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Leading Museums And Botanic Gardens Is Not Project Management

The report of the departures of Frank Howarth from the Australian Museum and of David Mabberley from the Royal Botanic Gardens and National Herbarium  (“Museum director joins public service exodus” by Anna Patty and Andrew Taylor October 10th) contains some statements from senior government persons that reveal profound misunderstandings of the business of these two enterprises and promotes some unfortunate interpretations.

The issues raised are ones for government, boards and executives. They are matters of leadership and governance. For more than 30 years the Museum, like its counterparts, has been successful in generating many millions of dollars from outside government, equal in proportion to most other comparable organisations from grants, sponsorships and major exhibitions. This seems to not prevent the ongoing efficiency dividend drive of Treasury, which we have seen rewarding Edmund Capon’s efforts at the Art Gallery.

A significant problem, very relevant to the Australian Museum which Mr Howarth is about to leave, clearly exists at the Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust as revealed by Chairman Ken Boundy : “the position [of executive director at the Botanic Gardens] has become more of a project management role”. That enterprise undertakes  research and collection management as well as important horticultural research, plant conservation and display, in Sydney and two sites in western Sydney and the Blue Mountains. The professional staff from the many disciplines are entitled, as at the Museum, to competent leadership and governance which understands, advocates and encourages the full range of work.

Leadership of professional people in scientific and related areas requires superior attention to recruitment, encouragement of performance to the highest standards, a challenging environment which rewards and coaches staff and so on. That is true whether we are talking about the leading biomedical and other scientific institutions around the world such as the Perimeter Institute near Toronto studying quantum physics or the major scientific and educational institutions in Sydney. Leadership of ‘knowledge organisations’ is absolutely not simply project management.

The boards of these institutions must understand the role of the institutions which they govern and the prerequisites for effective leadership of them. That includes persuading government to provide appropriate support. Not a simple task: many governments in Australia have adopted superficial and largely irrelevant practices which they wrongly see as the features of successful business. For instance, an obsession with financial matters and unreasonable demands for the raising of funds. Financial success flows from effective leadership, not the other way around!

By the way, what would one say about the successful launch of the Cassini spacecraft and Huygens probe by the European Space Agency in 2004 and the work which went into the eventual discovery of a Higgs particle at the Hadron Supercollider by CERN compared with the development of the Dreamliner or the management of Sydney Rail? Are scientists really just a bunch of boffins pursuing their own glorification or do they in fact have important lessons for us about how to achieve success? Lessons which governments might need to take on board.

Then there is the matter of the collections at the Australian Museum and the theft of some of its specimens by employee Hank van Leeuwin.

Contrary to what is said by Patty and Taylor, the Australian Museum was not “in turmoil” after van Leeuwen’s thefts were revealed. It is a gross exaggeration to say that ICAC berated the Museum for “management failures”. Whatever ICAC said the upshot was that the proposition, advanced after the investigation of the theft, that every specimen in the collections had to be registered led to vast expense for no good purpose. This continued the silly notion that the collections should be financially valued, requiring vast amounts of time to estimate the replacement value or sale price. Another government promoted ridiculous exercise in the name of accountability and transparency. As if the collections could be sold. Which they can’t. As silly as valuing land under roads.

The claims paid little attention to how effective natural history museums conduct their business including the management and care of millions of specimens. Collections are vitally important for understanding evolution, ecology and environmental change. Most specimens are invertebrates including insects, worms, crustaceans and similar creatures. Unlike mammals, birds and reptiles, the numbers of species of invertebrates are vast and the majority still await description and naming. That is common knowledge!

Most natural history collections are in “lots”, kept perfectly safely in storage awaiting further study and registration when they are named by an expert. The actual registration of every specimen, even of mammals, birds and reptiles, would make no difference to whether or not their removal by a person on the staff of the Museum intent on stealing them would find it easy to do so. Staff are trusted. The exceptions when they should not be unfortunately cause problems, like all rare events, in financial institutions as well as in museums.

The greatest contribution to the security of the collections and to the increase of our knowledge about the fauna and the natural environment would be to ensure that there are adequate fully trained staff at the Museum led by executives fully committed to the pursuit of scholarship and effective management of the collections and communicating the resulting knowledge and understanding. Unfortunately, the ongoing severe reductions in State Government funding of the Museum over the last 20 or more years has seen declines in the numbers of senior research people and other staff at the Museum and curtailment of many programs in all areas including public programs.

The departures of large numbers of executives hardly seem consistent with “normal operations of government” which was director-general of Premier and Cabinet Chris Eccles’ reported response to the departures. That four major cultural and scientific institutions have lost their CEOs in the last 12 months suggests systemic problems perhaps related to government’s demands for revenue. Hardly indicative of stability or ‘team NSW’. More Kookoburra-like – noisy and inconsequential – rather than like the Platypus, very clever but not often seen.

Organisations like museums and public gardens and herbaria, like art galleries, require the best and that means understanding by government and by boards. And yes, that will lead to economic gains also. If Australia is to continue to be a clever country we need the best, not severe misunderstandings and superficial excuses such as leadership of scientific and cultural enterprises amount to no more than “project management” and that departures of four senior executives in one year is the “normal business of government”.

There are lessons from the best research and development organisations. They  are typified by leadership which encourages frequent interaction of people from different disciplines, even in one case, requiring presentation of seminars on topics outside their area of expertise. They ensure that as far as possible that they recruit the best possible people and provide a challenging and supportive environment. Some of these features are shown by some research organisations and some universities in Australia. It is by no means clear that governments have understood any of this.

More articles on leadership in scientific and cultural organisations can be found here, here, here and here.

This article, which is also on my blog, was drafted after the article in the Sydney Morning Herald, to which this is response, was published.