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Museums in Australia For Us – Part 2

Towards National Museums And National Policies *

Museums of history, science and art joined together in the 1990s and in collaboration with the Commonwealth Government and the States, through the Cultural Ministers Council, pursued programs advancing access to collections and collection conservation oversighted by the Heritage Collections Council. Museums contributed financially to these programs. The Council oversaw the publication of “The National Conservation and Preservation Strategy for Australia’s Heritage Collections” (published in 1998) which was recognised as spearheading an initiative to enable museums nationwide to identify their holdings of significance and to chart their preservation status and the AMOL website, considered to have revolutionised the way in which information is accessed about Australia’s cultural heritage. In 2000 a review, a “Key Needs Study”, was undertaken to identify the extent to which the Heritage Collections Council had advanced the role of museums.

We have seen some progress in the last 25 years with the many recommendations of the report Museums Australia 1975 prepared by the distinguished “Pigott Committee” and the starts and stops made with the National Museum. Reviews of how museums were, or were not, caring for the nation’s movable cultural heritage were published. Prime Minister Paul Keating launched an arts policy with a specific focus on the use of new media, in the richly endowed National “Gallery”, amidst desert caravans and Opera stars.

Now we know what actually went on in the Keating Government and the attitude to the National Museum. Prime Minister Keating was never really interested in a national museum and neither were his advisors. [1] But an initiative to establish some sort of group to advance policies and programs of general significance made very substantial progress.

From 1980 museum people and sympathetic officials continued to meet and discuss the proposals for the establishment of a Museums Commission. Ideas continued to grow. In 1989 the Cultural Ministers Council, the body bringing together Ministers from the Commonwealth and the States with responsibilities for the arts and cultural activities, agreed to establish a “Heritage Collections Working Group”. It would be funded by the Commonwealth Government and museums and, to a small extent State Governments. (No progress had been made with the idea that the Australia Council for the Arts should be complemented, as in the USA, by a Humanities or some such Council.)

The notion of a Museums Commission was not especially novel: many other countries had such a body. The USA, as pluralistic as ever, actually had four: the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum Services (now Institute for Museum and Library Services) and as well the National Science Foundation which provided funding for projects to do with the collections in natural history museums and projects in science centers.) In Canada, the Canadian Museums Commission developed nation-wide policies and offered grants. [2] In Britain the Museums & Galleries Commission, recently retitled from RESOURCE, also pursues general policies, initiates research of museum-wide significance such as the study of learning in museums.

But a Commission was not to be. Ongoing objections from governments, especially the Commonwealth Government, killed the idea nearly stone dead. Instead, a Heritage Collections Working Party (HCWP) emerged from discussions between the then Council of Australian Museum Associations (CAMA) and the Commonwealth Government and detailed in presentations to the Cultural Ministers Council at a meeting in the Adelaide Hills in 1990.

In a couple of articles at the time of the formation of the HCWP Daniel Thomas, then President of the Art Museums Association of Australia (and Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia), drew attention to the implicit assumption that more than anything it was collections that were important: we didn’t know enough about them and therefore couldn’t use them to maximum advantage [3] . And the “Distributed National Collection” comprised all significant accumulations in Commonwealth, State and local museums.

Noting that CAMA was advocating the establishment of a Heritage Collections Council (HCC) Thomas wrote, “The role of [a Council] would not be to assist museums, as institutions, but to assist collections, be they of art, history, anthropology, to become more useful to the people of Australia as a whole …” Funding for the HCC of $2 millions was suggested by some people based on the budget of the US Institute of Museum Services of $20 millions for a country with a population somewhat more than 10 times that of Australia. The actual funding was in the end set at a few hundred thousand dollars.

A special survey was conducted and reports prepared by Margaret Anderson (then of the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University). In April 1993 the Heritage Collections Working Group presented a report on its activities to the Cultural Ministers Council in the opulence of the Queensland Parliamentary Chambers. A partnership was proposed between the Commonwealth, States and Territories, the movable heritage sector and the community at the local level to develop and implement a national strategy to increase the community’s knowledge, enjoyment and appreciation of Australia’s heritage through its collections. Relying extensively on Anderson’s survey, attention was drawn to community benefits of heritage collections, attendances at museums, the contribution collections made to understanding Australia and the problems arising from the present uncoordinated approach to the management of collections.

The presentation asserted, “The recommendations in this Report present Governments with the means to secure the preservation of Australia’s heritage collections for future generations and, of equal importance improve access to and understanding by Australians and pursue a new agenda for Australia’s collections of movable cultural heritage”. Noting that the “Distributed National Collection” (DNC) was the “dispersed array of heritage objects across the Nation” the presentation further asserted that the DNC was not the sole preserve of Commonwealth and major State and Territory collecting institutions and that acceptance of the concept of the Distributed National Collection implied acceptance that responsibility for the care the Nation’s heritage objects was a shared responsibility in which “the custodians must act together to ensure that it is conserved and readily accessible to the Australian people”.

Anderson found that ninety percent of Australia’s population perceived positive community benefits in the arts and cultural heritage, including an improved image of the city or region concerned and a feeling of pride in its amenities. Attendances at the 1900 museums in Australia were estimated (by the Australian Census) at 23 millions; some 30% of tourists visited a museum. Ninety percent of Australia’s 1900 museums were administered by volunteers. Fully ten per cent of nationally significant items were to be found in local museums; three out of four local museums contained such items.

The estimated 41 million objects held in Australian museums, art galleries and historical collections were seen as collectively telling the story of Australia’s history and country, contributing to Australians’ sense of identity and national pride. Increasing the conservation skills of people who care for these collections was recognised as an important factor in protecting this heritage and a key goal of the Heritage Collections Council.

The lack of a coordinated approach to the management of Australia’s movable cultural heritage placed Australia’s heritage collections at risk and limited public access. “It is beyond the capacity of individual States to address these issues. A series of uncoordinated individual responses will also be ineffective. A coordinated national strategy is imperative.” The conclusion: only the Cultural Ministers’ Council was in a position to bring the partnership into effect!

The partnership proposed by the HCWG involved the establishment of a Heritage Collections Committee. Three specific programs of national priority were advanced for the next three years commencing July 1993: a national data base for heritage items, interstate touring programs for non-art museum materials and collections and a national conservation program. Funds were to be provided by both museums ($200,000 p.a.) and governments ($300,000 p.a. of which 250,000 was to come from the Commonwealth). The Committee was also to elaborate future initiatives.

Ministers readily agreed to go forward with the recommendations. (To the surprise of the Committee the development of interstate touring programs for non-art museum materials and collections did not proceed. The Chair of the Committee, from the Commonwealth, observed that the already established Visions of Australia scheme performed that role. So two working groups were developed, an On-Line Working Party to advance IT through Australian Museums On-Line (AMOL) web site giving access to collections and information on museums world-wide and a Collection Management and Conservation Working Party.)

Membership of both the HCWG and the later HCC which emerged from it, included persons from museums representing the various collections areas of art, history and science. When the Committee was formed directors of two major State museums were added; chairmanship was assumed by the Commonwealth. Progress with the two major programs by 1996 was such that the Commonwealth and a number of States felt confident in proposing a further extension of the work through the establishment of a Heritage Collections Council.

Throughout there was close cooperation with libraries and archives but libraries did not wish to be involved as a full member because of their own national policy group and their emphasis on libraries as being in the information business. Because they were not contributing financially to the programs of HCC, library and archive representatives had observer status on the HCC. Cooperation particularly concerned historical material in libraries; the observer from the library area was active in the On-Line Working Group

From a concern about entry of information and standard terminology a focus has developed on providing information. Access to museums across Australia, from small to large was advanced. None of this would have happened without the HCC initiative sponsored (and partly funded) by museums themselves and Cultural Ministers. In 1997 Ministers again enthusiastically further upgraded the Committee to a Heritage Collections Council and the States increased their funding dramatically.

The HCC was given the task of promoting excellence in the management, care and provision of access to Australia’s heritage collections so that together, they reflect Australia’s cultural and natural diversity.

Two other events of importance absorbed the attention of governments and the museum community in the 1990s. The Report of the Royal Commission (established by the Australian Government) into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, was released in April 1991. [4] Museums were considered by some as having a role to play in strengthening that pride and self esteem among indigenous communities. The result was a call each quarter from State Governments for reports from museums as to what they were doing. The number of deaths in custody increased after the completion of the Royal Commission’s Report. On 18 May 18 1993, Museums Australia launched “Previous Possessions New Obligations”, policies for museums in developing relations with indigenous Australians [5] . The policy has gained ongoing attention and review. [6]

In 1989 the Australian Government launched its National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. Three dimensions of multicultural policy were identified: cultural identity, social justice – equity and equality – and economic efficiency. The policies are based on the proposition that whilst all Australians should have an overriding commitment to Australia, that should be a unifying commitment and should be put alongside the proposition that Australians accept the basic structures and principles of Australian society, that the policies impose obligations as well as conferring rights. The right to express one’s own culture and beliefs involves a reciprocal responsibility to accept the rights of others to express their own views and values. A conference of importance to museums and relevant to these issues had been organised in Melbourne. [7] The Australian Government established a taskforce to develop proposals for museums to give greater attention to those in the culturally diverse community whose antecedents were not Britain. When the report was presented there was no money to do anything and museums were simply asked to report at intervals on what they had done.

On 13 October 1998 the major “products” of the HCC were launched in the Ian Potter Gallery of the University of Melbourne as one of the events associated with the International Council of Museums (ICOM) 1998 Triennial. These were the seven volume “re-Collections: Caring for Collections Across Australia“ from the Collection Management and Conservation Working Party chaired by Ian Cook of Artlab, South Australia, and the AMOL web site giving access to collections and information on museums world-wide, developed under the guidance of the On-Line Working Party.

re-Collections was acknowledged as a set of practical guidebooks for use principally by non-conservators working with Australia’s cultural heritage, as a teacher friendly resource which can be used in professional development workshops and a ready reference with which museum staff can solve their own problems. re-Collections was provided free to museums in Australia.

AMOL was promoted as a national initiative to provide global access to information about Australia’s museums (including art museums and galleries), their programs and heritage resources benefitting smaller museums – recognising that they hold heritage of national significance and need special support in caring and presenting it – as well as larger ones, all participating as equal partners. By that time AMOL included information from 1,006 Australian museums and galleries and almost half a million of their collection artefacts (representing a cross-section from institutions large and small, in all states of the nation).

The AMOL site was awarded equal first prize as the best professional museum site with the Getty Museum at the “Museums and Web” Conference in Toronto in May 1998. By the time of the launch AMOL provided access to information about more than over 350,000 objects giving information for school students for gardening, hobbies and sports. The wealth of material ranged from lighthouses in southern Western Australia to marine creatures in northern Queensland, from Victa mowers in Victoria to whales in Eden, from opals in Cooper Pedy to stories of central Australia in Alice Springs.

At the launch AMOL and re-Collections were described as the most significant initiative in the Australian museum sector this century. Perhaps a little bold!

A report for the HCC prepared by the Secretariat in 2000 said,

“The National Conservation and Preservation Strategy for Australia’s Heritage Collections published in 1998″¦ spearheaded an initiative to enable museums nationwide to identify their holdings of significance and to chart their preservation status. The latter is particularly important as it enables museums to manage their own resources more strategically and to mount convincing cases to government and alternative funding sources for support.”

As to AMOL the HCC Secretariat’s report said, “The AMOL website has revolutionised the way in which information is accessed about Australia’s cultural heritage “¦ the Guide to Australian Museums allows access to more than 1,000 national, regional and local cultural institutions across Australia and to more than 440,000 records about individual objects within collections, including 30,000 images and 53 full collections; it features stories that provide contextual information about objects or significant events in our past. AMOL’s Museum Craft section provides a forum for people working in the museum sector including guides, publications, an Open Museum Journal, contacts and discussion forums.”

Work on other issues continued and in April 2001 an excellent publication, “Significance”, which outlined the criteria one might use to establish the level of significance of collection items, was launched at the Museums Australia conference.

Progress with collections and access to them was achieved through cooperation between governments at all levels and museums of all kinds as well as a level of self-funding by museums themselves, something not found in other endeavours in the cultural field. What next?

The Council, like its predecessors, had a three year life. By 2000 this seemed to provide the opportunity for the Commonwealth to close the HCC down. “It will have finished its work”, several officials said. In order to consider the future, a large gathering of museum people was assembled in Canberra in August 2000. Facilitators were called in. Suggestions were made: words like collaboration, access, care, partnerships were used. Proposals were advanced: training and development for staff and volunteers, identification and development of centres of excellence, integration of collection databases, regional presences, national touring of exhibitions and marketing, development of industry standards and benchmarks, programs for life long learning.

Following the completion of the “Key Needs Study” by the Deakin University group, launched some months earlier, the Department prepared its own position paper. In February 2002, the Heritage Collections Council met for the last time. The Department’s paper was presented as a document of the working party established by the Cultural Ministers Council to oversee the consultancy to survey the work of the HCC and the preparation of the report. [8] Therefore, it could not be amended, it was said! But nevertheless it was being made available for “industry consideration”. In fact, unlike Deakin University’s useful report, this was a collection of superficial views, misinterpretations and invalid assertions.

The position paper asserted that the most important thing the CMC could do was to arrange for co-ordination since the study had found that the HCC’s effectiveness “was perceived to be limited because it was not inclusive enough in its coverage of heritage collections, concerned with delivery of programs and resources rather than strategic planning and policy development, and it was located within government, rather than operating as an independent body” [9] . The focus had been production of resources “rather than the development of high-level strategic advice for government, the latter has not been performed effectively on behalf of the sector. The focus of HCC on museums has been repeatedly noted, and the HCC is not considered to be representative of the breadth of the Distributed National Collection.” [10]

It continued, “The conclusion of the HCC’s work program in June 2001 presented an opportunity to review the current state of the sector, having consideration of the changes that have occurred since the development of the HCC model. These changes include the increase in size and number of heritage collections, the development of State and Territory-based delivery networks, and the impact of the HCC strategies and products.”

Some 40 years earlier, in the United States congress authorised establishment of the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, along with the Institute for Museum and (now) Library Services. As Daniel Thomas noted, the legislation commenced, “a high civilisation must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the two other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future”. [11] Yes, subsequently there have been various attacks on the Endowments, especially the Endowment for the Arts for supporting projects that offended the religious and the conservative. But the statements remain.

In Canada, the national policy for museums released in June 1990 (under the title “Temples of the Human Spirit”) [12]the then Minister Marcel Masse asserted,

“A mature nation, proud of its history and culture, comes to know itself in the mirror of its past. Cherishing our heritage, we naturally seek ways to share it through words, pictures and electronic means of communication. But in the end, we always return to the original works of the past, the tangible artefacts of our heritage. They represent our authentic and irreplaceable link with our history.

What can we cite from an Australian parliament to match these sentiments?

Continue to Museums in Australia For Us – Conclusion.

[1] Don Watson, in “Recollections of a Bleeding Heart A Portrait of Paul Keating PM“ (Knopff, 2002, p 134), quotes Keating as saying, “The last thing we need is another bloody great mausoleum by the lake.” Watson says, “Nothing could persuade him. It did no good to say that there would be no mausoleum”¦ that we would build half of it in cyberspace and put the rest on permanent tour”

[2] Pressure from the Provinces led later in the 1990s to the dismemberment of the Commission.

[3] Daniel Thomas, “Heritage collections Not museums: The Heritage Collections Working Group of the Cultural Ministers’ Council, Artlink, Vol 12/1, p.58-60 (1990)

[4] This was described as, “not simply a set of statements of interest to a small minority of Australians. It is about peoples disenfranchised in their own country, removed from their lands, their culture diminished and cultural heritage items removed, their children taken from parents, their opportunity to control their own future reduced or eliminated. A major reason for the disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated relates to these actions. Pride and self esteem are a fundamental element in the survival of individuals and communities.” D. J. G. Griffin, `Previous Possessions, New Obligations: a commitment by Australian museums’, Curator 39/1, pp. 45-62 (1996).

[5] D.J.G. Griffin, “Previous Possessions, New Obligations: a commitment by Australian Museums”, Curator Vol 39/1, pp 45-62.

[6] Tim Sullivan, Lynda Kelly and Phil Gordon, “Museums and Indigenous People in Australia: A Review of Previous Possessions, New Obligations”, Curator Vol 46/2, pp. 208-227, 2003 (2004).

[7] Margaret Birtley and Patricia McQueen (editors), New Responsibilities Documenting Multicultural Australia, Museums Association of Australia (Inc) Victorian Branch and Library Council of Victoria. (1989)

[8] The Chair of the HCC did not attend the meeting and neither did representatives of the State Ministers because they represented the Cultural Ministers who would make the eventual decision on the future!

[9] A Study into the Key Needs of Heritage Collections, Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific, Deakin University, Melbourne, 2001, page 100

[10] The absence of libraries and archives was used to support the proposition that the HCC was not representative of the heritage collections sector; confusion over the term museum led some to assert that art galleries were isolated by the HCC agenda.

[11] Daniel Thomas, loc. cit.

[12] Canadian Museum Policy: Temples of the Human Spirit. Ottawa: Communications Canada, 1990