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Museums and Understanding

“Money is not at the beginning of the artistic assembly line…. It is at the end. It is the applause, not the hushed anticipation. And in our buy now, pay later, money back guarantee society, applause comes only from those who have seen, and touched and tasted. Who have been touched and had themselves transported. From those who know what it is to have an artist capture their imagination like a balloon, hold it for a moment, and then set it free again, refreshed.”

Charles Ziff 1982

Stone of the Sun, National Museum of
Anthropology, Mexico City (More)

Museums: The Frontlines Of Understanding – Not The Private Space Of The Aesthete Or Another Victim Of Managerialism

Adapted from talks on ABC Radio’s Ockham’s Razor; this research has been carried out with Mr Morris Abraham and colleagues from the University of Technology, Sydney.

Museums in Australia as elsewhere have increasingly focussed on what they are doing for their visitors and their other constituents. In the words of one commentator they have moved from being about something to being for somebody [1]. They have had to do this in a more competitive climate and one where getting more money from the private sector and their own business enterprises has been emphasised. Their concern with blockbuster exhibitions, and their involvement in controversy, is well known. In the case of the UK, Canada and Australia the changes have been very strongly influenced by government and its reform agenda.

But in most cases of museum reform, like government reform generally, the intransigent and systemic problems haven’t been faced up to and the care that ought to have gone into the issues hasn’t been there. Instead, entrepreneurs have been brought in, financial discipline has been imposed in the name of accountability and museums have been exhorted to increase financial independence without understanding what brings support from where. The worst habits instead of the best have been inserted by governments and boards alike.

The Australian Museum in Sydney, the oldest and largest natural history museum in Australia, expanded in the 1950s from a rather traditional, inward-looking organisation to one with a vigorous culture of research and collection development as well as active education and exhibition programs, something the Museum had hardly seen in its 120 or so years. Why? And how? After all, this was the museum from which distinguished zoologist and Curator (Director) Gerard Krefft, still in his chair, had been carried out a century earlier and dumped on the road by bailiffs hired by Trustees for not agreeing with their wishes.

John Evans joined the Australian Museum as Director in 1954. A distinguished entomologist, Evans came to the Museum from a leadership role in the British Civil Service. He did two things that had long-term consequences: he set out to recruit good, highly qualified scientists from all over the world to the Museum’s curatorial posts. And he took a genuine interest in staff, encouraging people to mix together and to celebrate with parties: he and his wife Faith joined in, dressing up, occasionally in the most ridiculous clothes. He earned a reputation for being firm but fair. As Ron Strahan observes in “Rare and Curious Specimens“, the 1977 history of the Museum, through Evans the Museum became a community.

In the late 1950’s Evans did something else. Seeking an extension to the Museum’s building – there had been none since 1896 – he set out to influence the Public Service Board Chairman, Sir Wallace Wurth. Recognising the pivotal role the Board then played, he learned that Wurth wanted to know what was going on. So Evans got into the habit of giving him regular news of events and activities: Wurth supported the building. Directors after Evans had a much easier time and had something solid to build on.

What do we actually know about museums? A five year study which sought the views of experts, gathered the views of staff and analysed relevant demographic data reveals that museums are like other organisations, that the best of them emphasise leadership which brings people together, clearly espouses a vision and encourages teamwork. Staff understand and support the goals. There is a clear focus on quality recognised by completing tasks which meet the required standards first time. Training is critical, performance is carefully assessed and good work is rewarded. Staff value the skills and contribution of their colleagues. The best museums also pay attention to the different learning styles of visitors. Exhibits that don’t work are fixed up quickly or taken off the floor. Moreover, the best also have boards of people who contribute their knowledge and skills to advance the museum’s goals.

The problems of the worst museums characterised by poor leadership emerge particularly in the change process where there is a failure to spell out what the new organisation will be like and there is a lack of resources to support the change. The worst museums are over-represented amongst the group associated closely with government, particularly those in the UK, Canada and Australia; those in the USA differ most strongly from those in other countries and generally perform better in the features which characterise the museums recognised as better by experts. Science centres and science museums generally face less conflict amongst people from different groups than in other kinds of museums and are generally better regarded for their exhibitions and marketing. Conflicts between curatorial and research staff, educators and exhibition staff and administrative staff remain in many museums however, and is most evident in older more traditional museums where collections are a principal focus.

Clearly museums have paid far too little attention to recruiting the best leaders. Generally, as in business generally, there isn’t agreement on what constitutes leadership and how to recognise it; recruitment is often handed out to consultants and the museum intervenes at the last moment. And board members have been seldom informed as to what their role is. Instead boards have intruded and often taken over the management of the museum.

And there is a continued lack of understanding of one of the principal purposes of museums, education. Or more correctly, learning; instead we have silly words like edutainment and large amounts of money spent on promotion in the expectation that almost by itself it will make a difference.

Curatorial practices, design, education and scholarship – the core activities of the museum – take place in the social environment of the organisation with its competing constituencies and views about quality, about why the museum is there in the first place and how important visitors are and what attention should be given to their views. Public programming in effective museums is a reflection of good leadership and not separate from it.

Some museums, especially those in larger cities and places such as New York where there is substantial private support available have developed larger and larger buildings for their museums. This has been described by some as the edifice complex. But it is by no means true that size matters. Amongst the most successful of museums opened recently is Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Over 3.5 million visits were received by this museum in the first two years and 96 per cent of those visiting expressed satisfaction.

Te Papa gives great attention to audience evaluation and learning and the results of their studies of the visitor experience clearly guide the way they design and present their exhibitions. This has been clearly a difficulty for some used to the more didactic, those accustomed to the art speaking for itself, those believing that artworks demand a certain amount of reverence.

Studies at museums like the Cleveland Art Institute and the Denver Museum of Art, for instance, show that visitors want their learning experiences to be directly related to the objects they see, a variety of interpretive strategies to be provided to take account of different learning styles. Successful interpretation for the primary audience – the general public – means “accepting where they [the visitors] are” – keeping their backgrounds, preconceptions and values in mind”

But the issue of learning goes deeper than this. Many of us know from personal experience or stories or the fruitless visits to museums as a schoolchild. These visits involved being told what to do, not being allowed to talk and being discouraged from ‘playing’ with interactive exhibits. Family visits on the other hand are different. School visits are structured more to meet the requirements of the school teacher than the student, learning is regarded as putting knowledge into peoples’ heads and museums are treated mainly as sources of knowledge rather than as learning facilitators. There is now a huge literature on learning and on what makes it effective. Visitors’ previous knowledge, attitudes and interests greatly influence their meaning making. Learning is an active process in which new experiences are incorporated into already held understandings [2].

Recent education theory acknowledges, even promotes, the object-based, experiential, thought-provoking, and problem-solving type of learning in which museums excel. The overriding conclusion is that museums offer visitors profound, long-lasting, and even life-changing experiences [3]. How visitors make meaning from museums is greatly influenced by their previous knowledge, attitudes and interests. Learning is a process which is more effective if it is enjoyed. That means being able to chart one’s own course through the learning agenda, being able to discuss interpretations with others. Above all, learning is an experience. Thus places like some open air historic sites like Sovereign Hill in Ballarat which deliver powerful experiences merit special attention by museums to understand what goes on more thoroughly [4].

Getting museums to be more appealing simply by increasing the number of entertainment stations sacrifices genuine learning experiences unnecessarily. Part of the problem is the fact that many museum people, particularly scholars and directors, are insufficiently informed about learning.

There can be little doubt that many governments have tried hard to improve accountability and deliver better services. But in terms of organisational reform, what they have done about appointments at the top, organisational structure and the qualities they have sought in their management has often proved a failure. It isn’t that there is still a long way to go: some of the paths are just plain wrong, wrongly perceived, wrongly envisioned, wrongly pursued! Governments have been far too ready to adopt the rhetoric of managerialism. They have seldom been prepared to treat people seriously, to trust them. They have sought compliance and focussed on accountability. They should try trust, teamwork, values and genuine benchmarking rather than performance indicators. Instead of talking about quality they should do it.

Every day more evidence emerges of the success of smaller rather than larger spans of control, of the effectiveness of the leader being a coach and supporter, a generator of cohesion. The greatest benefits – recognised through actual outcomes such as efficiencies and more customers – emerge from choosing staff for their ability to work together and encouraging their creativity. Above all developing trust. The latest is a study of American Airlines and Southwest: the latter emphasises coaching, teamwork, fixing problems on the spot. American emphasises accountability and performance measures, large spans of control and top down directing of how to fix problems [5].

Recruiting people from outside the organisation has been shown to be less efficacious and bonuses to individuals doubtfully encourage better performance. And that’s being kind. One thing among many that does is good performance appraisal with serious feedback; there is a parallel with the formative evaluation of school classroom performance of children which, in a metastudy of the literature has been shown to improve educational attainment of children dramatically [6]. The positive expectation of leaders encourages better performance. Leadership is the unique skill, not of imposing process on fearful employees, but of encouraging attention by everyone to shared core values and seeking audacious goals, taking people to places they never thought they could go.

Governments shouldn’t cease their involvement in museums altogether. They have responsibilities on our behalf for education and heritage. Unlike the United States, funding from non-government sources will not meet all the needs. (Perhaps more incentive is needed.) Museums and the governments developing clear agreement on what the outcomes can be, shared views of how they might be achieved, and how each can best contribute to achieving them. There are examples where significant, appropriate support by government has led to a consequent turn-around in museums, witness the last 15 years in NSW where support has generally produced more confident programs in many areas and often increased attendances, then better support by business which appreciated the wider audiences they could reach gave more support. Self-generated revenue at the Australian Museum exceeded 11 million dollars, a 50% increase in five years.

Museums are like other organisations: they are groups of people. The characteristics of the best museums are those of high performing comercial organisations. If meaningful changes were put in place they could concentrate on the challenges of interpreting contested histories and scientific issues, the natural environment, encouraging genuine understanding and appreciation of artistic expression and real understanding of other cultures and all people’s right to dignity. They could – as the 1975 Report Museums in Australia so appropriately put it – “extend the front lines of knowledge …and enable curious spectators to visit those front lines and understand how some of the battles to extend knowledge are fought“. Above all contribute vigorously in ways that the MORE effective museums do – profoundly influence individual lives and the way people see and relate to the world.

  1. Stephen E Weil in the Summer 1999 issue of Daedalus dealing with America’s museums
  2. The conclusions here are based mainly on research by Dr Janette Griffin, University of Technology, Sydney (see J.M. Griffin and D.J. Symington, “Moving from task-oriented to learning-oriented strategies on school excursions to museums”. Science Education, 81 (6), p 763-779 (1997).
  3. George E. Hein, and MaryAlexander , Museums: Places of Learning. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums (1998).
  4. I am indebted to the late Roy Shafer, onetime President of COSI, Columbus, Ohio, for this general insight about museums and theme parks.
  5. Judy Hoffer Gitell in California Management Review 42 (3), p 101-117 (2000)
  6. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Education 5 (1), 1998.