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Archive for February, 2007

Why sink beneath the waves? Museums can influence their own future

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

There seems to be a view around in some quarters that museums have to face up to the fact that government funding is declining because more money has to be spent on health, education and transport, partly because the population is aging. However, more correctly it is a matter of governments facing up to the fact that they have failed to represent the interests of the community and the citizenry through their neglect of social infrastructure through entirely inappropriate budget strategies and their continual focus on the short term. They have failed to show genuine leadership.

I have already reviewed the issue of reductions in funding of museums in various countries including Australia, Britain and the USA, as it was in 2003.

Of course it can be said that it is easy to rail against government but what does one do about it? If we all took that view we might as well walk into the water and sink beneath the waves like Fish Lamb in Tim Winton’s “Cloudstreet”. Individuals can and do join together to seek better outcomes for themselves. Life is not a matter of simply accepting what one is given. (Unfortunately there are some people who think that it is alright for them to join with others to advance their interests but certain other people should be as far as possible discouraged to do the same.)

Many museum people need to understand the importance of alliance formation. Those who have executive leadership roles in museums need to focus on how they can determne the future of the museum community generally as well as their own museum. Part of the problem is the emphasis which has been placed on the fundraising role of executives. Instead of developing genuine leadership they now spend most of their time seeking more money. Unfortunately, in some countries, including Australia, too many executives line up to follow every whim of government, especially as enunciated by bureaucrats. More than that, those charged with governing museums have to recognise that they are not there to ensure compliance with the government agenda but to promote the aims of the museum in service to the public.

Governments ought to recognize, if they want to generate real outcomes of benefit to their communities and citizens, that the way they have sought to govern – through centralised control – is entirely inappropriate and in some cases has amounted to a sidelining of democracy. So far as museums are concerned, the evidence is clear: those closely associated with governments are significantly poorer performers in a wide range of areas than those which are independent.

In fact it is not true that outlays on health, education and transport are crowding out other opportunities by commanding the major outlays of government funds. Very substantial funding at a national level is going to defence expenditure. In Australia at State level, and in some other countries, policing and “corrective services”, being hard on crime is all the go. For instance in the State Plan for New South Wales, for instance, citizens’ safety is a high priority and cultural pursuits are near the bottom of the list!

The argument that health and social security expenditures are going to overtake the entire budget process and freeze out expenditure on everything else is part of “the populations of developed countries are ageing” argument which imagines that economies will fall into a black hole because the tax revenue from the decreasing working population will be insufficient to cover the outlays required to support more and more long lived older and non-working persons. This argument takes no account of the way health and social services are delivered or the need to attend to genuine health care as opposed to the current focus on illthe care.

The argument also ignores the situation in other countries. For instance Australia’s outlays on health account for 8.3% of GDP. But in European countries the figure is more than 14% with Sweden at nearly 21%. In the US – the most inefficient of all developed countries in respect of health care – the outlays represent 12.6% of GDP. The economies of Nordic countries, for instance, have not fallen into a black hole: indeed they are amongst the most competitive economies in the World.

Australia also underspends relative to other developed countries on education. An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald recently pointed out, “Australia is the only OECD nation to have reduced spending on higher education since the mid-1990s, against an average increase of 48 per cent. And this at a time of unheard of plenty. The Howard Government has found itself with billions of dollars in surpluses, which it is happy to throw around in tax cuts. But when it comes to the global knowledge race – arguably the key to Australia’s future competitiveness – Canberra is doggedly unwilling to invest.”

The reduced funding for museums in Australia, and some other countries, is a reflection of neoliberal economics and its demand for reduced government outlays overall; tax cuts – which largely benefit companies and the more wealthy and thereby increase inequities which lead to greater civil disturbance and even unrest – are a significant feature of this approach though that is generally denied or ignored by its proponents. So is the increasing intrusion into their everyday affairs by governments. That is done under the banner of ensuring accountability (and transparency)! When governments talk of this they seek to have museums adopt performance indicators. Museums need to evaluate their performance so they can improve. They should not have to adopt performance indicators so as to show they are not behaving like the Enrons or HIHs or Alintas of this world.
One of the most serious issues in the politics of museums is the general ignorance of many of those charged with leading the museum community. Too many museum people are prepared to go along with what they are told, or accept that they cannot do anything about it. That is what happened in Weimar Germany as disparities ballooned and minorities and the intelligentsia were blamed for the “failures”. It is what has happened from time to time in the USA.

When those with influence speak of the importance of promoting democracy and freedom it is time to look about to see who is really benefitting and who is not. If museum people accept the demand from those with influence to “stick to their last”, then we can be sure that museums will not benefit.