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Museums at the Crossroads: What Crossroads?

If it isn’t for reinventing the truth, being postmodernist, it is for being too populist – following not leading – even dumbing down (that awful over-used phrase) and becoming Disneyfied, like a theme park. Museums are sometimes accused of collecting more than they need – they only display about 10% of what they have, if that. And even restricting access: the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was accused of that in the 1980s, scholars waited for days outside the office of the Keeper of Lace waiting for an interview[1].

The chief art critic of the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, talking of a conference on museums in a Salzburg (Austria) castle in August 2001 [2], reported that everyone at the conference presumed, “Museums have never been more important, and in a way that is true. They haven’t. But they are also suffering an identity crisis, and not just because “museum”, like “school” or “corporation”, now encompasses a universe of places so different in size, budget and orientation that it’s hard to say what links them We put our faith in few traditional institutions these days, but the museum is still one of them. Its purview extends beyond objects to ideas.”

I have difficulty with many of these criticisms and others like them (see endnote i). Whilst some of the criticisms are valid, most miss the point, show ignorance of changes in museums over the last 30 years, particularly the increasing understanding of the nature of the museum visiting experience and learning and ignore some of the systemic problems which have attended the changes. Like any other enterprise or group of peoples, even individuals, museums must be able to control their own future. Achieving that is not just resisting all change, reassessing old values and power structures. It certainly is not claiming that the first priority is the survival into the future of the museum and that the director is there to see to that [3]. In this essay I review those criticisms and outline major issues which I think confront museums.
St Medard precinct, Paris Ve (More)

Kimmelman went on to assert that enlightenment is a major purpose of museums. Museums, he says, are “new theatres of conscience, memorials to suffering, choreographed places of ritual genuflection storehouses of collective values and diverse histories, places for thrashing out big issues, they offer packaged units of morality, unimpeachable and guiltlessly entertaining. They presume to bring us together, physically and spiritually“.

But, he concluded, “museums are at a crossroads and need to decide which way they are going. They don’t know whether they are more like universities or Disneyland, and lurch from one to the other“. Kimmelman found evidence for this in conflicts over the `Sensation’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the popularity of Tate Modern in London, that “ultimate dream of museum entrepreneurs” the Guggenheim at Bilbao and the acceptance by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History of a $35 million gift from Catherine Reynolds to support an exhibition to honour notable Americans, the showing of Jackie Kennedy’s “old clothes” by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (It is also found in the cancellation, for lack of interest, of seminars on ethics at the Salzburg conference whilst tutorials on management and finance were packed.)

Museums have changed. And many of the changes have been for the better, better scholarship, better exhibitions, better public programs, use of modern information technology. Sometimes changes which would have improved public understanding – such as adapting some of the best of the approaches used by science centres such including more challenging interpretation, opportunities for self directed inquiry and more staff on the floor, have not been adopted. Or if they have, they have been criticised. The reduction in funding has often hindered such changes.


As in many, many cases, media and academic criticisms are frequently far from the frontiers of progress; they are also often inadequate judges of whether people or programs/projects are likely to be successful.

In the case of museums, numerous projects are under way bringing museums to local communities, not least in Australia, particularly Queensland. Substantial advances are also being made in the use of new information technology in reaching audiences. For instance, it is possible to engage in a tour of the best of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, attend a weekly seminar in the Darwin Centre at The Natural History Museum (London), through video streaming.

Of course, some of this requires these opportunities to be funded from money specially set aside. However, in some cases, museums respond to the challenge by arguing that they have no funds when in reality they have simply allocated their entire budget to existing projects.

As with the arts in general, much of what museums do can make profound differences to people’s lives. Yet the commentary of many in the media, academe and by many politicians ignores what those who go to museums know only too well. The result is the insistence on what amounts to no more than time wasting!

The late Stephen Weil said in his article in the excellent volume of Daedalus reviewing America’s museums, “museums have changed from being about something to being for somebody[4]. Lou Casagrande, President/CEO of the Children’s Museum of Boston said, “museums have transformed themselves from mainly predictable, preachy, whited-walled, academic institutions into more engaging, educational and entrepreneurial organizations, committed to building audiences as well as collections[5].

But we ought to be also clarifying one of Weil’s other pleas. To justify the direct subventions of government or the contributions by way of revenue foregone through tax deductions, not to mention the private money donated, museums have to be different. And add value. As arts scholar, Kevin Mulcahy said recently, nonprofits deserve public support when they do what otherwise would not be done [6].

We gain nothing by way of insight into the real struggles of museums, and within them, from these criticisms, the competing ideologies, the sometimes naked exercise of power, the frequent lack of respect by one group for the intelligence of other groups, sometimes outrageous mischief in the name of anything from scholarship to management.


Sherman Lee, formerly Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art said, “A museum should not be run inefficiently. But you must realise that there is hardly any decision that is not, once, twice or three times removed–an aesthetic decision …. A museum is not in business to be efficient. It is in business to be the best possible . . . museum it can be“ [7]. Decades later, Edmund Capon of the Art Gallery of New South Wales said, “I absolutely, resolutely, indelibly believe that you can’t be the director of an art museum if you’re not a curator. I don’t care what anybody says about all these layers of accountability, administration, financial and legal expertise it is said we need to run an art museum, I say rubbish. The only thing you really need is your curatorial credibilities, commonsense and the will The amount of jargon and rubbish that’s talked about museum management is enough to, well ignore it. You don’t study being the director of a museum, you do it.[8]

Of all the advances in museums in the last 30 years, the greatest has been in understanding the visiting experience and the nature of self-directed learning in informal settings. Yet in the drive for greater accountability and all the other so-called improvements, the focus has instead been on money, on corporatisation and strategic planning, on greater self-funding. Previously free to enter museums have been forced into charging general admission and the traditional funding sources, most especially government, have declined anyway. Thus the focus on the financial bottom-line, instead of improving the museum visiting experience has subverted it. Museums have been exhorted to be more business-like but in general the approaches imported into the museum has been the worst practices of business, not the best.

The criticisms come down to the following:

1. Museums have become populist. Museums are too simplistic/have dumbed down, showing what will be popular with visitors rather than important and therefore have come to resemble Disneyland and other theme parks in order to become popular and so are following instead of leading; this includes the criticism of unnecessary use of interactive devices.

2. Museums have become revenue and management focused at the expense of their real mandate, especially scholarship; and they have also taken on the political agenda of governments. Museums have become a slave to the financial interests of sponsors and the social and managerial agenda of governments including an overemphasis on marketing and corporate planning; the latter has led to curators no longer being able to play the important role in exhibitions which they once did.

3. Museums are no longer concerned with the truth. Museums have reinvented/reinterpreted history and become postmodern/politically correct and in some cases adopted a political agenda; the changes have undermined the credibility of museums which should be concerned with the truth.

I will deal with each of these in turn.

Museums have become populist. For some 20 years if not more, museums have been attacked with this jibe. This is Kimmelman’s main criticism. Populism does indeed mean departing from one’s objectives solely in order to please or gain some other advantage. A Disneyfied museum sacrifices the truth for simplicity.

Labelling a museum as Disneyfied ignores the attention to the visitor for which Disney attractions have become famous. To ignore that is to ignore the fact that visitor services including the manner in which visitors are greeted and attended to as well as aspects such as direction signs and cleanliness and accessibility of toilets are important to the successful visit

When then new director of The Natural History Museum in London Dr Neil Chalmers took his senior staff to Disneyland in California to see at first hand how Disney welcomed visitors there were [ridiculous and unsubstantiated] accusations that the purpose of the visit was really to learn how to do exhibitions like Disney [9]. Another example of ignorant criticism of the museum was the assertion that the exhibition on dinosaur evolution which showed a cladistic interpretation of relationships removed people’s choice by showing a single (authoritative) view: once upon a time, it was said, visitors could make up their own minds but now they were being told what to think.

Past director of the National Gallery of Australia Betty Churcher said recently, the criticism of museums for being popular and its implication that ordinary people cannot be expected to understand the best in art is nothing more than arrogance [10]. Criticisms of the use of interactive technology and of policies of social inclusion are generally similarly arrogant and ill informed. Onetime Chair of The Natural History Museum (London) Robert May (now Lord May of Oxford, a recent science advisor to the British Government and President of the Royal Society) said once that “museums should be for the many and for the few“.

Some museum directors and others have talked of museums being in the entertainment business: they have been encouraged to think of museum as being in competition with entertainments such as film and theme parks, as being part of the entertainment industry. Those museums and science centres talk of what they do as “edutainment” or “infotainment”. The argument is that since large numbers of people go to “˜entertainments’ museums will be popular if they are entertaining. This is simplistic, and wrong. Entertainment is a passive pursuit and learning is an active one. To equate the two makes no sense. Whilst some recent attempts to gain larger audiences have been unsuccessful, they certainly have not been quite as unsuccessful as London’s notorious Millennium Dome or those other silly projects [11].

Underlying many of the criticisms of museums for their (new) approach to education (and learning) is a view which depicts the museum visit as one in which the novice (the visitor) absorbs facts conveyed (by the expert); the success of the visit is measured by how many facts the visitor takes away. This is not what happens in a visit nor what learning involves. [Endnote ii]

An understanding of learning and how it occurs in the museum environment is essential: it is necessary to understand what visitors intend to gain from a museum visit. Most of the critics of museums have no such understanding and, in some cases, even if they are aware of recent research on the subject dismiss it as being insufficiently rigorous, too qualitative and so on. No matter what museums do, much of the experience that visitors take away from their visit depends on what they brought to it. [Endnote iii]

Street art, Calgary, Alberta (More)

One of the two best reports on museums in the 20th century, the so-called Piggott Report, Museums in Australia 1975, states that museums “should entertain people of all ages“. But it also says “museums should take people to the front-lines of knowledge and show them how some of the battles to extend knowledge are fought” and more: not mere entertainment! And that “a museum without scholarship is like a huckster’s’ market[12]. Museums such as the Science Museum in London and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Industry in Texas place learning at the centre of the visiting experience and talk of motivation to investigate further, arousing curiosity and having fun [13]. Many of those who criticise museums for dumbing down see the measure of the museum visit by how many facts were learned. But museums have unique opportunities for stimulating interest [14].

Museums have become revenue and management focused. This argument, made frequently by the media, is also intensely debated within some corridors of museums. In other museum spaces any attempt whatsoever to introduce change is branded pejoratively as administration or management and considered unreasonable interference. In such circumstances, any attempt to discuss management or promote the importance of the role played by staff in public programs, merchandising, development or promotion, finance or staff activities such as human resource management is considered irrelevant and an unreasonable diversion from the scholarly purpose of the museum. [Endnote iv]

Museums are criticised not only for adapting to the financial objectives of governments but their social agenda as well. This objection is heard mostly in Britain [15] where the Government has introduced targets for visits by different [ethnic] groups in the community. This was not done with considered discussions with the museums and the communities who were supposed to visit in larger numbers as a result of the efforts the museum would make to meet the imposed quotas. In the USA, on the other hand, museums are regarded as places where social issues can indeed be addressed. The role of museums as part of the community is promoted in considering urban development [16], their role in shaping ideas praised and criticised and their role as places where young people can learn to work together and develop their own skills and self-regard [17]. In that country distinct museums exist for almost every major ethnic group, Japanese, Mexican, African, Jewish and so on: a “˜national’ Armenian holocaust museum is being developed in Washington DC. Recently President George W. Bush signed the necessary authorisation to have the Smithsonian Institution establish an National Museum of Afro-American History and Culture.

Museums are no longer concerned with the truth. This criticism has been used particularly by politicians, especially those of the neoliberal persuasion and conservatives in the community generally. It is the most inflammatory of the criticisms and the most inaccurate. It is itself politically driven and many of the arguments are grounded in debates in the wider community. Examples are the conflicts on the frontier between indigenous peoples and invading Europeans in Australia, North America and New Zealand. (The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa has been criticised by some for being “too Maori”. [18])

Although there are assertions of this kind levelled at museums of all kinds including natural history museums. Apart from the silly arguments about evolution in the USA, most of the criticisms of this kind relate to history museums or museums which display history even though they may not be principally concerned with history, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s Air & Space Museum, famous now for the debate about the exhibition of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and National Museum of American Art which once suggested that paintings depicting the “conquering of the west” amounted to propaganda.

Most of the complaints about museums reinventing the truth, when they criticise the presentation of history, constitute a misunderstanding of the nature of historical research and indeed what historical “fact” is. (Endnote v)

Museums, many of them, are facing systemic problems and in many cases those problems are not being confronted.

1. Some have emerged from financial problems and the need for revenue replacement and/or responses of the “we had to be more efficient” kind.

2. Others have developed from calls to be more business-like [19]. These have proceeded along a path of entrance fees, strategic planning, downsizing or rightsizing, focusing on core business, outsourcing, limited term contracts, performance pay and so on. With the exception to some extent of strategic planning (so long as those who are to implement the plan develop it), there is no evidence that any of these approaches improve museum performance.

3. And others have tried to be “more relevant”. What relevant means is seldom clarified; sometimes it means responding to the needs of the education sector or of business, being practical and dealing with, for instance, what happens in the home or on the sports field.

These problems emerge very much from views that museums (like the arts in general) should be more business-like. As already mentioned most of the supposed business practices imported into museums have not been best business practice at all. Nor should it be supposed that the common practices of business are superior examples of organisational behaviour. It isn’t just that there have been major corporate failures over recent years, and far back into the past. It is that often the companies which grab the headlines through big takeovers and mergers or downsizing or rapid growth in stock price do not sustain that success and certainly do not practice what is now known as the most effective strategies.

Whilst governments have been heavily involved in advocating changes of the second kind, most museums have experienced all three forces. In some cases those responsible for the long-term future of the museums and the maintenance of integrity have been the first to throw all that out the window, misunderstand their obligations and forget notions of values and responsibility for collections, visitors and staff. What has not been done is engage the best in decision-making and the development of a shared set of beliefs and strong culture; these are the characteristics of the best organisations [20].

The examples given by Kimmelman and other critics are not representative of what museums are doing. Populist exhibitions, where they have been staged, have not attracted large numbers of visitors. Some museums wish to focus solely on numbers of visits, and indeed media commentary and political opinions pay attention to such “˜indicators’. Visitor numbers can vary year on year by as much as 20 per cent. Attendances at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum increased by 10% in 2001 and at Chicago’s museums by 19% in the same year. When general admission was removed from the “˜National’ museums in Britain attendances increased by over 40%. When Tate Modern opened visitor numbers were huge whilst they declined at Tate Britain. Over 1 million visits were made to the National Gallery of Victoria’s Australian collections in the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square. Some projects based on the proposition that museums are elite and people want entertainment have failed spectacularly. London’s Millennium Dome for instance, as already noted.

The most successful exhibitions have been ones characterised by high levels of scholarship, interesting – indeed exciting – objects and appropriate interpretation. It is of little value to pick a few exhibitions, without any analysis of content and visitor reaction, as indicating the museums are dumbing down. Jackie Kennedy’s “old clothes” are quite properly shown in museums: Jackie Kennedy was a person of considerable taste and an important historical figure in her own right, in later life a publisher with considerable leadership skills: why is a costume exhibition featuring her clothes unreasonable? Association of objects with famous people is one of the criteria used by most museums in assessing significance.

One can indeed criticise the Smithsonian Institution for the debacle of a donation for a Hall of Fame which would feature mail-order saleswoman Martha Stewart (now indicted for insider trading); indeed current Secretary Lawrence Small sought large donations without trying to mesh the purpose to which the money would be put with the real purpose of the Smithsonian and did not consult with senior staff of the museum concerned [21]. The then National Museum of American History Director Spencer Crew went off to another cultural pursuit – the National Underground Railroad Center in Cininnati, Ohio. [22] But that criticism assumes this behaviour is typical of museums and does not reference the history of the Smithsonian Institution since its distinguished long-serving Secretary Dillon Ripley departed in the early 1970s. Quite how one would consider the success – sorry popularity – of London’s Tate Modern to be evidence of museums losing their way is challenging. And the Guggenheim in Bilbao? What about the Milwaukee Art Museum [23] which opened new extensions May 2001 but has problems staffing the new spaces? Presumably another example of the same illness.

And it is all very well to criticise the seeking of funding from commercial sources but it is another matter to find where and how to replace the funding which once came from traditional sources. Marketing might be criticised but in the proper sense it is simply an exchange of wants and needs and an ethical organisation never sacrifices its values [24]. There is little point in demanding improvement if the culture of the organisation is driven merely by concern for fiscal rectitude, if the recruitment of senior staff is carried out in a cursory manner and if the working relationships between executive and board are in disarray. An enterprise in which the executive sees the future as following the advice of the noisiest constituency must fail.

Successful museums are those where a confident executive leadership works in a cohesive manner with staff and with and through the board, plans exhibitions strong on content and interpretation without any consideration of unreasonable levels of simplicity or the need to be entertaining first and foremost [25]. A deep concern for scholarship is central. As well, a genuine interest in the museum visiting experience and the realisation that understanding develops from engagement with new ideas and the views and doubts of others leads to a variety of offerings. Long term financial strength comes from the realisation that the museum plays a valuable role, that it does something that would otherwise not be done.

Rue Victor Hugo, Paris XIXe (More)
Kimmelman intends, in using the crossroads metaphor, states that museums have to make a choice and that they cannot cater to the general public and maintain their scholarly integrity. I believe that to be wrong and that the argument is based on a misunderstanding of how people learn and how effective organisations. I also believe that this and similar accusations ignore what is going on in museums and the power struggles and problems in governance and management as well as the role of government. Crossroads can be thought of as exactly the place a museum ought to be, a place where irreversible choices are not made. The crossroads of trade – towns like Marrakech and Timbuktu, visited from many different places -where caravans meet, their richly laden camels bearing strange goods not seen before, clothes, spices, metals, musical instruments, never before experienced smells and sounds, stories of mysterious happenings. These are the kinds of crossroads where museums might wish to position themselves as they offer new experiences and enriching ways of seeing the world.

Those concerned with the future of museums, including academics, critics and other museum staff, should be seeking to match projects which achieve success with an elaboration of what it is that went on, what behaviours, processes and relationships occurred in the activities leading to the successful conclusion. It is highly likely that high levels of cohesion amongst the participants, genuine communication, open decision-making and an ongoing refinement of shared views of what the project should achieve contributed more than detailed planning and tight budget control. It is also likely that someone in senior management championed the project and ensured it gained the support needed. Last, it is likely that those who came to judge whether the project was successful had a clear shared view has to how they would judge it, of the standards necessary to qualify it as successful and made sure that they celebrated the success amongst the entire organisation. What would not have contributed is personal views strongly voiced, views based only on personal preference without regard to the opinions of those whom the project was supposed to benefit!



(i) The main criticism levelled at museums is that they have become populist. In 1989 when the Canadian Museum of Civilization opened with lots of the latest information technology it was promptly christened by the Ottawa Citizen “Disney North”. Six years later, in 1995, the Canadian Museum of Nature was said by Canadian Auditor General Denis Desautels to be “interested more in mounting Disney-like attractions than in scientific endeavors”. Critics, presumably claiming past practice as the touchstone of good museum practice, branded the just opened Museum of New Zealand Te Papa, a theme park. The Melbourne Museum was similarly criticised: when then director George MacDonald said that the experience of visiting a museum should be like that of going to a movie, the analogy was condemned with the words “˜do we want a museum to be like a Hollywood flick?’ That particular comment reflects an ignorance of both the museum visiting experience and film! (Think of your favourite film – I think of Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve – and ask yourself why you would not want to exit from a museum as enthralled.)

Sometimes museums aren’t just demeaned for being populist, they are “Disneyfied”. The implication is that they pay little attention to the intellectually demanding issues and arguments but instead simplify in order to please.
It is said that curators at the Musee National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris wrote to President Mitterand about the exhibition proposals for the Grande Galerie to object to the move away from showing large numbers of specimens together with statements of fact. That gallery is now generally regarded as the finest natural history exhibition in any museum!

In fact, any departure from the position seemingly adopted by museums in the past leads to accusations of political correctness. An exhibition on women on the frontier in Queensland, at the Queensland Museum, led some to complain in writing to the museum’s director about the emphasis on women! Oral history was considered insufficient to justify the exhibitions at the National Museum of Australia. Interpretation of paintings at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of American Art of Native Americans together with text suggesting that such paintings constituted propaganda about the European invasion of the west of North America [26] led to accusations that the Smithsonian was indulging in political propaganda. (No such charge was levelled at Ken Burns’ TV series, “The West“ or other Public Broadcasting series showing the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee and the invasion of the west and destruction of Native lives.)

The silliest objections were directed at the re-interpretation of exhibits in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum by Associate Director for Public Programs Robert Sullivan which aimed, for instance, at correcting the depiction of male lions as the big, strong providers of food for the lion family – in fact female lions are the main food providers – and the notion that Native Americans welcomed the opportunities for trading introduced by frontiersmen – substantial trading routes already existed at the time of invasion [27]. Similarly ridiculous were the criticisms levelled at the same museum by Senator Stevens (Republican, Alaska) over exhibitions on oil spills from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez off the coast of Alaska and, in 2003, photographs of the Arctic wilderness., both shown in the National Museum of Natural History. The intense debate about the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum exhibition on the Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, has become a cause celebre and arguments continue.

(ii) Some of those who criticise consider museums elitist or solely concerned with education in the formal sense or are specialists themselves and use museums to explore their specialty. It is such people whom museums have privileged in the past. Some museums still look to them for advice like they used to give in constructing their exhibitions and developing their programs.

Supporting that is the view that when visitors talk of going to a museum for educational purposes their wish is to learn facts – or that the children they are taking should learn facts there [28]. By and large, organised visits by school children are intent on just that. This is a harking back to education for the middle classes purpose of two centuries ago. Visits by family groups generally pursue no such agenda although they do indeed engage intensively in learning; it is just not the learning that critics understand as learning. Critics may argue for facts but not only is it difficult to imagine that facts are what people take away from visiting, it is highly likely that visitors go to museums (and science centres) for big challenging ideas: after all they can get facts elsewhere! [29]

The late Roy Shafer, onetime President of COSI in Columbus, Ohio, one of the most successful science centres in the world, emphasised that the task for museums was to bring their excellence in education knowledge together with the powerful experiences of theme parks, not to “˜dumb down’ but to address what really happens in learning in settings like museums [30] .

(iii) Leading visitor researchers John Falk and Lynne Dierking, like many others, recognise all learning as contextual. They describe visitor research which suggests that eight factors contribute to visitors’ gaining significantly from the museum experience and they are within the three contexts, personal, sociocultural and physical, which interact over time. The eight factors are motivation and expectations, prior knowledge, choice and control, sociocultural mediation within the group, facilitation by others, advance organizers and orientation, design and reinforcing events and experiences elsewhere. [31] Clearly, the opportunity for the museum to determine what the visitor takes away is limited indeed.

That by no means implies that the Museum is the passive presenter of material and information. Nor does it imply that what museums are doing now is of no more than passing interest. The crush at the Musee d’Orsay on a late Sunday – more than at the funfair in the Tuileries nearby, the huge attendances at the new Ian Potter Centre of the National Gallery of Victoria in Federation Square, Melbourne, at Te Papa in Wellington (a city of less that one million), and at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, the universal admiration of the Grande Gallerie at the Muse National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris with its parade of African mammals in the centre of the first floor gallery and its substantial additional exhibits and information around the periphery of the galleries with which the more interested visitor might engage are all evidence of great interest by the public.

(iv) One of the major issues here is the way in which much of the change has been introduced in museums, often mandated by boards increasingly dominated by people from business or by government without consideration of the best lessons around. So, there has been greater difficulty in gaining understanding of the benefits that can accrue through good people-focused organisational change and genuine leadership. How people with different skills can often contribute to a better result is seldom addressed: cohesion has suffered and former practices such as dominance hierarchies have been defended under the guise of professionalism. This is externally influenced – from academe. The objections are sometimes quite unnecessarily and unproductively considered to amount just to resistance to any change by museum staff.

Government imposed changes have been particularly damaging. One of the most unfortunate (if not destructive) moves has been the imposition of financial reductions under terms like efficiency dividend and the assertion that greater financial stringency would lead to new and better ways of doing things. These changes have followed a path from general admission charges to introduction of corporate planning to downsizing, financial restrictions and further downsizing and/or outsourcing of “non-core” activities to further cuts in funding. Generally, where admission charges were introduced, government did not provide additional funding necessary to the additional levels of marketing and promotion activity to overcome the initial resistance to the charges. In one case, at the Australian Museum in the late 1980s, funding was significantly reduced as part of the policy of reducing government advertising because too much of it had been used by the previous government for political purposes; the funding remained low despite years of attempts to reverse the cuts! Nor was there any understanding of the way in which art museums, but seldom other museums, have been able to retain free general admission but gain revenue from a very frequent turnover of temporary exhibitions. (Many museum directors have not recognised this either!)

(v) Professor Joyce Appleby, Professor of American History, UC Los Angeles, speaking at the Smithsonian Institution, March 1997 [32] said,

“The questions we ask in history depend on the situation at the time the questions are asked. Different questions are asked about the Soviet Union after it collapsed compared with those asked when it was [it seemed to some] a viable political entity.

“There are two misconceptions that many people have about what history is.

“1, The past lingers on after events to force the hands of the historian. NOT TRUE!

“2, There are historical facts and if historians would just stick with the facts they could stay out of trouble. NOT TRUE. [For instance] the story of arrival of Europeans in Jamestown, now Virginia, does not include Native Americans unless there was a massacre, nor slavery until it was abolished.

“Some Americans will say, “They were not in my school textbook. Why are they in my son’s textbook?” “Take them off! They weren’t there when I was at school.” These are some of the problems I have discovered about the public’s understanding of history. And I think we need to recognise that the past is a foreign country. It is a mysterious place and it needs interpretation. There are lots of puzzles to be solved and we should present the past with a sense of discovery.”

Appleby concluded,

History is not only connected to the present, but it’s also connected to the future, or what we think the future is going to be. America’s future is going to be multiracial. Schoolchildren and researchers now ask questions about these races and their interactions as a way of understanding of this development. The important thing is to keep the link as to how knowledge is created. It is not something that is being imagined; it comes out of new questions. It’s entirely possible our current views won’t last for more than 30 or 40 years. Yet another perspective will generate new scholarship, and once again will take 210 to 15 years to develop the depth, the complexity and the thoroughness of a new body of material.”

If we want an example of the way in which the neoconservatives carp at “reinventing the truth” and of how perceptions of history changes we need look no further that the case of Harriet Tubman. Tubman was active in leading slaves – perhaps 70 – to freedom through the “underground railroad” around the time of the Civil War in the US and raised money for that; she also served as a scout during the civil war leading Union soldiers on raids into the South Carolina interior to liberate slaves. By the 1970s Tubman’s inclusion in school history textbooks, as a result of the greater visibility of women and black activists, was such that her name was remembered by more freshmen at the State University of New York at Buffalo than recalled Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin. However, Lynne Chaney, then Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, attacked as “revisionist” the equal attention given to Tubman and George Washington. [33]

  1. An interesting commentary on the Victoria & Albert Museum at the time was given by Andrew Knight, then Chief Executive of the Telegraph (Newspaper) Group and a Trustee of the V&A in an article entitled, “I was a trustee of the V&A”, The Spectator, 4 March 1989.
  2. Michael Kimmelman, “Museums in a Quandary: Where Are the Ideals?” New York Times, August 26, 2001; see also Michael Kilian, “The culture of popular Science or `Star Wars’? Museums struggle to align education and entertainment”. Chicago Tribune August 12, 2001; Josie Appleton, “New technology is dumbing down our museums”, Independent, 24 April 2001.
  3. Ken Gorbey (former Project Director, Jewish Museum, Berlin), in “Organising For Success in the 21st Century: A Challenge for Museum Leadership“ Keynote Address presented at the INTERCOM Conference “Leadership in Museums: Are our Core Values Shifting” (Dublin, Ireland, October 16-19, 2002) asserts, “A basic tenant of management is that to achieve its purpose an organisation must first and foremost survive The challenge ahead is to organise first for survival, then for success, and then to achieve this success despite greater competition for funding.” This contrasts with the views Stephen Weil has promoted for over a decade.
  4. Stephen S. Weil, “From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American museum.” Daedalus, Vol. 128 No. 3, p. 229-258 (1999); Stephen S. Weil, Rethinking the museum: And other meditations, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC (1990).
  5. At the time incoming Chair of the American Association of Museums in a notice to AAM members from outgoing Chair Freda Nicholson concerning the 2002 slate of candidates for the Board.
  6. Kevin Mulcahy, “Entrepreneurship or Cultural Darwinism: Perspectives on the American System of Cultural Patronage”. In Ruth Rentschler (editor), The New Wave: Entrepreneurship & the Arts, Melbourne Australia – 5 and 6 April 2002. Melbourne: Deakin University; “The Public Interest and Arts Policy”. in America’s Commitment to Culture – Government and the Arts, Westview Press (1995).
  7. Quoted in W. McQuade, Management problems enter the picture at Art Museums, in D. Borst and P.J. Montana (eds), “Managing Non Profit Organisations“ , Amacom, New York (1977).
  8. Lyndall Crisp, “Director’s Pluck – Capon Masterminded Rebirth Of Gallery”, Australian Financial Review 27 November 2003
  9. Dr Beverley Halstead, then immediate past President of the Geologists’ Association, wrote of the Natural History Museum’s Corporate plan (in an article in Nature Vol 346, p406, 1990) “[it]… has been cobbled together in American-style business jargon presumably courtesy of Disneyland where many of the museum’s administration went to learn such jargon…”
  10. In the “Wisdom Interviews” (ABC Radio National 1 February 2004), Peter Thompson observed, “The critics said perhaps that you weren’t lowbrow, but you were certainly making the Gallery middlebrow, it had lost the plot, if you like, this popularising.” Betty Churcher responded, “Yes, well I find that total arrogance, that assumes that the average person hasn’t got the intelligence to appreciate the best, and it’s absolute nonsense. And if Rembrandt and Reubens and ) Caravaggio and Correggio, if that is lowbrow, point me in the direction of highbrow, or Matisse, or Picasso, all of the surrealists that we put on, if that’s lowbrow, what’s highbrow?”
  11. Hugo Young, “The dome was a warning, but they’ve learnt nothing”, The Guardian, December 28, 2000
  12. Peter Pigott et al, “Museums in Australia 1975, Report of the Committee of Inquiry on Museums and National Collections“, AGPS, Canberra (1975).
  13. Randi Korn, “Self-Portrait First Know Thyself, Then Serve Your Public”, Museum News January/February 2004, p33 et seq
  14. Jay Rounds, “Why Are Some Science Museum Exhibits More Interesting Than Others?” Curator The Museum Journal, Vol.43, no 3, p.188-198 (2002).
  15. Josie Appleton, “Museums for the People?”, Spiked Online, 8 November 2001; Geoffrey Crossick, “The arts and humanities enrich our lives and deserve continued public support”, The Guardian, October 28, 2003
  16. Robert McNulty, The Economics of Amenity In “The Creative City Seminar”, Meanjin, Vol. 47 No. 4, pp 614-624 (1988)
  17. YouthALIVE is a program in the USA for urban youth in a range of museums supported by DeWitt Wallace-Readers’ Digest funds and administered by the Association of Science-Technology Centres. It involves youth in a range of activities including after school activities, working as guides and explainers, workshops, and working in various departments; see L. Baum, George E. Hein and M. Solvay, M., “In their own words: Voices of teens in museums”, Journal of Museum Education Vol. 25 No. 3, pp. 9-14 (2000).
  18. This is dealt with in endote i and associated footnotes.
  19. Peter F Drucker, The effective executive. Pan Books, London (1967) once said that being business like was no more than tight cost control!
  20. James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last, HarperCollins (1994).
  21. The “gift” of $38 millions by Catherine B. Reynolds to the Museum of American History for a “Hall of Fame” at the museum was cancelled because “the philosophy of the scholars at the institution turned out to be so at odds” with hers; the Museum has said that they must have final say in the operations of the exhibit. (David E Rosenbaum, “Museum Insisted on Control of $38 Million Gift” , New York Times February 6, 2002; an excellent account of these gifts and the recent history of the National Museum of American History is given by Bob Thompson in “History for $ale”, The Washington Post Magazine January 20, 2002, pp14-29.)
  22. Meanwhile Secretary Small has been sentenced by a federal judge of the purchase and possession of 206 art objects made with the feathers of protected species and sentenced to two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service (Jacqueline Trescott, “Small Gets 2 Years’ Probation” Washington Post 23 January 2004).
  23. Alan G. Artner, “New, renovated art galleries bring life to Milwaukee collection”, Chicago Tribune May 4, 2001
  24. M.P. Mokwa, K. Nakamoto & B.M. Enis, “Marketing management and the arts”, in Marketing the Arts, M.P. Mokwa, W.M. Dawson & E. A. Prieve (editors). Praeger, New York (1980), p. 14-28. Museums have marketed themselves since their beginning, to scholars and the well educated. What is new is the focus on a broader audience.
  25. A recent study (D.J.G Griffin and, M. Abraham “The Effective Management of Museums: Cohesive Leadership and Visitor-focused Public Programming”, Museum Management and Curatorship Vol. 18 No. 4, pp 335-368, 2001), found museums generally to be characterised by a concern with teamwork and for quality and an emphasis on public programming. But training of staff to work in teams is not emphasised, information transfer is not good, rewards and problem solving tend to be ad hoc and managers do not frequently appear in exhibition areas. Moreover, allocation of funds to advertising of public programs is not matched to what is necessary to reach the market. Managers tend to be interventionist and board members generally don’t help with fundraising.
  26. Martin Walker , “Westward Oh!”, The Guardian Weekly June 30, 1991, p 25-26.
  27. An article in the Washington Times October 6 1992 said, “It’s entirely possible that experts like Mr Sullivan … don’t know what they’re doing, but the more likely and less generous interpretation is that they do. The only “mandate” the Smithsonian staff has is to provide accurate and enjoyable displays of natural and historical phenomena. They have no marching orders to distort and propagandize the exhibits and deny natural and historical realities by imposing their own conceptions of what should be or should have been.”
  28. National Museum of Australia Council member Christopher Pearson was quoted by Jane Albert in “Casey’s farewell to the “˜white-anters'” , The Australian 15 December 2003, as saying, “history should not be fun”.
  29. Jay Rounds, loc cit.
  30. personal communication August 1996
  31. John H. Falk and Lynn Dierking, Learning from Museums. Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning, Altamira Press, Walnut Ck, CA (2000).
  32. Journal of Museum Education Vol. 23 No. 3, p 7 (1998),
  33. James M McPherson, “The Moses of her People”, New York Review of Books March 11, 2004 (reviewing three books on Tubman and one on Harriet Jacobs.