display was organised by British campaigners for the return of the Marbles to Greece. Freddie New, of the British Committee for the Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles campaign group, said: “There has been a misconception in Britain that the entirety of the collection is in the British Museum. This [exhibition] shows that is not the case and that, furthermore, the divide is significant.” The reconstruction, “Marbles Reunited”, showed the marbles in London in colour while those in Athens, where they adorned the temple of Athena 2, 500 years ago, are in white (Louise Jury, “Parthenon marbles ‘reunited’ in exhibition”, The Independent, 7 October).
The Economist Magazine sponsored a conference on the Marbles in March 2003 in Athens. At it William St Clair, senior Research Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge and author of Lord Elgin and the Marbles (OUP, 1998) summarised the history of the acquisition by the British Museum of the Marbles and the arguments supporting the assertion that they were legally acquired. (The article appeared on the Arts Business Exchange 2003 site.) He also again recounted how the sculptures had been ‘cleaned’ with harsh abrasives and metal tools in 1937 and 1938. He concludes, “The arguments from Greece for the return of those parts of the Parthenon that are at present abroad [presently] makes no claim for ownership. It avoids all questions of legality … and is not concerned as to what might have happened if Elgin had not taken them.. And seen that way, the proposal rightly puts the needs of the monument and of visitors and scholars first, enabling the scattered fragments to be brought together and viewed and studies in the changing natural light for which they were designed.”
St Clair also comments on the “Universal Declaration” (see below).
The British Museum celebrated its 250th birthday in June 2003. Late 2002 the Museum was involved in a Declaration on the Universal Museum (see next two items).
In June Tim Adams (“His place in history”, The Observer June 8, 2003) was able to report, “For Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum in its 250th year, the challenge of running the world’s finest heritage collection is to consider the future as well as the past.
“Given that it contains the traces and treasures of all our millennia, a year might not seem a very long time for the British Museum. It’s long enough for its story to have been quietly transformed, however. Twelve months ago, the tales coming out of the world’s greatest theatre of memory were of strikes and redundancies and funding crises; of keepers of ethnography and curators of Sumerian artefacts somewhere near the end of their considerable wits.
“A year on, as the museum celebrates its 250th anniversary – and wraps itself in a jaunty red bow – the narrative seems to promise happier plot twists: there is realistic talk of the institution being debt free by next spring; of its avoiding compulsory redundancies; and of a reaffirmation of its unique place as ‘not simply a world heritage site, but as the site of world heritage’.
“The man who has begun to effect these changes, and who confidently makes these claims, is Neil MacGregor, who came here with an almost messianic reputation from the National Gallery last September.”
Adams lists five “must see” exhibits starting with the Rosetta Stone. The Parthenon Marbles are not in the list. A BBC film and a number of articles deal with the “Top Ten” British treasures.
Later in the month the Museum announced discovery of a “precious find, the Ringlemere Cup, a Bronze Age golden cup unearthed by a metal detector enthusiast in Kent. In “British Museum’s cup runs over”, Maev Kennedy (The Guardian, June 26) reported that the cup had been bought for Â£270,000 and will be the star of a spectacular touring exhibition. The cup is still crumpled, mangled by ploughing which had flattened the burial mound where it was hidden around 1600BC.
Commenting on a special exhibition to commemorate the birthday (“The Museum of the Mind”, The Guardian, June 4), noted art critic and writer Jonathan Jones wrote, “If all the ideas implicit in this show were physically manifest in the exhibition itself, it would be a brilliant, dizzying affair. Unfortunately, those ideas seem to have stayed in the curators’ heads. Between the idea and the reality falls the explanatory text. A veritable wall of words greets you. The British Museum has not lost its affection for presentation boards and photoshop collages. The very title is a mouthful, with a subtitle: Art and Memory in World Cultures. Riffing on the Renaissance idea of architecture of memory, the exhibition imagines the British Museum – celebrating its 250th anniversary – as a memory palace. But this seems unnecessarily cumbersome for a briefish show. ”
(In an editorial June 7 the Guardian said, “In the global information age museums still have a vital role to play: ensuring that understanding remains the main attraction.”)
In early December 2002, nineteen (reported wrongly at least once to be 40) of the world’s top museums issued a statement firmly opposing the repatriation of precious artefacts seized in colonial times. Amongst the fullest reports on this extraordinary statement was that by Nick Fielding (Sunday Times (London), December 8, “Museums unite against return of imperial ‘loot’ “). Fielding reported, “Released today, it comes amid growing pressure from nations such as Greece and Egypt that lost many of their finest treasures when they were plundered in the 19th century, most notably by Britain.
“It is likely to bring to a head a growing international debate over the role of museums and the proper resting place of treasures as diverse as the Elgin marbles and Benin bronzes held in London, the Pergamon altar in Berlin and 5,000 ancient Egyptian works in the Louvre in Paris, including a huge statue of Ramses II.
“The museums that put their names to the statement include the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Berlin Museum. Their “statement on the value of the universal museum” rules out the return of plundered art, arguing that their international role in helping to promote culture should supersede narrower considerations of nationalism and ownership. “We should acknowledge the essentially destructive nature of the repatriation of objects … Museums are agents in the development of culture, whose mission is to foster knowledge by a continuous process of reinterpretation. They serve not just the citizens of one nation, but the people of every nation,” says the statement.
“The signatories are all exhibiting museums that meet in an informal grouping to discuss issues they share. The name of the British Museum is included but other UK museums have deliberately been left out to highlight the international nature of the group.
“Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum… said last night it was vital that museums asserted their role as international institutions for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
“”The British Museum was founded in 1753 as a museum of the world,” he said. “All the signatories are predicated on the notion that they belong to everybody.” Nobody sought to justify what had happened in the past, he said, but it was a question of dealing with the present: “We were particularly concerned after the Greek government made it official policy to seek the return of the Elgin marbles. If all museums were to send back items acquired abroad, the essential nature of these great collections would disappear and we would all be the poorer for it.”
“MacGregor said this was a separate issue from the theft of cultural objects during the second world war, where all museums had pledged to search their collections and return items stolen by the Nazis. The museums’ statement asserts that: “The international museum community shares the belief that illegal traffic in archaeological, artistic and ethnic objects must be firmly discouraged.” But it adds that objects and monuments installed “decades and even centuries ago in museums throughout Europe and America” were acquired under very different conditions.
The report continued, “Museums have become increasingly sensitive to demands for restitution, with some taking a sympathetic attitude towards certain categories of artefact. About 40 British museums have agreed, for example, to return items including human remains taken from Australian aborigines and from native Americans.”
Martin Bailey (“We serve all cultures, say the big, global museums”, TheArtNewspaper, 21 January) reported, “The world’s leading museums have for the first time united to issue a declaration. Their statement on “the importance and value of universal museums” follows increasing concern about the politicisation of Greek claims against the British Museum (BM) over the Parthenon Marbles.
“Although the declaration released in December does not specifically mention the marbles, it points out that the acquisition of classical antiquities from Greece by European and North American museums “marked the significance of Greek sculpture for mankind as a whole and its enduring value for the contemporary world.”
“The statement followed the meeting in Munich last October of what is known as the International Group of Organisers of Large-scale Exhibitions.
Despite its uninspiring title, this is a powerful forum which comprises the directors of the world’s 40 or so leading museums and galleries, who meet annually to discuss common concerns.”
The Declaration was signed by, among others, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Louvre (Paris), the Hermitage (St Petersburg), the Prado (Madrid), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and the State Museums of Berlin.
This statement drew numerous comments from many museums and people. Amongst the strongest was from Williams St Clair (see above under Parthenon Marbles). In part, St Clair says (Arts Business Exchange May 2003 Vol 32, p 20-23), “British Museum authorities have sought to find new political ground on which to take their stand. They now seek to revive the notion of a universal museum., in which all the arts of all the civilizations of the world can be seen together. In the British Museum, they say, you can see Greek art in context, alongside Egyptian, Assyrian, and Chinese art. To send back the Marbles to Greece, they say, would destroy this heritage.
“The ideal of a universal museum was part of the aspiration of the European Enlightenment, carried into effect in many Western countries during the nineteenth century. The world’s art, so the argument ran, should no longer be the private preserve of aristocracies. The general public too should be given some experience of the greatest artistic achievements of the ancient and modern worlds, the originals of which were mostly in private palaces or in galleries in faraway countries. This was done, in the case of sculptures, by plaster casts, in the case of paintings by having professional artists make excellent copies.
“… The recent attempt by eighteen museums to claim to be universal museums has nothing to do with the humanist ideals of the past. For a start, most of these museums are only interested in showing original pieces. Only a handful have even some antiquities from even some of the many civilizations that once existed. Even if you were to put all the collections of the eighteen together, they would still only represent a small and unrepresentative sample.
“And, as for this new idea of what constitutes context, it is hardly likely to appeal either to the mobile public who live in the developed west, or to the citizens of those countries who cannot afford to travel abroad. But, in any case, the idea that a museum in a northern country is the best context in which to appreciate an ancient monument such as the Parthenon is absurd. As a friend of mine from Eastern Europe said when she heard this new line being offered on television by the previous director. Is he saying I cannot appreciate the Alhambra by going to Spain to look at it because there are no Greek temples nearby? Is he suggesting that parts of the Alhambra should be broken off and sent to museums round the world which have strong collections of Chinese art?”
For over two years a special committee established by the British Government has been considering the matter of the claims for return from museum collection in Britain of remains of indigenous peoples held in the collections of museums. (An update on this is given at Recent Developments in Museums and relations with Indigenous Peoples
In “Aboriginal Ancestors A Step Nearer Home”, Peter Fray & Debra Jopson (The Sydney Morning Herald 6 November) reported, “Aboriginal remains in British museums could be repatriated to Australia under controversial proposals being considered by the Blair Government.
“An influential and independent working group’s two-year investigation into one of science’s most contentious issues has supported changing British laws to allow the Natural History Museum, the keeper of the world’s most important bone collections, to return culturally sensitive indigenous remains.
“Most of the thousands of bones and other body parts, including hair, were removed without consent during colonial rule. The museum and other key British institutions have resisted Aboriginal pressure to return them, often citing national or collection-specific laws, which they say prevent it.
“The working group, established by the British Government, has recommended licensing museum collections of human remains and setting up an independent tribunal to rule on claims from traditional owners or tribal leaders…
“British museums hold an estimated 60,000 human remains, of which about 10,000 are believed to be those of overseas indigenous peoples, including up to 1000 Aborigines. The Natural History Museum has 20,000 items.”
Earlier, in “Plundered Aboriginal remains go home to Australia”, David Fickling (The Guardian, April 10, 2003), reported,
“The bodies of 75 Aboriginal men and women were returned to Australia yesterday after spending decades in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons in London.
“It is one of the biggest repatriations of Aboriginal remains from Britain where museums are believed to hold the body parts of 5,000 indigenous Australians. Most were taken from graves by anthropologists and doctors in the 19th century. Others are believed to have been collected in more dubious circumstances.”
When coalition forces led by the US invaded Iraq in April the museum in Baghdad housing a huge collection of valuable artefacts of all kinds was plundered and much of it destroyed. Following initial outrage around the world by archaeologists and many others, in the course of which Dr Martin Sullivan and Gary Vikan resigned from the U.S. President’s Advisory Committee on Cultural Property (“Bush Cultural Advisers Quit Over Iraq Museum Theft” by Niala Boodhoo on the CommonDreams website, April 17, 2003) in protest over the failure of U.S. forces to prevent the wholesale looting of priceless treasures from Baghdad’s antiquities museum. They said the U.S. military had had advance warning of the danger to Iraq’s historical treasures. “We certainly know the value of oil but we certainly don’t know the value of historical artifacts,” Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, told Reuters on Thursday.
“It didn’t have to happen,” Martin Sullivan said of the objects that were destroyed or stolen from the Iraqi National Museum in a wave of looting that erupted as U.S.-led forces ended President Saddam Hussein’s rule last week. “In a pre-emptive war that’s the kind of thing you should have planned for…” The report said that antiquities experts have said they were given assurances months ago from U.S. military planners that Iraq’s historic artifacts and sites would be protected by occupying forces.
At the end of April representatives of many of the world’s major museums gathered amid the ancient artifacts of the British Museum on 29 April to announce a campaign to rebuild as much as possible the plundered cultural institutions of Iraq (Martin Gottlieb. “Campaign Starts to Help Iraq Rebuild Cultural Institutions”, The New York Times, 30 April).
“Experts from the Louvre in Paris, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Berlin’s State Museum and Russia’s Hermitage unveiled a plan to inventory within six months the losses in a wave of looting at the National Museum in Baghdad, the National Library and other museums and sites. They also pledged to provide assistance to their beleaguered Iraqi colleagues in restoring damaged antiquities. The meeting included archaeologists from leading Western universities and officials of Unesco and the British government.
“A Unesco representative announced that Koichiro Matsuura, the organization’s director general, would meet with Secretary General Kofi Annan Wednesday to ask him to urge the Security Council to pass a resolution imposing an embargo for a ”limited period” on the sale of all Iraqi cultural objects on the international market.
“The measures were proposed to curb the growing trade in illicit antiquities that is believed to have absorbed thousands of objects looted from museums and archaeological sites after the first Persian Gulf war in 1991.
“Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, said that his institution would act as a clearinghouse for efforts to help Iraqi specialists find looted objects and restore damaged ones. Donny George, the research director of Iraq’s National Museum, described 20 extraordinarily important items that are missing from its collection after it was ransacked as American troops moved into the city earlier this month.”
Professor Dan Potts (University of Sydney) has also been involved in efforts to recover and document the Museum’s treasures and a report The Minders: Iraq’s Treasures on the ABC Radio National for Sunday 18 May deals with that.
Following initial fears, and claims, that the majority of the collections had been looted and/or destroyed, others maintained that this was not so but that the majority of the most precious material had been hidden before troops arrived in Baghdad and were quite safe.
Eleanor Robson, a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, asked in June (“The truth behind the sacking of a cultural heritage is far less colourful than the allegations of corruption and cover-up”, The Guardian, June 18), “What is the true extent of the losses to the Iraq Museum -170,000 objects or only 33? The arguments have raged these past two weeks as accusations of corruption, incompetence and cover-ups have flown around. Most notably, Dan Cruickshank’s BBC film Raiders of the Lost Art insinuated that the staff had grossly misled the military and the press over the extent of the losses, been involved with the looting themselves, allowed the museum to be used as a military position, and had perhaps even harboured Saddam Hussein. The truth is less colourful.”
In early July Jonathan Steele (The Guardian July 4, “First exhibition since war at showcase of Iraq antiquities”) reported from Baghdad, “Under the cold gaze of dozens of heavily armed US troops, the first visitors were allowed back into the Iraq museum yesterday to admire treasures from its collection of Mesopotamian art that escaped the looters who ransacked the building when Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed.
“The exhibition was a one-day wonder, more of a photo-opportunity than a real revival of what was once one of the world’s best collections of pre-Hellenic statuary, gold jewellery, and cuneiform tablets.
“A few priceless items on display had been stolen but were recently returned under a “no questions asked” amnesty that allowed people to bring stolen goods back with no fear of arrest. One of the best of these, the Warka vase – a 5ft-high alabaster vessel from 3000BC encircled by several layers of sculpted figures, still with traces of red and grain colouring – lay in a glass case on its side yesterday, smashed by thieves into 15 pieces but at least back where it belongs.
A few days later, in “Kill looters, urges archaeologist” Maev Kennedy (The Guardian, July 9) reported that Donny George, head of research at the museum service, said gangs of up to 300 were systematically ransacking archaeological sites, many untouched by archaeologists. The country has more than 10,000 registered sites, ranging from a few square metres to the huge sites of some of the oldest cities in the world. “They are armed, and they will shoot,” he said. Dr George and the Baghdad museum director, Nawala al Mutawwali, emphatically denied that any museum staff were implicated in the thefts from the collections. Both have been the target of repeated accusations that some staff at least colluded with the looting, and then exaggerated the scale of the destruction.
Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos Wednesday, September 10 presented to the media a near final report of the investigation into the theft and looting at the Museum (still active as of 2 December 2003).
Bogdanos reminded the audience that “in mid-April of this year, it was widely reported that over 170,000 artifacts had been stolen or looted from the museum in Baghdad. After fierce fighting, U.S. forces finally secured the area surrounding the museum, and on the 16th of April, a tank platoon was positioned on the museum compound to prevent any further damage.
“The U.S. government then dispatched a 13-member team from U.S. Central Command, the Joint Interagency Task Force, made up of 10 different federal agencies. They … were sent to begin the investigation and to begin the recovery of the items.
“From the outset, the primary goal of this investigation has been the recovery of the items, the missing and stolen antiquities, and not necessarily criminal prosecution. The methodology was tailored accordingly, and it comprised four components. First was to determine precisely what was missing. Second was to disseminate photographs of those missing items to the international law enforcement and art communities to aid in interdiction and confiscation. Third was to initiate community outreach with religious and community leaders and enlist your aid as well as theirs in promoting an amnesty or no- questions-asked policy. And finally, to develop leads in the Baghdad community and then conduct raids based on that information on targeted locations.
“Three thousand, four hundred eleven items have been recovered. Of those, about half, 1,731, have come from Iraqi citizens pursuant to the amnesty or “no questions asked” policy. Again, most stress their desire to turn these over as part of Iraqis’ culture.
“The remaining 1,679 items have been recovered as the result of sound law enforcement techniques, from raids in Baghdad, to random car stops at checkpoints throughout Iraq, to increased vigilance at international borders… Altogether, 911 pieces have been recovered in Iraq, while another 768 have come from numerous seizures in Jordan, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S.
“In total, the number of artifacts now known to be missing from the museum stands at slightly over 10,000. As it has for over the last five months, this number will change on a daily basis. What is accurate today will not be accurate tomorrow. More items will be found. The inventory will be completed, and more items will be found to be missing or will be found in other parts of the museum.
“The team’s mission was to conduct a preliminary investigation into the theft and to begin the process of restoring Iraq’s past, preserving her heritage for future generations. This phase of the investigation is substantially complete. The evidentiary findings will be turned over to Iraqi authorities for criminal prosecution if they deem it appropriate.”
There is much more to be said about this and the media has paid a great deal of attention to the issues. There were numerous reports in the New York Times.
A number of museums, including the British Museum, contributed special resources as a matter of urgency to assist in the documentation and recovery of the looted artefacts.
Museums in Britain (and in Europe), in the USA, Canada and Australia are experiencing severe reductions in funding, especially but not exclusively funding from government.
Australia: In Australia, for instance, Melbourne’s cultural institutions reached crisis point early in the year. Robin Usher reported in March (The Age 6 March, “Cash strife threat to arts institutions”), “Several of Melbourne’s leading cultural institutions are in financial strife and their future is uncertain because of what they say is a multimillion-dollar shortage of Government funding. The $290 million Melbourne Museum in Carlton heads a list of institutions pleading for more financial and political support from the Bracks Government to sustain their operations. Others facing chronic financial problems are the Arts Centre, the State Library and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art at Southbank. The crisis has prompted criticism of Arts Minister Mary Delahunty by senior members of the arts community, at least in private.”
Two months later “Welcome bailout for ailing museum – Brumby’s Budget”, Georgina Safe, The Australian, 7 May) it was reported that, “the debt-ridden Melbourne Museum yesterday received a vital bailout as part of a much-needed $100 million funding injection to Victoria’s cultural institutions.
“We now have a fully sustainable organisation,” museum director Patrick Greene said. “That is huge step forward and fantastic news.”
“A whopping $127.6 million in recurrent funding to the arts – up from $28.8 million last year – was the centrepiece of yesterday’s arts allocation. The money delivers a lifeline to the National Gallery of Victoria, The Australian Centre for the Moving Image, and Museum Victoria (the parent body that operates the Melbourne Museum).
In Western Australia, the Western Australian Museum Museum’s Francis Street site housing exhibitions and natural history staff was closed to the public after an asbestos scare in February. The cost of moving the collections and staff could be $25m (Carmelo Amalfi, The West Australian 3 November). “The State Government faces a multi-million-dollar cost blow-out over its decision to move WA Museum staff and some of the State’s most precious collections to Welshpool.
“The Department of Culture and the Arts, which is overseeing the move, has confirmed that $5 million had been set aside for the relocation but would not say how much it would cost to fit security systems and fire alarms at the 16,500sqm Kew Street site [where the staff and collections are to be relocated on an "interim basis"].
“… a future museum would include administration and exhibition space, but not the collections, which would remain permanently at Kew Street where public access was limited. Angry staff were reported as saying there was a strong feeling that the State’s oldest scientific organisation would never again have a presence in Perth, despite what the Minister promised.”
USA: In the USA almost every State faces vast deficits for a variety of reasons including unfunded federal legislation requiring action by the States. In “New York Cultural Groups Outline Budget-Cut Toll” Robin Pogrebin (New York Times, 15 May 2003) reported, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art would close some galleries. The Bronx Zoo would close for the winter and charge school groups for the first time in its 104-year history. The American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, would shut it doors two days a week.
“These are some of the painful measures that New York City cultural institutions say they might have to take if Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposed budget cuts are approved. The budget is scheduled to be adopted on June 5. It is a bleak picture outlined in a report that these institutions are to release this morning to keep pressure on the city in a time of financial strain. The report was prepared by the Cultural Institutions Group, a league of organizations owned by the city or occupying city land. Its pages catalog potential reductions in hours, programming and employees at 34 institutions.
“The report warns in particular that as many as 1,000 staff members would have to be dismissed under the mayor’s budget plan, adding to the 450 jobs already eliminated in the 2002-3 fiscal year…
“At the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, the budget would mean cuts in employees, services and hours. ”It reduces our funding from the city back to the level of 1986, which was the year we opened and were only open nine months,” said Dr. Alan J. Friedman, director of the museum. ”That’s a drastic cut. It will fundamentally change the nature of operations of an institution like ours.”
The Washington Post reported 10 July (Jacqueline Trescott, “Gifts to Smithsonian Drop Dramatically”), “In the six months ending in March, the Smithsonian raised $51 million. In the same period a year earlier it brought in $117 million — including $10 million gifts from Lockheed Martin, General Motors and the James S. McDonnell Charitable Trust.” It also reported a $10 million gift from the Oneida Nation and earlier gifts by the Mashantucket Pequot Nation of $10 million, of $65 millions from Steven Udvar-Hazy, $30 millions from the Donald Reynolds Foundation for the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and additional projects.
Britain: And in Britain it is becoming very tense indeed. Fiachra Gibbons (“Hard-pressed museums in revolt over government funding”, The Guardian, November 22) reported, “Two years after the introduction of free admission, national institutions struggle to find the money to keep the lights on.
“Visitors to Tate Modern could be forgiven for thinking that the conceptual art on show in its galleries has followed them into the toilets. For its cubicles are now adorned with a discreet notice – similar to those underneath some of its most famous paintings – thanking an anonymous benefactor for donating the wherewithal to keep them in toilet rolls.
“And no, it is not a joke. Times are indeed so hard for our national museums – who have never had so many visitors – that they are being forced to go cap in hand to pay for bog-standard two-ply tissue.
“With up to 30,000 people a day pouring into the Turbine Hall to see Olafur Eliasson’s spine-chilling, apocalyptic, mist-laden sunset, and visitor numbers buoyant, the Tate just does not have the cash to meet all its running costs.
“And it is not alone. Two years almost to the day since free admission was finally introduced by the government – perhaps New Labour’s greatest cultural achievement – the viability of the policy that has brought millions of new visitors is being called into question.
“The National Gallery, which heroically held the line against charging under former director Neil McGregor, is in the throes of a much greater financial crisis, with galleries closed and its director, Charles Saumarez Smith, claiming the “attrition in core funding” is threatening its future.
“At the British Museum, where Mr McGregor moved 18 months ago, several galleries are closed every day and staff have been laid off after Whitehall made it clear there would be no more money. Again, the root of its woes was the museum’s refusal to sacrifice the principle of free access for all by imposing charges.
“Even the formerly charging museums – which were compensated for dropping their admission fees – are in revolt. Sir Neil Chalmers, the director of The Natural History Museum, yesterday gave this dire warning: if the government does not increase its grant, he will bring the turnstiles back. Greater revenue from its shops and restaurants does not make up for wear and tear and the extra staff the museum needs to cope with a third more visitors, he said.
“”We were told we would be compensated for our loss of income through charging and for a measure of wear and tear and other costs. The indications now from the department of culture are that there will be no increase in real terms. That isn’t acceptable. If the government does not continue to compensate us we will go back to charging.” While Sir Neil’s radicalism is not shared by most museums, few doubt his threat is serious.
“The National Maritime and Imperial War Museums have also become adept at winkling money from visitors’ guilt. The maritime museum points out prominently as you enter that it costs “Â£15m a year to run the museum; at least one-third of this is raised through you, the visitor”. The Imperial War Museum is just as forthright: “The government grant for each person visiting the museum represents only half of what it actually costs to run.”
“But the Department for Culture, Media and Sport insists museums, even the formerly free ones, were “substantially compensated”. A spokesman said the change in VAT rules was worth at least Â£1m a year to the National Gallery alone. He said if the Natural History Museum reintroduced charges its grant would be immediately cut. “We will try to continue to do everything we can to support those museums that offer free access.”
“With the next government grant settlement being decided early next spring, the propaganda war is hotting up.”
One wonders what the anticipated consequences are of under funding and of disagreements about the consequences of removing general admission fees. It is possible surely that the gains hoped for by government of greater accessibility and more visitors will be undercut by closing of galleries (as has already happened at the British Museum) and reducing the number of days museums are open to the public? Not to mention the time and resources wasted in arguments that are really quite silly. What does accountability and transparency on the part of government mean?
The Victorian government agreed some years ago that the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria would be henceforth displayed in two adjacent locations. A new building was to be created for Australian art and the existing St Kilda St site refurbished. The former, in the new “Federation Square” completed to mark the 2001 federation of Australia opened as the Ian Potter Centre in October 2002.
The website proclaims, “The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square is the spectacular new home of Australian art, with twenty galleries housed in a landmark architectural complex designed by Lab architecture studio in association with Bates Smart. With more Australian art on permanent display than any other gallery in the world, as well as special exhibitions and programs, cafes, a restaurant and new perspectives of the city through its glass matrix, NGV Australia is more than a great place to view art. It’s a completely fresh approach that encourages people from all walks of life to enjoy the world of art within the new cultural heart of Melbourne.”
Eight weeks after it opened Director Gerard Vaughan said the Gallery expected up to 1.5 million visitors in its first year, many more than the original estimate of just over 1 million (“Victoria’s New Gallery Draws Crowds”, Bill Pheasant, Australian Financial Review, 23 January).
By October 2003 the estimate had risen to 2 millions. Speaking of their approach to exhibitions (“Object Lesson”, Carmel Dwyer Australian Financial Review 31 October 2003), deputy director Frances Lindsay said she and architect Peter Davidson have experimented with dotting mini-exhibitions throughout the permanent collection with displays in one wing that `speak to’ those in other wings; even with making a trail of temporary exhibitions through the building. She said she believed this `risk taking’ is paying off. “The building is innovative and dynamic and has allowed us to explore ideas.. Occasionally we do [an] unusual hanging where we think it works with the art … I think people are less likely to suffer museum fatigue here.”
The refurbished gallery dealing with international art opens December 2003.
The Whitney Museum, New York: Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, resigned 12 May after what Carol Vogel (New York Times 13 May) referred to as a tumultuous five years in the post.
Vogel reported, “Rumors of trouble between Mr. Anderson and the Whitney’s board had been circulating around the gossipy art world for some time. Mr. Anderson said in a statement that it had ”become clear in recent months that the board and I have a different sense of the Whitney’s future, in both the scale of its ambitions and the balance of its programming.”
”Max is a brilliant man of many talents,” Museum Chairman Leonard Lauder said in an interview. ”It is unfortunate that there wasn’t a perfect match of his skills and ambitions and that of the Whitney’s.”
“Mr. Anderson said he was particularly disappointed when the board abandoned its plans to build a $200 million expansion designed by the Rotterdam-based architect Rem Koolhaas. When the project was officially scrapped last month, museum officials said they were concerned that the building would have been too expensive to operate let alone build in the current economic climate.
“Mr. Lauder said ”We had to be prudent.” But Mr. Anderson called the issue of the building’s expense debatable. ”In October 2001 the board was thrilled with the plan,” Anderson said, but over the months there were ”incremental nagging doubts.”
“The board and Mr. Anderson also clashed over programming. Some people at the museum said board members had complained that Mr. Anderson did not go far enough in offering a balanced mix of more accessible shows and scholarly ones.
”Over the last five years I tried to embrace the Whitney’s mandate to exhibit art with few compromises,” Mr. Anderson said. ”When it came down to it,” he added, ”with 42 trustees it was impossible to please everybody, and it had become increasingly more difficult to be in the vanguard.” Museum officials, however, complained that Mr. Anderson had not generated enough original exhibitions.
“When he first arrived at the museum, Mr. Anderson reorganized the staff, assigning specific curators to specialized areas. In the process several top curators resigned. For the first biennial under his directorship, which took place in 2000, rather than using the museum’s staff to organize the show as it had always done in the past, he hired a team of outside curators, representing different regions of the country. The museum’s biennials — primarily a showcase for new artists — are always exhibitions that the art world loves to hate, but this one was met with particularly tepid reviews.
Smithsonian Institution, Washington: In January the National Museum of Natural History, the largest and most visited natural history museum in the world, announced the appointment of Cristian Samper, a 37-year-old biologist born in Costa Rica and deputy director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, as director.
Elizabeth Olsen (New York Times 30 January) reported, “Mr. Samper inherits a museum that has been in turmoil in recent years because of leadership turnover, insufficient money and an unclear mission. The museum’s last full-time director, Robert Fri, unexpectedly resigned in May 2001, expressing unhappiness with how the museum’s science programs were being reorganized. The museum, on the Mall and housing 124 million biological, geological and other specimens, has had six directors since 1990.
“Mr. Samper’s mission, as laid out by a commission that examined the Smithsonian’s science programs, will be to “restructure and reinvent” the museum, a signature part of the world’s largest museum and research complex. The 93-year-old museum, whose best-known display is the Hope diamond, has 300 employees and a $61 million annual budget.
“Mr. Samper said he would do some restructuring, and that “what the museum really needs is some repackaging.”
“Earlier this month the commission declared that the Smithsonian’s science programs were “unfocused and underfunded,” and recommended that a “distinguished scientist” be found to run the museum, which has specimen collections that are a “vital and unique national resource.”
The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, Antarctic Wilderness and Oil Drilling
An exhibition on the Arctic and its wildlife at the Museum ran into trouble from the US Senate in March. The exhibition was based on a book by Subhankar Banerjee of Seattle, a native of Calcutta, India, who has become perhaps the leading photographer of one of the coldest and most uninhabited places on earth, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
In April (Jacqueline Trescott, “Museum’s Shift of Arctic Refuge Exhibit Gets Cold Reception”, 29 April) The Washington Post reported, “The Smithsonian’s decision to shift an exhibition of photos of wildlife in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to a less prominent location has prompted a senator and the photographer to question the museum’s motives.
“Two years ago, when the exhibit was conceived, it was to be displayed on the museum’s lower level off Baird Auditorium. But last fall, the museum assigned Banerjee’s show to a space off the main rotunda behind a show of botanical art on the museum’s main floor. Then in March, the display of 48 photographs was shifted back to the area downstairs. That space has been used for photography exhibitions in the past and is behind the escalator in a busy area near the gift shop and cafe.
“In a letter to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) asked why “the exhibit has now been moved to the basement.” Banerjee and Durbin are also questioning alterations in the narrative texts accompanying the photographs.
A few days later, Timothy Egan (“Smithsonian Is No Safe Haven for Exhibit on Arctic Wildlife Refuge”, The New York Times 2 May) reported that in a March 18 floor debate about oil drilling in the refuge, a senator urged every member to read Mr. Banerjee’s book before calling the refuge a frozen wasteland. Suddenly Mr. Banerjee’s work was being promoted on C-Span — one of the highest honors of his life, he said.
“Egan reported that the exhibit will still open on Friday, though in a much different version than what had been scheduled. “Mr. Banerjee and the book’s publisher say members of the Smithsonian told them that the museum had been pressured to cancel or sharply revise the exhibit of birds, caribou, musk oxen and other images he had photographed.
“Smithsonian officials say that no pressure was applied and that the changes to the show — it was moved from the main floor rotunda to a lower-level room, and captions were deleted and truncated — are part of the routine, last-minute preparations for a major exhibition.
“Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, plans to question Smithsonian members at a hearing next week and will display some of Mr. Banerjee’s pictures and the deleted captions.
”I want the world to see the caption of the little bird that the Smithsonian says is too controversial for the public,” Mr. Durbin said. ”There was political pressure brought on this exhibition. And it’s a sad day when the Smithsonian, the keeper of our national treasures, is so fearful.”
“Smithsonian officials are angered and embarrassed at being in the middle of a Congressional fight over whether to open the refuge to oil and gas drilling. ”We do not engage in advocacy,” said Randall Kremer, a museum spokesman. ”And some of the captions bordered on advocacy.”
“Documents from the Smithsonian give an idea of the changes. For a picture of the Romanzof Mountains, the original caption quoted Mr. Banerjee as saying, ”The refuge has the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen and is so remote and untamed that many peaks, valleys and lakes are still without names.”
“The new version says, ”Unnamed Peak, Romanzof Mountains.””
“This year the Smithsonian is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the national wildlife system; the first refuge was created by President Theodore Roosevelt, on Pelican Island in Florida.
“As the centerpiece of his national energy policy, President Bush wants to open about 1.5 million acres of the refuge’s coastal plain to drilling. It is, supporters of the move say, a potential motherlode of oil.
“Led by Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads the Appropriations Committee, drilling supporters have derided the refuge as largely barren, frozen and lifeless for nearly 10 months a year. Most pictures of the refuge show the vast caribou herd that migrates to the coastal plain, or the birds that fly in to feast on the fecund grounds in the refuge’s brief but intense summer.
“Mr. Banerjee’s breakthrough was to record four seasons of life on the refuge, particularly around the area where drilling would take place. Mr. Banerjee used his life savings and cashed out his retirement account to pay for the 14 months he spent in the refuge with a digital camera. When Mr. Banerjee returned from the refuge, he was still unpublished. He called the Smithsonian and Mountaineers Books, a nonprofit publisher in Seattle. Both were convinced by the images he brought back.
“”Our intention was to produce a poetic testimony to this land,” said Helen Cherullo, publisher of Mountaineers Books. The book, ”Seasons of Life and Land, A Photographic Journey by Subhankar Banerjee,” advocates preservation of the refuge. It features quotations from President Carter, the writer Peter Matthiessen, and the nature poet and essayist Terry Tempest Williams. Some of these quotations were to be in the exhibit; they have all been deleted.”
Later that month the Washington Post (“Smithsonian’s Arctic Refuge Exhibit Draws Senate Scrutiny”, Jacqueline Trescott, 21 May) reported, “After grilling Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small yesterday about the changes to a photography exhibit on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a Senate panel asked the Smithsonian to clarify its policy on exhibition captions.
“Put aside this particular issue; if you are going to get people [to donate to the Smithsonian], you need to be clear what the standards are going to be. You don’t want to get involved in this kind of row,” warned Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration.
“As plans for the show developed, the issue of oil drilling was coming to a head on the Senate floor. After Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) displayed the book based on Banerjee’s work, officials at the Smithsonian said they thought the text in the book, the basis of the explanatory captions, was too political. “They deemed it as political advocacy and we always avoid that,” Small said yesterday. He said the curators decided to use the spare style of captions typical in art exhibitions.
“The alterations to “Seasons of Life and Land” prompted some lawmakers to accuse the Smithsonian of caving in to political interests. That debate continued throughout yesterday’s testy hearing. Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) pulled out blowups of photographs and charts to support their opposing views.”
The Enola Gay
On December 15, The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum opens the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, a new 760,000-square-foot hangar on the edge of Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Va. In “A Museum Increases Its Wingspan” Matthew L. Wald (New York Times 16 November) reported the Museum will eventually display most of the Museums’ airplane collection including the Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima in August 1945. The plane bears the names of the crewmen and is painted with the distinctive open shark mouth that it wore in the Pacific in World War II, when it was part of the Flying Tigers squadron commanded by Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault. It also carries the name of a Smithsonian official, Donald Lopez, who flew with the squadron during the war.
Earlier (in “Smithsonian Rejects Pleas On Labeling Of Enola Gay”, The New York Times 12 November 2003) Lawrence Van Gelder reported, “The National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution has rejected a petition seeking revision of the labeling of its exhibition of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, in 1945. The petition from scholars, writers and others argued that a new display of the plane should be used to ”stimulate a national discussion of U.S. nuclear history and current policy.”
The museum said the label conforms to those of other aircraft in the center: ”The National Air and Space Museum tells the story of the development of flight and chronicles the history of the technologies that have made flight possible.” Gen. John R. Dailey, director of the museum, said, ”To be accurate, fair and balanced, inclusion of casualty figures would require an overview of all casualties associated with the conflict, which would not be practical in this exhibit.”
The National Museum opened in Canberra in March 2001, just over 25 years after the detailed proposal by a special committee reported in 1975 in Museums Australia 1975(Canberra: AGPS). At the opening several speakers referred to its new approach to its task. The Prime Minister said he expected it to be controversial; he described the Museum as a “unique museum” that “very attractively” seeks “to interpret the history of our nation”. In its first year the Museum received about a million visitors (and another 700,000 to its travelling exhibitions).
Although some people criticised the museum for exhibiting Hills hoists and other mundane items, visitors overwhelmingly expressed enjoyment of the exhibitions. But various politically minded persons did not approve. Neither did some of the Council members, one of whom, David Barnett, friend and biographer of the Prime Minister, went through all the text of all the exhibitions pointing out “errors”.
Others such as Council member Christopher Pearson also condemned the museum, especially the building. There were allegations that the design had been taken from the Jewish Museum in Berlin designed by Daniel Liebeskind. Deyan Sudjic (The Observer, March 4) quoted the angry Liebeskind, ‘It’s shocking, banal and plagiarism,’ to which Raggatt responded that his ‘adaptation’ was a legitimate strategy.
‘Conservative historians’ such as Keith Windschuttle (in Quadrant magazine September 2001) ‘savaged’ the Museum, accusing it of leftist bias and presenting Aboriginal oral tradition as historical fact. As an example he pointed to the presentation of a massacre of Aboriginal women and children at Bell’s Falls, near Bathurst, in the 1820s, which he said was no more than local oral tradition (“Battle of the black armband”, Richard Yallop, The Australian, 4 January).
These claims were responded to by Emeritus Professor John Mulvaney (a member of the Piggott Committee of 1974-5): “An ideological campaign by members of the National Museum of Australia council is undermining the fledgling institution” (“Facing a politicised future for our past”, Canberra Times, 12 December 2002). And Melbourne University historian Graeme Davison of Monash University (“Exhibiting A Revisionist View Of Our History The Age 12 December 2002) said, “The National Museum of Australia must be allowed to present a balanced, bipartisan view of the nation’s past.”
Davison, asked to review the Museum’s exhibition guidelines, became embroiled in an argument with two Council members about the proposition that exhibitions should “challenge” the visitors to ponder and reflect on the nation’s past (Yallop, cited above). Council Chair Tony Staley (former Liberal party President), David Barnett and Christopher Pearson (commentator and editor of the Adelaide review) had failed to agree on the guidelines suggested by Davison.
A panel was eventually established chaired by La Trobe University sociologist Professor John Carroll. Immediately before the release of the panel’s report, critics, including Australian Historical Society president David Carment and Graeme Davison, attacked the six-month review, as politically driven and an attempt to bring the museum into line with the Howard Government’s vision of black and white relations.
In the event, the panel’s report was generally favourable: it did not find the Museum to be politically biased (“Why The Museum Does Not Connect”, Angela Shanahan, The Age, 17 July). The report, however, said the museum had to make improvements to live up to its potential (“There’s no museum bias – but nation’s story untold”, Mark Phillips, numerous papers including the Adelaide Advertiser 16 July).
Phillips noted that the review panel said complaints the museum had a systematic bias could be summed up as it “glamorises Aboriginal life to the point of caricature, contrasting with a one-sided denigration of European culture and the nation it built”. “The panel carefully examined these charges and came to the conclusion that political or cultural bias is not a systemic problem at the NMA,” the report said. “Rather, it exists in pockets, which may be fairly easily remedied.”
The report made some particular comments: the panel noted that Matthew Flinders, Burke and Wills and Ned Kelly were underdone or absent. And the museum’s “storytelling” was below par. “The NMA is short on compelling narratives, engagingly presented dramatic realisations of important events and themes in the Australian story,” they wrote. Certain galleries copped a serve for not dealing adequately with “primary themes” on post-1788 migration. The gallery dealing with indigenous issues was seen as being the most successful. Sport, science and technology and national development should be given priority, and poor signage and acoustics corrected.
The report was condemned, however, by several people. Howard Raggatt, whose Ashton, Raggatt, McDougall firm built the Museum, said the panel’s mooted rejigs “fit in with this awful style of going around destroying (architectural) things that we have in this country” (“Museum designs to court”, Georgina Safe, The Australian 19 July 2003). The architects of the courtyard – the “Garden of Dreams” threatened to take legal action against the Canberra institution over plans to change its design.. “To change our design makes a complete mockery of the entire process by which the work was chosen and created.”
Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt (“Why our museum still isn’t worth a Captain Cook”, Herald-Sun 17 July), said, “I agree with the report this week that said the National Museum in Canberra was biased and badly needed fixing” but went on to criticise very strongly the recently completed Melbourne Museum and its exhibitions as being not up to the standard of the National Museum. Others commented that only “pockets of bias had been found and highlighted particular shortcomings. Others pointed out that the review said that aspects of the Museum were ideologically driven or populist and not based on serious scholarship (Georgina Safe, The Australian 11 July).
Ann Mcgrath (“Diversity Is Lost In Boy’s Own History”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July) wrote, “Our national museum is threatened by a preference for a whiter coat of gloss over the facts.
“CAPTAIN Cook and cricket caps. The review of the National Museum of Australia, with its heartfelt yearning for the return of great-white-bloke stories, makes for rather vexing reading.
“Predictably, the review team’s maiden voyage of museum discovery washes them up onto the familiar shore of great male discovery narratives. This lost white Australian dreaming doesn’t get messed up by facts about the usurpation of indigenous land and human rights and doesn’t foreground women. In their proposed upstairs/downstairs narrative of Australia, terra nullius stays downstairs where it belongs. Captain Cook and other ocean-going discoverers get reified upstairs. Non-British immigrants go altogether, unless they can make good cappuccinos.
“The review’s findings are influenced by an undisguised yearning for a grand, if somewhat schoolboyish, national narrative. Commending the “courageous warrior hero” stories of Homer’s Iliad or the American Wild West, they mistakenly believe coloniser cowboy epics are deeply unifying narratives. Although few references are cited, the report’s intellectual underpinnings conform with Keith Windschuttle’s Quadrant article of September 2001, which lamented the absence of grand historical narratives in the National Museum. The review panel has obligingly filled in the dots with the outlines and textures of a highly exclusionary and tired formula.
“In its vision of nation, the panel does not reject differing versions of history, but it certainly rejects multiple identities, contested identities, interrelated identities of nation. Migrant cultures might be temporary exhibitions, that is, unless they blend into a homogenised cafe streetscape or influence a core culture. “Footballers hugging in public” are apparently part of this and OK. Aborigines are fine, though preferably they should stay “classical”, antique and “anthropological” and should not comment on the more recent history of British colonialism.”
John Mcdonald (“National Lampoon”, Australian Financial Review 24 July) observed, “Casey’s reward has been to have her contract renewed by only one year which is tantamount to sacking. By contrast, the director of the National Gallery of Australia, who has presided over five years of scandal and catastrophe, was given a two-year extension. As for morale, the most recent report into the NGA indicated a series of clear breaches of Occupational Health and Safety legislation, allied to a culture of intimidation in which employees live in fear of losing their jobs. Perhaps Casey has been taking the wrong approach to her staff.”
In “Showcase for ideology” (The Australian 21 July), Rob Root wrote, “Memo to the review panel: the problem of left-wing bias at our National Museum is real and dangerous, maintains Rob Foot THE National Museum of Australia Review Panel report, released last week, has neatly sidestepped the charge that has been levelled at the NMA since its opening – that of conscious, institutional ideological bias. True, the panel found “pockets” of bias, and enumerated a couple of the more egregious examples, but it concluded that the problem is not systemic and can be easily corrected.
“The museum’s critics will regard this as a generous finding. The panel’s conclusions, overall, have considerable merit, and they well articulate why the NMA is not a great, perhaps not even a good museum. Accusations of generalised left-wing bias, though, were studiously ducked.”
An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald of 19 July spoke strongly: “This museum is a work in progress.
“What a consolation – when public discussion of the Australian national identity stirs – to see such controversy. Never, when in times of great national peril it has been vital for the nation to hold together, has the strength of national identity and purpose been in doubt. At other times it is not only natural but fitting for there to be disagreement about what it means to be Australian – and about how the story of Australia should be told.
“The fuss over the recent review of the National Museum of Australia, then, is neither surprising nor cause for alarm. Indeed, the review’s most remarkable feature is not the fault it has found but how much it has praised, though mildly in some cases, the start made by the NMA in its first two years. The review panel received many submissions charging the NMA with systematic political bias, but found none. It has, however, suggested changes to remedy what, with one dissenter, its members see as a weakness in “storytelling”, especially in telling “the post-European arrival parts of Australian story”.
Numerous submissions were made to the review and are posted on the Museum’s website: a number of them are extremely interesting.
In the event the Museum’s Council considered the recommendations of the review and agreed with them.
The earlier decision by the Government that the term of the director Dawn Casey would be extended by only one year beyond the first term to December 2003, was confirmed. In “Museum Council’s Lobbying Failed To Save Director’s Job” (The Sydney Morning Herald 28 August), Joyce Morgan reported, “The Federal Government dumped the director of the controversial National Museum despite efforts by members of its ruling council to retain her. The members’ lobbying for Dawn Casey is contained in emails obtained by the Herald under Freedom of Information, and reveals deep division within an institution that has become a battlefield in the Government’s culture wars… the three council members pointed to Ms Casey’s achievements in launching the museum in 2001 on time and within budget. She “is more loyal to the Government’s objectives than any other chief executive or statutory office holder I know,” wrote council member Cathy Santamaria, a former deputy secretary of the Department of Communications and the Arts.”
“There are two vacancies on the council and the terms of two members, businessman Marcus Besen, who is the deputy chairman, and IT chief Sharon Brown, end this year. It is not known if they will seek further terms. The museum’s chairman, Tony Staley, a former Liberal Party federal president, would not comment on the emails or whether the council members had raised their concerns with him.” In the event Besen and Brown were not renewed…
It was also noted that some of the recent appointees, notwithstanding their undoubted academic and community qualifications, had particular views on multiculturalism, indigenous issues and religious and moral issues that were similar to those of the Government. Financial difficulties emerged again.
On 4 November the Australian Parliament’s Senate Estimates Committee met to address, amongst other things, the National Museum, especially the Carroll review, the Museum’s response to it and appointments to the Council. Senator Kate Lundy (Labour Party (ALP) Opposition spokesperson on the arts) asked a number of questions of Senator the Hon Rod Kemp, Minister for Arts and Sport. When Lundy asked whether some of the recent appointments to the Council and the extent of consultation with the Council about them as well as non renewal of some of the appointments, the Minister expressed outrage.
When Lundy asked whether the Council had been consulted about the reappointment of director Casey and referred to other institutions such as the Australian War Memorial (responsible to the minister for Veterans Affairs) where the governing board clearly had been consulted, the Minister expressed ignorance as to institutions outside his portfolio. When asked when the position of director would be advertised the Minister responded, “in due course”.
Lundy asked about the funding of the Museum and was assured that funds had substantially increased. She also asked whether there was, in the view of senior staff, perceived political bias on the part of Council members: the Minister again expressed outrage. Director Casey observed that the Museum had been caught up in what “everyone refers to as the culture wars or history wars”. “Our presentation of history in the Museum in the development of the exhibitions and all our programs is based on a range of views from a range of academics across the country. It has been extremely unhelpful that in the last few years we have been brought into the culture wars that exist out there.”
In response to the report of the Carroll review panel and the funding of exhibition development and observing that officials of the Department (of Culture, Information Technology and the Arts) attended Council meetings, Senator Lundy asked about the degree of influence of the Department over the response to the review panel’s recommendations. Departmental officials denied having influence, particularly on whether departmental officers had taken part in the preparation of advice to the Minister from the Council Chair to the review. Lundy said “What I am concerned about, Minister, as I am sure you are well aware, is that there has been inappropriate consultation between the governing council, the independent institution and the department.” The Minister became upset at what he perceived as accusations that there had been improper behaviour.
Senator Lundy asked, “Can anyone from the department tell me what was the basis for one of the officers… telling the Museum that, if it wished to receive more money, it would have to provide the government with greater detail about exhibition content?” One of the departmental officers present responded, “As you realise, money is extremely tight, and we need the arguments if we are going to put forward a proposal.” Senator Lundy asked Ms Casey, “have you ever had a conversation with the department about exhibition content?” Ms Casey responded, “Not specifically about the content as such, but I certainly had discussions in relation to the review.”
The criticism of the Museum and its exhibitions on indigenous cultures and peoples, especially massacres and similar matters, developed as part of the ongoing heated argument about what had become known as “the black armband” view of history allegedly advanced by certain historians from Manning Clark on. The debate was “fuelled” by “The History Wars” (Stuart Macintyre & Anna Clark, University of Melbourne), “Whitewash” (Robert Manne, Monash University)and Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Dawn Casey said, “Book reviews, opinion page articles and radio discussions have forged ever more polarised opinions, generating more heat than light.”
Writing in Open Museum Journal Vol 6 (“New Museum Developments & the Culture Wars”, September 2003), Casey observed, “The media frenzy which accompanied the opening of the `controversial’ National Museum of Australia in March 2001 was a curious phenomenon, but it served a number of useful purposes.
“We reluctantly discovered that any publicity can be good publicity.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of early visitors came to see just how bad the new museum was, and discovered to their surprise that they liked it. ..
“But perhaps the most useful effect of the storm of comment was to throw
Australia’s current culture wars or history wars into sharp relief. Any museum obliged to tell the national story or depict the national culture was bound to walk straight into the wider debate, and so did we. Inherent in the comments of critics and supporters alike were intriguing assumptions about what museums in general, and national museums in particular, should or should not be. Those assumptions provide us with a particularly interesting spectrum of early twenty-first century attitudes and expectations.”
Greg Barns (“How The Old Guard Have Hijacked The History Wars”, The Age 10 September) asked,” why is this debate so fierce, so ad hominem and so repetitive?” and answered, “because control of the high-ground Australian culture allows, at least in some respects, for control of government policy… John Howard, like Paul Keating, is a political leader who understands the importance of controlling key cultural institutions such as the ABC and the National Museum of Australia. Institutions such as these communicate to millions of Australians about our past, which in turn influences how people think about the present and the future.”
The entire issue of the National Museum, the building and exhibition development, funding, conduct of and appointments to the Council, departmental and ministerial involvement in policy issues and many other matters, reveal issues potentially concerning all museums. The last three years in the history of this Museum could be considered as amongst the most surprising (to put it politely) ever facing a major museum anywhere in the world. Only the involvement of the US Congress in certain matters concerning the Smithsonian Institution, including but not confined by any means to the Enola Gay exhibition, come anywhere near the magnitude of importance of the events at the National Museum of Australia.
In 2000 allegations surfaced that there were substantial thefts of specimens form the collections of the Museum. The thief was unknown. It emerged that some 2,000 specimens had been removed by a staff member of the Museum. There were assertions that insufficient attention had been paid to the matter and questions were raised as to why the police had not succeeded in advancing the matter. The Independent Commission Against Corruption investigated the thefts over a long period and eventually released a report recommending to the Deputy Public Prosecutor that the staff member in question be prosecuted. In the course of the reaction to the report, arguments broke out between the director of the Museum Professor Michael Archer FAA and South Australian Museum dir4ector and author Tim Flannery; the latter accused Archer of failing to take the necessary action. Speculation raged as to whether Flannery, who had earlier called the President of the Trust to, in his view, alert him to the importance of the thefts, was interested in being appointed to the position of director at the Australian Museum when Archer completed his first term in December 2003.
Much larger issues emerged but did not attract the same attention from the media. These included two rounds of voluntary redundancies totalling well over 30 staff, level of attendances at the Museum, which had declined in 1999 and 2000 but increased (but not always reported) as the end of 2003 approached. There were allegations of failings on the part of Trustees and of excessive involvement by the government through the Ministry for the Arts. Funding shortfalls were highlighted and there were ongoing demands for the Museum to keep within its operational budget.
Meanwhile a review recommended changes to the structure of the Museum, administration and public programs being thrown together, the provision of special funding for major exhibition development became a special focus of a consultancy and in November 2003 the positions of director and two new positions (replacing existing positions) were advertised simultaneously, the potential result being that all senior persons would leave the Museum unless they succeeded in applications for the new positions.
To some extent these last four years at the Australian Museum resemble those confronting the National Museum of Australia. Although not as severe, issues of the utmost importance concerning leadership, management, governance and funding have been raised. Of particular concern are the relative role of Trustees and governments and their responsibilities, the criteria and processes applied in the selection of Trustees and senior managers and the nature of the performance management regimes applied. (In some countries, applicants for the position of trustee must apply for the position and be interviewed. Performance agreements between the board and the government exist in some countries.)
Last but not least is the issue of public perception of the role of museums and how different kinds of museums are different, appeal to different audiences and require different forms of funding. (None of this is to suggest that museums should not be managed and led in the most effective manner as widely understood.) The activities of a museum like the Australian Museum with its very large collections and substantial high level research can only be compared with the activities of say an art museum with great care: simply applying the same criteria to the same extent is totally unhelpful. And assertions that the Australian Museum is not seen as’ sexy’ (which some observers asserted, an assertion unfortunately repeated in the media) has no meaning.
There is sufficient information about the way people make decisions and how their prior knowledge and understanding influences their behaviour and the way they see the world to give emphasis to the matter of appointments to boards and the issue of governance. People who are unfamiliar with an enterprise, its business and the industry in which they operate, if they are to be appointed to a board, need substantial briefing before they can become effective.
The processes which are most effective in recruitment of executives are well established but often seem not to be followed.
The involvement of governments in nonprofit enterprises with high technical and professional content can be problematic: the studies of museums closely associated with government shows them to be less effective than those independent of government. What governments can do to add value, beyond promulgating and enforcing procedures, needs considerable consideration.
When an enterprise does not perform in the expected manner, it is often the management that is blamed: sometimes they are responsible and sometimes they are not. Exploring and understanding the real causes of institutional failure are often ignored in favour of preconceived views and a search for blame. To succeed beyond expectations requires everyone facing in the same direction, marching to the same tune yet aware of the pitfalls and conceits.