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ICOM Australia Award 2016 for Individual Achievement

This is the presentation and response at the Museums Australasia Conference 2016 in Auckland, New Zealand of the ICOM Awards at the conference dinner at the Auckland War Memorial and Museum, 17 May 2016.

Presentation by Robin Hirst, past Chair, ICOM Australia.

The International Council of Museums was established in 1946, making this year its 70th Anniversary. In 1946 fourteen nations founded ICOM. Two of those were New Zealand and Australia. It is fitting that museum workers from both countries are gathered together here tonight to celebrate the success of colleagues.

It is now my pleasure to announce the winners of the 2016 ICOM Australia Awards.

These awards recognise and celebrate the outstanding work undertaken by Australian institutions and individuals that has strengthened international relations and contributed to the cultural richness of our region and beyond.

This is the ninth year of the ICOM Australia Awards. Two Awards will be presented this year: one to recognise an individual’s achievement and the other an institutions commitment to international collaboration and exchange.

Our first award goes to someone who was born and bred in New Zealand, and spent much of his working life in Australia. Dr Des Griffin AM, a museum professional who has spent his life advocating for cultural diversity within the museum sector, especially in Australia and New Zealand is a worthy winner.

Des started his working life as a marine scientist, with a special interest in the biology of Crustacea. Trained in New Zealand, Des moved to Sydney take up a role as senior research scientist at the Australian Museum. He has published over 60 papers in this area, making a significant contribution to world knowledge.

Des was appointed director of the Australian Museum in 1976, a position he held for 22 years. Under his leadership, Des led the museum’s transformation in its work with Indigenous communities. Notable initiatives included new exhibitions on Aboriginal Australia with contemporary Aboriginal voices and perspectives, the employment of Indigenous staff, support for keeping places, and advocacy for the return of human remains and repatriation.

Since his retirement from the Australian Museum in 1998, Des Griffin has been a vocal commentator on museum management, leadership and governance including the management of change, the contribution of museums to learning, and the role museums can and should play in public issues such as the natural environment, cultural diversity and relations with indigenous peoples.

With a global outlook, Des has been a critic of museum practice around the world, and his numerous publications have made a significant contribution to museology.

I invite Dr Des Griffin to the Stage to accept his award.


I am truly honoured to accept this award.

I want to start by acknowledging the people of the land by right of first settlement and pay my respects to ancerstors past and present.

Tena koutou katoa

How refreshing it is to learn how much New Zealanders are proud of biculturalism.

Thinking about what I would say tonight I thought I would emphasise the important contribution museums make to understanding cultural diversity and developing respect, to understanding our relationship with the environment and to recognising how history develops.


An introductory statement on museum futures to a symposium organised by Museums Australia and held at the National Museum of Australia in September 2008 is relevant to the following remarks


And continuing to understand audiences, the nature of learning and how to effectively use social media.

But listening to the often passionately delivered and well-informed presentations I realised that is already being done. I was pleased at the way museums of all kinds were involved (for we have much to learn from others).

I was blown away. Museums have changed enormously.

Being away from constant involvement with museums for 15 years has meant not really appreciating the changes. It is much like senior executives who do not mix every day with those on the front line yet still believe they know what is going on.

Are museums valued? By government, by funders, by media?

Think of the amazing Gallipoli exhibition at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa  that we have just heard about from Sir Richard Taylor.

What are we supposed to do? Get 50% of the population to visit? Dress up like Tuatara?

What is important is leadership. That means working together, understanding how decisions get made. That is not administration which is simply rule following!

It is the same in many different organisations. We have much to learn from others and there are heaps of wonderful studies to inform us.

Are the critical leadership behaviours valued? Are they applied in recruitment and in evaluation of performance?

Is the Museum’s achievement the basis for support?

Unfortunately, museums, like many other organisations, have been overrun by the drive for small government, by “New Public Management”, by “accountability”. Effectiveness has become conflated with efficiency. Blunt instruments like efficiency dividends have been applied.

And the benefits of small government and accountability?

Think, for example of the National Museum of Australia’s courageous exhibition project Encounters with the British Museum. Over 100 extremely diverse staff from the Museum and without, consultation with 27 Indigenous groups around the whole country over more than four years. Wonderful objects connecting the past earliest contacts with present day ongoing cultural tradition. A project addressing one of the most important issues for museums. And for Australia. One indeed in which museums have been ahead of government policy.

And the result? More efficiency dividends!

What we need is efficiency dividends for governments and for politicians.

But it is not much use just shouting at ongoing failures of governments to properly fund our museums.

Recall Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as he attempts to recruit Brutus to the conspiracy against Caesar

And why should Caesar be a tyrant, then?
Poor man, I know he would not be a wolf
But that he sees the Romans are but sheep;
He were no lion, were not Romans hinds.

It would be like Mexican performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña on the US border shouting to the US through a bullhorn.

Instead, what we need is to study lessons for other domains and arenas, to find what has worked elsewhere. To really understand how to go forward.

We have to recognise that, for politicians and others in government, like many others, problems arise because personal experience and preconceived ideas trump evidence. We have to understand how they think. Without trying to go along with what they think should be done simply to satisfy them. Principles, values matter.

I hope we will one day value leaders not for their success at self-promotion, for being an expert on everything or raising money. But for creating a challenging and supportive environment, for developing social capital, for standing for organisational values. For advocacy.

I have a dream today!

We need to work together

We need to encourage curiosity, curiosity of the kind shown by the grandchildren our first plenary speaker Moana Jackson talked about so appealingly yesterday (in ways that immediately resonated with us). Curiosity which is critical but so often lost in later life.

We need to understand the other side.
We should argue for intellect.
We should argue for barren economic rationalism, which has driven the last almost fifty years, to be replaced by an indigenous world view. Its resilience, its humour. A view which sees humanity in the context of the social and natural environment.

As Xhosa people say, “I am human through other humans”.

Thank you.

May the song of the Kokako be with you always.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.


Tena koutou is a Maori greeting

Tuatara, an endemic New Zealand reptile, Sphenodon punctatus, part of a distinct lineage; a large lizard-like animal now confined to offshore islands but recently released into a Zealandia, a sanctuary in Karori, a Wellington suburb.

Kokako, native New Zealand bird, Callaeas cinereus, strictly the North Island Kokako, the South Island Kokako being considered extinct. It has a beautiful clear, organ-like song which carries for kilometres. The populations of the Kokako have been decimated by invasive introduced mammals such as possums and stoats. Though it looks like a crow its belongs to a separate family. It is being rehabilitated on the Hauraki Gulf Island Tiritiri Matangi for reintroduction to the Taranaki region and some other parts of the North Island. It is a poor flier and glides between trees and scrambles, hops up the trunks to glide away again.