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A Challenge to our Vision of Humanity

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

‘Are we all here, Do we really count?’ references a statement Australian sociologist and writer Hugh Mackay made some years ago. In his most recent non-fiction book he points out that The Good Life is not one “lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust … It is one in which we treat people the way we would like to be treated… A good life is not measured by security, wealth, status, achievement or levels of happiness. A good life is determined by our capacity for selflessness and our willingness to connect with those around us in a meaningful and useful way.” Mackay has written 14 books including novels, his latest being Infidelity.

Mackay’s lesson is the basis for contrasting statements about humanity with observations of the horrors which ordinary human beings have perpetrated or simply allowed. That humanity has made progress is an arguable statement which is too seldom not seriously thought about or realistically discussed. It is also a view which contrasts with the dominant economic view, one that as Professor Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and one time Sustainability Commissioner for the UK, has pointed out shows we have evolved as social rather than economic beings.

Two books, Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room and Bernard Schlinck’s The Reader are among many scores of books and films which draw out the horrors and the conflicts faced by ordinary human beings, not politicians or generals or soldiers. Do these books and films make any difference to how we run out lives and influence the future of our society? Though there is greater international peace, the horrors continue within national boundaries, sometimes boundaries artificially drawn by colonising powers.

Conflicts continue to generate millions of refugees, deny a future to men, women and children, destroy towns and cities, economies and futures. Yet countries with influence seem unable to agree to stop them. Aid becomes another just another business, another opportunity for colonisation in another guise.

Faced with the need to help those fleeing persecution, arguments are advanced about queue jumping, about illegal asylum seekers, about population growth at the same time as skilled people from poorer countries are recruited to jobs in rich countries so corporations can avoid the costs of  training people already resident in that country. Inequality increases as fewer people gain greater wealth and what should be self evident truths remain denied. And discrimination on the basis of race and more continues, as it has for centuries.

A Prime Minister apologises, people weep, then what?

Continue to essay, “Are we really all here. do we all really count?

Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), 2011, Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, National Museum of Australia.

The first part of a volume on developments in museums in Australia since the 1960’s has just been published as an e-Book on the web site of the National Museum of Australia.

Museums were established across many parts of the Australian continent during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. However it was in the latter part of the twentieth century that the greatest burgeoning of museums occurred. These decades also witnessed the consolidation of a sophisticated museum profession, the creation of a single national professional association “Museums Australia” and an active participation of Australian museum professionals in the international museum context. The essays in this section jointly seek to present a scholarly study of museums and museum practice that is also accessible to people outside the museum profession, who daily demonstrate their active interest in museums and their programs.

There are 11 essays in five sections.

Museums in Australia by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

Conservation in Australian museums by Ian Cook et al.

Ethnographic museums and collections by John E Stanton

Transforming culture by Bernice Murphy

Repatriation by Michael Pickering and Phil Gordon

War and Australia’s museums by Peter Stanley

History in the new millennium or problems with history? by Tim Sullivan

Art museums in Australia by Daniel Thomas

International exhibitions by Caroline Turner

Collecting works on paper by Anne Kirker

Museums and the environment by Douglass F Hoese

The second part to be published in late June or July will include further essays on history and science museums. Additional sections will deal with education programs and regional museums and there will be essays on museums and digitisation and social media.

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 10 – June 20th, 2009

The new Acropolis Museum opens in Athens, the British Museum should change its name and appoint a board representing the nations whose ancestors created the collections it holds; the education system is anaethsitizing children and stifling creativity, according to Sir Ken Robinson, educator and expert on creativity. And in New South Wales, more pointless reorganisation of the public service.

The tenth “Hoot” gives me the opportunity to talk about two issues of the greatest interest to me, cultural property and its contribution to our past and our view of ourselves, and education and learning and creativity.

Parthenon sculptures and the new Acropolis Museum in Athens: The new Acropolis Museum, designed by Bernard Tschumi, looking out on the Acropolis and the Parthenon, opened 20 June. The third floor features a reconstruction of the entire Parthenon frieze, the plaster casts of the sculptures (removed by Lord Elgin) held in the British Museum’s Duveen Gallery differentiated from the genuine sculptures by their white colour.

In “Majestic in Exile” in the New York Times of June 18, 2009 Nikos Konstandaras (managing editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini and editor of the English-language weekly Athens Plus) writes, “I have no doubt that one day all the Parthenon Marbles will be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum….

“Meanwhile, if the British Museum wants to be true to its self-appointed task of serving as curator of the world’s civilizations, and if it really does not recognize the geographic, national or ethnic origins of its masterpieces, then it should have the grace to acknowledge this in practice. It should drop the possessive adjective from its name and call itself simply “The Museum.” And its board of government-appointed trustees should be replaced by representatives of the nations whose ancestors created the works that it displays.

“This would mark the end of colonial and imperial provenance of acquisitions and open a new era of exchange and cooperation between the world’s museums. Questions of ownership would be secondary in this new dialogue of free and equal nations. The Parthenon’s sculptures have the power to transform those who gaze on them.”

In a report on the opening on ABC Radio’s Correspondents Report on 21 June Helena Smith reported on the opening. Introducing the report Elizabeht Jackson observed, “Activists, including David Hill, the former managing director of the ABC who heads the Sydney-based Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, hope the new museum will reinvigorate the campaign to bring back the Elgin marbles – the artworks that have been displayed in the British Museum since Lord Elgin removed them from the Acropolis over 200 years ago.”

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Creativity and Education: Sir Ken Robinson, former professor at Warwick University and speaker on creativity and education, has just published a book (authored with Lou Aronica and published by Allen Lane) entitled “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, stories of people who found passion in areas of life that were not the focus in traditional schools. In 1998 Robinson chaired a Committee which produced the report, “All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education (the Robinson Report)”. The Times said: ‘This report raises some of the most important issues facing business in the 21st century. It should have every CEO and human resources director thumping the table and demanding action’.

Robinson argues that current education practices stifle creativity and are a “turn off” for thousands of young people very much because they don’t give enough attention to subjects in the arts. Education is founded on two premises, the enlightenment idea of (rational) economic man and the need for cultural identity. It’s value is seen in how well it prepares people for work.

Robinson was in Australia in the last couple of weeks and was interviewed extensively on the ABC (730 Report on TV1 on 16 June and 17 June , Margaret Throsby’s Interview on ABC Classic FM  and “Life Matters” on Radio National) ; several other interesting people with innovative approaches to education were also interviewed on “Life Matters” in the week starting 15 June.

In one of Robinson’s celebrated lectures, available on the web at TED, he makes a number of points common to all his talks.

“What’s it for, public education? I think you’d have to conclude — if you look at the output, who really succeeds by this … who are the winners — I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors. Isn’t it?”

“Children starting school this year will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue .. what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.

“Every person’s intelligence is distinct.”

Referring to Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the environmental crisis, Robinson talks of an education crisis. “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children. There was a wonderful quote by Jonas Salk, who said, ‘If all the insects were to disappear from the earth, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.'”

In a more recent talk (at the Royal Society of Arts) Robinson quoted anthropologist Robert Ardrey, “But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

In the second part of the interview with ABC TV1’s presenter Kery O’Brien, Robinson said the following: “What I find is that head teachers are critical in schools, like college presidents are essential in universities and in political systems. Leadership is really important from every point of view. I mean, look what’s happening in America at the moment: that shift from the last presidency to the current one. There’s been a total change of mood because people take their cue from the tone of the leadership. And it’s true in every system I know. If you find a school where a head teacher gets it, anything is possible, and I mean that literally.”

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In New South Wales, Premier Nathan Rees has announced that the departments of government will be amalgamated into eight “super departments” with the aim of delivering better services for the people of NSW. dollars.

“I am determined to have the best structure to deliver better services for the people of NSW,” Mr Rees said. “These changes are designed to ensure a greater focus on our clients, better integration of public services and to cut internal Government red tape.”

The reforms will, according to Premier Rees, “Improve service delivery, better align a sprawling bureaucracy; and ensure the best value for taxpayers”.

All this ignores the evidence that restructuring achieves little benefit unless a lot of effort is put into explaining t he benefits and justifying them and providing resources to see thought the adjustments which will have to be made. It remains true that what makes the difference is how decisions get made and how leadership is practised. Coordination and ‘alignment’ require oversighting which carries with it al the problems of restricting innovation and suppressing dissent.

In 30 years governments almost everywhere have failed to understand best practice as seen in the most successful organisations and have merely created an unsustainable level of inaction and confusion.

Numerous articles on this site deal with this.

Remember this quotation, usually (but wrongly) attributed to Petronius: “We trained hard … but every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganised.  I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising … and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing inefficiency and demoralisation.” (1)

More quotations are to be found here.

(1) According to Wikipedia, the actual author of this piece of wisdom was the American writer Charlton Ogburn Jr. (1911-1998), in an article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1957 which recounted his experiences as a junior officer in the famous WW2 US Army unit known as ‘Merrill’s Marauders’, and the quoted passage referred to his somewhat chaotic early training.

OWL’S HOOTS NO. 4

Saturday, May 2nd, 2009

Owl’s Hoots No. 4, 3 May 2009: Human origins, new species of animals from Papua New Guinea highlands, President Obama speaks about returning science to its proper place. And advice from Delta Airlines CEO: a matter of judgment, an essential skill in short supply. Two important birthdays!

Human Origins: In the AAAS weekly magazine Science for 1 May 2009 (Vol. 324. no. 5927, p. 575) an international team of scientists led by Sarah Tishkoff from the University of Pennsylvania reports on a study of genetic material from 113 populations of Africans from across the continent. The study finds Africans to have been descended from 14 ancestral populations, which often correlate with language and cultural groups. All hunter-gatherers and pygmies in Africa today shared ancestors 35,000 years ago. East Africa was the source of the great migration that populated the rest of the world. The team also found that African-American individuals, on average, to have mixed ancestry from all over western Africa, which will make it difficult to trace roots to specific ethnic groups.

In BBC News Online 1 May 2009 Victoria Gill gives a brief summary.

New species of animals found in Papua New Guinea: Numerous reports summarise a Conservation International (CI) led Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) expedition to Papua New Guinea’s highlands wilderness by scientists from Papua New Guinea and the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Montclair State University. The expedition discovered numerous new species amongst the 600 species collected. Included were 50 spiders new to science including a new Jumping Spider. The three new frogs include a tiny brown frog with a sharp chirping call (Oreophryne sp.), a bright green tree frog with enormous eyes (Nyctimystes sp.), and a torrent-dwelling frog that has a loud ringing call (Litoria sp.).

President Obama speaks to the US National Academy of Sciences: Here are a few extracts from President Obama’s speech of April 27; there are several sources for this speech. (Obama honored a special education teacher and former police officer at the White House on April 28 as the 2009 National Teacher of the Year.)

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

“I believe it is not in our character, the American character, to follow. It’s our character to lead. And it is time for us to lead once again. So I’m here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. We will not just meet, but we will exceed the level achieved at the height of the space race, through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science.”

“The pursuit of discovery half a century ago fueled our prosperity and our success as a nation in the half century that followed. The commitment I am making today will fuel our success for another 50 years. That’s how we will ensure that our children and their children will look back on this generation’s work as that which defined the progress and delivered the prosperity of the 21st century.

“This work begins with a historic commitment to basic science and applied research, from the labs of renowned universities to the proving grounds of innovative companies.”

“… scientific innovation offers us a chance to achieve prosperity. It has offered us benefits that have improved our health and our lives — improvements we take too easily for granted. But it gives us something more. At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it.

And some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long-held views. Science can’t answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help put those values — these moral sentiments, that faith — can put those things to work — to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth.”

Lessons from US Airlines: One would not generally look to US airlines, many of which are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, for lessons. Unless it is Southwest Airlines. However, in “He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects“, Adam Bryant (New York Times April 25, 2009)  reports an interview with Richard Anderson, chief executive of Delta Air Lines. Some extracts:

The most important leadership lesson learned: “I’ve learned to be patient and not lose my temper. And the reason that’s important is everything you do is an example, and people look at everything you do and take a signal from everything you do.”

Other things learned: “You’ve got to be thankful to the people who get the work done, and you’ve got to be thankful to your customers. So, I find myself, more and more, writing hand-written notes to people. I must write a half a dozen a day.”

Hiring: “Typically, when you’re hiring a vice president of a company, they already have the résumé and they already have the experience base. And so what you’re trying to find out about are the intangibles of leadership, communication style and the ability to, today, really adapt to change.

“I like to ask people what they’ve read, what are the last three or four books they’ve read, and what did they enjoy about those. And to really understand them as individuals because, you know, the résumés you get are wonderful résumés. Wonderful education, great work history. So you have to probe a little bit deeper into the human intangibles, because we’ve all seen many instances where people had perfect résumés, but weren’t effective in an organization.

“So it’s not just education and experience. It’s education, experience and the human factor. The situational awareness that a person has and their ability to fit into an organization and then be successful in the organization. It’s a whole series of intangibles that are almost gut instincts about people.”

Recruitment, like everything else that is important, is a matter of judgment!

Judgment: It’s in extremely short supply! I keep a list of poor judgments concerning people who have turned out to be successful, like J.S Bach. The latest two on my list are author David Gutterson (“Snow Falling on Cedars” and “East of the Mountains”) and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. Gutterson’s book “Snow Falling on Cedars”, about Japanese Americans in a small island in the US in World War 2, was turned down by many publishers: it has sold millions of copies and been translated into many languages.

Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 6 was described by a critic as sounding like an elephant dragging [something across a tiled roof]. But, along with his Sun Music, the piece led to a contract with Faber Music, a rare honour! (Sculthorpe is interviewed by a number of people including Phillip Adams on “Late Night Live” and Andrew Ford on “The Music Show” as he approaches his 80th birthday!)

Pete Seeger turns 90 today (3 May). Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt of Congress ““ he refused to sing for the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in August 1955 and he remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s, but the verdict was reversed in 1962. At the conclusion of the concert for the inauguration of President Obama, Seeger performed, “This Land is Our Land”.

Next week: More nonsense about the “International Museum” and global climate change: what value are the governments of nation states?

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

Continue to essay