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Thursday, March 26th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Future Australia?

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Museum people, I hope, are taking careful note of the announcements, assertions and debate of the last three weeks in Australia about education policy and funding, the assertions that our public education sytem is a disgrace, that what we need is greater accountability, that the latest international tests are a wake up call for Australian educators and that Australia is failing in the standards of its child care institutions. Because all of this has implications for what museums will do in the next few years.

Fourteen months ago (on 19 September 2007) I gave an invited talk to a small audience at the South Bank Campus of Griffith University’s College of the Arts as part of their Lunch Box talks. As I am writing an essay on education and schooling at the present time I thought it might be time to publish the text of that talk.

The three weeks from the last week of November through mid December have been times of substantial developments in education and schooling in Australia. “Experts” told us again that if schools are to improve, and they must, then we need a culture of performance and accountability. In his fourth Boyer lecture, expatriate Australian Rupert Murdoch reminded us that “The unvarnished truth is that in countries such as Australia, Britain, and particularly the United States, our public education systems are a disgrace. Despite spending more and more money, our children seem to be learning less and less””especially for those who are most vulnerable in our society.” I doubt the veracity of Mr Murdoch’s assertions as they relate to Australia.

New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, brought to Australia by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Education Julia Gillard, told us of the great successes of his program to replace a culture of excuse to a culture of performance. Careful consisderation of the time since Mr Klein has been Chancellor have led some to claim that there have been anything but advances in student achievement in New York.

At the end of the week, it was announced that very substantial funds were to be granted by the Commonwealth to education and schooling through the Council of the Heads of Government (COAG) for some extremely important strategies.

This month (December) we have seen arguments in the Australian Parliament about the provision of funds to Independent schools and whether that funding should be tied to a national curriculum. On December 9 the results of TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) for 2007 (tests conducted in 2006 in Australia) were announced and some newspapers pounced on the results to claim they were a wake up call for teachers since the results were not as good as they should be.

On December 11 a UNICEF sponsored study found serious problems in the early childhood sector in many countries, especially Australia and England. As always the Sydney Morning Herald‘s Adele Horin had a very good article about the issue. Much of the consideration of this issue will unbdoubtedly be placed in the context of the ongoing consideration of the collapse or the ABC Learning Centres and child minding which is doubtfully where it should be placed.

And on December 12 Prime Minister Rudd announced substantial funds for infrastructure including funds for training and development in TAFE institutions .

In my view the vitally important issue of ensuring the highest quality of teachers, through recruitment, training, mentoring, appropriate pay and conditions, gets submerged in pointless arguments about accountability and league tables for schools, accusations that public schools are failing and so on. That is also the view of experts in the field!

Similarly, the vitally important issue of early childhood education, especially in respect of children from less well off parts of the community which is where the greatest gains are to be made, get submerged in issues about child minding so working mothers can go to work to make enough money to cover the mortgage and buy the food and the failure so far to put in place a paid maternity (and paternity) leave scheme which equates with that of many advanced economies.

As always with these essays, none of this is irrelevant to museums. Increasingly, early childhood education is recognised by museum people as an area where they can make substantial contributions, as shown by the Queensland Art Gallery and the studies of Barbara Piscitelli and by some other museums including the Australian Museum.

The drive for accountability and testing severely cramps the time of school classes for other activities which give substantial complementary experiences outside the classroom, such as visits to museums: the children are too busy practising for their tests! And the arguments about curriculum can end up constraining the kinds of experiences offered by the museum to visiting school groups through a focus on learning facts ““ the dreaded “˜worksheet’ – rather than experiencing the joy of stimulating experiences when the children are able to be in charge of their own learning, making their own creative connections between things and events previously unconnected in their minds.

In all of this is the influence of certain special interest groups, amongst whom are the “˜economists’. As a friend of mine, a distinguished educator said the other day, “I’m sick of economists running the system, and I’m sick of schools being so filled up with audits of various kinds that there is no space for teachers to inspire kids.”

In my talk, I started by saying “Education is one of the three or four critical issues for all peoples and communities and investment in it leads to increased wellbeing as well as economic growth. It requires investment. Recent economic policies have instead steered us toward an education and work environment more suited to a low wage economy: learning and creativity are being undervalued. The solutions are to be found in recognising the positive outcomes of self determination and encouragement of creativity, not centralised control.” (Reember that this was written in mid 2007!)

By the question “Is there a future for an Educated Australia?” I meant, “do we, or more particularly those with influence and we as those who influence them, recognise that our common future depends on our investing in learning and understanding. And I am not going to argue that we learn certain things rather than others, math and spelling rather than Indonesian or the classics. To a very large extent engaging in educational experiences, no matter the content, leads to a more enriching life.”

I talked about three gains from education:

Continue to “Is there a Future for an Educated Australia“

Who is James Cuno?

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

Major art museums in the USA have, over the last couple of years, had to return important items from their collections to Italy; many of them turned out to have been stolen. But at the same time a number of museums have challenged the notion that is fundamental to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting the Illegal and Illicit transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. The British Museum’s continued refusal to return the Parthenon sculptures relies on these challenges.

One of the most vocal advocates of this challenge is James Cuno, President and Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a strong advocate for the Declaration of the Universal Museum; Cuno was previously at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Harvard University Art Museums.  Cuno has written “Who Owns Antiquity?: Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage” (Princeton University Press, 228 pp).

In “Found and Lost” (The New Republic September 24, 2008) Ingrid D. Rowland reviews Cuno’s book.

Ingrid D. Rowland is a professor, based in Rome, at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. She writes frequently for the New York Review of Books. Her prose is full of wonderful phrases and great insights.There is an edited version of her review in The Australian newspaper for October 4, 2008 entitled “Back to the Source”.  (Rowland’s new book,Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, has just been published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

The Australian summarises Rowland’s view thus, “The encyclopedic museums’ argument against repatriation of classical artefacts is self-servingly flawed.”

Rowland commences her review of Cuno’s book, in the edited version in The Australian,

“EARLY this year, the state apartments of the Palazzo del Quirinale hosted a remarkable exhibition of ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan artefacts, all found on Italian soil but held until recently in museums and private collections in the US, notably the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition was a diplomatic coup for Francesco Rutelli, the former mayor of Rome, who until April was minister of culture for two years in the left-wing government of Romano Prodi.”

One of the reviews of Cuno’s book is by Edward Rothstein, in “Antiquities, the World Is Your Homeland”  (New York Times 27 May 2008),  Rothstein commences by asking, “To what culture does the concept of “cultural property” belong? Who owns this idea?

“It has, like much material property in the last 50 years, often changed hands. And in doing so, it has also changed meanings and grown in importance. It now affects the development of museums, alters the nature of international commerce and even seems to subsume traditional notions of property.

“It was brought to modern prominence in 1954 by Unesco as a way of characterizing the special status of monuments, houses of worship and works of art — objects that suffered “grave damage” in “recent armed conflicts.” In its statement Unesco asserted that such “cultural property” was part of the “cultural heritage of all mankind” and deserved special protection.

“But the framers of that doctrine with its universalist stance would hardly recognize cultural property in its current guise. The concept is now being narrowly applied to assert possession, not to affirm value. It is used to stake claims on objects in museums, to prevent them from being displayed and to control the international trade of antiquities.

Basically, Rowland’s take on Cuno’s polemic is exemplified by this par:

Nor will it do to hit at Italian laws and then dodge a forthright look at Italy’s relationship not only with antiquity, but indeed with the very discipline of archaeology. Italy, after all, is rare among nations because it is both a prime producer and a prime consumer of archaeological artifacts. Because of this peculiar status, Italy has posed the most specific and sophisticated challenge to the directors of American museums who are now facing the consequences of their erstwhile rapacious acquisition policies. Like any venerable museum in the United States, the Art Institute of Chicago has its own complement of archaeological treasures removed from Italian soil over the decades with a lack of concern for context that this powerful, educated, wealthy land now has the wit and the clout to classify as no longer acceptable. But Italians are also superb negotiators, particularly skilled at finding solutions that preserve face on all sides. What purpose is served then by taking a swipe at Rutelli at the precise moment when the directors of the Met, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Getty Museum, and the Princeton Museum have all signed long-term agreements of international cooperation, through Rutelli’s direct mediation, with the Italian government? Does dissent truly serve the best interests of the Art Institute of Chicago, let alone archaeology, the public, the cultural awareness of collectors, the general state of knowledge about our collective past, and diplomatic etiquette?

Declaration of the Universal Museum – an Update

Friday, August 10th, 2007

Note: This update includes references to some of the items concerning the Declaration from 2004 through mid 2007. The previous references can be found here.

In early December 2002, nineteen of the world’s top art museums issued a statement firmly opposing the repatriation of cultural material. Attention was drawn to the continuing claims by various countries and peoples for return of collections held in the major museums of the world.

Debate on this issue has continued in conferences, on websites and in journals.

Although at the time, it was claimed that return of Aboriginal human remains from museums in Britain to Australia would be hampered by the Declaration, it would seem from recent events concerning material of human remains from Tasmania in The Natural History Museum in London that no reliance was placed in the Declaration. Rather the issue concerns objects created by people.

Nor has the Declaration been the basis for any aspect of the negotiations between art museums in the USA and the Italian Government over classical archaeological items alleged to have been stolen. There are notes about this later.

We can recall that the British Museum asserts that it “is a universal museum holding an encyclopaedic collection of material from across the world and all periods of human culture and history. For the benefit of its audience now and in the future, the Museum is committed to sustaining and improving its collection”.

The British Museum was significantly involved in the adoption of this Declaration and its director, Neil MacGregor, has vigorously defended it.

Continue to article.

More on “Quality”

Wednesday, August 1st, 2007

In the previous post on “Quality” I mentioned a number of orchestras and museums which I thought represented an exceptional level of excellence and suggested that this had a lot to do with the way people worked with each other and the attention given to recruitment. There is another issue and that is the assertion one hears from time to time that involvement of young people in various branches of the arts such as learning music has spin-off effects in improving other abilities such as math and analytical skills. The jury is still out on this particular issue as I understand it. But the points which emerge are of general signficance.

Here are three items which are about young people and the arts. And there is a fourth item which is not about young people but the Director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Philippe de Montebello.

The first item is an interview with British producer/director Michael Waldman and work with disadvantaged, troubled young people aged between 15 and 19, and their involvement in the ballet based on Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”. Through this they achieved amazing performances and advanced their personal development as well. “A young black woman who was aged 15 who was in a rehearsal session early on, was asked to talk about herself… She said, ‘I’m told that when I was 2 my Dad murdered my Mum’. In rehearsal she showed herself to be focused, energetic, disciplined, with abilities to put her feet in front of each other, musically, and was cast in the character role of Lady Capulet, the mother of Juliet. And when it came to the final performance, the ballet reviewers who came to this said she was as good as the Bolshoi’s Lady Capulet.” (Professors Milbrey W. McLaughlin and Shirley Brice Heath of Stanford University have stories of a similar nature; see the page on museum issues)

The second item concerns the astonishing orchestral project for young people in Caracas, Venezuela, El Sistema – a remarkable project which uses Beethoven and Brahms to “save” the children of the barrios. Earlier this year, the musical directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic – arguably among the best orchestras in America – became vacant. The orchestra chose 26 year old El Sistema trained Gustavo Dudamel after a couple of guest appearances during which the Venezuelan shot what the orchestra’s president Deborah Borda called ‘contagious joy’ through the seasoned musicians. ‘We had combustion,’ she said. ‘We knew something remarkable had happened.’

The third is about partnerships at American art museums which seek to find whether art appreciation has spin-offs in other areas. The US Department of Education offers a grant program to support local education agencies and “organisations with arts expertise in replicating or adapting ways to integrate arts disciplines with a key goal to improve students’ academic performance, including their skills in creating, performing and responding to the arts”. A number of museums involved in the project have shown significant improvements in critical skills.

The last item concens the “Met” in New York. (By the way, fifty percent of all private money for the arts is raised in New York!) There are many rumours, denied, of the impending retirement of Philippe de Montebello, 71 year old director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the last 30 years. In “Twilight of the Sun King” by Charles McGrath (New York Times July 29, 2007) there are some comments about de Montebello and what I think makes museums outstanding. We are enlightened about some of the ways in which the Met distinguishes itself. It has a lot to do with the culture de Montebello promotes.

Continue to essay